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What Should the Church Do When Members Err?

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The pastor of a Texas church has found himself in the middle of a legal battle that could affect the way pastors and churches across the country shepherd their flocks.

In Texas, everything is big, including its churches.

But it's a tiny church on the west side of Ft. Worth that is drawing the attention of church leaders and legal scholars nationwide.

Buddy Westbrook and a handful of folks started Crossland Community Bible Church seven years ago.

Not long after Crossland opened its doors and began receiving members, Pastor Westbrook discovered that one of the first members was seeking an unbiblical divorce from her husband and pursuing an inappropriate relationship with another man. Westbrook tried, but failed to persuade her to end that relationship and return to her husband.

So Westbrook and his fellow elders sent a letter to members of the church informing them of Peggy Penley's actions, encouraging them to pray for her, and stating their desire to have her restored and back in fellowship.

Westbrook says they sent the letter in accordance with the model for church discipline found in the Bible in Matthew, Chapter 18, where Jesus commands that the church be told when someone refuses to repent of sin.

"It is for the restoration of the person caught in sin," Westbrook said. "Let's use the word. That's what the Bible says. But it's also designed to deter sin in the congregation, to maintain purity among us."

Penley divorced her husband and married the other man.

She also hired Darrell Keith, one of Texas' most high-profile trial lawyers and filed suit against Westbrook.

The case is now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court.

Keith argued that because Westbrook is not just a pastor, but a marriage counselor licensed by the state, he was not allowed to divulge information about his client.

"He was wearing a secular counseling hat," said Keith of the pastor, "and he got the information from Peggy Penley with that hat on -- and then switched hats on her and put on his pastoral hat and misused the information in an unauthorized way, to communicate it to the congregation. And he shouldn't have done that."

Westbrook acknowledges that he provided marriage counseling to Penley and her husband before the church was formed.

But he says it was in his role as pastor that he was made aware of Penley's sinful behavior.

Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute defended Westbrook before the Supreme Court. 

Shackelford explained, "She didn't show up at his office and say, 'Here, I'd like to pay a fee for my visit.' Her husband brought her to the pastor's house and they talked as a pastor talks to people who are engaged in sin."

Shackelford also points out that the church has a constitution that spells out church discipline.

And when Penley became a member, she agreed in writing, "Sure, I can abide by the church constitution willingly."

Shackelford says many lawsuits like this have been filed across the country.

"If you allow this type of a case to drag churches and pastors into court," Shakelford said, "then any pastor who engages in any counseling with anyone -- all you have to do is say, 'In my view that was secular counseling' -- and all of a sudden, the pastor has to be drug through years of a lawsuit, years of litigation, all kinds of expenses. And eventually, a determination (is reached) that hopefully would go in their favor. That's not the law. The law is that the courts have no jurisdiction over these matters."

Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Theological Seminary, worries what impact this case will have on church leaders who are already skittish about exercising discipline.

He says churches are more than willing to discipline their pastors, as evidenced by the firing of Reverend Ted Haggard following his recent moral failure.

But he says most churches are reluctant to hold their members accountable.

Yarnell calls that one of the greatest failures in the church today.

"My fear is that, with the court's decision and entering into what really is a church matter, they are going to throw more cold water on what should be a hot revival for obeying our Lord's command," Yarnell said.

Southwestern Seminary filed a brief in support of Pastor Westbrook.

But because of the potential for lawsuits like this, Yarnell recommends that pastors avoid pursuing a state counseling license.

Westbrook says he has no regrets over the way he handled the matter. And the church's members continue to support him.

"Buddy came at the whole problem with this lady with a sense of compassion, love and acceptance," Crossland member Martha Newman said. "And so I felt like whatever he did, I trusted."

CBN News asked Westbrook how he would respond to pastors who are watching this and saying, this is the very reason we don't exercise discipline in our church: we're afraid of a lawsuit!

Westbrook replied, "If you choose to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and His word, there is definitely the likelihood that you may be sued. But my belief is...If He commands this is what we are to do when we find members in our family, our fellowship, our congregation that we deeply love, but are caught in a pattern of sin...What I would say to pastors? We have no other choice!"

It could be several months before the Texas Supreme Court renders a decision on the case.

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