A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 6B: Legal But Harmful Institutional Tools of Conformity and Control


Legal But Harmful Institutional Tools of Conformity and Control

Part 6B. Four legal-system tools (defamation lawsuits, non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreements, non-compete clauses, and church membership “covenants” that are legal contracts). Includes brief examples, plus a longer case study from The Village Church and its membership covenant.

A note up front: I am not a lawyer. The descriptions in Part 6 come from my work in research writing, and represent my lay person understanding of technical concepts involved. The following topics are here to inform readers about tools that may be built into agreements or covenants you may be asked to enter into.

If you are in a situation of interaction to resolve issues with abusive individuals or institutions that caused or covered up damage, I strongly recommend that you consult a lawyer for legal counsel.

We will look at the following four tools. They may be stand-alone actions/items, or part of a larger agreement or contract.

  1. Defamation lawsuit.
  2. Non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreement (NDA).
  3. Non-compete clause.
  4. Church membership “covenants” that are legal contracts.

All of these tools and tactics have something to do with control of information and investigations. The net effects include stopping information that could come from victims, and skewing information that gets to the public. In the big picture of things, these tools are ultimately harmful both to the individuals and institutions involved, and do not serve the common good either.

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1. Defamation Lawsuits

A lawsuit (or threatened lawsuit) by an individual or organization, meant to intimidate into silence abuse victims, whistleblowers, or bloggers/reporters. The plaintiffs typically have money and time to do this, and a court case creates hardship for defendants who don’t have such resources. Defendants can file for an Anti-SLAPP measure. (SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, i.e., a frivolous lawsuit meant to silence opponents.) If granted, the court stops the discovery process and puts the case into expedited consideration. Further description here.

Examples: Charles O’Neal and his church (Beaverton Grace Bible Church) lost the defamation case they filed against survivor blogger Julie Anne Smith of Spiritual Sounding Board and others, and were required to pay all court costs and the defendants’ legal fees – all of which totaled about $65,000.

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2. Non-Disclosure / Non-Disparagement Agreements (NDA)

Those who sign an NDA as part of a legal settlement are bound by silence, typically from sharing proprietary information (non-disclosure) or details about what happened during negotiations or mediation and the settlement terms (non-disparagement). Some of the out-of-court tools (such as arbitration and conciliation) still may include legally-binding agreements that require silence on the processes and any settlement.

Examples: This two-page NDA from Harvest Bible Chapel, posted on Wondering Eagle, has confidentiality and non-disclosure sections, and much more. For instance, any mandatory arbitration could result in non-disparagement requirements. Scot McKnight addresses the moral and ethical dimensions of NDAs in his article of September 13, 2018, “Non-Disparagement Agreements And Truth-Telling In The Church: Willow Creek.” Lori Anne Thompson’s article, “NDA’s,” describes the net effect of this tactic, from the point of view of a victim.

At times, if the party in control breaks the agreement, it frees the other(s) to speak. Or, the party in control can release the other(s) to speak, as was the case recently with Vermont’s Catholic bishop releasing abuse victims from the settlement NDA. Or, the survivors may choose to break the agreement and speak, as recently happened with Eliza Dushku, when she provided an opinion piece to the Boston Globe about her being fired from CBS, though she was reportedly a victim of sexual harassment by actor Michael Weatherly. There may be penalties specified in the contract for breaking the agreement.

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3. Non-Compete Clauses

This form of contractual element has shown up in Christian circles in agreements with exiting staff members, requiring them not to start a new church with a certain radius of their former employing church. From situations that have been exposed in recent years, this typically appears to be tied to receiving a severance package. No non-compete, no financial package. How should we not view this as a form of manipulative silencing and control?

Example: Mars Hill Church and the case of an elder there, Phil Poirer, from Warren Throckmorton’s blog. His additional article maps out what this looks like.

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4. Church Membership “Covenants” That are Legal Contracts

It has become popular in certain circles – especially theological Neo-Calvinists, and 9Marks and Acts 29 churches – to have church membership covenants that have the effect of a legal contract. These typically seem to include such elements as binding members to: obey local church leaders, follow church by-laws, submit to church disciple and/or to mandatory arbitration in case of conflicts, and not “gossip.” (Should reporting the truth about abuse situations constitute gossip?)

Potential members may not realize the legal implications of membership covenant terms that are couched in theological language, and they may have severe difficulties in removing themselves from membership and/or avoiding church discipline/shunning. These forms of covenant clauses are often promoted by Christian conciliation services with a net effect of limiting liability for church corporations. (See this Wartburg Watch post that summarizes sources of and problems with membership contracts.)

Example: The Wartburg Watch has probably posted more about church membership “covenants” as contracts than any other survivor blog. Dee Parson did an analysis of CityView Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and used that as the central case study for “A Tutorial: How to Assess the Membership Contract at Fort Worth’s CityView Church” (May 4, 2015).

As the nearly 400 comments illustrate, this post highlights a series of theological and organizational issues in membership contracts that would definitely be of concern to abuse survivors – especially if their situation involved any church leader(s). And, as it turns out, some of those problematic points arose in the case study below of The Village Church, which planted CityView Church.

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Legal-System Tools Case Study:

Karen Hinkley, The Village Church,

and Problems Amplified by Membership Covenants

The purpose of this case study is to introduce the overall situation and present select online materials that provide extensive documentation and analysis for readers to evaluate for themselves. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you go through these materials.

  1. At what points do you see integration point(s) demonstrated – and by whom? For individuals/survivors? Institutions? Ideologies? Information? Impact?
  2. What overall ideological issues, specific doctrinal planks, and particular practices at The Village Church (TVC) caused or amplified problems?
  3. Why/how did the initial apology from TVC fall short of leading to resolution? How did the second apology and statement of forgiveness bring closure?
  4. Who and what changed during the process of this conflict? Were changes for the better, or for the worse?
  5. How could things have gone differently if the church had different paradigm integration points that governed their interactions and methodologies?

Overview of the Situation

The specific situation that probably brought the greatest awareness to the highly flawed nature of membership covenants was that of Karen Hinkley Root in 2015. It also demonstrates how survivor communities and bloggers came alongside Karen to be a support in multiple ways.

The many interwoven elements in this complicated case revolved around her then-husband, Jordan, using child pornography. They had not been married for long, and she discovered his pedophilia while they were outside the U.S., serving as missionaries. It led to her subsequent filing for annulment of the marriage for his fraudulent misrepresentation of himself to her.

However, Jordan Root was accepted back at The Village Church (TVC) in Flower Mound, Texas, for being “repentant,” while Karen Hinkley was placed under church discipline for the annulment and not submitting to church leadership, for instance, by refusing to engage in reconciliation attempts (However, according to Texas state law, attempts at reconciliation could have negated her efforts for annulment.) This was after she had already officially notified TVC to withdraw her from membership. Karen faced ongoing shunning by church members and misrepresentations about her side of the situation to church groups.

There was significant coverage of the situation by survivor bloggers, and public pushback from survivor advocates/activists. Questions continued about the extent of church leaders’ support for Jordan that may have put children at risk, such as whether they had failed to warn congregation members about Jordan being a pedophile (even though supposedly repentant), and how well they were monitoring him to prevent interactions with minors at church. A public protest at TVC organized by child sexual abuse prevention advocates from SNAP to warn congregants about Jordan’s pedophilia.

Karen threatened to take legal action. Eventually the church leaders changed their views on some of their actions, though not on their membership or discipline policies. They issued an apology, but this did not bring closure to the situation. Upon review, and with the consent and cooperation of Karen, TVC Lead Pastor Matt Chandler and the elders sent a formal statement of their repentance and apology to church members, and Karen Hinkley gave a formal statement of her forgiveness.

The timespan from the beginning of public posting with details of the situation, to resolution and the final set of apology/forgiveness statements, was only about three weeks. The ripple effects and consequences lasted much longer, as this case sparked significant awareness and discussion in abuse survivor communities.

Source Materials, Mostly from Survivor Blogs

Case studies can contain all kinds of source materials. Expert Robert K. Yin describes six categories in his textbook Case Study Research: Design and Methods (Sage Publishing, 5th edition, 2014, page 105-118).

  1. Documents. Letters, emails, text messages, calendars, meeting minutes, reports.
  2. Archival Records. Government “public use” data, service records, budgets and personnel records, maps.
  3. Interviews. Prolonged interviews (totaling two hours or longer, whether in one sitting or multiple), shorter interviews, and survey interviews/questionnaires.
  4. Direct Observations. Notes and quotes from the observations of the person(s) producing the case study.
  5. Participant-Observation. Notes and quotes from case study producers while they also play an active role in the enterprise or situation.
  6. Physical Artifacts. Physical or cultural items that are evidence, such as technological devices, tools, artworks.

Many of these six kinds of sources show up in the situation of Karen Hinkley and The Village Church – some from the primary people involved, others are secondary analysis by those looking on. Both primary and secondary sources have value as we sift through the evidence to put the pieces together and see what we can learn.

Developing a case study is about curating materials. I have selected groups of blog posts designed to lead you through several deeper layers of evidence and analysis. Keep in mind the five questions I posed at the beginning of the case study.


Good introductions to the situation and key lessons are here:

Insidious Behavior at The Village Church Regarding a Pedophile and His Former Wife” by Julie Anne Smith at Spiritual Sounding Board (May 21, 2015).

Five Lessons from The Village Church and Karen Hinkley” by Steve Smith (May 28, 2015).


Amy Smith at WatchKeep provided a series of in-depth reports plus documentation, including many statements and documents provided by Karen Hinkley herself.

She Speaks: The Village Church protects a confessed pedophile and ‘disciplines’ his wife, a brave young woman and missionary” (May 20, 2015).

Stories of The Village Church and other Abusive Church Survivors” (May 26, 2015).

Karen Hinkley’s response to The Village Church 5/23/15 email sent to 6000 “covenant members” about her and Jordan Root” (May 27, 2015).

Raising awareness at The Village Church to protect kids” (June 1, 2015).

New SNAP statement on Jordan Root, SIM and The Village Church” (June 11, 2015).

An open letter to every senior pastor whose church wants to minister to those who pose a risk of harm: guest post by Simon Bass” (August 9, 2015).


I chose to focus on The Wartburg Watch (TWW) for both its extended coverage and its survivor community response. TWW research writers Dee Parson and Deb Martin contributed significantly to the reporting and analysis of this situation. They supported Karen Hinkley emotionally and personally. They also set up a GoFundMe campaign so the broader community could provide some financial support during her necessary transitions.

Here is an almost complete series of articles from TWW on this situation. (I excluded some posts related to questions about forthcoming updates and about the GoFundMe campaign.) All of the following articles were posted by Dee Parson, other than the June 10 article by Deb Martin.

Here are some additional questions and observation guides to keep in mind as you go through these posts:

  1. Many TWW posts had 300 comments or more. Note the comment count total given for each post, and add them up as one indicator of the impact Karen’s situation at TVC was having.
  2. Watch for commenters who likewise had been involved in problems due to a membership covenant/contract.)
  3. Observe what issues and actions drew out different reactions, emotions, and questions from survivor communities.
  4. Dee and Deb founded TWW in 2007. How do you think it might affect perceptivity and perspective on abuse in this specific case, when someone has almost 10 years of survivor blogging/research writing to their credit already?

Church Membership Covenants – Legal Contracts that are NOT Biblical!” gives a general overview of the content and problems with covenant contracts, and links to several samples.

Part 1-Jordan Root Is a Confessed Internet Child Sex Abuser: Should The Village Church Trust Him?” (May 25, 2015).

Part 2: The Abuse of Church Discipline at The Village Church” (May 26, 2015).

Watchkeep: Karen Hinkley’s Response to The Village Church Email” (May 27, 2015).

Karen Hinkley Did Not Have a Valid Marriage Covenant; Some Information About Pedophilia” (May 28, 2015).

SNAP Press Release: Written by Amy Smith” (May 29, 2015)

SNAP Plans Protest This Sunday at The Village Church: Dallas Northway” (May 29, 2015).

A TWW Tutorial Analyzing The Village Church Elders Apology to Karen Hinkley and Others” (May 29, 2015) with a full copy of the apology plus a series of questions and her analysis.

Matt Chandler’s Sermon Asking for Forgiveness While Stressing the Need for Church Discipline” (May 31, 2015).

The Village Church/Matt Chandler: The Problems With Membership Contracts” (June 1, 2015).

Deb Martin posted, “An Apology from Matt Chandler/Elders of The Village Church and a Statement of Forgiveness from Karen Hinkley” (June 10, 2015)

Lessons Learned From The Village Church and Matt Chandler on Membership, Abuse and Repentance” (June 15, 2015). Dee Parsons addresses numerous issues of control and complicity, including by those who may not realize how they contributed to this destructive situation.

Membership Covenant Abuse: A Rebuttal to Leadership Journal Post on Church Discipline” (June 19,2015).


Pastor Wade Burleson provides a valuable critique in his article, and the 100-plus comments give more depth to historical and contemporary theological issues involved with membership, congregant submission, and church discipline.

Five Reasons to Say ‘No’ to a Church Covenant” (May 27, 2015)


  • After all this reading and thinking, what do you think of “membership covenants” now?
  • What actions will you take as a result of those conclusions?
  • What unanswered questions do you have, and where can/will you look for answers?

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Next: Part 6C, Processes That Promise Resolution But Instead Promote Silence.