The Tragic Collinsville Lawsuit Settled

Norman L. Parks

The tragic Collinsville case has slowly ground down to its legal end at a cost of $900,000 and the loss of forty percent of the membership of the small Oklahoma church all the result of the unrelenting determination of the congregation's "eldership" to punish a young widow who had been a member.

The national press saw the affair as a 20th century reenactment of The Scarlet Letter, and millions of readers followed the unfolding of this sad drama. They have yet to learn that the modern "Hester" received $400,000 in a hush-hush settlement out of court.

Where did this small town church get the vast sum to wage a legal battle to the state supreme court and on to the U.S. Supreme Court? It was raised by a nationally influential Tulsa church, which maintains a network of communication with churches across the country. It is safe to assume that the $1,000,000 which this church raised came from a vast number of church treasuries without the knowledge or approval of the members, sent by "elderships" who felt themselves under attack in the Collinsville suit. The lone remaining job is the apportionment of the unused $100,000 to the original contributors.

Appalled at the waste of such a sum, much of it to line the pockets of a string of lawyers stretching from Nashville to the West Coast, some have wondered how much could have been done to feed the starving in Africa or winning the souls of the oppressed in Central America. Indeed, this could have happened if only sane judgment and biblical teaching had been followed, and nobody would have ever heard of Collinsville.

Roberson Fork Church of Christ in Tennessee 150 years ago faced a similar problem. A young woman who had been a faithful member since late childhood had ceased to attend services. Rumor spread through this rural community that she was consorting with a worldly man and was probably guilty of fornication. At a business meeting of the members, the matter was raised. What are the facts? What is the responsibility of this church to her? Lacking the traditions that misled the elders of the Collinsville church, the members turned to the Bible. There it was read that the older women bear a special responsibility toward the younger women. Responding to this instruction, the members named a committee of three older women and asked them to advise the church. The chairman of the committee personally called on the young woman, not in confrontation, but in the tender responsibility of the old for the young. Later she took the other committee members with her for a conference. At the next business meeting she gave a report to the entire congregation, both male and female. She reported that the Committee was convinced that the young woman in question was attracted by an older and very worldly man and fell in love with him, that he took advantage of her unworldliness and seduced her with promises or marriage, that she came to realize that she was betrayed and ended the relationship. But she was so humiliated by what had happened to her and overcome with a sense of guilt, she could not face the congregation. The committee had a letter from her confessing her sin and sorrow, which they could read to the church if necessary, but the committee thought it unwise to force her to stand before the congregation. Instead, they thought that the church should send her a letter, saying that we accept your repentance, we love you, and we want you to come home. That was done. Thereafter this young woman's name appeared regularly in the records of this Bible-minded frontier church.

The Roberson Fork church was an early creation of the Restoration Movement. Its members had no long history of traditions and practices to follow. At every step they asked what does the Bible say? Unfortunately any religious movement after a time begins to accumulate traditions which are accepted without question. Among the churches of Christ has grown the tradition that the collective "Eldership" is responsible for everything that involves a congregation. They make all the decisions. They do the appointing and the firing. They decide who can participate in the organized activities of the church and who cannot. Discipline is their sole responsibility. Not one of these rules has any foundation in the Bible. The Collinsville elders fell heir to this tradition. They were good and sincere men, bent on living up to the roles that tradition had spelled out for them.

When confronted with the possibility of fornication by a young woman member, they did not ask a committee of older women to ascertain the facts and recommend what measures should be taken. They did not send one of their own number to her in the role of concerned counselor. Instead, all three went as a body in the role of confrontation. They did not even have an appointment. Not finding her at home, they followed her to a public laundry, where she and her children were sorting the family clothes. They required her to leave her laundry and her children and go with them to the darkened church building to face them. When she admitted her guilt, but said that her relationship had ended, they advised her that she must stand in person before the congregation and say that she had been a fornicator, which would probably make her the only woman ever to stand before the church and open her mouth. Thus began the piling on of mistakes which at length drove her to write a letter stating that she was withdrawing her membership. Whereupon the Collinsville trio added a major addition to the eldership tradition by ruling that no member could leave a church without permission of the "eldership;" and that such a person was forever under their suzerainty ["the position or authority of a sovereign" Editor] until they passed the control to another "Eldership."

Since she could not leave a church without their permission, the trio proceeded to withdraw "fellowship" from her by public announcement, and then wrote letters to other churches advising them of what they had done and asking them not to accept her. By the last act they moved entirely out of the field of religion into the area of civil liberty, thereby invading her right to privacy.

The case is legally closed. But the Collinsville church will bear the imprint of the series of blunders committed in the episode for many years. The case has a lesson to quiescent members in thousands of churches who sit passively by while a hired clergyman and an authoritarian "elder-ship" rule the roost. It will unquestionably impose caution on church authoritarianism, but much would be gained if it led to a reexamination of the whole elder tradition.