A group of members at Two Rivers Baptist Church who sued Pastor Jerry Sutton have been told to repent of their sins, apologize in writing, drop present and future lawsuits, and stop meeting together or risk expulsion from the church.
Seventy-four church members in the lawsuit received a letter this week from Sutton and Carlos Cobos, chairman of the Two Rivers deacon board. It accused them of damaging the church's witness and welfare. They were given five days to issue a written apology to Sutton.
"If we do not apologize, and repent," said church member Erika Williams, "he is going to try to roust all 74 of us out."
Williams, who said she won't apologize, fears she won't be able to set foot in the church where she has been a member for 15 years. "I don't know if we will be allowed in on Sunday."
Sutton and other church leaders declined to comment on the specifics of the letter.
"We are treating this as an internal church matter," said Andrew Dunning, vice-chairman of the Two Rivers deacon board. "We are trying to handle this biblically."
The 74 church members filed suit in September to get access to church financial records and to have Sutton and other church leaders removed. They believed Sutton, who has been the church's pastor more than 20 years, had misused church funds to pay for personal trips. They also were angered that the church paid some of the cost of a wedding reception for Sutton's daughter.
A judge recently dismissed the lawsuit but said the church members were entitled to see financial records.
Two Rivers has more than 6,000 members, but weekly attendance averages between 1,600-1,800, church leaders say.
The letter from Sutton and Cobos cites the Matthew 18:12-17 as a model for resolving church disputes.
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you," the passage reads in the New International Version. "If he listens to you, you have won the brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector."
When asked about the biblical command to turn the other cheek, Dunning declined to comment. He did say that the plaintiffs would be allowed in the church this Sunday.
According to the letter, the church members have violated the Two Rivers' bylaws by their actions. They were given eight steps to take to make amends.
One of the key steps was: "Stop causing disharmony among our Church Membership by being a party to malicious gossip, rumor spreading, defaming conversations, and the spreading of unfounded accusations against our Pastor, our Church Leadership, and our Church."
To encourage the plaintiffs to repent, two deacons will be contacting church members. Peggy Lewis, one of the plaintiffs, says she welcomes the deacons' visit.
"I'm going to lock the doors, and then we're going to have a little prayer," said Lewis, a former Sunday school teacher at Two Rivers. "Then I am going to lay out everything we've found out about the church, and maybe a little light will shine."
One thing Lewis will not do is say she is sorry.
"Apologize for what? I've done nothing wrong," said Lewis, a long-time Two Rivers member. "Why should we leave the church that we built?"
Unlike other Christian groups, such as Methodists or Roman Catholics, each Southern Baptist Church is completely autonomous. The local congregation decides who will be their pastor and church membership qualifications.
Congregation may vote
"This is a local church matter and they are completely responsible for their actions," said James Porch, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Porch said that the convention's constitution forbids it from intervening in a local church dispute.
If the plaintiffs refused to comply with the demands of Sutton and the deacons, they face expulsion. According to church bylaws, a congregational vote will be held on the plaintiffs' fate. Two thirds of members at the meeting must vote to expel them.
It isn't clear when that meeting would be held.
Lewis said she isn't worried about being voted out of Two Rivers.
"It's in the Lord's hand's," she said. Besides, she added, "I've got a lot of friends at that church."