Although I have heard of evangelical mega-pastor James MacDonald, I am not familiar with any of his books.
Or his sermons.
Or his broadcast messages on Christian radio.
And I didn’t know his church, Harvest Bible Chapel, had 13 thousand members and numerous affiliate churches.
I didn’t know MacDonald’s church was in Chicago, however there must be something in the water up near the Windy City the way things have been lately.
But I am familiar with the depressing sameness that has engulfed MacDonald, and in turn dismayed many Christians.
The same sameness that engulfed Bill Hybels at Willow Creek (albeit for different reasons), and has been engulfing mega-church pastors of an evangelical ilk for some time now, including Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill.
And it was while listening to this Mortification of Spin podcast, in which journalist Julie Roys, who has been conducting an exposé of the conduct of MacDonald and other Harvest leaders, that the familiar ring comes through so strongly. In fact it was like listening to a repeat of a previous Mortification podcast, only with the names and locations changed.
The recurring central theme to these scandals is the manner in which a concerned, godly eldership is first enervated by an increasingly toxic church leader, then replaced by that church leader, before finally being excoriated publicly by that church leader, with the new leadership on stage leading the tomato throwing exercise.
And who are these people who takes the place of such elders? A board which governs at the whim of the leader. A toothless tiger that is full of “yes men” (occasionally, but rarely women), whose job it is to smooth the pathway for the leader, by first not speaking about or investigating wrongs being committed; then allowing that leader to call all of the shots; before finally closing ranks around the leader in his condemnation of those who stood against his sinful behaviour.
That’s the familiar pattern. It would seem that the biblicists among such leaders baulk at that most biblical of requirements for church leadership; godly elders whose lives and whose teaching accords with the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
And this familiar pattern doesn’t end there. There are the usual rebuttals and threats of legal action when the whistleblowers are finally believed by a previously disbelieving Christian community. Which is exactly what Harvest has threatened Julie Roys with.
Doesn’t this gaslighting sound familiar as quoted in Christianity Today, January 16th in light of a World magazine article by Roys?:
Harvest officials said in a statement to CT that the report “fails to uncover desired scandal” and represents “the opinions of a few disgruntled former members” rather than the views of the church’s current elders.
A few disgruntled members. Like that headline that won the boring headline of the year award: Small Earthquake in Peru: Not Many Injured. Nothing to see here folks, nothing that would interest you anyway.
This is then followed by a hint of “there are some weaknesses in our system/leader that we are addressing, but it’s not as bad as the grievance bloggers are making out”.
This is a signal that everyone involved is acting like a duck. Calm and collected on the river surface, scrambling like crazy under water and out of sight.
Then there’s always a final mea culpa in which the leader either puts his hand up and steps away or is quickly abandoned on his sinking ship.
To MacDonald’s credit he stood aside in January for what he called ” actions that can only be called sin”. But to his discredit, it’s only because a court ruled that damning electronic media evidence, (emails etc), could not be sealed from public perusal. The very evidence that Julie Roys was seeking to access, but had been blocked from.
In the by now familiar pattern, the aforementioned “yes men” suddenly proclaim loudly that although they were part of the problem for all those years, they were bedazzled by the great one’s greatness, but now that they have clear vision again, they’re here to help.
That’s the pattern. It’s that simple. You could throw it in with the seven or so Hollywood standard movie scripts that exist and it wouldn’t look out of place, so step-by-step, formulaic it is.
The problem does not end there though. If it did then every major evangelical leader not touched by the scandal, but who knows the leader through conferences and boards and platforms, would have arrested this decline long ago.
But they generally didn’t, and don’t. The primary problem is that experience shows that it is consistently the little people – those who have been trampled over by the leader and his new team – who will go to the wall to sort this out. They constantly look for support from the big people, but the cavalry rarely arrives until the damage has been done.
In fact Julie Roys said on the Mortification podcast that it was the courage of those who had had their lives wrecked by MacDonald’s actions to go on record that brought this to light.
The people whose names we never would know otherwise, who never write a book, never speak at a conference, and never get a business class flight to a platform. The people who lose their houses, their churches, their friends, and not a few nights sleep trying to get someone with enough clout to take action.
Why is this the case? First there is the problem of collegiality. We become inured to the vices of those we share time and space with, especially if we’re all supposed to be singing from the same hymn sheet, or feeding at the same theological trough.
So just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, so one nameless elder’s brutaliser is another major evangelical figure’s “strong leader who gets things done, even though his methods can be a bit ropey at times“. You get the picture.
Secondly, perhaps evangelical leaders aren’t as convinced by the doctrine of sin as they say they are. Why do leaders who call us to take our propensity to sin soberly, seem to either look the other way or give the benefit of the doubt long past a healthy use-by-date to such leaders?
If they were on the ball they’d be nipping this stuff in the bud, and to hell with the personal and relational consequences with that bloke you’ve written a book with, who is now killing and roasting the sheep. The first whiff of smoke, assume fire! Besides there could well be hell to pay in the age to come. Read the warnings of Scripture.
In fact the irony is, and I’ll leave the reader to find the source material on this, many a blog post and article by evangelical leaders across the West is about the seriousness of personal sin, its propensity to blind us; its ability to deceive us and wind us in towards attitudes and practices we would never have dreamed possible. Post after post, meme after meme from evangelical leaders says “sort it out now before it kills you.”
Well that same whiff of smoke on a personal level is from the same fire that is burning down so many major evangelical figures and their reputations.
And evangelical leaders can only put up their hands so often and say “We thought there might be a problem, but what can we do?” before one of them decides to risk his career or his tenure or his next platform, in grasping the battering ram by the horns in order to rescue the sheep.
It’s an unpleasant, thankless task, or at least thankless in this age. But hey, what’s a “Well done good and faithful servant” on the last day, compared with the gold card status in the evangelical leadership club now?
Perhaps there is something else to it also. I worry that many major leaders, aware that the church is under increasing secular pressures, and facing a hostile mainstream media, views such unwanted attention as counter-productive to the gospel.
I do wonder too if our major evangelical leaders are nicely middle class and therefore too conflict-avoidant to wade into such unseemly, but necessary work. I would have thought this was pastoral ministry 101.
The fact is it is hugely productive to the gospel to lance this particular boil. Hugely productive. Seen in worldly terms the exposure of these sorts of scandals weaken the witness of the church. But from a spiritual perspective it’s exactly the unexposed nature of such problems that have weakened the witness of the church, hollowing her out from inside. True reality is what we cannot see yet, not what we can.
Such short-sightedness – indeed blind refusal – to break ranks until someone else does, and then to all come rushing at once, hurrumphing and snorting with faux indignation, indicates a fear of man that belies how many of our leaders position themselves.
We can’t just speak fearlessly into “that culture out there”, we must be able to speak fearlessly into “this culture in here”. But as long as the “that culture out there” is nameless and faceless, it’s fairly easy to fight with. This culture in here that we know and whose champions we know by first name? Not quite so much.
And now we sit back and wait for the all too familiar pattern to emerge again, from yet another leader, in another city, with perhaps another surprisingly original scandal, but with the same underlying framework. Rinse, launder, repeat.
But we pray that this time some equally influential mega-church leader, who hears the whispers, gets a hint of a damaging exodus of elders, and sees the first puff of smoke, will risk losing a friendship and a platform invitation for the sake of the sheep who are about to get roasted, and for whom the Chief Shepherd both died for and is returning for.
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