First image of a black hole
A lawsuit is to ordinary life what war is to peacetime. In a lawsuit, everybody on the other side is bad. A trial transcript is a discourse in malevolence.-Janet Malcolm
Years ago, Wade Burleson gave TWW permission to repost articles from his blog and I am so thankful.
I believe that James MacDonald’s Op Ed in Christianity Today was abusive and that abuse was aimed at Julie Roys, in particular, as well as The Elephant Debt editors and their wives.This was hardly a theological discussion. I was disturbed that such a poorly written and abusive OpEd was chosen to *grace* the pages of CT.
Mark Galli appeared to say that such a piece was meant to move the discussion regarding lawsuits between *believers* forward. The piece I saw did no such thing. In fact, it appears that MacDonald was possibly *bearing false witness” (inadvertently or not) to Wayne Grudem’s actually role as stated in the piece.
When I talked with James by phone, I referred him to the section, “The Necessity of Responding to Slander,” on pages 334-335 of my book Christian Ethics. I also referred him to the notes on 1 Corinthians 6 in the ESV Study Bible. I stand by what I wrote in Christian Ethics and I agree in principle with the notes in the ESV Study Bible.
I have not expressed any opinion on the merits of the specific lawsuit that James McDonald has initiated, nor have I looked into any details about that lawsuit or the accusations from the people who have criticized his ministry online. Nor do I intend to.
To make matters worse, it appears that two people did try to move the discussion forward by submitting Op Eds to CT. Apparently, CT was having none of it and refused to post either response which, in my opinion, would have moved the discussion forward. But maybe these guys didn’t know the right editors to advocate on their behalf?
I am deeply disappointed in CT. It is becoming difficult for me to believe that there isn’t a good ol’ boys network out there. Why am I left with the impression that had these two rejected pieces been written by BFFs of the editors, especially those who had been given *voluntary love offerings,* things might have turned out differently. Then again, I probably don’t understand the professional customs and values of the Christian publishing industry
There have been many Christian entities that have disappointed me in the past year. Besides CT, I’ve had to add ECFA, Harvest Bible Chapel and Willow Creek in the last few months.
Thankfully, Wade Burleson has stood his ground on many things that concern me. I am grateful to know that I am not alone.
Last week I wrote an article entitled Boys and Their Toys: Understanding the Southern Baptist Convention’s Celebrity Leadership Politics. In essence, I challenged Christianity Today’s decision to publish a guest editorial(Nov.2, 2018), written by James MacDonald, the pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel. In his CT guest editorial, Pastor James MacDonald defended his decision to file suit against three families – Julie Roys, Scott Bryant, Ryan Mahoney, and the men’s respective spouses – for their writing of articles that outlined what the authors believed to be Pastor MacDonald’s’ gross mismanagement of people, resources, and ministries at Harvest Bible Chapel. Eventually, James MacDonald dropped the suit that he defended in his CT editorial. Subsequently, the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel fired James MacDonald for some of the very things the one-time defendants of his lawsuit revealed in their writings.
In the comment section of my blog, Mark Galli, the Editor in Chief of Christianity Today, entered into a written dialogue with me. I appreciate Mark’s transparency as he took issue with what I wrote. He said the decision for Christianity Today to publish James MacDonald’s opinion piece was his alone, and it had nothing to do with James MacDonald giving a vintage 1971 VW Beetle automobile to Ed Stetzer. Ed is a contributing editor to Christianity Today.
In the dialogue, I asked Mark this question:
“If Julie Roys (one of the defendants in James MacDonald’s lawsuit) wrote you an email and asked for an editorial on the abusive power of celebrity pastors, or if Ed Stetzer connected Julie Roys with CT (and you) and she requested to write an editorial about the dangers of power run amok among celebrity pastors, would you have responded positively?”
“Absolutely. Under the same restraints: It would have to have been a biblical argument about the abuse of power in general. The challenge would have been taking the argument forward because we have editorialized on that very theme often over the years.”
After reading this exchange, a pastor friend in Florida, Brett Maragni, contacted me. He told me he had two written pieces that had been submitted to Christianity Today for potential guest editorials in response to James MacDonald’s opinion piece. Mark Galli and Christianity Today chose not to publish either one of these two written opinion pieces.
Again, Christianity Today rejected both pieces for publication. The question that keeps ringing in my head is “Why does James MacDonald receive permission to publish a guest editorial in Christianity Today and others who wrote opinion pieces – better-written articles, definitely more biblically grounded, and more reflective of Christianity today – did not receive permission from CT editors?”
Could it be “Boys and Their Toys” is far closer to the truth than some would like to admit?
Both men rejected by CT for publication of their articles have given me permission to make public their written responses to James MacDonald’s opinion piece.
After reading all three pieces, it may be time to draw your own conclusions about the state of Christianity today. Using the little “t” for “today” in the previous sentence and not the big “T” is intentional. So is the pun.
Is It Biblical to Sue Another Christian?
by David W. Jones
On October 17, 2018, megachurch pastor James MacDonald and his church, Harvest Bible Chapel, filed a defamation lawsuit against five individuals: Scott and Sarah Bryant, Ryan and Melinda Mahoney, and Julie Roys. The lawsuit seeks damages and a temporary restraining order. The catch? All five defendants are professing Christians.
Aware that 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 forbids Christians from suing other Christians in secular courts, Pastor MacDonald wrote an opinion piece to explain why his lawsuit is biblically justified. (1) To make his case, he needed to prove two things: (1) that Scripture’s prohibition on Christians suing other Christians is not absolute, but rather allows for certain exceptions; and (2) that his specific situation qualifies as one of these exceptions. His argument fails on both counts.
Did God Actually Say?
Regarding the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, MacDonald argues for what he calls “a deeper understanding of Scripture.” He asserts, rightly, that we must look at all relevant texts regarding an issue, not just one primary text (in this case, 1 Corinthians 6). So he puts forward three additional texts for consideration: Matthew 18:17, John 8:49, and Romans 13:1-7. Yet MacDonald does not demonstrate how these texts give Christians the freedom to set aside 1Corinthians 6 and sue other Christians. An examination of each reveals no such justification.
Matthew 18:17 describes the end of the church discipline process. If a sinning church member refuses to repent after multiple appeals by other members, the sinner is to be excommunicated and treated as an unbeliever. MacDonald infers that the person can then be sued. Yet Jesus does not actually say that; lawsuits are foreign to the context.
Regarding John 8:49, MacDonald cites Wayne Grudem’s recent book on Christian ethics. (2) Grudem shows that, even though Jesus remained silent on his way to the cross, he did not normally allow his character to be slandered. Rather, the Lord responded to critics. Grudem then infers that we need not suffer in silence when our character is maligned. We can follow Christ’s example and refute false statements made about us. This is a valid point and helpful. Yet Grudem does not mention suing fellow Christians, as MacDonald implies. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 does not appear in that section, nor anywhere else in the book.(3) So Jesus may have corrected his opponents, but he did not sue them (nor their spouses). The record can be set straight without resorting to secular courts, especially for a megachurch pastor with multiple communication platforms.
Romans 13:1-7 does not apply to Christians suing Christians, either. It says government has been ordained to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer, literally, ‘the one practicing evil’ (verse 4). In the same verse, Paul says a ruler ‘does not bear the sword in vain,’ which is widely understood as a reference to capital punishment. So this passage refers to criminal behavior, such as murder and the like. Presumably, the wrongdoer is not a Christian. So Romans 13 is talking about criminal law, not civil law. (4) Also, it immediately follows Romans 12, which contains one of the longest and clearest passages in the New Testament about not seeking revenge, but rather treating your enemy better than he or she deserves (see Romans 12:14-21). Surely that colors any application of Romans 13:1-7.
So MacDonald uses three texts that are not about civil suits to explain away the one text that is about civil suits (1 Corinthians 6). He also ignores completely the biblical teaching on nonretaliation (e.g., Leviticus 19:18; 1 Samuel 24:12; Proverbs 20:22; 24:29; 25:21-22; Matthew 5:38-45; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:27-36; 23:34; Acts 7:60; Romans 12:14-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 2:19-23; 3:9, 14-18; 4:8; Hebrews 10:32-34 et al). In light of these texts, MacDonald’s so-called “deeper understanding of Scripture” appears shallow and unconvincing—a ham-fisted attempt to justify unbiblical behavior.
Missing the Sarcasm
MacDonald’s handling of 1 Corinthians 6 is also inadequate. He does not seem to grasp how incensed Paul is over Christians suing other Christians. The word dare in verse 1 denotes insolence or presumption. It could be paraphrased, “What nerve you have!” The apostle asks whether they are incompetent (verse 2). He explicitly shames them (verse 5). He incredulously asks rhetorical question after rhetorical question, concluding that the presence of lawsuits shows they are already defeated (verse 7). Commentator Gordon Fee refers to this passage as “the most biting sarcasm in the letter.”(5)
MacDonald, who is normally fluent in sarcasm, downplays this. He says, “1 Corinthians 6 deals with two brothers in a single church dealing with a trivial matter that should just be ‘let go.’” Now the word trivial does appear in verse 2, but it must be understood in context. In verses 7-8, the apostle spells out what was going on: wrongdoing and defrauding. The former term denotes behaviors that harm, such as slander and injury; the latter, various types of cheating, such as breach of contract and property right infringements. Why, then, does Paul call such civil suits trivial? For rhetorical effect. In verses 2-3, he says believers will judge both the world and angels—a reference to eschatological judgment. Craig Blomberg says, this “does not mean that the Corinthian litigation did not involve serious offenses, merely that all human litigation is trivial when viewed in the light of Judgment Day.”(6)
So the Corinthians were not simply arguing over the color of the church carpet. Some believers had wronged others, though not to the level of criminal court. Paul does not just dismissively say “Let it go.” He wants them to resolve their disputes—only among believers (verse 5). If a matter cannot be resolved privately, the apostle urges them to suffer the injustice and be defrauded, rather than parading the church’s dirty laundry into the public square (verse 7). The testimony of Christ and the unity of the church trump personal rights. (7)
MacDonald also seems unaware of the social context. Romans with higher social status had an unfair advantage when it came to civil cases. (8) The rich could hire good attorneys; the poor could not (9). Juries were typically composed of wealthy citizens, who may be peers and perhaps even
friends of the plaintiff, and thus not completely objective. Justice could also be perverted by a bribe, which the wealthy could afford, and the poor could not. All of these factors made it difficult for a poor person to get justice in civil court. So it is possible that wealthier, more powerful Christians were taking those less fortunate to court, in order to power up on them. This almost certainly factors into Paul’s sense of outrage.
The piece raises issues of practical application. To paraphrase MacDonald, what if there is collateral damage? What if the matter is serious, perhaps even illegal? What if the plaintiff and defendant are from different churches? These are legitimate questions, though it should be recognized that they deal with the application of 1 Corinthians 6, not its interpretation. Paul provides no exception for collateral damage or illegality. He urges the Corinthians away from the secular courts, even if it means allowing oneself to suffer injustice or be defrauded. The issue of different churches does pose a difficulty, but it is not insurmountable. In Roman law, a citizen might opt for private arbitration rather than dragging a matter through the courts. (10) Paul points out that Christians could do the same. Surely, there are wise Christians in the area who can step in and mediate—leaders who are respected and trusted by both parties. So MacDonald has not made his case that the Bible allows exceptions to its prohibition on Christians suing other Christians. Both his interpretation and application of the relevant passages
Brother Goes to Law against Brother
The second thing MacDonald needs to prove is that his lawsuit constitutes an exception to the general prohibition in 1 Corinthians 6. Several factors make this highly suspect.
First, the piece says MacDonald is suing “three outspoken critics.” As mentioned above, the lawsuit actually specifies five defendants: two bloggers, their wives, and an independent journalist. The inclusion of the wives casts the lawsuit in a different light.
Second, the bloggers have published little in the last few years. Why sue them now, especially since MacDonald admits that some of the criticisms had merit and bore good fruit? Why try to get a temporary restraining order against them after six years?
Third, the inclusion of the journalist was initially puzzling, because she had not published anything about MacDonald or Harvest prior to the lawsuit. How could she be labeled an“outspoken critic”? Why seek a temporary restraining order against her? Turns out that Mrs. Roys had been working on an article about MacDonald, and the latter got wind of it.11 The temporary restraining order appears to have been an attempt to keep the article from seeing the light of day. Mrs. Roys quipped, “I always knew I ran the risk of being sued for speaking the truth. But I always envisioned that it would be for something I actually published, not for something I merely indicated I was going to publish.”(12) If this is the motivation behind the lawsuit, it should be recognized as an attempt to limit freedom of speech.
Finally, MacDonald ends by denying he seeks vengeance. He also denies seeking damages (although the lawsuit does request damages in multiple places). He expresses a willingness “to give grace and forgive,” but that of course assumes it is the bloggers and journalist who sinned. Until MacDonald answers the charges made about him (apart from simply painting them all as “lies”), the question remains open as to who is telling the truth. MacDonald says he prays for “the blogger’s peace,” although that is hard to reconcile with the decision to sue these families for damages. Like the wealthy citizens of Corinth who used the courts to their own advantage, he almost certainly has resources at his disposal beyond that of the defendants.
So MacDonald has not made his case that his lawsuit qualifies as an exception to 1 Corinthians 6. On the contrary, several factors call into question the motive(s) behind the suit.
WWJS—Who Would Jesus Sue?
As a general rule, when someone contravenes the express teaching of Scripture, and then tries to justify it with a “deeper understanding of Scripture,” discerning believers should take note. The question, “Did God actually say?” landed the first couple—and the rest of the human race—in a world of hurt. Jesus says, ‘whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:19). Later, in the same
chapter, the Lord instructs us to turn the other cheek, renounce our rights in court, and go the extra mile (verses 39-41).
To answer the question posed in the title of this article, it is not biblical to sue a fellow Christian. Perhaps there could be an exception. But MacDonald has not made a case for why his lawsuit is that exception. Mediation is the preferred way of resolving disputes among Christians. Thus, I would urge the leadership of Harvest Bible Chapel to withdraw its lawsuit against these five believers and seek private mediation with a third party.
Dr. David W. Jones is Senior Pastor at Village Church of Barrington in Barrington, Illinois.
From 2001 to 2010, he served at Harvest Bible Chapel as James MacDonald’s research
assistant. He was also Associate Editor for The Holy Bible: English Standard Version
1 James MacDonald, “Why Suing Is Sometimes the Biblical Choice,” Christianity Today, Nov 2, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/november-web-only/james-macdonald-harvest-bible-chapel-suing-ourcritics-bibl.html.
2 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2018), 334-35.
3 Grudem has made a statement regarding this lawsuit: “I have not expressed any opinion on the merits
of the specific lawsuit that James McDonald has initiated, nor have I looked into any details about that lawsuit or the accusations from the people who have criticized his ministry online. Nor do I intend to.”
4 In the Roman world, slander and libel were matters for the lower courts, as they are today. See Bruce Winter, “Civil Litigation in Secular Corinth and the Church: The Forensic Background to 1 Cor 6:1-8,” NTS 37 (1991): 559-72; cited in Thiselton, 420. So also Brian S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 112-15.
5 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), 229.
6 Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 117.
7 Sadly, the “Friendly Atheist” (Sarabeth Caplin) has already picked up on Harvest’s lawsuit and blogged about it. https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2018/10/26/chicago-megachurch-files-defamation-lawsuit-againstbloggers-and-journalist. Accessed Nov 8, 2018.
8 A.C. Mitchell, “Rich and Poor in the Courts of Corinth: Litigiousness and Status in 1 Cor 6:1-11,” NTS 39 (1993): 562-63; cited in Thiselton, 419.
9 Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia: Fortress,1992), 97; cited in Thiselton, 420.
10 Winter, “Civil Law and Christian Litigiousness,” 67.
11 Julie Roys, “Hard times at Harvest,” World, Dec 13, 2018, https://world.wng.org/2018/12/hard_times_at_harvest. Accessed Dec 13, 2018.
12 Kate Shellnutt, “James MacDonald Sues Harvest Bible Chapel Critics for Libel,” Christianity Today, Oct 30, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/october/james-macdonald-harvest-bible-chapel-sueelephants-debt-jul.html. Accessed Dec 3, 2018.
James MacDonald and The Elephant’s Debt: The Issues Underneath the Issues
by Joel Anderson
It was 1995 and my wife and I had just moved to the Chicago area to attend seminary. We were in a bagel store where the college student working the counter commented on Christian shirt I was wearing and invited us to church. What college kid is that fired up about their church? We’d been in town less than two weeks and decided to take her up on the offer.
That was our introduction to Harvest Bible Chapel.
We loved the simple, clear and urgent way Pastor James taught God’s Word and the
fresh and meaningful worship. We were hooked.
I joined an early morning men’s small group led by Pastor James, and in a matter of months, had been given an opportunity to join the staff—a dream coming true for a hungry seminary kid.
The church was in a season of explosive growth and moving into their first building. I thrived on the fast-pace of the team and appreciated the strong leadership and uncomplicated, no-nonsense vision Pastor James provided.
We were part of the team that birthed the church planting vision, planted two churches with Harvest (numbers 2 and 27), saw the birth and growth of Harvest Bible Fellowship, served as a founding board member and later served on the Harvest Bible Fellowship staff, recruiting and training church planters.
All told, we’ve served at six different Harvests over 22 years.
During those early days, I served as the young adult pastor and ministry partner for bothScott Bryant and Ryan Mahoney, the authors of The Elephant’s Debt blog. They were small group leaders and helped teach.
All that backstory to say this, I know and love personally each person embroiled in the lawsuit brought by Pastor James and Harvest Bible Chapel against Scott, Ryan and Julie Roys (the only person I haven’t met personally). Through my journey, I’ve been through the ringer because of my own sin and have been shown unbelievable grace, mercy, love, forgiveness and a redemptive path through it all—and that’s what I ache for.
I have no axe to grind and no loyalty or agenda to foist on an already complex matter. My heart is only to attempt to bring some clarity from what may be a unique vantage point.
It may sound trite, but my sole desire is to see Christ honored through this apparent impasse, offering a model for the body of Christ, and a watching world, of what an ambassador of reconciliation truly looks like in the mire of real life.
After reading the first report of the case and the follow up editorial Pastor James wrote, I felt compelled to plead for a Christ-honoring path to “come reason together.” With a legal case pending, those being sued are in many ways, locked out of the public forum to provide an apologetic for their blog. Just as Pastor James has written to offer further clarity, I believe there is helpful, and necessary, dialogue to be added.
My primary concern is this: the presenting issue (the biblical grounds for believers suing believers) isn’t the primary issue. The issue under the issue are the claims Scott, Ryan, and Julie have made, and their right to make them. That’s the real issue. If we allow the discussion to be diverted toward an apologetic about lawsuits, the squirrel has taken our eyes off critical substance that compelled TED to go public with their concerns.
Were their facts correct and do they have a right to report their concerns? That’s the question we should be discussing.
I get it and I’ve been there. None of us love our laundry put out for public display and possible scrutiny. But aren’t we encouraged to bring matters into the light? What often causes fear (and subsequent anger) is what unexpected and undesired exposure will cost us.
But if the Christian’s economy is truth, let’s seek it, and refuse to allow the damage control machinery to engage. The world’s concern is controlling the narrative. That’s not the playbook for the body of Christ. No church or pastor is perfect and shouldn’t be held to an unrealistic and impossible standard. And, no blogger or radio host is perfect either.
So what do we do? We work through it. If the facts are true, own it. If they aren’t, provide the missing data. This is Christ’s church we’re talking about. And if ministry is done in the open and with integrity, what do we have to fear?
The precious tension in an elder-governed church (Harvest’s model) is what the body “gets to know.” The TED blog exposed details of the Harvest financial story that weren’t public. While we can get stuck in the debate about how much information is necessary and helpful for the body to know, that again isn’t the issue. Were the facts reported accurate and do they have the right and freedom to go public with it?
The answer, I am convinced of, is a clear “yes.”
I love Pastor James. He was a mentor who gave me more than I could return. I love Scott and Ryan and don’t believe their intent was to spread lies or be exacting or malicious. But it isn’t about that either—who we love or like or appreciate or don’t. It’s about honoring Christ in the mess and trusting that He will guide us as we humbly defer to wise counsel, His Word and Spirit.
Bottom line, we cannot allow the matter of suing another believer to eclipse the substance and inception of this debacle. What is true and do people have the right to know and report it?
Shut down the legal process. Stop draining kingdom resources and appeal to godly spiritual peers to help corral and guide this toward a Christ-honoring process of reconciliation.
We’re broken people who need the Gospel every day. Let’s admit our need and work it out.
Let’s get to the issue under the issue and let the church and watching world learn from our frailty that we serve a God who is able to supply all our needs.