James MacDonald Sues Critics after 2,000 Leave Harvest Bible Chapel

"The authors of a longtime watchdog blog and Julie Roys, who was reporting on the church, face defamation claims." - CToday

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Bert Perry's picture

I had thought that, given that MacDonald supposedly reconciled with the three elders he expelled in 2013 a few years back, that the things those elders published via The Elephant's Debt would also be forgiven and forgotten.  I think the real reason for this is that the blog came alive again when he moved into a million dollar home, and he's suing out of spite.

Chances for him to win: minimal, as The Elephant's Debt works primarily from publicly available documents and even MacDonald's own books.  So the burden of proof is heavily on MacDonald's side to disavow these things, and he's got the additional burden of being a public figure with a radio show--this means a defamation/libel suit must prove not only that people said things that were demonstrably false, but also prove malice.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Bert, for this sharp analysis.

"The Midrash Detective"

Larry Nelson's picture

...I see that a pastor lives in a seven-figure home.  Perhaps that's just me.....

The senior pastor at my church moved into town in 2014, and bought a home in proximity to the church for $260,000.  (We're a church of around 4,000 members & regular attenders.)  In the area (a south metro suburb of Minneapolis, MN), that's just the average cost of a house. 

The pastor of the largest church in Minnesota (around 23,000 average attendance) still lives in the same quite modest house he purchased in 1991 upon his arrival at the church, when its attendance was 350.

Bert Perry's picture

Thanks, Ed--I took a look into MacDonald when some iffy teaching of his was being used at my former church--and yes, their endorsement of MacDonald was part of why I left.  (go figure that a congregational polity church would endorse a guy who said that congregationalism is of the devil....)

What really bothers me about this is that it's a pretty clear violation of the prohibition of suing fellow believers.  If MacDonald can prove his case, why bother going to the courts?  Instead, just provide evidence to the contrary on the church blog and be done with it.

And if people are presented with clear evidence that the critics are wrong, but still leave, did MacDonald really want them in fellowship, doing things like participating in elder elections?  Seriously?  Or did he just need their tithes to pay The Elephant's Debt?

I hope and pray I'm wrong, because it says extremely nasty things about both MacDonald and his other employer, Moody, but suffice it to say that I'll need to be convinced otherwise.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture


In a culture that is far too litigious, Christ followers should be loath to go into civil court for any reason. 1 Corinthians 6:1-9 pleads for caution: “Can we not judge ourselves?” “This before unbelievers,” “Law suits among you means that you have been completely defeated,” “Why not rather be wronged?” and “This is shame to you.” It’s such a clear teaching—but not the totality of biblical teaching that some try to make it.

What if allowing “yourself to be wronged” is a greater wrong because of the many others that would be wronged? What if that matter is not a “trivial case,” as in 1 Corinthians 6? What if the brothers are from different churches, one of which refuses to bring significant detrimental behavior into line? What if the matter is demonstrably illegal and would bring immense suffering to your family?

1 Corinthians 6 deals with two brothers in a single church dealing with a trivial matter that should just be “let go.” That size teaching does not fit all situations, and it is somewhat reductionistic to try to make it so.

When The Elephant’s Debt began posting their criticism, we dug deeply into personal and organizational reflection. We have repeatedly tried to meet with them, and if the bloggers let their “reasonableness be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5) and simply sat down with us, they would learn of the positive changes that initially came from their critical approach. Ongoing appeals have yielded no fruit, though we remain open to meeting in person and ending the legal case.

In the meantime, by assuming the right to influence our church while refusing to listen to the authority of our church leaders, they forfeit the protection given to brothers in 1 Corinthians 6. According to Matthew 18:17 their refusing to “hear the church” requires that they be related to as non-believers, as “gentiles and tax collectors.”

G. N. Barkman's picture

I have little sympathy for James McDonald.  It appears that the current problems are mostly of his own making.  Nevertheless, I find myself sympathetic to the above post.  I think he's right in principle.  The I Corinthians six passage deals with settling disputes among fellow members of the same congregation where all parties are subject to the authority of the congregation.  It can also work with disputes between members of cooperating congregations, with the churches of both parties constructively involved to bring about resolution.  Beyond that, I agree with McDonald that the I Corinthians 6 prohibition does not apply.  I think it wiser and more Christ-like to let the matter go rather than fight it out in court, but Christians are not denied protection of the courts.  They enjoy the same civil rights as other citizens.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

If you look at the testimonies of former elders, what you see is not a church with Presbyterian polity, but rather an organization where, at least until his apparent demotion, James MacDonald had a 50% vote on the elder board, and that elder board only voted on what the executive elder board, again with MacDonald at the head, had already approved.  MacDonald is (was) effectively a bishop who periodically claims to speak ex cathedra, and his diatribe from about a decade back about how "congregationalism is from Satan" backs up that position of church governance.

Now, given that he controls/controlled all the strings, is it any surprise that the former elders haven't signed up to a "reconciliation" process where more or less the accused would be deciding his own guilt against his accusers?  The best description I can think of such a process is "blanket party".   In other words, think of Diotrephes expelling members for extending hospitality, just with elders refusing to sign off on iffy financials and budgets.

Along those lines, look at the recent resignation of a leader, and how it's all to do with 2017 audits that answered nothing about why the organization was running deeply in the red--and remember that the pastor reviewing that audit married into the Van Kampen mutual funds family.  He knew what he was looking at and resigned.  Hint; guys like that don't just resign just because of bad news.  They've handled that a hundred times before; it's most likely far bigger.

My take here is that the elders who left and were expelled have no requirement to submit to a rigged church "discipline" process, and that this mess is likely to, sadly, become far more nasty than it currently is.  It may even involve governing authorities in an entirely different way, and quite frankly it might turn out that a turning point for the same is the discovery process in the civil suit making those prosecutors very interested in what's going on.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

It might be easier to believe MacDonald's remarks about the shamefulness of brothers suing brothers if MacDonald wasn't the one bringing the lawsuit against The Elephants' Debt...but now it just looks like he's trying to explain away 1 Corinthans 6.  Paul's teaching in that chapter is fairly clear to read and understand. Furthermore, I believe it's 1 Corinthians 6 that says it is better to be wronged than to engage in countersuits in the courts.  So MacDonald ought to just allow his 'false accusers' to keep on doing their thing...but I don't think he can do that because I think his accusers have enough evidence that their claims are true.  The resignations of the elders also militates in that direction.

'Reconciling' with a believer by agreeing to lies is not called 'reconciliation'.  It's called lying, and no amount of finger pointing by MacDonald can change that.  No believer in their right mind ought to sign up for a process of 'reconciliation' with another brother if the 'agreement' is built on deceit.


"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

dmyers's picture

There's a middle ground on Christians suing Christians and 1 Cor. 6:  Christian mediation/arbitration.  As an attorney who has represented parties in multiple church disputes (members vs. pastor, members vs. members, local church vs. denomination, etc.), I always urge both my clients and the adverse parties to seek resolution outside of court.  My go-to alternative forum is Peacemaker Ministries (formerly Christian Conciliation Services), which will provide trained, Christian mediators/arbitrators who will first mediate the dispute, seeking voluntary reconciliation between the parties, including mutual forgiveness and restoration.  If no voluntary resolution is reached, the parties have authorized the mediators to switch to arbitration mode, hearing evidence as would be done at a trial and rendering a decision on the merits that is then enforceable through the courts.  This approach has two major advantages over going straight to court:  it keeps the dispute in-house, avoiding the marred testimony that Paul talks about in 1 Cor. 6 and maintaining the superior wisdom of Christian "judges"; it also has a much better chance of resulting in a God-honoring, relationship-maintaining result.  However, it requires the agreement of both sides to occur.  I was fortunate that every one of my clients in such disputes agreed to the Christian mediation/arbitration approach; unfortunately, however, the other side rarely agreed.  I think I only saw two disputes ever submitted to the process (with both resolved at the mediation stage).  MacDonald seems to be saying that the other side refused mediation/arbitration.  If that's the case, I would agree that he is entitled to go to the secular courts and still be consistent with 1 Cor. 6.  As for turning the other cheek, I'm inclined to agree with MacDonald that that doesn't apply to disputes involving organizations rather than just individuals, or to damages being inflicted on innocents beyond the specific parties to the dispute.  (I have no opinion on the merits of MacDonald's claims and I don't know whether he is correct that the other side has refused an alternative forum.)  I have only once observed a wronged Christian simply "taking it" -- a pastor who allowed new church leaders to take from him the house that he had lived in, that was titled in his name, and that the previous church leadership had agreed would belong to the pastor for his years of service.  That was quite moving.

Bert Perry's picture

David, it's worth noting that the words "arbitration" and "mediation" are not used in the column by Mr. MacDonald in Christianity Today.  Nobody has said this; as far as we can tell, the former elders and TED were basically invited to a blanket party courtesy of James MacDonald.

Regarding the claims, they're basically (a) TED was wrong about the magnitude of debt for HBC, (b) TED was wrong about near bankruptcy in 2006, and (c) TED was wrong about MacDonald's gambling.  (plus TED was wrong to publish statements from elders, an interesting perspective from a guy who relies on the 1st amendment to do his work)   

Proving this is wrong is going to be somewhat difficult for MacDonald, because (a) TED has copies of mortgage documents indicating overall debt could be just about $70 million, (b) MacDonald himself has mentioned huge difficulties in the church around that time in his sermons, and (c) TED has pictures of MacDonald with poker icons like Jesse Rockowitz, as well as reports from others who reported gambling with MacDonald.  So even if we can argue that there might be evidence that TED is wrong, you've again got to prove that they knew they were wrong and acted with malice.  

I view this as a harassment lawsuit for MacDonald for the simple reason that the respondents could never hope to pay even a fraction of what those 2000 departed ex-members would have paid in tithes.  It's simple intimidation, and if I'm right, it should drive him from the pulpit.  Worth noting as well is that Julie Roys is also the one who has been a pain in the neck to Moody, so the fallout from this, whatever comes, is sadly going to be big.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

I found this link on CTPastors this afternoon - and it seems to me to be a lot healthier and more Biblical than what MacDonald has to say.  I'd encourage everyone to read it.

We need look no further then to our Shepherd, Jesus Christ. When he was being falsely accused and mocked and lied about, he did not defend himself. In fact, he allowed all this scorn and reproach to happen to him for he was assured of his place in God.

Acts 8:32–33: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth."

Heb.12:1–4: "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds."

Matthew 5:11–12: "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you."

We need to take Jesus' example and return good for evil and love for hate, forgiveness for unforgiveness, and sweetness for bitterness. Do not fight back, but allow room for God's intervention.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Ed Vasicek's picture

Jay wrote:

We need to take Jesus' example and return good for evil and love for hate, forgiveness for unforgiveness, and sweetness for bitterness.

Jay, I think this is not perhaps the right situation to apply these verses.  Pastors and leaders are often attacked by the sheep (not unbelievers) and need to defend themselves (as Paul did in 2 Corinthians, for example).  Jesus was quite strict with his disciples, and he was very strong and adamant in His stand against some of the Pharisees. The issue here, however, is the question of "Was MacDonald falsely accused?"  Or is he just angry?


"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

It's worth noting that when Jesus wanted to defend Himself against the Pharisees, He didn't go to Roman courts, but quoted their own traditions, really what we'd call the Oral Torah today, and contrasted it with the written books of Moses.  In the same way, the Prophets did the same thing--they held feet to the fire with truth and the Word of God.

And if HBC/MacDonald are correct about the peak indebtedness of HBC, all they have to do to discredit TED is to produce the actual mortgage statements and amounts that TED refers to; redact it a little to keep some privacy, but if the criticism is killing your ministry, why not respond?  Let's be blunt; MacDonald is not going to get much money out of a talk show host, a former Christian school teacher, and the third family he's suing.

Now let's place this in light of James 2, especially James 2:6.  In ancient times, only citizens had access to the courts without exorbitant fees for "orators", the lawyers of the day, and James denounces the practice of some rich people of pillaging their poor brothers in Christ through the courts.

I submit to this forum that this is precisely what James MacDonald and HBC are doing.  In effect, "cross me and I will take everything from you that I can."  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

Pastors and leaders are often attacked by the sheep (not unbelievers) and need to defend themselves (as Paul did in 2 Corinthians, for example).

I don't see any caveats in the Bible passages about doing that only if they aren't in your particular ministry.

And yes, pastors and leaders get attacked by sheep.  Sometimes pastors and leaders attack their sheep.  It happens.  That's ministry.  

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

TylerR's picture


I don't spend time worrying about James MacDonald. I have my own problems! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Yes and no for what Tyler notes; MacDonald's denomination, Harvest Bible Fellowship, is increasingly influential in my area, and quite frankly the local HBF pastor is a guy who used to be the youth pastor at my church.  So whether the foundation for HBF--really the thought of Mr. MacDonald--is sound or rotten has some very big implications in my area.  Plus, if the thoughts of the detractors are even 10% true, it is an object lesson in how big personalities with outsized appetites can do huge damage to the Church.  

To draw a picture from MacDonald's "Vertical Church", what do you think the steel contractor thinks of MacDonald's brand of theology?  Do you think that he separates the particular continuationist semi-Reformed brand of MacDonald from Christianity as a whole?  And what about the millions of Chicago area residents who see a supposed man of God indulging his appetites in million dollar homes, flying to away games with the Blackhawks, and the like?  You know, the guys living in former tenement buildings and projects where the question is going to be whether they get shot or stabbed in the elevators or stairwells.  

OK, sure, plenty of other places where the Church is disgraced by her own people, you bet.  But let's not pretend that there isn't a big issue when you've got obvious bullying lawsuits, pastors in giant homes, and former executives with the Van Kampen mutual funds company resigning after taking a look at the books.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.