The Devil’s Advocate

kinnon —  June 12, 2011 — 22 Comments

Question Mark 04

I question.

It’s one of those things that many people wish I just wouldn’t do.

“Bill, just leave well enough alone.”

“Don’t stir the pot.”

“What gives you the right to ask questions?” — they question.

Yesterday, in my definitely imitable style, I questioned James MacDonald and his “Congregational Government is From Satan” hyperbolic blog post. And I got some answers I wasn’t expecting. From that post’s comments:

Joe — “You need to know that James wrote that whole rant as a response to recently not getting something he wanted.”
Me — “Hmmm. Intriguing. Do tell
Joe — “Simply he wanted a certain church. They voted TWICE against it and now he is mad. Thus the comments on how voting is unbiblical and congregational government”

And then later that evening,
Luke MacDonald — ”…Harvest was approached by 5 elders from a church in decline and asked for help. The elders wanted to merge and form an extension campus (whatever anyones thoughts may be on this).

The elders and 72% of the church voted to merge falling shy of the 75% required for such a move. The elders then decided to take another few months and try to vote again. This time I believe the vote was 73%.

that is the basics of the story…

I wasn’t expecting any of this. I’m not a particular fan of Brother James' church leadership style, though I don’t have any particular axe to grind with him. I found his “Satan post” to be typical of his rather bombastic style and it prompted my response.

However, the comments thread suggests that the Satan Congregation post may well have been a petulant response on Brother James’ part to not gaining control of another church for his Harvest Bible denomination. (Does Harvest have an M&A Department I wonder?)

After Joe’s 2nd comment, I decided to do a little Google wandering. The church whose eldership appears to want to join the Harvest Bible Chapel denomination at this time is Winnetka Bible Church. See this post please.

WBC has a FAQ up about the HBC/WBC “merger”. I find the FAQ both revealing and disturbing.

16. Who will preach at the Winnetka location?
The six current campuses of HBC, worshiping across fifteen identical services, function as one church, with one Elder Board, one overall budget and one Senior Pastor. Most weekends (40+ weekends every year), Pastor James MacDonald preaches live on the two largest campuses (Rolling Meadows and Elgin) with large screen video of that message (either streaming live or recorded on the same weekend) providing the sermon for all other campuses. Occasionally when Pastor James is on a break for study, rest, or outside ministry, HBC uses a combination of live or recorded messages by other HBC Pastors. Frequently, your own Campus Pastor will fill the pulpit in Pastor James’ absence.

23. Will Pastor James MacDonald be preaching in person at WBC?

As we explore the possibility of a merger, Pastor James MacDonald has been invited to preach live at WBC at our invitation, at least once and possibly twice in the next 4-5 weeks. In addition, Pastor Rick Donald will be a guest preacher on Sunday, February 27. Pastor Rick as been the Assistant Senior Pastor at Harvest for 22 years and the current plans have him becoming the Campus Pastor through the transition should this merger be successful.

I never realized that when the HBCD acquires a Chicago-area church, Brother James becomes the disembodied preacher.

And on the issue of how they would discern God's will for WBC

25. What are the Elders of WBC expecting of our membership in this process?
As in all matters of life and ministry, we expect the members of WBC to walk humbly with their God (James 4:6), as we together seek the Lord’s direction in this decision. Multiple opportunities for more information and discussion are coming in the next weeks – please participate in gathering information for an informed decision. In addition, each of the Elders is available to share their heart with you and answer questions you may have. In all of this, we will be a church family that honors the Lord. God’s Word warns against hasty and fleshly plans (Proverbs 21:31), so we need to seek Him in fervent prayer. God’s Word warns us of a real enemy who is a divisive liar (1 Peter 5:8-9; John 8:44). The Elders are determined that unity (Ephesians 4:1) and graciousness of speech (Ephesians 4:29) will characterize our public and private interaction during this process. Any speech which impugns someone’s character or calls their motives into question may result in the restriction of membership privileges in accordance with our bylaws. We are trusting God for a Christ-honoring process and a unified outcome and are excited to go forward together into whatever the Lord directs. [emphasis added]

Thus, A Couple of Questions:

First, assuming all of the above is accurate, as James MacDonald is a Calvinist, and God is sovereign – why would James be upset about a congregational vote not going his way? Twice? I thought James' affirmed that God is sovereign – from a Calvinist perspective, that is. (I'm Arminian in my theology, so my view of God's sovereignity is a little different.) If God wanted James et al to acquire WBC, wouldn't He have made it happen. Or do I still not understand Calvinists' view of God's Sovereignty? And isn't it remotely possible that God has other plans for WBC? Including simply shutting it down?

And secondly, if "biblical" is our criteria for assessment, just exactly how "biblical" is it to build a ministry around one man's preaching and have that one man appear via twinkling pixels before an enthralled (hopefully) audience on a Sunday morning.

To me this is simply another example of what might be called the Celebrity-Driven Church.

Over the course of the next few posts, I'd like to attempt to unpack this "satanic" aberration of church leadership. (And yes, "satanic" is hyperbole.)

Oh, and if the title concerns you, read this for its meaning.

UPDATE: Please read WTH's post on this James MacDonald story.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

22 responses to The Devil’s Advocate

  1. First of all, for all its worth, this Calvinist would rather hang around the Arminian of this blog than the Calvinist of whom he currently writes. Secondly, never think that being a Calvinist means that we are always consistent with it. Being a Calvinist doesn’t mean we surrender up our depravity, which is quite total. Thirdly, I’m not sure that James is a Calvinist when it comes to the extent of the atonement, but I could be wrong on that. Fourthly – how I hope his diatribe against congregational government was not sparked by his failure to capture another church. Fifthly and finally – I like your critique and even as a Calvinist there is much about what is coming out of the Reformed blogosphere that makes me weep.

  2. As usual, Ken says it well. I can’t improve on what he’s said.

  3. I didn’t even need to read all the links to have come to mind an intriguing option that is always open for unrequited leader candidates to follow. It comes from the example of what I experienced in the late 1970s.

    In the process of seeking to find a new pastor, the church I was in had one candidate who fell short by only one mere abstention vote of the two-thirds majority required by the church by-laws to be called as pastor. Because it was so very close, the deacons led the way to holding another ballot for him a month or so later, giving time for reconsideration, reflection, and prayer.

    The second vote took place during summer, when many people were on vacation, so the composition of voters was quite different. And yet, again, the ballot failed – by one measly little vote, again an abstention (but not even the same person as during the first ballot, who the second time voted “yea” to the candidate). So, the deacons were charged with leading the way to finding the next candidate for the pastorless congregation to consider.

    What a surprise came next month when the deacon board stood up to report on the pastoral search. They had called the twice-lost candidate as their pastor, told people who didn’t like that to leave, and confiscated all keys to the building. Overnight, they changed the locks, and put lockable chains across all entrances to the parking lot. And so, the pastor came in response to their call – – convinced as he was that it was God’s Will that he become the leader there. He came, he kicked out “the troublemaker” people, and he condescended to establish his rule.

    Ironically, the remaining flock was so caught up with his teaching of “Bible doctrine” that it failed to be very evangelistic or even hospitable to visitors, and so declined in membership and eventually failed financially. The “pastor” moved on to dollar-wise-greener pastures to pastor.

    So, back to the big picture: Those who wish to will always be able to find illicit, unethical, or even illegal means to take over the resources of a duly-constituted non-profit organization and use those resources for their own purposes.

    Of course, the law and the IRS may have a little something to say about such actions … and aren’t we Christians required to obey civil authorities? But then, if someone doesn’t want to have to deal with church by-laws and other such legally binding corporate charters for non-profits, well, then, okay. Get rid of your own 501(c)3 and have at it without the right to issue tax deductible receipts! But if you choose to bypass the morally, ethically, and legally binding current standards of a church, then don’t be surprised if you find neither politics or providence to be on your side.

    Just sayin’ …

  4. Imbi just read what you wrote, Ken. Her response, "Ken's great!" I concur.

  5. Thanks, Brad. An important story for this conversation.

  6. You’re welcome, Bill.

    Over the years, I’ve found that a church’s form of governance is an important issue to examine closely for discerning the presence of toxicity, or tendencies in that direction of spiritual abuse. In thinking about it some more, the two key points of the situation are these:

    1. No matter what form of governance a church has, if the organization is also constituted as a non-profit entity, then there is more involved than just biblical standards about congregational life and leadership. There are additional legal/civic layers of accountability required in order to maintain the privilege of tax-exempt status. We are fallen beings who want our own way, so there will always be the temptation to mess with the process and call it providence. For instance: bypass the by-laws, quick-change the church constitution, ignore the IRS rules, fail to keep accurate minutes of decision-making meetings, set votes at times that will slant the results, silence those who have legitimate questions, etc. Regardless of how sincere, such actions to give our own perspective the pre-eminence are, frankly, anti-biblical and an indicator of someone being unqualified for leadership through immaturity, if not disqualified for leadership through being self-willed. (At least, that all seems akin to what John, the Apostle of Love, bluntly states about Diotrephes in 3 John.) As I have watched a number of church leaders attempt to slither around legal requirements or biblical standards in order to get their way, I have consistently seen how the resulting snakeskin that they shed and leave behind inevitably leads to exposure and consequences. “Some men’s sins are evident, those of others follow after,” but sooner or later, such indiscretions will find their way into the light.

    2. Anytime we confuse who the church is there to serve, we have a major problem. When those who should be serving end up helping themselves to the resources of the legal entity they are either members or leaders of, they set up themselves and the organization for Big Trouble. This is true whether in a “flat” or congregational form of governance where voters become the rulers, or in some type of hierarchical form where a CEO leader and/or elder/deacon board become overlords.

  7. No system of governance is perfect. And any system can work, given a heavy dose of humility. And within the biblical “mandates” to appoint elders there is a lot of flexibility.

    Over the years I’ve grown in my appreciation of a system that puts a lot of direct responsibility in the hands of the congregation. The assumption is that God is at work in the whole of the congregation — and not just a few. Even if things don’t run as smoothly in congregationalism as they might in a highly centralized system, God is at work and the end game is not necessarily smoothness and efficiency.

    Highly directive leadership is desirable — if the building is on fire. In all other situations leadership which focuses on enabling and empowering others, not just for task, but also for ownership, is more in line with a church where the priesthood sets collectively with the entirety of all believers.

  8. Boneheaded blog posts are from Satan.

  9. In my best Joe Pesci voice, "you talkin' to me." 🙂

  10. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Challies found my responses helpful. (Big chuckle).

  11. Brad,
    When I say that I am most comfortable with episcopal church governance – that is only in the sadly fairy tale world where we've been properly discipled – from the bishop/elder through the newest believer (who is in process along with the rest of us). Which is why I would echo:

    leadership which focuses on enabling and empowering others, not just for task, but also for ownership, is more in line with a church where the priesthood sets collectively with the entirety of all believers

  12. You know … honestly, voting isn’t really all that “biblical.” It’s just not. It’s an effective and efficient tool for making group decisions. But it should not be confused or conflated with “hearing from God” on any specific issue and it bugs the snot out of me when people say that a vote result is the equivalent of God speaking to some issue before a congregation. The plain facts presented in scripture are that God speaks amongst the least of those in a group, those who are the least likely to be listened to (David, Ruth, Esther, Paul, Moses, etc.) but you never hear of (say) the Israelites taking a vote in the desert and that being the venue through which God speaks to them. No! When they take a vote in the desert they do incredibly stupid things like build a golden calf or try to store a week’s worth of manna. So voting as a method of discerning direction for a church is just a way for leadership to validate decisions they have already made.

    OTOH … the problem with these huge churches is that there has to be some way for people to be heard. Well … actually I think the huge churches are from Satan, but that’s straying from the purpose of this post. So I’ll stop there …

  13. I don't really disagree with you – which is why I added my preferred governance (in a perfectly discipled world – which I know is a fairy tale) would be episcopal. And you know where I stand on your last thoughts. 🙂

  14. Nope.

  15. I find it very, very intriguing that when you mentioned a list of those “least likely to be listened to,” basically all of them would qualify as individuals who are bicultural. In modernist terms, David for shifting socio-economic classes, Ruth for emigrating, Esther for being from a minority religious group, Paul for being an ultra-conservative Jew + Roman citizen + from a gentile country, and Moses for shifting socio-economic/vocational classes. Hmmm … is there a pattern worth digging into more? Are bicultural people whose lives predispose them to listen more carefully in between their multiple groups of origin in the earthly realm also providentially equip them to better listen and discern God’s leading from the heavenly realm?

    P.S. Methinks you must be bicultural, Ms. Sonja …

  16. Kinnon
    I would be curious to hear your comments on abuse of church discipline

  17. Mike Charters June 13, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    O.k., let me see if I’ve got this thing figured out:

    1. You’re not too fond of James MacDonald.
    2. You don’t like churches that are too big.
    3. Calvinism is lame
    4. A church governed by a plurality of elders is not a great model.

    I’ll leave the Calvinism one alone … but wondering if the other three play into your wariness for an elder governed church … or maybe James MacDonald’s church in particular.

    I Don’t really know MacDonald but you seem to have a better knowledge of his character … so I’m wondering if it is guys like him who make you uneasy with not allowing a congregation to yell at him during a church business meeting. Or is it the size of his church … would love to hear what your ideal sized church would be. Do you feel that a church of that size is just too big for there to be true discipleship, care, teaching, etc.? And is it his celebrity status among certain Christian circles that make this church government uncomfortable for you? While I agree that Americas whole infatuation with celebrity pastors is weird and not very healthy I do think we need to be careful about who we aim our little holy gun at … is it the pastor or people that build them into celebrities? What about celebrity bloggers? 🙂

    Anyway … just trying to figure out if it’s a thing about MacDonald or big churches or is it an whole church thing for you?


  18. I too think that an episcopacy is desirable (if for no other reason than the symbolic unity). But I don’t see that as necessarily being in conflict with a strong congregational voice. They feed each other. And not all forms of episcopacy are bishop centered. Bishops in the Moravian church are more like respected spiritual advisers than policy makers.

    In the Evangelical Covenant Church we call our bishops “superintendents.” But their power and influence, again, is more informal than formal. We also have a modified Presbyterian system for the Ministerium. And locally, each congregation is organizationally autonomous — although we tend to be highly connected to each other through the Ministerium and through other missional channels. Policy is not dictated from the top down. But the role of leadership is to draw people at all levels in the system into the process.

  19. Bill:
    You seem like a pretty funny guy and I like that. You also seem pretty comfortable with overstatement etc. to make your points, I like that too. Yes I can be bombastic at times, does that make me the kettle or the pot? 🙂 My son pointed out your blog to me, Apparently he left a comment and has been following you with appreciation for some time – blog and twitter.

    My post had nothing to do with WBC and we surely do trust the Lord in the outcome. There was much division in the church but hardly a word against Harvest’s willingness to help when invited. Though we have six campuses only one is a former church that joined with us. We frequently have churches coming to us in their struggle to survive, direct them elsewhere and move on. We have never approached one ourselves, ever. 5000+ churches in North America close every year. I was in a meeting last week with a number of pastors in Chicago trying to discern how best to deal with this crisis in our own city. How do you believe this best handled?

    I grew up in a congregational church in London Ontario and my first two churches were congregational. My convictions against that model are not new or recently inflamed. We are working with another church right now on the same issue and learning how best to serve their need while allowing them freedom under whatever system of government they use to determine their own future.

    I appreciate celebrity bloggers, I realize you did not gain your level of influence without a lot of hard work and that your passion was probably content related with the greater influence you have coming as an unintended byproduct. I hope you steward your influence well and use it always for the benefit of Christ’s great kingdom. Please pray the same for me,

    James MacDonald

    PS feel free to email me if you want to talk more – maybe God in His sovereignty wants me to have an Arminian friend

  20. Quote from #25 regarding expectations from the WBC congregation: “Any speech which impugns someone’s character or calls their motives into question may result in the restriction of membership privileges in accordance with our bylaws.”

    By “membership privileges” I would think they mean “voting.” In other words, it would potentially be quite easy to remove a members voting ability if they’re too vocal about disagreement. That sounds like a really easy rule for leadership to abuse (and could potentially be used to raise the total YES vote to the necessary level.

  21. p.s. and did i mention that it was rumored later that on the night of the take-over, guns were present, “in case things got outta hand”? shockingly all too plausible.

  22. Highly directive leadership is desirable — if the building is on fire.




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