Friday, October 26, 2018

statement from James MacDonald regarding the defamation suit-1 Cor 6 wasn't referring to churches but to individual believers so a church can file a defamation suit

One of the things mentioned in the statement is that HBC stopped having "elders for life" with a brief statement that such an approach to the elder board was found to be dysfunctional.

Since James MacDonald was at one point on the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability that governance had an arrangement in which participation on the board was to last until resignation or removal but without an actual clear term limit.  Another way to frame this is as a question, did the BoAA and/or executive elders at Mars Hill functionally have lifetime terms?  Clearly members of the BoAA could voluntarily resign and a couple of resignations were headlines in themselves in the news cycle chronicling the final years of Mars Hill.  Yet if based on Mars Hill bylaws the executive elders were drawn from a subset of the BoAA in general, which seems to have been contingent on what version of the Mars Hill bylaws and governing documents were in effect ...

had Macdonald and Harvest Bible Church leadership concluded that elders-for-life terms was dysfunctional did that practical wisdom play any role in advising Mars Hill on the BoAA?

That Macdonald was part of the Mars Hill BoAA was known.


Dr. Tripp joins the current Board members: Michael Van Skaik, Dr. James MacDonald, Dr. Larry Osborne, Mark Driscoll, Dave Bruskas, and Sutton Turner. This Board of Advisors and Accountability was voted upon and installed by an overwhelmingly supportive vote from the entire eldership, with every single elder who voted doing so in approval.

Yet Mars Hill announced its dissolution in 2014 and here we are in 2018 and there is still a Harvest Bible Chapel to take up a defamation suit against a group of people alleged to have set up a website.

One of the things MacDonald's statement mentions seems to have been The Elephant Room conversations, one of which was a conversation held with T. D. Jakes in which, as best I can recall, Jakes was declared to be trinitarian.  At the time it did not seem Jakes had really been all that clear as to being a trinitarian who repudiated modalism on one hand, nor on the other did it seem any of his word faith teaching got addressed.  Enough questions lingered as to the orthodoxy symbolized by the shaking of hands that there were debates and posts on the topic, none of which will be quoted here.  If you're not already familiar with all that material we'll just note it for historical purposes.  It's possible Jakes has cast off both modalism and word faith teaching but that's another topic.  It's germane to the history of Mars Hill in as much as MacDonald took on a role on the Board of Advisors and Accountability.  Between the Elephant Room meeting with Jakes and crashing the Strange Fire conference with Mark Driscoll a person could ask to what extent MacDonald helped to keep Mark Driscoll accountable to reconsider public actions and statements that might open him up to questions regarding doctrine or conduct. Being with Driscoll as he crashed the Strange Fire conference to promote his book A Call to Resurgence didn't seem all that prudent.  Wasn't that the book the discussion of which sparked a plagiarism controversy after Janet Mefferd interviewed Driscoll in 2013?  Not that I've got much affection for John Macarthur myself ...

I knew that MacDonald was going to have to address 1 Corinthians 6.

Since one of the most salient questions for those familiar with biblical literature is 1 Corinthians 6 on the issue of Christians taking other Christians to court, it's understandable that the recent statement eventually gets to the question as to how and why a church as a corporate entity can file a defamation suit when it might be expected that 1 Corinthians 6:4-6 could be invoked as a reason to not file a suit.

I always believed that 1 Corinthians 6:4-6 was an all-inclusive prohibition about Christians being in court together. But the text actually says “brother… against brother” — where allowing ourselves to be wronged solves the personal offense. Certainly, when the authority of the church is recognized by both parties, they must seek a resolution that is entirely handled inside the church. Yet if the matter is not personal but institutional, God’s ordained authority in the civil court system (Romans 13:1) can be accessed to rule on and potentially limit or eliminate illegal behavior. 

Again (I know this is new for some): When professing believers refuse, over and over, to act like believers — refuse even to meet after many appeals over many years — we can, and I believe must, turn our attention to the matter of protecting our church family and seeking the protection God has established as His provision.
now for those familiar with the history of the former Mars Hill Church and its aftermath there was a civil RICO suit that was dismissed without prejudice within the last few years.  The civil RICO was dismissed without prejudice back in 2016.

Now perhaps pastors and exegetes could weigh in on the matter of whether there is ... for want of a better way to put this, a corporate exemption in which churches are not under Paul's rebuke in the passage of 1 Corinthians 6:4-6.  While Paul could certainly be read as rebuking individuals who were, by implication, taking each other to court in the public sphere, could not the rebuke also be considered applicable to the church in Corinth as a body of believers?

there's a bod text header in the statement that indicates other ministries may follow suit, but can this be taken to mean other churches will choose to file defamation suits and if so against ... whom?

We have carefully reviewed the Scriptures related to the purpose of human government and the church. We have contacted many influential pastors and biblical scholars, and received near unanimous confirmation of our thinking. Now it’s time to step up and say “enough is enough,” employing less traditional but entirely biblical provisions from God.

I was not previously aware of a corporate exemption clause for 501(c)3 corporations registered as churches in interpreting and applying 1 Corinthians 6.

That could be a pioneering hermeneutical approach to 1 Corinthians I haven't heard of until just this week but I'm not a pastor so maybe there's something in the wealth of secondary literature commenting on the Pauline epistles I haven't had a chance to read yet that elucidates that interpretive approach.

Who are the influential pastors and biblical scholars who, in general, with no reference to Harvest Bible Chapel at all, counsel that it is consistent with the Bible for a church to file a defamation suit against individuals?  Given the frequency with which commenters on the internet can seem to invoke 1 Cor 6:4-6 as a "clobber" verse against any kind of church being embroiled in legal situations (if, perhaps, more commonly in some contexts to warn that individuals should not bring suits against people in leadership roles at churches) it's worth asking how and why a church as a literally corporate entity might be different enough from the locus of Paul's instructions to the church in Corinth as to not fall under the rebuke of 1 Corinthians 6.

Now it's not that a church can't file a defamation suit seeing as it's very obvious a church and/or its officers can file a defamation suit.  It's just that James MacDonald was on the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability and officers of Mars Hill ended up named as defendants in a dismissed civil RICO suit a couple of years back.  So in terms of questions relevant to men who served on the MH BoAA the question is no longer whether or not men who are on such boards can be involved in litigation.  If it's possible to be a plaintiff it's also possible to be a defendant and to go by statements by a one time MH BoAA member, there's reason to argue that invoking 1 Corinthians 6 to say that Christians shouldn't take legal action against other Christians can't be construed as categorical.  A church as a corporate entity can do so against individual Christians ... which would seem, in turn, to invite the consideration that individual Christians who believe officers of a church have been involved in wrongdoing could also resort to litigation, wouldn't it?

or would it?

It would seem like there would be a lot people wouldn't want to have to deal with just at the level of discovery, wouldn't there?

Now having done what some people call watchdog blogging I can appreciate some skepticism about what MacDonald described as hobby blogging.  A lot of people who blog about churches and church systems probably don't know what they're talking about.  Most hobby bloggers do not have journalism degrees, for instance. Most hobby bloggers have never thought about the relevance of theories of the press to what they are doing and why they do it.

I have written at moderate length about how one of the tensions pastors will have with bloggers probably stems from the likelihood that  a pastor who blogs is probably going to look askance on a hobby blogger in the way MacDonald comes across as doing because ... let me try to be careful about this because I realize it will be easy to misread the jargon--Christian celebrities who work in the Christian media industries as pastors or writers can sometimes seem to be advocating what is best described as an authoritarian theory of the press.  That shouldn't be thought of as authoritarian in pejorative terms, it means that there are people who believe that those with the training, resources and institutional vetting to use mass media should be the ones who use mass media and that other people without such training should have more limited (if any) access to the use of mass media.

By contrast, it would seem many bloggers who choose to write about churches are more sympathetic to the libertarian theory of the press.  A somewhat extreme way to describe this approach is to say it claims that you should be able to run with and print anything and everything because the truth will be vindicated and the most likely way for truth to be vindicated is to have no limits on the press excepting whatever modes of media use society considers too immoral to permit.

So when I've written in the past about how pastors and church media directors may default to an authoritarian theory of the press while bloggers may default to a libertarian theory of the press [section III in the link], the argument I was presenting was not so much to say either of those theories of the press are bad but that pastors and bloggers respectively should be mindful of these contrasting theories of the press as guiding their respective approaches to mass and social media use in the age of blogging.

But since James MacDonald described how he once had a top 10 Christian blog this question about theories of the press becomes germane because MacDonald doesn't have an explanation for why his blog was a top 10 Christian blog and that was good while hobby bloggers who focus on church histories are savage.  What's the difference between James MacDonald as a blogger and the somewhat abstract "hobby bloggers"?  It's probably not the "hobby" part.  MacDonald is not a professional blogger (there do seem to be professional bloggers) so that far it would seem that he is himself more likely to be described as a hobby blogger, unless he monetized his blog.  If MacDonald had a monetized blog even that would not make him a professional blogger since by profession he's a pastor, correct?  So at what point would the difference between MacDonald as a pastor and those he describes as "hobby bloggers" emerge?  If I must hazard an educated guess, that distinction has to do with institutional vetting and authority.

The difficulty that emerges from the general situation of this recent case is that institutional vetting in and of itself may not lend authority or credibility to the act of blogging by itself if there are those who have doubts about the legitimacy of the authority or credibility of the statements of a blogger, even if the blogger has some form of institutional vetting or a stamp of approval.  In the later years of what was once Mars Hill there were rumors to the effect that members and even some staff were consulting Warren Throckmorton's blog about what was going on inside Mars Hill, almost as though the information culture within Mars Hill was divided or silo-riven enough that people across campuses might not be able to find out what was going on across Mars Hill through The City because of ... perhaps the most delicate way to describe the situation was design features that meant people were not allowed to access things on The City apart from their campus affiliation at most levels.

So that's a lengthy way to describe what I hope is a relatively simple concept, that American Christian pastors and media figures may see their own blogging as a legitimate act even if it is a hobby because they blog as people vetted by institutions.  The institutional vetting is, for want of a better way to put this, an aura that sacralizes the blogging of the pastor blogger even if the blogging is no less a hobbyist activity than it would be for any other hobby blogger who is not an ordained minister.

So inasmuch as many pastors advocate an authoritarian view of the press as users of mass media in the United States whether they may formally recognize themselves doing this or not, whereas many hobby bloggers who take up what is colloquially known as watchblogging may explicitly or implicitly embrace the libertarian theory of the press, there are other theories of the press that can inform mass and social media use.  One of my concerns as a blogger has been that the act of blogging tends to get delimited in public debate and polemic to one of these two theories of the press in practical terms. Being more an advocate of what's been called the social responsibility theory of the press I differ with both theories.

Here I feel an obligation to digress on to a question of what defenses there may be against charges of defamation.  In an ideal world the absolute truth of what is reported is thought to be a defense.  It can also be said that if you have no malice in publication that is also a defense.  Well .... check the laws applicable in your state.  Do not assume that simply because what you report is true to the best of your knowledge and that you bear no ill will you're in the clear.  People may believe you bear all the ill will in the world.  This I was made acutely aware of over the years as I blogged about Mars Hill. I got some vitriolic comments not only from those who defended the Mars Hill leadership in the 2011-2013 period, I also got vitriol from people who were against Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill.

But let's get to the point about the "who" in who, what, when, where and why in journalism.  If you're writing about a limited public figure or a public figure or a private citizen the standards can be different as to what constitutes defensible speech.  If someone broaches topic X in mass media or social media for the public record you could address that person on topic X.  If you broach topic Y that the person has never broached and the person is a public figure you "may" be in the clear but if the person is a limited public figure then if the person has broached topic X in mass media but not Y then you may get yourself in trouble discussing topic Y.

If all that I've written in the previous paragraph seems pointlessly abstract that's the stuff that makes the difference between blogging about things in a way that serves the public and provides historical and journalistic information that the public can benefit from and ... or ... getting to be a defendant in a suit.  This seems abstract but it's not so abstract when complaints get filed.  It will be wise to get an understanding of what kind of person or institution you're writing about.  In the final year of Mars Hill one of the things Mark Driscoll shared in a video the following:
...They have that same freedom, and so, and so others are free to, to say things as well. And being a bit of a public figure I don't have the same, try to get this right, protection sometimes as a private citizen, because I've made myself a public figure. So that's just sort of a blessing and the complexity of the great opportunity that God has given me as a Bible teacher and a pastor, especially in an age of technology, which I praise God for. 

To translate that statement a bit, Driscoll said that because of the kind of public figure he had made himself he could not avail himself of the protections a private citizen could make use of owing to the nature of his public figure status.  That is, in its way, the clearest indicator that a private citizen could have had access to more protections than a public figure could, does, or would have with respect to things reported in the press or published in mass and social media.  But none of this should be construed to mean that there's no limit to what can be said about a public figure because the traditional understanding of a public figure tends to be about those in office as distinct from a limited public figure.  

In informal terms the reason it can be held that all bets are off on what you say about a full public figure or how you say things is because when the public figure is part of the government of the United States, for instance, freedom of speech entails giving people the freedom to say things that address what is at stake in civil society and government.  This gets back to what I was trying to describe earlier about how a person who is a public figure who has sounded off on topic X but not on topic Y has not become so full a public figure that the rest of the alphabet can be brought up, just those letters in the alphabet the limited public figure has made a point of addressing.  To see an example of how this can get defined in terms of Washington state you could go over here for a for instance.

There has been at least one watchdog bloggers who has, in a context, claimed that Wenatchee The Hatchet could or would get some legal action because, perhaps, the watchdog blogger had been subjected to a legal process.  Because standards vary from state to state I've tried to be careful to not discuss issues at the blog about Mars Hill that were not publicly addressed from the pulpit or mass media or in teaching events where hundreds and even thousands of people could consult the materials.  So if Mark Driscoll claimed Mars Hill's finances were transparent in 2008 from the pulpit that became a basis from which to keep asking how transparent the finances really were.  

Now I must admit I am not convinced that MacDonald and those people he consulted who believe there is some kind of corporate exemption clause that precludes churches from Paul's rebuke regarding litigation in 1 Corinthians 6 have made a case, let alone a compelling case.  But ... if theologians and pastors want to make a for and against case about if, how or why a church can file a defamation suit ... well ... that would seem like what blogs are for.  


We believe governmental authorities, whether criminal or civil, are His protection when those who oppose us are actually breaking the law (Romans 13:1-2).  In consultation with highly regarded Christian leaders and students of Scripture, we received unqualified support for this difficult decision.

Excerpt from ESV Study Bible notes on 1 Corinthians 6:1-8: Although some have argued that Paul is prohibiting Christians from ever going to court against another Christian, Paul seems in these verses only to be addressing disputes related to property or money (cf. v7 “why not rather be defrauded?”) — rather than criminal cases, which fall under the jurisdiction of the state. It is doubtful, therefore, that Paul’s intention is that this specific example should be applied to every situation, since not every situation today matches the circumstances of this specific case in Corinth, where the two parties are in the same local church, and where the dispute is specifically related to property or money. Whatever the circumstances, it is clear from Scripture that disputes between believers need to be handled with the utmost care in a wise and godly manner before the watching world, wherever possible under the disciplinary authority of the church, and with the counsel of spiritually mature Christians who have no stake in the matter and can give objective, biblical advice.

When recent efforts at private appeal again failed, we made the difficult decision to seek the legal protection afforded us by Scripture. We are fulfilling our responsibility to protect our church family from defamation and other illegalities by appealing to the authorities God has established for this purpose.

By entrusting “the punishment of wrong doers” to the authorities God has established (1 Peter 2:14; Romans 13:2) and the protection of the sheep to the Elders God has raised up to lead us at Harvest Bible Chapel (1 Peter 5:1-2), our church family can confidently stay focused on the unceasing priority of love for one another and our mission of making disciples for God’s glory. Click here for an article Pastor James has written on the subject.


the option of legal protection seems more afford by Cook county ... can't say that I'm thrilled by a conflation of biblical texts given for the instruction of Christians and the Church into legal options available to United States citizens.  There's wonderful things about both but ... at the risk of invoking the jargony term "sphere separation" ... overlap doesn't have to indicate equivalence.

1 comment:

Eric Rasmusen said...

See my essay on Christians and lawsuits and Grudem and James Macdonald at Warhorn: