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Harvest Bible Chapel sues bloggers for spreading ‘false information’

The Elephant’s Debt site, left, and the lawsuit brought by Harvest Bible Chapel, right. RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — For six years, two bloggers at a website called The Elephant’s Debt have raised questions about an influential evangelical pastor and his Chicago-area megachurch, criticizing his leadership style and the church’s finances.

Now, claiming that reputation-harming “false information” published by the bloggers caused 2,000 people to leave the congregation, pastor James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel are fighting back — with a defamation lawsuit.

The suit names the bloggers, their wives and a freelance reporter writing about the church for a major evangelical magazine.

“We are indeed living in an age of rage, fueled by ‘fake news’ where the presumption of innocence has almost universally given way to the presumption of guilt,” MacDonald wrote recently in explaining the lawsuit to the church’s friends, including its 12,000 attendees at seven locations in Illinois.

James MacDonald, founding and senior pastor, speaks at Harvest Bible Chapel. Video screenshot

“No more sitting by doing nothing while digital attackers ravage the body of Christ,” the pastor added later in the online statement. Through a public relations firm, MacDonald declined an interview request from Religion News Service.

In a number of posts over the years, bloggers Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant have cited what they characterize as the “low character,” “greed” and “love of money and power” of MacDonald, founding and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, which is based in Rolling Meadows, Ill. Mahoney is a former teacher at the church-affiliated Harvest Christian Academy. Bryant is a former Harvest Bible Chapel member.

The church disputes the way the bloggers have characterized MacDonald and their allegations about the church’s finances.  The lawsuit claims Mahoney left the church after his Harvest Christian Academy contract was not renewed because of his criticism of MacDonald’s sermons. Bryant, the lawsuit claims, left “after being declined a teaching opportunity he repeatedly pursued.”

Ryan Mahoney. Courtesy photo

Mahoney and Bryant declined an interview request from RNS, citing the advice of counsel. They have defended their blogging on their site.

“While the authors of this website would never have chosen to resolve our differences in a litigious manner,” Mahoney and Bryant said at The Elephant’s Debt after the lawsuit was filed, “we are confident that the legal process will ultimately uphold the values of the first amendment right to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, all of which are essential to safeguarding the values of the Protestant Reformation and our common life.”

The lawsuit, filed last month in the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, lists five defendants: Mahoney and Bryant, their wives and Julie Roys, an independent journalist and former talk show host for Moody Radio, a Christian network.

“These bloggers have First Amendment rights to criticize the church,” said Kenneth Pybus, a journalist and lawyer who teaches media law at Abilene Christian University in Texas and reviewed the lawsuit at the request of RNS. “They don’t have First Amendment rights to lie about the church and damage the church’s reputation.”

However, a doctrine in the law called “substantial truth” could give protection to a “technically false” statement — such as the amount of a church’s debt — “if the gist of the message, or the overall message, is still true,” Pybus said.

Roys is accused of conspiring with The Elephant’s Debt authors and “asserting false allegations” against the plaintiffs, who include MacDonald and other church leaders. Roys referred questions to her attorney, Charles Philbrick, who said she has no connection with The Elephant’s Debt and “categorically denies any wrongdoing.”

“As to Mrs. Roys, the complaint doesn’t actually explain or show what it is that she said that was supposedly untrue,” Philbrick said, noting that Roys’ personal blog makes no mention of MacDonald and contains only a positive reference to Harvest Bible Chapel in an interview of a worship leader.

Until the lawsuit was filed, The Elephant’s Debt — a blog name inspired by The Elephant Room, a controversial theological conference run by MacDonald — had not published a new post since December 2017.

Journalist Julie Roys. Courtesy photo

However, Roys has been working on an as-yet-unpublished investigative piece for World magazine, its editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, confirmed. That evangelical news magazine, published every other week, has roughly 65,000 paid subscribers.

“At World, we don’t talk publicly about specific investigative stories until they’re published, because we put them through intensive fact-checking and some fall by the wayside,” Olasky said in an email to RNS. “We’ve run close to 100 investigative stories over the years and have never been sued, through God’s grace, and we hope to maintain that record. Please pray for us.

“In general, with great numbers comes great responsibility,” he added. “We regularly get reports from readers about problems in local churches, but we only take a deep look into concerns at megachurches.”

The plaintiffs asked a judge for a restraining order to stop the defendants from publishing information about MacDonald and the church while the lawsuit moves forward.

“Defendants’ false and defamatory statements have a negative impact on Plaintiffs’ ability to convert new persons to the faith, maintain their congregation and raise the funds necessary to operate,” the petition claims.

The judge denied the request.

The lawsuit’s timing has sparked a slew of speculation among some of the defendants’ fellow Christian bloggers.

Warren Throckmorton is a psychology professor at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania. He often tackles religious issues on his personal blog and has referenced past controversies involving MacDonald.

“As a blogger, my feeling is that I check and double-check everything that I write, and I also contact the sources,” Throckmorton said. “I feel like that’s a good principle to follow.”

Throckmorton worries wealthy churches or ministries could use a lawsuit in an attempt to silence critics.

“Most bloggers don’t have deep pockets, so it can be a potent weapon,” he said of a potentially costly legal battle.

The Elephant’s Debt authors said in a blog post that they expect to incur “tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses and other costs” as a result of the Harvest Bible Chapel lawsuit. Their supporters have donated more than $7,500 so far to a GoFundMe page created to help with their legal costs.

Meanwhile, MacDonald reported that two elders — not church offerings — are covering Harvest Bible Chapel’s lawsuit expenses.

Mark Galli. Courtesy photo

For years, American evangelical pastors have looked to MacDonald “for inspiration for preaching and how to grow a church,” said Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine. “But he’s also been criticized for the way he has built his multisite network (and) for how his church has sometimes managed their finances and publicly disciplined elders.”

MacDonald rose to prominence in part because of his ties with The Gospel Coalition, an influential evangelical group. He eventually split from that group, Galli said, over what MacDonald called “methodological differences.”

“In short, MacDonald is a megachurch pastor with a national reputation among evangelicals for ministry innovation but also for sparking controversy,” Galli said. “He’s not a figure that can be easily ignored in our world.”

In 2014, Harvest Bible Chapel publicly apologized for harshly censuring three former elders who resigned the church board in protest of what they said was a “culture of fear and intimidation” and a lack of transparency among church leadership, according to a previous World report.

In 2013, the church became accredited with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, after questions were raised about Harvest’s finances.

Rusty Leonard, founder and CEO of the donor advocacy organization Ministry Watch, said becoming part of ECFA was a good move by Harvest.

Filing a lawsuit, Leonard said, was a “curious” move. He said the criticisms of MacDonald were an “old, old story.” He wonders if the church was worried that Roys discovered new information.

“Or maybe they’re just concerned that it’s going to be a rehash of old news that they don’t want to deal with anymore,” he said.

Before filing the lawsuit, church leaders sent emails to Roys and The Elephant’s Debt authors asking for private meetings to discuss the issues. Harvest Bible Chapel offered Roys “access to information that we cannot reveal publicly” that the church said “will prove satisfactory to a person seeking to maintain journalistic integrity.”

James MacDonald, top right, preaches at Harvest Bible Chapel. Video screenshot

“I received your letter and invitation for a private meeting,” Roys responded. “I am working on an investigative story about Harvest as you know. As is my professional practice, I will be reaching out to those named in the piece so they can offer their side of the story. Any conversations, though, will be recorded and will be on-the-record.”

MacDonald authored a guest column for Christianity Today last week making his case for “Why Suing is Sometimes the Biblical Choice.”  While the Apostle Paul warned Christians against suing one another, MacDonald wrote, in some cases, going to court is necessary to stop someone from harming a church.

“We have called on authorities, in this case, the court in Cook County, to look carefully at the actions of these bloggers and rule on whether their publications against our church for six years have broken multiple civil laws,” he wrote.

The pastor said the church remains open to meeting with the defendants in person and ending the legal case. If the bloggers simply sat down with church leaders, he said, “they would learn of the positive changes that initially came from their critical approach.”

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.

17 Comments

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  • If you take out a loan and give the lender a mortgage in return, you’re called a mortgagor. If you transfer title to a property through a deed you become the grantor. The party receiving a deed is the grantee.

    The suit does not reference mortgages and does not reference transfer of title to a property.

    It appears that Harvest Bible Chapel has five loans with the Evangelical Christian Credit Union. Security is not mentioned.

  • Thanks for the clarification and for pointing our that I used the wrong language! 🙂 I’ve edited my post. Let me know if it’s now correct.

  • Our judgment about this has to “depend” (of course) upon what was said by the bloggers, and how true or untrue it was. But, assuming the criticisms are in some kind of reasonable bounds, then we, the people, probably needed to hear then. In general, the damage done lately to America by all “mega-churches” taken as a whole is immense and incalculable. Tell me how many Trumpees each one has created in each congregation and I’ll tell you how many of them should be blogged out of existence.

    Am I prejudiced? Of course. But remember, I conditioned all of this on whether blogged criticisms in this case were blatantly untrue. If they were, well, no one should be doing that. On the other hand, the LAST legal precedent you need on earth is any kind of special legal protection for churches or religions or their reputations.

  • Here is some interesting information

    Harvest filed a lawsuit against the Evangelical Christian Credit Union weeks prior to the TED / Roys suit.

    Former Harvest Youth Pastor Paxton Singer was charged and arrested for sexual solicitation of a minor 1 day after the TED / Roys lawsuit was filed. The charges stem from events that took place while the pastor was on staff at Harvest.

    Questions

    Why has James failed to mention anything regarding the ECCU lawsuit as he has spoken out about biblical backing for lawsuits?

    When will the media connect the dots and question the timing of filing a lawsuit with a temporay restraining order a day before a sex abuse arrest hits the paper?

  • “If the bloggers simply sat down with church leaders, he (MacDonald) said, ‘they would learn of the positive changes that initially came from their critical approach.'” – said every abusive religious leader in the history of the world who believe he’s as worshipful and persuasive as all his yes-men tell him he is. People fear me!

  • Question? During the lawsuit will the defendants have access to MacDonald’s and the church’s financial and communication records? I would think those things would be important discovery items for the defendants to verify their innocence.

  • So we don’t forget MacDonald uses his power in influence to cover for abusive and unethical religious leaders:

    “MacDonald released a statement asserting that his resignation had nothing to do with the conflicts surrounding Driscoll.

    “I have great love and affection for Mars Hill Church and I want to make clear this change is not because I am unhappy with Mark’s response to board accountability. On the contrary, I have found him to be exemplary in his current readiness to live under the BOAA oversight. I am not resigning because I doubt Mark’s sincerity in any way. I believe in Mark Driscoll and his heart to leverage difficult lessons in service to Christ and his church in the years ahead. I am excited to continue to support that trajectory as Mark’s friend, as I focus my efforts on Harvest Bible Fellowship,” said MacDonald.” – from 8/4/14 Gospel Herald article.

  • There is the spiritual church, the body of Christ. There are different gatherings, which are also called churches. Too many of these physical gatherings have become businesses before servants, and the rhetoric of defense likes to blur the line between the spiritual church, the spiritual body of believers everywhere, physical gatherings, and physical gatherings that are more or less nothing but a business. There is a reason so many leaders cannot agree on simple biblical doctrines- most gatherings today only teach fragments of their bibles(ever, literally), never quite an entire book from beginning to end(literally ever). You can’t take any book out of the equation, which is why there is a strong migration toward gatherings that teach entire books beginning to end without endless commentary. If after decades of listening to what can be literally clocked as 99% commentary, whose words are then being spoken and lifted up in these gatherings? What spiritual right does a gathering have to call themselves a “church” if they have left the will and words of God? Are all self proclaimed “churches” really a church of Jesus Christ? Reading and studying prayerfully cannot be substituted for listening to endless commentary, which is then not God’s words but that of men. Semantics(like proper context of what is a “church”) and a genuine lack of biblical knowledge within the leadership and then congregations, is what is causing so many to leave and seek something real. The Lord does not dwell in temples made with hands, and there is no inherent fee for truth. If you aren’t being fed the bread of life, not just milk but meat, entire books beginning to end consistently, there is no shame in leaving any organization ever. It ought never be anything personal.

  • It’s not Biblical in any shape or form to also sue spouses of those you are grieved by. This is dirty pool. This must be a smoke screen to cover up the abuse charge and the additional lawsuit. Ironically this suit just proves the point of the Elephant Debt blog. James MacDonald is out of control with no real accountability.

  • MacDonald says he is the exception to the instructions in the bible.

    He’s not.

    He could have easily outlined every inaccuracy on the website. Refute publicly every inaccuracy. But, he and his puppets are suing their fellow Christians in a government courthouse.

  • I have opined that the lawsuit will require MacDonald and Harvest to open up records that maybe, in my opinion, they might not want people to see.

    In my opinion, if they are forced to disclose the amount of Jesus’ money going to MacDonald, and his wife and kids, every year, well, that might not be a good thing for Harvest.

  • I have opined that the lawsuit will require MacDonald and Harvest to open up records that maybe, in my opinion, they might not want people to see.

    In my opinion, if they are forced to disclose the amount of Jesus’ money going to MacDonald, and his wife and kids, every year, well, that might not be a good thing for Harvest, in my opinion.

  • I suppose the congregation isn’t allowed to ask those questions of the organization they’re donating to?

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