CHICAGO (RNS) — Harvest Bible Chapel, an influential Chicago-area megachurch, will drop a defamation lawsuit against two bloggers, their wives and a freelance reporter after a court ruled that documents subpoenaed in the case could be made public.
The executive committee of elders at Harvest posted a statement on the church’s website after the court’s decision on Monday (Jan. 7), saying they do not want to “knowingly subject innocent people” to the subpoena process. The church will “receive these outcomes as God’s direction,” according to the announcement.
“With this decision, we can again focus our energies on continued growth in personal and organizational faults we have owned, enduring what is false, and striving to mitigate the damage such attacks bring to our church family and friends,” it said.
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Harvest — a church of 12,000 attendees across seven locations in and around Chicago — filed the suit in October against Ryan Mahoney, a former teacher at the church-affiliated Harvest Christian Academy, and Scott Bryant, a former church member. The two have written critically about Harvest founding pastor James MacDonald on their blog, The Elephant’s Debt, a play on the name of MacDonald’s controversial theology conference, The Elephant Room.
The suit also named Julie Roys, who at the time was working on an investigative article about the church for World Magazine. The article, published last month in the evangelical magazine as “Hard Times at Harvest,” alleged financial mismanagement and a culture of intimidation and little accountability for leadership at the church.
MacDonald claimed the defendants had “harmed our ministry through their careless campaign to discredit,” driving more than 2,000 people to leave the church, according to a letter posted on the Harvest website.
Such lawsuits brought by churches against their critics are rare, according to Frank Sommerville, a Texas lawyer who assists churches in preventing litigation but never has worked with Harvest.
That’s “primarily because of just what’s happened here — you bring more attention to the critics, you bring more attention to the reporter’s story than if you had just responded with, ‘We deny everything,’ and just going on,” he said. “The litigation process escalates the dispute to a whole new level.”
By not providing the documents necessary to prove the bloggers’ and reporter’s stories false, the church is “basically conceding” that they’re accurate, Sommerville said.
The Elephant’s Debt posted an update after the court’s ruling on Monday, along with a GIF of a baby elephant gleefully swinging its trunk.
Roys responded with a tweet linking to Harvest’s announcement, calling the lawsuit “shameful” and adding, “Strange. I thought they had nothing to hide.”
In a written statement shared with Religion News Service, Roys pointed out she had not yet published anything about the church at the time it filed its lawsuit against her. She simply had contacted Harvest for a response to the allegations made by former elders and staff.
“It seems Harvest’s decision to drop the suit was motivated by a desire to suppress the truth and maintain its secrets,” she said.
Roys called on MacDonald and Harvest to apologize and reimburse defendants for their legal fees — and on every church leader who was part of “this unbiblical lawsuit” to resign.
Bryant and Mahoney also posted an open letter Tuesday to MacDonald and Harvest on their website, asking them to pay for legal fees and other bills pertaining to this suit. The bloggers called on MacDonald and Harvest to publicly apologize for including the two men’s wives, Sarah Bryant and Melinda Mahoney, in the suit, and they said the church should apologize for lying to Harvest members.
“As you, James, have so often taught in the past, resolution and reconciliation means far more than merely offering words,” they wrote. “It requires concrete acts of repentance that demonstrate the fruit of the spirit and the sincerity of the words beings offered.”