(RNS) — Leaders of a prominent Washington, D.C.-area congregation hope to end an ongoing conflict by redoing a contested church election.
That election is the subject of a lawsuit pending in Virginia state court. Several current and former members claim McLean Bible Church leaders failed to follow the church’s constitution during an election for church elders in July 2021.
Church leaders have fought the lawsuit in court. Now they hope to render the suit moot.
“We have an opportunity to resolve conflict in our church biblically and peacefully and move forward together as a united church, bringing hope to our city and to the nations,” Pastor David Platt told church members in a video announcing the resolution plan.
The conflict over the McLean election is part culture war, part battle over bylaws, fueled by political polarization and the broader evangelical “woke wars,” combined with a recent pastoral transition and a global pandemic.
Last summer, McLean Bible held a routine church meeting to elect three new elders for the Northern Virginia congregation. Those elders needed at least 75% of the vote to be approved.
But the vote failed, a first in the church’s history.
The failed vote took place during a time of conflict at the church, with critics claiming Platt, a bestselling author, had replaced Bible teaching with Critical Race Theory and liberal social justice. Many church members had also taken to watching services online during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than attending in person — making it difficult to defuse tensions.
Platt blamed a conspiracy for the failed election.
“A small group of people, inside and outside this church, coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church,” he said in a sermon last year.
The elders were approved in a follow-up election, which was held under new rules. Those rules required church members to show identification and to fill out a ballot with their name on it. Some church members, who had been labeled as inactive, had to cast provisional ballots while their status was reviewed.
Under the resolution plan, which must be approved this week by the congregation, the church would redo last summer’s election, using secret ballots. A neutral observer would oversee the election and count the votes. All active members, including anyone who was a member at the beginning of the pandemic and claims to still be a member, would be allowed to vote.
If the elder election fails, the church has 90 days to select and approve replacement elders. If they are unable to do so, the church elders — including Platt — would face a vote of confidence.
The proposal to redo the election is not a settlement, Wade Burnett, a pastor at McLean, told Religion News Service. Instead, he described it as an effort to resolve the conflict internally, rather than relying on the courts to referee the dispute.
He said the proposal would give plaintiffs almost everything they have asked for.
“This remedy, if approved by the church, essentially renders the lawsuit moot,” he said in an email. “The plaintiffs will receive a revote with essentially all of the relief they are requesting from the court.”
One sticking point is over who can vote in the election.
Rick Boyer, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said his clients have rejected the church’s proposal and plan to go ahead with the lawsuit. The proposal has also been criticized in a Facebook group called “Save McLean Bible Church,” which has about 850 followers online.
Boyer, a conservative lawyer known for his support of “Vexit” — a plan for some Virginia communities to defect to West Virginia — said the church’s plan allows hundreds of new members, who joined McLean in the past year, to vote.
Instead, Boyer told RNS in an interview that plaintiffs want to exclude new members who joined the church after July 2021.
“You can’t come in after an election is over and bring in a whole bunch of people who have no right to vote in that election, then redo the election,” he said. “They’re inviting us into a rigged game and the whole reason we’re in court is because we’re trying to undo a rigged game.”
Burnett said several hundred people have joined the church in the past year and they would be able to vote in elections. He also said the church has hired an outside observer with no previous ties to the church to oversee the election if the proposal is approved by the congregation.
Burnett said church leaders believe they followed the church’s constitution during last year’s vote, but they are willing to redo the election to bring the conflict to an end. He said he and other McLean leaders are still open to meeting with the plaintiffs in order to resolve the dispute outside the courts.
He admitted there are risks in the proposal. Church members could reject the plan outright, or they could decide to vote in new leaders, rather than the present elders. The church’s constitution, he said, also sets a high bar for consensus — one that may be difficult to achieve.
“It’s hard to get 75% of people to agree on anything these days,” he said.
During a congregation meeting Wednesday (May 18), Burnett highlighted a passage from the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians, which criticizes early Christians who took each other to court. He called the legal conflict “a black eye for the bride of Christ and a mark against our testimony to the world around us.”
“The thing that I wish was different is that we could have talked together as brothers and sisters in Christ,” he told RNS. “I wish that would have been true before the lawsuit was filed, after the lawsuit was filed. I wish it was true today.”