NOTE: Thanks to Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant for this look at one of the prominent scandals in evangelicalism in recent days. James MacDonald graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1988, the same year I did. That year he founded Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, IL. He is also known from his radio and writing ministry, Walk in the Word. Harvest Bible Fellowship is his church planting ministry. MacDonald is part of the neo-reformed movement, and was a member of The Gospel Coalition, but he resigned in Jan. 2012 over controversy regarding his conference known as “The Elephant Room.”
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In October 2012, a new website entitled The Elephant’s Debt (TED) was released to the general public. This site, which was primarily focused upon issues related to money and power struggles at Harvest Bible Chapel (a megachurch located in the western suburbs of Chicago, Illinois), is authored by Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant, both of whom were former, long-term congregants within the Harvest system.
What you are about to read is a summary provided by these two men, attempting to assess the issues at Harvest within the context of a larger, evangelical crisis that is looming just over the horizon.
In the spring of 2010, we became aware of several character issues pertaining to our Senior Pastor, James MacDonald. While these issues were not yet significant enough (in our minds) to raise questions pertaining to MacDonald’s suitability to fulfill the role of elder within a local church, they were sufficient enough for us to remove our families from the church. To be clear, our initial concerns were primarily related to: (1) stories surrounding the way he treated staff members, (2) his shift towards eisegeting himself into the biblical text that he was preaching, and (3) what appeared to be a grab for power amidst a reorganization of the elder board structure.
The next step in our journey towards authoring The Elephant’s Debt arrived when MacDonald infamously mishandled a conversation with T.D. Jakes at the “Elephant Room 2” (ER2) in January 2012. In the aftermath of that theological debacle, we each wrote a blog post on our respective websites pertaining to the importance of Trinitarianism and the dangers of the Prosperity Gospel. More specifically, we talked about MacDonald’s mishandling of Jake’s modalistic responses at ER2 and MacDonald’s failure to even address the question of the Prosperity Gospel.
Interestingly enough, the response to these blog posts was enormous. As the comments continued to pour in, we both began to receive communication from former and current HBC insiders, suggesting that our concerns should run much, much deeper. And thus began our inquiry into this matter.
From February 2012 until October 2012, we conducted numerous interviews and acquired significant documentation pertaining to the growing problems at Harvest Bible Chapel. What was clear to us in those early days was that all the stories that we were hearing centered around a troubling and disqualifying lack of character in James MacDonald.
For those that have not read The Elephant’s Debt and are thus unaware of the circumstances surrounding Harvest Bible Chapel, please allow us to summarize in brief.
- At the time of publication, we informed our readers that HBC was approximately $65 million dollars in debt.
- Additionally, we reported that James MacDonald was earning in excess of $600,000 in annual compensation from the church and its related ministries. This figure did not include compensation received from other likely sources of income such as: book royalties, conference fees, etc.
- Thirdly, we reported that MacDonald had admitted to a group of Harvest Fellowship pastors that he operated in such a way that he retained 50% of the power within the church, leaving the remaining of power to be divided equally among the suddenly swollen elder board, which had grown from approximately eight men to over 30.
- We then discussed the recent $30 million dollar capital campaign in which MacDonald informed his congregation that he personally knew how much money God wanted them to sacrificially give to the campaign.
- Finally, to illustrate our point that we were not alone in our concerns pertaining to MacDonald, we listed a group of former elders and pastors, all of whom left the church for their own reasons and concerns regarding Harvest Bible Chapel and its direction.
As one might well imagine, following the publication of The Elephant’s Debt, Harvest could no longer ignore our concerns. Within a few short days, the elders of HBC released a statement in which they attempted to assuage the fears of their congregants.
However, as TED continued to publish updates, more information continued to surface; and new allegations of gambling were brought to the forefront. Since this issue was relevant to the subject of money, we choose to publish various comments that were left by numerous individuals in the know. These comments were ultimately verified by a close friend of MacDonald, who publicly acknowledged that MacDonald played poker in the basement of his Inverness mansion and in casinos. This admission by MacDonald’s friend was confirmed by MacDonald himself in a sermon entitled “My 5G.”
Throughout this season, four churches have seen fit to sever their ties with Harvest Bible Chapel, and a fifth has been thrown out of the Fellowship for their private communications with Harvest leadership pertaining to their concerns related to MacDonald and his handling of The Elephant Room 2 debacle.
It should be noted, at this juncture, that in the four months that have followed the publication of The Elephant’s Debt, the leadership of Harvest Bible Chapel has never challenged the underlying facts asserted by our website. Sadly, however, we did catch Lyn Donald, wife of the long-term Associate Pastor, and other HBC insiders peddling a lie in which they asserted that Joe Stowell had asked to have his name removed from The Elephant’s Debt, only to be rebuffed by these authors. One can only assume that they are using the name of the Stowell family and their public silence as a means of purposefully misleading congregants who have been disturbed by the evidence put forth by TED.
What is most disconcerting to us is not only the specifics of this local phenomena, but also how this situation highlights several broader problems within conservative evangelicalism at large.
To begin with, over the past two decades, the church has moved in a direction whereby entire bodies are being defined by the charismatic presence of their senior pastor. As has been discussed numerous times by Michael Spencer, the original Internet Monk, this model of the “pastorate” is a dangerous model that leaves the body unwittingly oriented around the worship of a rock-star mega-pastor. Moreover, there is a danger for the senior pastor who operates within this model to be overwhelmed in his character by the dark forces of ego and pride.
But the problems go deeper than the rise of the superstar pastor. In many cases, the churches that have been built around such a figure are often non-denominational in nature, which ultimately means that they answer to no earthly authority other than that which they have appointed to themselves. So in times of crisis and/or moral failure, as we have seen at Harvest, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and elsewhere, the congregation has no recourse to address its concerns if the self-appointed elder board is unwilling or unable to remove the senior pastor from leadership.
What’s more, when so much of the “Sunday Experience” and church culture is centered around this charismatic figurehead, constitutional church structures are no longer capable of limiting the power of the individual in question because the individual has effectually become “the church” for the majority of the congregants. This is why we see so many megachurch pastor salaries rising to unprecedented heights. When the pastor is the central draw for the church, and the church fears losing the congregation that comes almost exclusively for his or her teaching, they feel pressured to pay “competitive rates” so that other churches can’t come along and steal “the talent.”
One historic strength of evangelicalism has been its willingness to engage the culture for the sake of the Gospel. Indeed, its success in Gospel mission has come about through adopting cultural forms that make the Gospel palatable to the contemporary culture. Historically speaking, we see one significant example of this during the Second Great Awakening when Finney shed the doctrine of election in favor of preaching a message that appealed to experientialism and post-Enlightenment individualism. It wasn’t important whether or not you were elected by God. It was all about your choice to pursue a fire-insurance policy that gave you the afterlife you desired to secure for yourself.
Of course, the weakness in adopting this course of action is the ease with which contemporary cultural values become the values of the church. In the case of contemporary American evangelicalism, values stemming from capitalism have come to dominate evangelical thinking. For example, we think of church planters as entrepreneurs, senior pastors as free agent talent, church plants as franchises, sermons as intellectual property, and pastors as brands that can be marketed and exploited.
As Roger Olson has recently pointed out on his blog, evangelicalism as a movement, which began after WWII and continued through the 1970s, is deeply fractured, and perhaps even dead. There is a post-evangelical (left-leaning) wing, a conservative evangelical wing, and a moderate wing. The conservative wing has unwittingly wed itself to the cultural forms of Modernity and Americanism, and these forms within conservative evangelicalism have calcified as absolutes while the contemporary culture has moved on. This dynamic has left conservative evangelicalism with a decreased voice and influence in the contemporary culture, losing the very strength it once had, and it is suffering at the hands of the worst elements of the outmoded American cultural forms.
If there is not an awakening and reform within conservative evangelicalism, the last men standing will be the post-evangelical and moderate evangelical camps. The time is ripe for someone to write,“The Uneasy Conscience of a Conservative Evangelical.”