Arguments over critical race theory have plunged David Platt’s McLean Bible Church into controversy. On June 30, the church voted on three new elder candidates. They had been vetted and presented to the congregation by the elders and according to church bylaws, they needed 75% approval to be confirmed. The church did not release the final tally, but the vote came up short. Platt believes the vote was sabotaged by non-members and outside activists. His opponents have filed a lawsuit saying the elders barred them from voting to secure the outcome.
McLean Bible Church is one of the most prominent evangelical churches in the D.C. area. After Lon Solomon became the senior pastor in 1980, the church grew to 10,000 members, including prominent politicians and members of the Bush administrations. Platt offered a new vision for the church when he became the senior pastor in 2019, but he’s faced stiff opposition during his tenure.
At the beginning of his sermon on July 4, David Platt spoke directly to the controversy, affirming the elder candidates and answering opposition. He also named and denounced some of the nasty and hateful things that had been circulating before the vote. Like many prominent pastors, Platt has been caught in the middle of divisive conversations about race. Some see him as too lenient, drifting liberal, or endorsing critical race theory. Others believe he isn’t progressive enough or does not spend enough time working for racial reconciliation.
The church held a second vote on July 18 and all three of the elder candidates received 78% approval or higher. The three men will now join the team of elders at the church.
Controversy has been building at McLean since Platt joined as a teaching pastor in 2017 and came on full-time to lead the church in 2018. When President Trump attended in 2019, Platt prayed for him on stage. This sparked a backlash among some in the congregation. Now, former elders claim that Platt is left-of-center, taking the church in the wrong direction, and running off long-time members. This has sparked a backlash from others in the congregation. Platt has been ambiguous about the church’s relation with the Southern Baptist Convention, maintaining their ties at first, but announcing July 4 that McLean is not a part of the SBC. Cue backlash from yet another group.
However these disputes are adjudicated at McLean, it’s heartbreaking to see a church so publicly embroiled in controversy. Our first reaction should be grief. The name-calling, backbiting, arguing, and dissension are exactly what Paul warned Timothy about in the first century and the lawsuit is particularly shameful. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” The divisive spirit of the age has infiltrated the church.
In another important development, Jason Meyer, John Piper’s successor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, resigned. This situation is even more convoluted than the one at McLean. Julie Roys reports that Meyer resigned over allegations of abusive leadership, an unfortunately common charge among mega-church pastors, but the rest of her report doesn’t follow from this explanation. The real issue at Bethlehem seems to be race.
While elders and staff members would not comment on the situation, Roys rests her reporting on the comments of two disaffected parties, Bryan Pickering and Kyle Howard. Pickering recently resigned as the pastor for care and counseling and Howard is a social media influencer who calls himself a “racial and spiritual trauma” counselor. When Pickering and others brought Howard in to do a full-day seminar on racial trauma, elders and staff members were split on how to respond. Meyer and four other pastors, who have all resigned, supported plans to gather all the minority members of the congregation and develop a “racial harmony task force,” commissioned by the elders. When the task force presented their report, the elders were not unified in their response, leading to four resignations, including Meyer’s most recently.
These disputes also highlight trouble on both sides of the CRT debate. On one side, rumors and fear-mongering have turned out to be both outlandish and unfounded. As Platt made clear in his sermon following the first election, there were no plans to sell the building to a Muslim organization or to begin teaching CRT. On the other, the lack of clarity surrounding racial reconciliation has whipped up frenzied paranoia and a lack of trust. Meyer and others at Bethlehem made an unwise choice in bringing Howard in to speak and they created a powerful group of people issuing demands that the elders were not prepared to navigate. In both cases, there are significant trust issues and significant failures in leadership.
At root, this is not just a CRT issue, a church governance issue, or a political issue, it is a holiness issue. Paul describes these situations in 1 Tim. 6:4-5; “He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” Paul then describes the antidote to stirring up trouble, “godliness with contentment is great gain.” We’d all do well to process church conflict through these two lenses: godliness and contentment.
First, church leaders need to be clear about what they believe and how their beliefs derive from Scripture. Because of widespread suspicions surrounding truth and authority, pastors have to double down on showing that their authority is borrowed. It does not come from tradition, popular demand, or the social sciences. It comes from the word of God. On the other hand, conspiracy theories and misinformation hold far too prominent a place in our culture (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Renewing our commitment to Scripture will help on both fronts. If a congregation agrees on that, controversies become far more navigable.
Second, we should recognize that division has become the norm. A little humility and a lot of perspective will go a long way to staying unified in the essentials and allowing differences of opinion to flourish. We’ve bought into the lie that unless you agree on everything you cannot agree on anything. Not every issue is a gospel issue. Not every disagreement needs to be posted on the Wittenberg door. True godliness produces unity.
The Bible is very clear that grumbling, quarreling, and divisiveness are sinful behaviors (1 Tim. 2:1, Phil. 2:14, 1 Pet. 4:9). These are not glamorous sins, but they must be put to death like everything else.
Third, there are leaders who need to own their role in creating environments of confusion, guilt, and favoritism. In an essay titled, “Pastors: What Happened to David Platt Could Happen to You,” Chris Martin blames internet influence; “But pastor are you aware that the people who bow their heads in prayer after your sermon bow their heads in devotion to all manner of foolishness on their screens the other six days of the week?” While trends on social media do influence each of us, this kind of condescension will only make the problem worse. Most of what happens on social media is driven by people who have no accountability to a specific congregation of people. Theology has to be worked out on a personal and relational level. Issues should derive from the life of the congregation not what’s trending among evangelical influencers.
Martin misses the second half of the problem entirely; pastors are influenced by social media too. I don’t think it’s just the people voting down elders at McLean Bible church we need to worry about. It’s important that we all remember what happens on Twitter and Facebook is a step removed from real life. Focusing on real people, faithful people sitting in the pews each week is the most important facet of church leadership. The world created by social media has convinced many people that racism and abusive leadership are lurking in every congregation. Sadly, that’s been true in too many congregations. But it isn’t true in every congregation. By obsessing over these topics, some of us are missing the pressing realities that demand our attention and care. Wise leaders deal with issues that arise within their own congregation, not just the ones that are popular right now on social media.
Finally, the church should look different from the world. Controversies reveal similarities and differences. In each of these situations, the church looks exactly like the world. Controversy over racial reconciliation, oppression and victimhood, and even voter ID in elections, have begun to consume the church. How are we supposed to point to our merciful, loving, and gracious heavenly Father when we look just like everyone else? Cheap grace has caught up to the church. If we say we follow Christ, our lives should look different. We should passionately contend for what is true, not fearing the consequences from the world, we should do so with love, patience, and grace, and we should keep the gospel at the center. What unites us at the foot of the cross is far more powerful than whatever ties we have to political and social groups, activist causes, and ungodly animosity.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.