Some Thoughts in Response to Harvest Bible Chapel’s Defamation Lawsuit

On Monday night, I reported that Harvest Bible Chapel dropped their defamation suit against The Elephant’s Debt bloggers, their wives, and Julie Roys. As a part of discovery in the suit, Roys filed an extensive request for documents. As those documents were supplied to Roys, she published some of the internal communications on her blog. In turn, that action led HBC to ask the court to prevent Roys from making the material public. On Monday, the court declined to issue a stay on such information. Later that night the church signaled an intent to drop the suit.

According to a statement released by HBC, the church wanted to spare the privacy of people who might be named in emails and texts subpoenaed by Roys. I am sure that is true. In addition, I suspect there are aspects of the church’s functioning and information about various church leaders that the church wanted to keep private. I say that because the church now keeps some such information secret. For instance, information about executive compensation and housing and other financial transactions are guarded secrets. There also appears to be an attempt to manage the reputation of leadership.

Even though I support the journalists (I consider bloggers citizen journalists) in this case, I must add that I only do so because I don’t see any indication of bad faith. Some of what was written may indeed turn out to be off or incomplete, but it appears to me that those involved have tried to get the story right. I do not support people who speculate or make false allegations and claim freedom of speech as a protection from scrutiny.

I have written things that turned out to be incorrect but not because I intended to. When reporting about organizations which deliberately spread disinformation or attempt to mislead, it is hard to separate truth from a lie. At times, I have gone with incomplete information because a source didn’t have all the information. In those times, the remedy is to correct as quickly as possible and apologize.

In the suit brought by Harvest, a sign of what appeared to be an intent to harass was the inclusion of the bloggers’ wives as defendants. Harvest never addressed this. I specifically asked the church why they did this and the church spokesperson simply referred me to James MacDonald’s prior statements. Nothing in those statements dealt with a reason to sue the wives of the bloggers.

Given the fragile legal and theological foundations of the suit and the heavy handed means of pursuing it, I think HBC’s leaders have a responsibility to correct themselves. I believe they should pay the legal expenses of the defendants and issue a public apology. The very public retreat from what HBC leaders told the public God was leading them to do is a rebuke to their leadership. First, they said God was directing them to sue. Now they say God is directing them to drop the suit. A reasonable question for members is: Do these leaders have the ability to know what God is directing the church to do?

Recently, when Willow Creek Church found itself in a leadership crisis over the mishandling of Bill Hybels, the entire leadership team resigned. While the church isn’t out of the woods yet, this action helped to reassure wavering members that the church might be able to survive. It was a brave, selfless, and bold move. Harvest Bible Chapel finds itself in a similar crisis of leadership. What will the leaders of the church do?

A factor which might separate the two Chicago area churches is member sentiment. At Willow Creek, there was and is a significant number of members who demanded change. I am not aware of a significant number of current members who want change. If indeed most current members are happy with the situation, then probably nothing will happen. Indeed, it is a personal matter for members to decide.

In the current Harvest governance, there really isn’t a way for members to have an impact on leadership. They don’t vote for elders and they can’t recall a pastor or staff member. They can stop giving or leave the church. By HBC’s admission, over 2000 members have left over the past several years. The leaders blamed that on the bloggers. Will the public retreat on the lawsuit change the focus? Will they now look inward?

Since there is no systematic means for members to have an influence on leadership at HBC, I suspect that those who are dissatisfied will continue to trickle away. Although a bold leadership move could probably prevent that, it is probably as it should be. No doubt there are many small struggling churches which could use some new members.

Ultimately, it would be wonderful if the HBC board and senior pastor repent of their actions in this lawsuit, make restitution to the defendants, and at least consider a sabbatical from leadership to determine why they thought they should pursue such an extreme public action. Trust in Christian leaders is at a low right now and it would nice to get some good news for a change.

Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts in Response to Harvest Bible Chapel’s Defamation Lawsuit”

  1. Since there is no systematic means for members to have an influence on leadership at HBC, I suspect that those who are dissatisfied will continue to trickle away. Although a bold leadership move could probably prevent that, it is probably as it should be. No doubt there are many small struggling churches which could use some new members.

    In an ideal world this is what the result would be. However after living through the Mars Hill collapse, my admittedly anecdotal experience was that a large percentage of those who left the church also left the faith, at least in any active sense. To the best of my knowledge, no megachurch took the Mars Hill mantle/membership, and local churches aren’t doing any better than they were when Mars Hill was here. Those people are just gone.

    I don’t have a problem with people questioning their faith or moving into a more passive form of faith. I’ve done the latter myself at various times in my life. But I am troubled when it occurs due to the actions of fellow Christians and their leaders, rather than through personal soul searching.

  2. A very fair assessment of the situation, Warren. As someone who is well-acquainted with the strengths and better aspects of church life at Harvest, I personally appreciate that.

    My wife and I asked ourselves hypothetically many years ago, long before the current troubles, if we would remain at Harvest if James MacDonald moved to another church or retired. Our answer was yes, because we had a church family of pastors and 50 or 60 friends via our geographically adjacent small groups, and that was what made Harvest our church home. Had we determined that we were only at Harvest to benefit from Pastor James’ sermons, we would have left, because that’s not what church is about. Harvest is packed with some of the best Christians I know. People who will drop everything to do almost anything for the person who is experiencing difficulty, regardless of who they are.

    I was told by a friend who directed traffic at Harvest that people would pull up to the entrance, ask if James was preaching, and then immediately leave if the answer was “no”. There are those people, too. Still, when I see comments on “discerment” blogs, apparently approved by the blog owners, referring to “Satan MacDonald”, etc., I don’t think that’s helpful or right. It sends a chill down my spine. I’d never say that about anyone.

    1. That’s a difficult position to be in… because while you remain in the congregation because of your social network, you are supporting sinful and unrepentant leadership. You collectively tell leadership that what they’re doing is acceptable to you. I don’t find anything in Scripture that requires believers to submit themselves to unqualified pastor/elders. Follow a Matthew 18 path if feel you must, but there will either be repentance, reconciliation, leading to restoration, or they must be treated as an unbeliever. Would you sit under the teaching of an unbeliever?

      Jesus periodically asks His disciples, “will you follow a man, a movement, or Me?” Sometimes that requires leaving. That is never easy. I know that from first-hand experience.

      1. I no longer go there. My wife and I relocated to another state a few years ago. I do think that we can be too hasty to jump ship when churches are in crisis, which IMO is a result of being spoiled by the number of available churches.

        I actually have been involved in confronting leadership that has gone off the rails. It is no fun, but I definitely agree about the necessity.

    2. Well, I guess when Jesus called the religious leaders of His day things like “Vipers” or “Sons of the Devil” that in your book is neither helpful or right? To me it is obvious that this guy is a narcissistic jerk. People like this are worse than Judas. Judas had a conscience after stabbing Jesus in the back. Guys like this are just playing people like you for fools and laughing all the way to the bank inside his multi-million dollar mansion. Jesus is who He is and He says what He has said. Too many have decided to remake Jesus into their our own image. To some the image is much meaner than the real thing and to others He is imagined to be much nicer than the real thing. We are going to be shocked when He returns because He isn’t always what we want Him to be. He is coming back with a sword, but few really believe that in my observation.

      1. Look, you could be right. I know that. But I have learned (the hard way) over time to attempt to be cautious about how I judge and criticize people. Jesus was God. I’m not. I’m the tax collector beating his chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That doesn’t mean I have no discernment or never take action, or that I am not conflicted about the same things others see. I get really mad about these things, just like anyone else.

        From the time we first arrived at Harvest, the story we heard over and over from people who started with the church and grew with the church was that James MacDonald was a big personality and a handful, but growing and becoming more and more gracious and low key over time. We heard that from everyone from congregants who played basketball with him when the church was small to current pastors and elders. We had no reason to think otherwise, so when he got uppity and then had to apologize the next week, it seemed to fit. When the Stowells all left, it seemed odd, but I thought, “There is no way Joe Stowell would say absolutely nothing if there are any serious issues.”

        The new mansion came after our time there. The MacDonalds were “downsizing” when we left, a development that we welcomed at the time and took as a good sign. Before that they owned a pretty great house, but in a housing market where my own tiny bungalow on a postage stamp lot sold for $400,000, a million dollar house is not that amazing. Having a pastor who is making a lot of money is something I was always considering and thinking through. I never really resolved it, but here are some things I looked at:

        – Before we gave any money, I asked for a church budget. I did some research and observed that the church expenditures for salaries and other expenses were on par with if not lower than typical church budgets. Actually, the church seemed pretty lean and mean, and did not waste money on some of the traditional trappings of “normal” churches.

        – As the church multiplied campuses, which were growing, one had to consider the costs of staffing each campus with a teaching pastor capable of accomplishing the same thing. With a handful of campuses that adds up. Those kinds of business-like considerations open up all types of other things to wrestle with, all of which are a process if you are encountering them for the first time.

        – If I felt some objection about the church being too big or something, I felt I needed to be able to articulate what that meant. What is too big? Why? What am I seeing that I don’t like? What is this church doing better than small churches I have attended? What were some of the weaknesses of a small church that this model addresses?

        – Some think Harvest was a cult of personality. We didn’t see that, and when we did it was discouraged. What I saw were a lot of people who were used to having one overworked pastor who had better be at the hospital when they were having surgery (or else incur the wrath of the “best givers” in the church) learning how to do mutual ministry instead of being served. There was a LOT of very good fruit in our immediate community of believers.

        I know that people love the narrative that it takes “courage” to call out misbehavior/sin/etc. in leadership. Well, if you are a victim, it takes courage. If you are subordinate to or vulnerable to that leadership, it takes courage. But if you are not? It often doesn’t require any courage, just a big mouth. It’s entertainment for a lot of people, I suspect.

        1. I guess Jesus and John the Baptist both had big mouths then? I have publicly spoken out against KP Yohannan using my own name and I am on his donors list. He is a billionaire con-man and when things go south he might come looking for revenge. John the Baptist got beheaded for speaking out. Jesus got crucified. You still need to apply more logic and think through what you say before you say it…

  3. The first comment under Julie Roys’ reaction blog post is heartbreaking. A current Harvest employee see it all. It’s becoming a running joke of who can preach the most hypocritical sermon… and “so far Luke is winning” (James’ son). I get the feeling that lower levels of leadership see it as well and it’s just the executive pastors and elders that keep their heels dug in. But because of their governance structure, nothing will move unless that group repents, or lots of people leave and take their $$ with them.

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