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Church Culture Politics

Accusations Surround Elder Selection at McLean Bible Church

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Charges of voting fraud. Claims that a leader is too “woke” or “left.” Criticisms that opponents are practicing cancel culture. Debates about whether black lives matter, and how much.

Welcome to McLean Bible Church in the final rundown to Sunday’s surprisingly contentious vote on new elders.

McLean Bible Church is one of the largest and most influential churches in the nation.  Because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., many government officials, Capitol Hill staffers, and thought leaders are members.  Its pastor, David Platt, is a bestselling author and former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board.

But Platt has been there for only a few years.  In 2017 he succeeded a long-tenured and beloved pastor, Lon Solomon, who had been senior pastor since 1980 and had overseen growth from just a few hundred members to more than 12,000 members.

Platt is known for making changes wherever he goes.  His tenure as the leader of the International Missions Board was characterized by radical changes in the way the organization did its work around the world and here at home.  Platt has made changes at McLean Bible Church, and some members of the independent church also fear that the church’s ties to the Southern Baptist Convention have become too great.  Now some members see Sunday’s vote on elders as a final chance to reverse the changes Platt has introduced.  The vote takes on greater significance because an earlier vote held June 30 was disqualified due to voting irregularities.

One prominent critic publicly aired his many grievances.  Mark Gottlieb says he was an elder of the church from 1996 to 2020.   In a three-page post on Facebook, he said he was leaving the church.  He also wrote:

“Over the last several years, we’ve watched David take the church—the Church we built, the church we love, the church we have poured our hearts and souls and lives into—and turned it into a political, stripped-down version of what it used to be.  David is left of center—he’s taken our church down pad us we never anticipated. We have given it a good fight, but we have not been able to move MBC back a single step.”

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Gottlieb also claimed that “thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ have left our congregation…with over 100 writing letters to the Elders as they went.”

But a spokesperson at the church disputed that claim, saying, “in person attendance is down due to physical restrictions imposed by COVID, but our engagement through online views is increasing.” The spokesperson said she did not have access to membership numbers.

An FAQ page created to address the charges Gottlieb and other critics have made about the elder election shows how church governance can take on the feel of a secular political brawl.

Questions addressed include:

Was Lon Solomon pushed out of MBC in 2017?

What do MBC pastors preach about abortion and sexuality?

Why have MBC staff members signed non-disclosure agreements when they have left staff in the past?

What is the vision for MBC in the future?

Is MBC secretly a Southern Baptist church?

The church explained that McLean Bible Church began a Local church planting partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2016 at the instigation of Lon Solomon, but that partnership is now on hold.

Some of the answers address contentious racial issues:

Did David Platt and Mike Kelsey attend a Black Lives Matter march?

In June 2020, David and Mike joined many other church leaders and members from all around metro Washington, D.C., in an explicitly Christian march to pray for unity and healing in the midst of escalating racial tensions. Mike’s son held a poster saying, “Black Lives Matter to God,” as Mike and his dad (a longtime pastor in Washington, D.C.) led in prayer on the lawn in front of the Capitol. The gospel was proclaimed to the surrounding crowds, and people were invited to trust in Jesus.

Do McLean Bible Church pastors really espouse critical race theory?

We teach only what the Bible says about justice and race, including the development of a lengthy discipleship resource that is still in the “draft” stage and that has received more than 1,000 additions and suggestions from MBC members.  CRT is a buzzword today, often used as an accusation (like “woke”) to label someone in the body of Christ in a way that cuts off any further discussion.  We understand CRT to be a human (and therefore inherently flawed) effort towards understanding injustice. As followers of Jesus, we always want to listen to the concerns and observations of those around us, but we never want to elevate those concerns above our foundational belief in God’s Word. The Bible teaches that all expressions of racism are sin, displeasing to God, and incompatible with following Jesus, but we do not need a “theory” in order to communicate this truth.

Sunday’s second vote will, for the first time, require that ballots are signed with members’ names. That too, raised questions, which generated this response:

There is no way to determine if an actual ballot is from a member if we do not somehow preserve the record of who submitted the ballots themselves.  The elders have no desire to see how any individual may vote, and no members of the board did that last time with any of the provisional ballots that also included names.  We will, however, maintain a record of the ballots on July 18 – including the names of members – in the event that there are further questions about whether people are attempting to vote even if they are not active members of MBC.

Some at the church are undoubtedly asking, Why are we voting again?

But the church’s answer may not satisfy everyone: “We are voting again so that the entire body of MBC has an opportunity to speak into this critical moment in the life of our church.”

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.