Is Pastor James MacDonald Seeking to Suppress Negative Information About Himself and Harvest Bible Chapel?
James MacDonald, and the church he pastors – Harvest Bible Chapel – are no strangers to controversy. MacDonald has been the subject of considerable criticism from former leaders in his church for a wide variety of misdeeds, some of which he has admitted were wrong, and either apologized for or changed his behavior. The criticisms, which include but are not limited to gambling, financial mismanagement and an excessive salary and lifestyle by MacDonald were carefully catalogued, and can still be found, on a website named The Elephant’s Debt, a blog run by former members of Harvest Bible Chapel which began operations in 2012. The specific stated intent of the blog is to make a public case leading to the removal of Pastor MacDonald from his leadership of Harvest Bible Chapel. Other ministries related to MacDonald, including the “Walk in the Word” radio program and the recently disbanded Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF), a church planting network that planted over 150 churches in the past 15 years, may also be familiar to donors. MacDonald resigned as president of the HBF in June of 2017, and many of the churches have since renamed their congregations, presumably as a means of distancing their churches from their past relationship with MacDonald.
In a rather remarkable and strange twist to a largely dormant situation – the Elephant’s Debt blog has actually not posted a new article critical of MacDonald since December 2017 – MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel recently launched a defamation lawsuit against Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant (including their wives as well), the former members of Harvest Bible Chapel who run the Elephant’s Debt blog. The lawsuit also names ex-Moody Radio host Julie Roys, whose involvement in this situation will be discussed further below and is likely the key reason for MacDonald taking this court action at this time. The lawsuit states Harvest Bible Chapel, as a church, must rely on donations which are threatened by the blog and by Ms. Roys. The lawsuit claims the accusations made by the authors of the blog are not merely an instance of unwanted free speech, but instead actions that “threaten Harvest’s ability to conduct the business of the church, and threaten its ability to raise funds necessary to conduct that business,” and therefore constitute trade libel.
While there are many aspects of this long-evolving situation involving multiple concerns about MacDonald’s behavior and his management of Harvest Bible Chapel and it related entities, MinistryWatch believes focusing on just three key aspects is the best approach at this time:
1.) The question of the merits of the lawsuit itself
2.) The question of whether it is appropriate for one Christian to sue another
3.) The question about the timing of the lawsuit, including suing Julie Roys, implies
Does the lawsuit have merit?
While MinistryWatch makes no claim to be legal experts, the lawsuit appears to be seriously misguided or perhaps is just frivolous in its intent. First, it makes a variety of claims that can only be described as ridiculous. For example, it appears to claim almost every statement on the Elephant’s Debt website is false, even those that MacDonald has already publically stated are true. It is hard to understand why MacDonald’s lawyer would embarrass himself in this manner by making such obviously false claims. Second, it is hard to believe any lawyer would think this lawsuit has any chance of success given the first amendment right to freedom of speech and the fact the lawsuit’s targets are not in business competition with MacDonald and therefore can’t personally benefit (and therefore commit trade libel) by pointing out MacDonald’s and Harvest Bible Chapel’s many flaws. Third, the lawyer hired by MacDonald to file the lawsuit apparently spends most of his time working on DUI cases. It gives the impression MacDonald went shopping for a lawyer to bring a dubious lawsuit, which had no chance of success, and had to search far and wide to find a lawyer who was even willing to both represent him and tie their own reputation to this questionable legal effort. Moreover, given the apparent legal weaknesses of this suit, it appears the real objective in bringing this suit may be to force the defendants to have to spend money on lawyers themselves and thereby threaten/silence them. Given the much greater financial resources Harvest Bible Chapel has relative to the defendants, it might be surmised the decision was made to file a legally suspect suit anyway because MacDonald’s significant monetary advantage versus the defendants might allow MacDonald to effectively achieve his objective of silencing his critics. Moreover, there is little chance MacDonald even would want to pursue a full blown court case as this would likely give the targets of his lawsuit the opportunity to obtain internal Harvest Bible Chapel documents that otherwise would not have to be made public. In light of this, donors to Harvest Bible Chapel, and any other related entities, such as Walk in the Word, which may be funding this lawsuit, have every reason to ask why the money they have given is being used to pursue such a suspicious lawsuit.
Is there a Biblical basis for MacDonald to be suing other Christians?
Additional controversy surrounding the lawsuit centers on the question of the appropriateness of Christians suing other Christians. In 1 Corinthians, Paul clearly sees it as a failure of Christian love: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6: 7-8). In an article in Christianity Today defending his decision, MacDonald noted the context of the passage applies to two church members in fellowship with one another rather than members of different communities and stressed that “allowing ‘yourself to be wronged’ is a greater wrong because of the many others that would be wronged,” claiming that not taking action would be a failure to protect his church. He also cited Romans 13 on the authority of governments as established by God to address wrongdoing. Given MacDonald’s poor track record, however, it is not easy for most observers to believe his interests are primarily rooted in protecting his church. Rather, the evidence we have at this time points rather convincingly towards a desire to suppress information which would harm his reputation and his ability to remain in total control of Harvest Bible Chapel.
Paul makes it very clear that Christians suing other Christians is always a tragedy to be lamented and avoided. Sin is typically at the root of the majority of such conflicts and Christians should do everything in their power to avoid resorting to legal action. What is yet not clear is what actions both sides have taken to avoid having the disagreements end up in court in the first place. The parties being sued are not responding to questions on the advice of their lawyers and Harvest Bible Chapel has not yet responded to our request for comment on this matter. While there is some evidence Harvest Bible Chapel made an attempt to meet with the defendants prior to the lawsuit, the time allotted for a response was extremely short and the threat of a lawsuit was clearly part of the offer. It is hard to view the timing and circumstances of this offer as being serious. On the other hand, there may have been other earlier attempts at reconciliation of which we are unaware.
Even if one believes MacDonald has a point in claiming lawsuits among Christians are permissible in certain cases, the fact remains little of the actual evidence seems to support his case in our view. Many of the controversies raised by the blog have turned out to have a factual basis, and over a dozen former leaders and pastors have signed their names to the site corroborating its claims — perhaps not in every minute detail, but certainly in broad strokes. For MacDonald to publish a public statement asking for prayers that “this blight on the body of Christ, fashioned in bitterness…be struck down by God’s established authority” is not a far cry from how he previously spoke very harshly about three elders who resigned and for which he later apologized. Paul’s concern in the 1 Corinthians passage MacDonald references is for Christians to not make a mockery of their faith in front of the world by showing off their own sinful divisions — it is hard to see how MacDonald is not guilty of this by how he is handling the whole situation, regardless if a lawsuit can be theoretically justified or not.
What does the timing of this lawsuit, and its inclusion of Julie Roys, imply?
Finally, the timing of the lawsuit is quite odd and raises suspicions about the motives behind it. The last post concerning MacDonald and HBC on Elephant’s Debt prior to the lawsuit was published in December of 2017, but the lawsuit was filed on October 17th of this year. The Elephant’s Debt actually began its criticism of MacDonald all the way back in 2012. The “campaign of harassment” the lawsuit is meant to address actually ceased long before the lawsuit itself so one cannot help but wonder what is really going on. The best explanation for the timing, without further evidence, seems to be a piece of investigative journalism regarding Macdonald and Harvest Bible Chapel that Julie Roys has been working on for World magazine. She expressed this sentiment in a Facebook post on October 24th:
“The most telling thing in the entire suit is the fact that it states I am working on an investigative story about James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel. I always knew I ran the risk of being sued for speaking the truth. But I always envisioned that it would be for something I actually published, not for something I merely indicated I was going to publish.”
It is unclear at this point what new ground Roys story will break but clearly, given what certainly appears to be a pre-emptive lawsuit meant to threaten and silence potential critics, MacDonald expects it to contain negative information about himself and Harvest Bible Chapel. Legal time frames suggest there may not be any new court proceedings until late in December or early next year, although many factors could impact that expectation. We suspect World Magazine will not be deterred in publishing Julie Roys story based on our own knowledge of World from when MinistryWatch’s founder wrote for the magazine many years ago.
For further information on this unusual situation, please read this story by the Religion News Service. It is also worth noting in Harvest Bible Chapel’s defense that it has already taken remedial steps to improve its financial transparency to donors in response to criticism from the Elephant’s Debt blog, including becoming accredited by the ECFA in late 2013 and posting audited financial statements, among other documents, on their website. While such steps do not give donors full transparency and accountability, they are nevertheless positive steps. On the other hand, MacDonald also brought his Walk in the Word ministry under the protective cover of Harvest Bible Chapel so that its finances would no longer be available to the public, thereby greatly reducing financial transparency and accountability to donors to this ministry.
We will continue to follow this story and report on it as new information becomes available, particularly should World Magazine publish the investigative report to be written by Julie Roys. We suspect this article may bring to light new information which will help donors understand why this oddly-timed, apparently weak lawsuit has been instigated by MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel. At this time, it is hard not to see the lawsuit as an effort to intimidate and financially harm the backers of The Elephant’s Debt blog and to delay or end Julie Roys’ investigative report. Accordingly, those who donate to Harvest Bible Chapel or Walk in the Word ministry should be alarmed by these developments and pay close attention to how this story develops in the weeks and months to come. MinistryWatch will be sure to keep you informed as new information becomes available.