Resignations, Turmoil, Continue at Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church
In 2012, members of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis were deciding who would succeed its famous pastor, John Piper.
Jason Meyer, a graduate of the church’s Bethlehem College and Seminary, was a leading choice, even though, as he later told Leadership Journal, the responsibility seemed too big to bear. “I’m scared. I don’t want this. I don’t want the pressure. I don’t want the comparison,” he said.
The congregation voted 784 to 4 to elect Meyer, and Piper stepped down as senior pastor one year later. Piper had served the church for three decades. He now serves as pastor emeritus of the church and chancellor of the college and seminary.
Meyer’s most recent title was pastor for preaching & vision at Bethlehem’s downtown campus.
Now, Meyer is part of a growing exodus of leaders and members leaving Bethlehem, a church with some 4,500 members on three campus which is seen as a flagship church in Converge, formerly the Baptist General Conference.
Meyer, resigned last week, even though his biography remains on the church’s website. He gave no public explanation for his departure, but an 1,800-word article by Julie Roys attributes the exodus to a church culture that one other departing pastor described as “domineering,” “bullying,” and responsible for other “damaging behavior.”
That pastor, Bryan Pickering, wrote a statement that was read to the congregation Sunday, July 11 stating, “I have seen several congregants (current and former), elders (current and former), and a former administrative assistant profoundly mistreated by elders in various ways. I have also seen leadership act in ways I would describe as domineering. I have also seen patterns of deception among our elders that are deeply concerning. I have tried on several occasions since early 2020 to speak up to others about these patterns of behavior. Increasingly in 2021, especially and intensely since March, I, too, have experienced what I would call bullying behavior. It is now clear to me that it is best for everyone for me to resign.
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Difficult period for historic church
“Celebrating God’s Grace for 150 Years” reads the logo atop Bethlehem’s home page. Founded in 1871 as the First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis, the church was a major congregation in the Swedish Baptist General Conference, which became the Baptist General Conference in 1945.
Piper arrived in 1980, and as his reputation grew, he founded Desiring God Ministries in 1994. Piper was a leader of the so-called New Calvinism. The church also operates Bethlehem College and Seminary.
Under Piper’s leadership, the church focused on its spiritual DNA, but that DNA has struggled to keep pace with social change, including the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.
Piper’s teaching on male headship in marriage and leadership in church, combined with his emphasis that divorce is never an option, even in cases of abuse, has proven difficult for some female members to accept.
In addition, there are signs the mostly white church has had difficulty adjusting to the diverse racial makeup of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020.
Bethlehem’s response to the killing and subsequent protests focused on providing groceries to residents to make up for the absence of grocery stores that either closed or were destroyed.
Ming-Jinn Tong, a neighborhood outreach pastor at Bethlehem’s downtown campus, was leading that effort. He is among the pastors who have since resigned.
In 2019, the church set up a Racial Harmony Task Force and hired an outside expert to explore race issues. An 85-page report was presented to the church’s 40-member elder council but was never shared with church members. Task force members say the church never took any action on the report’s findings, in part because some of the 36 white elders on the council complained it was too “Marxist” and “woke.” Now, some task force members are among those in the exodus from Bethlehem.
The outside expert told Roys that Bethlehem was a “white church within a Black space that doesn’t actually engage . . . or relate to the Black community.” He says he was later “disinvited” from a church event because he was “too controversial.”
Last fall, before Meyers resigned from the church, he resigned from his post as a trustee at Bethlehem College and Seminary, even though his church biography page says, “He is both a product of Bethlehem and clearly reflective of its ‘DNA’ in his convictions and activities.”
His departure came one day after Joe Rigney was hired as president of the school’s board of trustees. Roys said Rigney was affiliated with Douglas Wilson, the controversial conservative pastor and author who has said American slavery produced “genuine affection” between the races.
Other faculty members have also resigned from the college and seminary, including former philosophy professor Johnathon Bowers, who Tweeted last week, “Back in October, I resigned from a ten-year career teaching at Bethlehem College & Seminary because of the school’s toxic environment, particularly among the leadership. My family and I withdrew our membership from the church in December for the same reason.”
“It’s been a taxing year for everyone, and it’s been a taxing year for ministry,” said Dave Zuleger, Pastor for Preaching & Vision at Bethlehem’s south campus, in an open letter responding to Meyer’s resignation.
“This is another painful and confusing moment for us. It’s confusing and painful corporately because Jason took the mantle from Pastor John Piper and helped lead us to this point of campus-specific preaching. It feels jarring,” Zuleger continued.
In addition, Bethlehem has had to contend with Piper’s son Abraham, who left the evangelical fold and now critiques it on his popular TikTok account, which has nearly 1 million followers. “I berate evangelicalism. Fundamentalism. It’s a destructive, narrow-minded world-view,” Abraham Piper told The Times of London.
And another former Bethlehem member, Adam Evers, recently launched believr, an app designed to promote “belonging, connection and love” for LGBTQ+ Christians.