Dear Church Family,
What an incredible Sunday, by God’s grace! We don’t know the final numbers, but as of Sunday afternoon, we know that over 1750 children in poverty will be receiving food, medical care, education, and most importantly the gospel in 27 countries around the world through your response to God’s Word. In addition, we were able to give tens of thousands of dollars to help people in need across our city through ministry partnerships we have across all of our locations. Only heaven will be able to measure the fruit of your faith at work this last week!
This is what we meant in our last update to you when we said that we are genuinely in awe of all that God is doing by His Spirit among us. And, as one more evidence of God’s grace to celebrate during these days, the six people who sued our church in 2022 have voluntarily and officially dismissed their lawsuit against the church. This is something we have been praying for continually over the last year, and we praise God for answering this prayer. The legal summary below contains information on the details of this lawsuit. Please continue to pray for reconciliation with the people who have sued our church as that is our ultimate desire in Christ.
God has been so faithful through some challenging years as a church family, and He has now positioned us to move forward with fresh zeal into spreading the love of Jesus across our city and around the world. Let’s do so together in the days ahead, even as we love and care for one another amidst challenges in each of our lives and families, confident that God will be faithful to bring us through in greater ways that we could ever imagine.
Love in Christ,
In July 2021, a small group of six members and non-members of the church filed their first lawsuit against McLean Bible Church (MBC). Their original suit sought a legal order to nullify our previous elder election.
Over the next year, congregational decisions at MBC were held under the continual threat of additional court hearings to stop our church from congregational votes, including attempts to stop any new members from joining. Thankfully, those additional requests for injunctions or hearings to stop our church voting processes were denied by the court. Additional claims filed by this group were also dismissed.
This pattern of amended complaints and dismissals continued into the spring of 2022, at which time we shared with you that our church simply cannot continue in this way. To help us move forward as a church, our elders proposed a Plan for Lawsuit Resolution, which entailed holding a new elder election.
When that Plan was adopted by our church membership, the three elders who had been affirmed in 2021 resigned in accordance with the Plan. These men then stood for re-election using remedies requested by the plaintiffs, including anonymous ballots and the ability for reinstatement of plaintiffs or related members who wished to vote.
We then held a vote on our elders. In a monumental step toward church unity, these three men were affirmed by our church family by an even larger percentage than in 2021. We then filed a motion with the court in June 2022 to dismiss the entire lawsuit, and the court agreed and entered an order dismissing the case. We prayed and genuinely hoped that the actions of our church and this decision of the court would finally bring an end to this pattern of lawsuits by a small group of people.
However, the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit appealed the court’s dismissal. Then, just a few months after this lawsuit was dismissed, six additional people associated with the original plaintiffs – again, both members and non-members – filed a completely different lawsuit alleging that MBC had become a Southern Baptist church years ago in violation of our church’s constitution. As a result, over the past year our church has been defending multiple lawsuits at the same time in both trial courts and on appeal.
By God’s grace, our progress in these lawsuits over the past year has been favorable. The appeals court affirmed in part the dismissal of the original lawsuit, but did allow the plaintiffs to continue alleging certain new claims if they chose. The second “SBC” lawsuit has been pending for almost a year, but we are grateful to God to share some great news with you: the plaintiffs themselves voluntarily dismissed their entire lawsuit without prejudice earlier this month after the discovery process concluded.
As you may remember from one of our meetings as a church family over the past year, Chuck Hollingsworth, the Chairman of our Elders, shared two things in connection with the most recent “SBC” lawsuit:
After carrying out this process of learning about various facets of this partnership with the SBC, significant parts of which happened before any of us were elders, we want to share with you the following seven findings:
In 2016, amidst a nationwide initiative by the SBC to plant more churches, one of the pastors of MBC at that time, Dale Sutherland, sought out the leaders of this SBC church planting initiative because, in his opinion, they were doing the best work in the country in the area of church planting. A formal partnership to plant churches across the DMV was developed, including financial contributions from both MBC and the SBC and related SBC entities. Lon Solomon introduced the formal motion for this partnership to the elder board, and when it was approved, a new entity called New City Network (“NCN”) was launched to implement the new church planting partnership. This partnership also enabled MBC to work with Southern Baptist churches to train pastors and send missionaries around the world.
The new partnership between MBC and the SBC was addressed publicly by the church on a number of occasions, including by Lon Solomon (Senior Pastor at that time) in a sermon at the beginning of the partnership in 2016. In addition, New City Network church planters were regularly introduced to MBC on stage during worship gatherings and congregational meetings, and their core groups were presented for prayer before they were “launched out” across the city. Pictures of the New City Network church planters were displayed on the walls at MBC locations, and cards were handed out to MBC attenders with specific prayer requests from each church planter.
From 2017 until this SBC mission and church planting relationship ended in 2021, somewhere between 5-10 church planters were annually trained and launched through New City Network. Some of these churches have since closed in light of challenges from COVID and other difficulties that smaller congregations face, but a number of these plants still remain. In addition, missionaries were sent and supported by MBC for the spread of the gospel around the world. To this day, we celebrate all that God has done and is doing across the DMV as a result of dozens of church planters who were supported through MBC’s partnership with the SBC and multitudes of people who have heard the gospel around the world.
It has been difficult to trace all of the details regarding exactly how the partnership with the SBC was implemented, given that many of these events occurred seven years ago under an entirely different leadership team. We do not have a lot of records from leadership back in 2016, but we have reviewed hundreds of emails, church communications and other documents. Fortunately, we also still have access to financial records.
On the communication front, some of what was discovered was often less than clear and sometimes even contradictory. For example, our church’s constitution mandates that MBC “shall not become affiliated with a denomination, but shall instead remain independent for the promotion of the gospel.” While we can say with complete confidence that MBC never jeopardized the complete independence of our church, it is also clear that the word “affiliated” was used a number of different times with different meanings or understandings attached to that word.
In the SBC, for example, member churches are often called “cooperating” churches and non-member churches that partner with the SBC – like MBC did – are often called “affiliated” churches. In that sense, MBC leadership and the SBC itself sometimes referred to our church as an “affiliated” church of the SBC, while at other times MBC was referred to as a “cooperating” church.
As you can see in the documents linked below, there were similar references to other words with entirely different meanings used by leaders of the SBC, New City Network, and MBC leaders and MBC members throughout the existence of this missions and church planting partnership. One such example involves the use of the word “denomination” itself. Ashley Clayton, who was at the SBC Executive Committee during this entire period, has made clear as part of this lawsuit that the SBC is not a denomination that possesses any authority over a local church.
There were other confusing aspects to the implementation of this partnership as well. For example, churches who partner with the SBC normally implement that partnership through state conventions like the SBC of Virginia (SBC-V). We discovered an application for partnership on a state level with the SBC-V in 2017 as part of the implementation of this overall partnership with the SBC. While MBC then began giving to the SBC-V, in reality this was a normal extension of the national partnership with the SBC that had already begun in 2016.
These kinds of confusing practices are not ideal, which is one of the key reasons we want to share them with you in full transparency. However, despite the confusing and imprecise language used by all parties in the partnership, and despite some confusing practices in the actual implementation of this partnership, it is absolutely clear that the independent status of MBC was never in question. As a result, we can state with complete confidence that the church constitution was never violated.
After review of numerous financial transactions associated with this partnership, we are encouraged that no improper financial transactions were discovered either during annual external audits by an independent accounting firm or during the discovery process in the lawsuit. We can say, however, that the financial transactions for the church planting partnership were sometimes confusing.
For example, rather than giving directly to New City Network, MBC often gave to the SBC or to the SBC-V, and some of these funds were passed on to church plants or to New City Network by the SBC, while other funds went to support missions and church planting more generally. In addition, the SBC would sometimes send funds through MBC to these church plants, rather than giving to the church plants directly.
Despite these complex arrangements, the financial contributions themselves were evidence of a working partnership. The financial cooperation highlighted both the commitment that MBC was making to missions and church planting through this partnership as well as the value the SBC was bringing to our church’s desire to reach people with the gospel.
We are grateful to God for all the fruit that He brought about in our city and around the world through this partnership. At the same time, our current elders came to the prayerful conclusion in 2021 that it would be best for our church to end this partnership and evaluate other partnerships for mission and church planting in the future. One of the more curious aspects of the SBC lawsuit is the fact that it was filed over a year after our current elders ended our church planting partnership with the SBC. You can see all of our previous communications to our church family about our church’s withdrawal from this partnership at our Elder Updates page, and we have also included specific links here to our communication about ending this partnership in the summer of 2021.
As set forth above, the plaintiffs have voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit without prejudice – called a “nonsuit” under Virginia law – after the discovery process concluded.
After exhaustive review, it is unquestionably clear that MBC did not give up any independence or cede any authority over our local church to the SBC or any other denomination. We at MBC remain committed to maintaining our autonomy and independence as a local body of believers according to our understanding of what the Bible teaches about the authority of the local church, and we are grateful that we are moving closer and closer to a day when these kinds of legal updates will no longer be necessary.
Even as we share what we have learned about the prior SBC partnership in detail, we also want to affirm that we remain committed to exploring and cultivating biblical partnership with other Christians, churches, and groups of churches in a spirit of Christian love, generosity, and support much like we see described throughout the Bible (see Philippians 1:5; Acts 15:22-35; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7; and Romans 15:22-23 as examples). We are now aware of the various facets of this partnership with the SBC that were confusing and/or unhelpful for our church family, and we want to apply what we have learned so that we might partner with churches and church organizations for missions and church planting in the future in ways that can be both fully understood and fully celebrated by our church family.
If you have any questions or concerns about any of the above, please feel free to reach out to leaders at your location to discuss them. All throughout this chapter of our church, we have sought to meet with members of the church personally to talk about these things. One small group has chosen instead to go to court rather than meet with us, and that decision has cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. Far more importantly, it has cost the reputation of Christ in the world around us (see 1 Corinthians 6:1-8).
Our church family recently affirmed a revised constitution that specifically outlines a process for dispute resolution in the future, and our elders and members are committed to carrying out that process with love and wisdom in the Spirit of Christ. We are deeply thankful to God for the news of this dismissal and for your faithful prayers for our church as we have walked through this together. We hope this update has been helpful, and we eagerly look forward to all that God desires to do in and through our church family in the days ahead.
Love in Christ,