This post looks at the take aways of the issues from the latest scandal at Matt Chandler’s The Village Church. Matt Chandler’s The Village is alleged to have mishandled a child sex abuse situation with a pastor on staff who is accused of sexually preying on a minor. There are many lessons to consider from the scandal. That includes the issues of child sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, to problems with church discipline and membership covenants. Other questions raised include the culture of Acts 29 at ground zero thus spreading through the network to the problems with the celebrity pastor model and how the brand is to be protected is is more important than the safety of a child.
“Until someone is prepared to lay out the systemic problem, we will simply go through cycles of finding corruption, finding a scapegoat, eliminating the scapegoat, and relaxing until we find the next scandal. “
“When public men indulge themselves in abuse, when they deny others a fair trial, when they resort to innuendo and insinuation, to libel, scandal, and suspicion, then our democratic society is outraged, and democracy is baffled.”
J William Fulbright
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
Is what Matt Chandler taught in this February 17, 2019 sermon apply?
This blog has written quite a bit over the years about The Village Church. The newest scandal concerns the the former Associate Children’s Minister Matt Tonne. Matt has been charged by the Dallas County District Attorney for indecency with a minor. You can read the narrative in, “A Disturbing Story of Alleged Sexual Abuse in The Village Church Involving Former Associate Children’s Minister Matt Tonne. Plus how Matt Chandler Responded to Christi Bragg.” The New York Times did a deep dive into this situation at The Village Church. That article is linked into that prior post. When you look at the scandal there are a lot of issues that are raised. Many of those issues deal with the culture of The Village Church, evangelicalism, Neo-Calvinism and the Acts 29 movement. The goal of this post is to analyze the issues that can be learned from what has taken place with The Village Church. These are the take-aways from the scandal as I contemplate and look at what has occurred.
The Southern Baptist Convention has a Crisis with Child Sex Abuse
In February of 2018 the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News did an expose on the Southern Baptist Convention that was damning. If you recall in 2001 the Boston Globe broke the story of the pedophilia and child sex abuse crisis inside the Roman Catholic Church. That exposed an issue that the Roman Catholic church is dealing with deeply even today. The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News did the same thing for Protestantism, They exposed the child sex abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention. It turns out that the Protestants are no different than the Catholics when it comes to child sex abuse. In the Houston Chronicle story they documented how the Southern Baptists covered up the sexual abuse of 700 victims and how people would be moved around. You are caught sexually abusing a minor in Plano, Texas then you move to Des Moines, Iowa and and duplicate the criminal activity in another location. In the process the Southern Baptists neglect the victim and protect the predator. If you would like to read the Houston Chronicle story you can do so in, “Abuse of Faith: Investigation reveals 700 victims of Southern Baptist sexual abuse over 20 years.”
Recently 12,000 Baptist pastors descended on Birmingham, Alabama for their annual convention. The top issue at the meeting was the child sex abuse crisis that is ongoing inside the convention. You can read more about that topic here, here and here. The fact that The Village Church scandal broke on the eve of the meeting highlights and reinforces the claim that the Southern Baptists have a crisis with child sex abuse. From a small church to a mega church this is an issue plaguing the convention.
Matt Chandler Never Learned the Lessons from the Karen Hinkley Story of 2015
In 2015 The Village Church under Matt Chandler’s leadership attempted to practice church discipline on a female who annulled her marriage to her husband who was addicted to child pornography and sexually attracted to children. Karen Hinkley was a missionary in Asia when it was discovered her husband was addicted to child pornography and other disturbing issues came to light. The missionary agency removed them from Asia and they went back to their sponsoring church The Village Church. Karen, feeling deceived, pursued an annulment in her marriage against the leadership of The Village Church who told her that she had to submit to her “repentant” husband. Matt Chandler’s organization attempted to handle everything in house. When Karen annulled her marriage she faced shunning and though she moved from Dallas to North Carolina The Village Church pursued her in church discipline while attempting to enforcing their will. The issue blew up and attracted national attention. This blog covered the situation at the time and if you want to read the story you can do so in, ““The Explicit Gospel” at Matt Chandler’s “The Village” Includes Child Pornography, Church Discipline and Membership Covenants.” Matt Chandler eventually apologized and The Village Church backed down.
The lessons of abuse, church discipline, and membership covenants helped bring The Village Church to that point in 2015. In the current situation with Matt Tonne the same issues hang over The Village Church. I will get into those topic in some more detail below. But the mother of the sexual assault victim Christi Bragg feared church discipline. She was bound by a membership covenant as well. And against all that you had another sex crime, that of the alleged abuse by Matt Tonne. If Matt Chandler had learned from the 2015 situation they would have communicated many of these concerns up front. They would have relieved the worries of Christi Bragg and been in close communication and been proactive. This situation is hauntingly familiar to what occurred in 2015 in many ways and Matt Chandler never learned from his mistakes.
The Brand Must be Protected and is Worth More than a Child
This next point is a dark aspect of the story. The Village Church and Matt Chandler is about a brand. Matt Chandler is one of the most well known Neo-Calvinist pastors in the United States. He is popular on the speaking circuit where he often shares the stage with John Piper and Mark Dever. An example of this is T4G which Chandler speaks at regularly. Chandler has published at least 25 books. Think of all the fees and income that is generated from that kind of publishing. In writing this blog sometimes when I listen to podcasts or watch videos I can detect who is influenced by who. In some cases I have learned that some pastors have attempted to impersonate or copy Matt Chandler’s style. While that is idolatry it also shows what kind of brand he has created.
In this environment the image that is created must be protected and sold in order for money to be made. Matt Chandler’s brand must be protected at all costs. And that outweighs the need of a child – even when safety is involved. In this warped world all others things pale to the brand. The brand rises above all else and is essential to The Village Church. Through the time span of 2018 to 2019 the brand was being protected. The brand misled the audience and the community to sell the polished image. The brand was creative in what was said and how it was stated and did so to protect the image. Even when the situation blew up afterward Matt Chandler became defensive and worked hard – even at the SBC meeting n Alabama to protect the brand. The brand of The Village Church is crucial and key and that is what you are seeing in this situation.
Membership Covenants are to Control People at The Village Church
The Village Church is built around the membership covenant. What it actually does is create a caste system inside the organization. You have the covenant members and the non-members. And The Village Church will care more about the people in the covenant than those who are not. Just as India has had a caste system, The Village Church has created one as well. But in addition to that Matt Chandler has taught in the past that if you are not going to become a covenant member that he wants you to leave The Village Church. This places pressure on people to join and as such covenant members largely sign away many of their rights. They agree not to bring legal action against the organization. They also agree to submit to the leadership and follow their direction. This is where Karen Hinkley in 2015 ran afoul. She actually thought for herself. In evangelicalism finding individuals who can think for themselves and critically investigate what is being taught or pushed is quite rare. Don’t believe me? Just go to your local evangelical church and ask theological, doctrine, and church questions. Often you can get a blank stare in return. I recall one situation in a church where a person explained to me that while they were involved for 20 years or so, they knew the organization pushed complementarianism but he didn’t know what that was and didn’t want to learn about it. Perhaps for some people ignorance is indeed bliss. If you knew the facts then perhaps you would have to act on them.
Getting back to The Village Church the membership covenant is largely about controlling a person. Its done to protect the business and safeguard the financial income coming into the organization. Now here is the rich irony. In The Village Church you agree not to bring legal action and to seek out mediation. However The Village Church already has the upper hand as they have had the membership covenant drafted and vetted by lawyers who sign off on it. Its designed to protect the organization, reduce risk and control the masses. Membership covenants are not about glorifying God. They are about protecting the organization and reducing liability. However, many people are running afoul of them. At The Village Church Karen Hinkley ran afoul of it, and in 2019 so did Christi Bragg. This blog shared a story of another gentleman who struggled with a membership covenant as well. He described it as legalistic and it created challenges for him. You can read that story in, “Guest Post: No Man Can Serve Two Masters – Leaving Matt Chandler’s The Village Church and Finding Hope.” If you would like to see the membership covenants for The Village Church you can do so in, “Preserving Matt Chandler’s The Village Church’s Bylaws and Membership Covenants from 2009 and 2014 Respectively.”
Church Discipline is About Spiritual Abuse
The Village Church is known for being aggressive with church discipline. Now you would think church discipline would be used for the person who is having an affair, or choosing to end their marriage because the feel constrained or similar situations. That is not necessarily true as people can face church discipline for a number of reasons. What has led to church discipline in some of the stories I have read about and people have told me? Questioning the pastor or the leadership; Trying to leave your membership covenant; or you can run afoul of the system in some shape, manner or form. Forgot the thinking of church discipline. Many people enter into a system thinking it won’t happen to me. Then life can throw you a curve and shatter your world. Instead of grace the response by The Village Church will be legalism and control. Don’t for a second think , “This will never happen to me.” The reality is that life is hard and people can run into many instances of questionable church discipline. And if I might add this is the biggest hypocrisy of church discipline. Will Matt Chandler or Josh Patterson ever face church discipline? No…church discipline is designed for the people in the pews. Leadership will never face church discipline. Even Matt Tonne who left The Village Church for facing accusations of sexual abuse of a minor didn’t face church discipline. Yet Christi Bragg feared church discipline and finding herself in Karen Hinkley’s shoes. Church discipline will be applied unevenly.
There are Systemic Cultural Issues Inside Acts 29
Now here is another aspect to consider. These issues are happening at ground zero for the Acts 29 movement. And Acts 29 is planting, re-planting and creating new churches in the United States. According to my research there are at least 730 Acts 29 churches that exist. Let me illustrate with some examples of a number of Acts 29 churches in the United States. In Kansas City, Missouri area you have Redeemer Fellowship, while in Salt Lake City, Utah there exists Ekklesia. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania exists Epiphany Fellowship while in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has Imago Dei which is led by Pete Ziolkowski. The question needs to be asked, when one considers the issues occurring at The Village Church in Texas which is ground zero, can these same issues pop in other Acts 29 churches as a result of the culture that exists. It is the personal experience of this blog that yes, these issues re-occur. Many Acts 29 churches can be controlling, cult like and abusive. This is the result of systemic issues through out the network and how they were created. The DNA of Mark Driscoll is firmly implanted in the Acts 29 culture and is a legacy of the Mars Hill Seattle debacle. For those wondering, yes this is the same Mark Driscoll who taught that women are penis homes, and proclaimed that a repentant women gets down on her knees and performs a “Gospel Centered” blow job. You can listen to that questionable sermon in, “Reflecting on a Controversial Mark Driscoll Sermon About how a Repentant Woman Gets on Her Knees and Performs Oral Sex.” So if I were in an Acts 29 church and I am monitoring the issues occurring in The Village Church one should be deeply concerned about the direction of the network.
The Celebrity Pastor and Mega Church Model is not Sustainable
Another point to consider is that the celebrity pastor and the mega church model model can not be sustained. The mega church model has already been proven to be faulty. That has occurred through the scandals of Mars Hill Seattle, Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago and Fairfax Community Church in the Washington, D.C. area. The mega church model can not be managed and its easy for people to become abused in such a system. People become impersonal and numbers. The system shifts from knowing people to managing statistics and counting growth. The mission then becomes about growth, vision casting and more. None of this is healthy or solid. In the mega church model people fall through the cracks. That happened with the case of Christi Bragg. The Village Church became allegedly distant to her during a time of need when her daughter was the alleged victim of a sex crime. At a time when The Village Church should have engaged more, according to the narrative in the New York Times it did not
The mega church pastor model is also flawed. A few years back I explored the personalty cults of John Piper and C.J. Mahaney. You can read about that in “The Little Red Book…of John Piper?” In addition I also looked at the personality cult of James MacDonald in the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal. You can read about that in “The James MacDonald Cult of Personality and Why Harvest Bible Chapel Can Not be Reformed and Needs to Close.” Matt Chandler is very much a cult of personality. People will follow, obey and listen to him. For many people Matt Chandler is always right and he is never wrong. In a personality cult the leader is always correct and does not make mistakes. Challenging or questioning the personality cults gets people into question. Then, you add the dimension of church discipline and the tyranny of the personality cult is enforced. That is what happened at The Village Church in 2015 and that is what Christi Bragg feared in 2019. There is no way for a celebrity pastor to tend to a flock of 10,000 people in a church the size of The Village Church. Now The Village Church and their supporters will push back and claim that they have Shea Sumlin at Dallas Northway, Dave Bruskas at Fort Worth or Hunter Hall at the Plano location. But the fact of the matter is that people don’t attend The Village Church to hear Shea Sumlin, Dave Bruskas or Hunter Hall preach. They go to The Village Church because of Matt Chandler. Matt Chandler is the cult of personality and he is the draw.
The Neo-Calvinist Movement is Very Abusive
The Neo-Calvinist church model is deeply abusive. I learned this with my brush with a former Sovereign Grace/Acts 29 church in the Washington, D.C. area called Redeemer Arlington. You can read more about that in, “Unless You Experience Spiritual Abuse Then You Won’t Understand How Painful it is.” The Neo-Calvinist movement is very dogmatic and the scandals keep coming. 9 Marks authoritarian issues, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Harvest Bible Chapel, Mars Hill Seattle and more. The Neo-Calvinist movement is incapable of learning or listening. They will not take feedback from outsiders or more. And when you believe you have God on your side and preach an exclusive version of sovereignty why should you? This is why many Neo-Calvinist churches can be cult like and difficult.. The Neo-Calvinist movement is known for membership covenants, church discipline, and a fundamentalist view of scripture. John Calvin is also remembered for his order to have Michael Servetus burned at the stake for heresy. If possible, this blog has no doubt that people like Mark Driscoll or Mark Dever would not follow suit if the law did not prevent them. A system that can’t discuss abuse or own its history is one that is incapable of reform and change. These scandals are going to keep occurring because of the Neo-Calvinist culture. And to be clear there are other forms of spiritual abuse, even Arminian organizations such as Calvary Chapels bleed their issues as well.
Modern Evangelicalism is Not About God but Money
Another factor is that modern evangelicalism I would propose is not about God but instead money. Neo-Calvinism is a very lucrative profession. Get into a a position of leadership, attract a following and then have people buy your services and books. This is what happened with Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald and the likes of C.J. Mahaney. Its why they have to publish a book every other year or so to push their brand or why they want licensing rights. The bigger the church and the more well know the pastor the more this claim applies. The model is about grow, grow and expand. Church planting then becomes a business. Its really no different than franchising a business. Just as people franchise Chic Fil A, Pizza Hut, Five Guys or McDonalds, church planting came be done with the same intentions. In the process of planting the other focus then becomes on cannibalizing people from other churches. You don’t reach the unreached you steal people from other churches with flasher technology and a pastor who publishes and more. If organizations like The Village Church were about God they would do a serious gut check and ask are we doing this right? They would be reflective and ask hard questions. But none of that is what happened.
Evangelicals Don’t Apologize and Don’t Admit Error
There is one final point that for me is the nail in the coffin for many organizations caught up in scandal and its this claim. Evangelicals don’t believe in repentance, apologizing or seeking out forgiveness. You will seldom if ever see someone who claims to be in the Lord to say, “_________ I was wrong will you forgive me. Lets talk this over and let me hear about what I did wrong and how I hurt you. Then let’s work to make it right so that you can be healed.” The greatest aspect of the Gospel – grace, healing and forgiveness is lost because people wont own their mistakes. I learned this first hand from a former individual in a Sovereign Grace now Acts 29 church. While he said, “sorry…” he didn’t even come close to reversing the damage and harm that took place. A lot of situations can be healed and closed if proper forgiveness and reconciliation actually takes place. People who are hurt want to hear the person who wronged them to own their mistakes. Often they will forgive them and work with the person. But that is not what has happened. Since I mentioned Shea Sumlin earlier I will use an older sermon I analyzed that makes my point. At The Well in Fresno, California Shea was involved in leading that church before returning to The Village Church. One of Shea’s acquaintances gave a talk about repentance in January of 2019. I listened to it, and then wrote a response to the situation. You can read about it in, “Mike Slayden From The Well Community Church Fresno Preaches on Reconciliation. A Look at this Sermon.” You will seldom fins examples of forgiveness and reconciliation inside the evangelical Christian church. The best ones I have found are outside of it for the most part. There are a couple of exceptions but non-Christians in my view can do a better job of owning error and mistakes.
All of the above is what can be learned about the culture and policies of The Village Church. This scandal with Matt Tonne stands out as an ominous warning as to why The Village Church should be avoided.