Day of Reckoning
Talk to Calvary Chapel pastors about their theology, and they appear the epitome of evangelical balance and moderation: neither Calvinist nor Arminian, neither Pentecostal nor cessationist.
Talk to Calvary Chapel pastors about their vibrant network of 1,300 churches across the U.S., however, and they'll offer two radically different views. Most will call Calvary Chapel a mighty and ongoing work of a faithful Godand they will be right. But the other view expresses deep worry that lax moral standards among some key leaders will sink Calvary's ship. As one pastor said to Christianity Today, "The Titanic has hit the iceberg. But the music is still playing."
Calvary Chapel continues to thrive, nationally and internationally, as it has for five decades. But alongside the growth lie the network's deep-rooted problems, which threaten to undo the association. The visible tip of the iceberg is contentious litigation. Chuck Smith, the founder of the movement, and his son are battling in court with a former Calvary Chapel pastor for control of the Calvary Satellite Network's extremely valuable 400 radio stations. The litigation involves competing allegations of financial mismanagement of the ministry's assets, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as the alleged personal use of ministry resources by insiders.
Below the waterline, the iceberg looks even more threatening. Leading pastors told CT that Calvary Chapel, and specifically Chuck Smith, are dangerously lax in maintaining standards for sexual morality among leaders.
"These men cannot call sin sin," says one 20-year veteran pastor. Easy forgiveness, insiders say, has created an atmosphere of sexual license, where some unethical pastors sense that there are few consequences for sexual misconduct.
Additionally, former members and some pastors say Calvary Chapel fosters an authoritarian culture, where pastors believe they are accountable only to God. It has enticed some leaders to become power hungry, avoid financial oversight, and, at times, become spiritually abusive, according to Calvary insiders.
For nearly a year, CT has spoken with Calvary Chapel pastors, former pastors, and others, some of whom sought out CT unsolicited to tell their stories. Many, fearing retribution, asked to remain anonymous. Other leaders whose names are well known within the Calvary Chapel network either declined to speak to CT or denied the existence of significant problems.
Pastors, former board members, and attendees who spoke with CT say the wellspring of Calvary Chapel's problems are in the Costa Mesa mother church. But those close to Chuck Smith would rather wait until his tenure has closed before addressing any problems.
At 79, there is no telling how much longer Smith will remain in control. Some leaders told CT that they worry the network can't wait for Smith to retire before addressing its problems and that changes should be initiated now.
The Calvary network is an affiliation of independent churches. Behavior in one church may not describe an affiliate ten miles away. While the incidents described in this article are limited to a few churches and ministries, they suggest that the movement as a whole has some crucial decisions to make as it transitions to the next generation of leaders.
Calvary Chapel began as a Bible study for shut-ins at a trailer park in Costa Mesa, California. The group struggled until 1965, when it hired Chuck Smith, a dynamic Bible teacher with a rousing tenor voice who pastored an independent church in Corona, some 30 miles away. For 17 years, Smith pastored churches in the charismatic Foursquare denomination, before becoming fed up with denominational politics and bureaucratic control.