On Sunday, prominent pastor James MacDonald told his 13,000-member Harvest Bible Chapel congregation that he and his elder board were wrong for how they publicly disciplined three elders last year.
“For many months, we have labored under the awareness that our church discipline of a year ago was a failure in many respects, not the least of which was the complete lack of biblically required restorative component, which wronged the brothers that we were attempting to help,” MacDonald said in a videotaped message.
Harvest's elder board has now "lifted all discipline" from the former elders (Scott Phelps, Barry Slabaugh, and Daniel Marquardt), apologized to them, and been reconciled to them after “outside Christian leaders” recently brought everyone back to the table, MacDonald said.
"Although the remaining elders of Harvest agreed to the need for such discipline, we almost immediately realized that we erred in the manner in which it was done and in what it implied," said MacDonald. He noted, "We delayed making this confession, not wanting to worsen matters as we prayed for a true reconciliation. Praise God, that reconciliation happened meaningfully and mutually this week."
The elders were disciplined in September 2013 after speaking out against a “culture of fear and intimidation” and a lack of transparency in the church, including financial matters, according to a World magazine report last year. The Chicago-area church owes $56.8 million in construction costs.
The discipline was announced in a video last year that was shown on all seven of Harvest’s campuses and left online for two weeks. MacDonald said on Sunday, “It was seen by many thousands of people and damaged the reputations of these brothers. For this we are truly sorry.”
On last year's video, four elders called Phelps and Slabaugh to task, accusing them of seeking division and announcing they were no longer welcome at Harvest worship services.
“If these men would express even a fraction of the constant and ongoing grace and humility that we see so frequently in our pastor, they could move beyond their bitterness to healing,” elder Steve Huston said in last year's videotaped statement. “Their current refusal to do so is defiling many people, and that is a great sin.”
That Phelps and Slabaugh publicized their viewpoints after being rejected by the elder majority “is Satanic to the core and must be dealt with very directly,” Huston said last year. (Marquardt had already resigned from the elder board.) “We warn the people of Harvest Bible Chapel to separate themselves from these false messengers. … Please avoid these former Harvest elders at all costs lest you incur great detriment to your own soul.”
On Sunday, MacDonald apologized for the harsh language and urged his congregation to “accept these brothers as valued members of the body of Christ.”
“We made statements about their character and actions that were hurtful and proved to be untrue,” he said. “We repent of this and asked for their forgiveness.”
In summary, our discipline condemned them. We lost sight of the biblical priority of seeking a redemptive solution to our differences. In our recent meeting with them, it became apparent that we still have differences between us, but they met with us in good faith and seeking mutual understanding. They accepted our apologies and agreed to be at peace with us and with Harvest.
MacDonald also apologized to onlookers. “We also ask the forgiveness of the wider Christian community that has watched this painful episode unfold," he said Sunday. "As the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel, we’re committed to regaining your trust in all that we do and say.” He concluded, "With this action we consider this difficult chapter closed."
MacDonald recently resigned from the advisory board of Mars Hill Church, shortly before nine pastors asked Mark Driscoll to step aside and submit to elder authority. CT also noted MacDonald's resignation from The Gospel Coalition over “methodological differences.”