The Washington-area megachurch led by best-selling author David Platt has affirmed three new elders—but only after a public tussle over politics, race, and alleged liberal drift, plus a lawsuit filed by dissenters.
The conflict at McLean Bible Church is significant not only because of the congregation’s size and influence—with several thousand attendees and a prominent place in the DC church landscape—but also because the incident marks the latest salvo in an ongoing clash within American evangelicalism.
After new elder nominees failed to be elected for the first time in the church’s history, Platt told the congregation in a sermon in early July that “a small group of people inside and outside this church coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church.”
At a June 30 meeting, nominees Chuck Hollingsworth, Jim Burris, and Ken Tucker had failed to receive a clear 75 percent majority, the margin required for elder election. The total was either just above or just below 75 percent, depending on whether provisional ballots were counted, so a second vote was held July 18, at which all three nominees received at least 78 percent of the vote.
The weeks between the two votes were tumultuous. Platt said in his July 4 sermon that people told voting members, in person and by email, that the elders up for nomination would have sold the church’s Tysons location to build a mosque, with proceeds going to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Online posts on blogs, Facebook, and email charged Platt with pushing critical race theory, revising biblical teaching on sexuality, and aligning with the SBC despite McLean’s constitutional prohibition of affiliating with any denomination.
Opponents of McLean’s current leadership wrote in a blog posted by the right-wing Capstone Report that Platt—who became pastor of the DC church full time in 2018—was attempting to “purge conservative members.”
Platt also described one email circulating that claimed “MBC is no longer McLean Bible Church, that it’s now Melanin Bible Church.”
“I know it’s so ugly and painful to even hear, but I want to point out the approach that’s being used by people giving leadership to this group in these meetings,” he told the congregation, calling the claims made about him and the incoming elders “unquestionably untrue and in many cases completely unreasonable.”
Platt, the author of Radical, is known for his passionate call to evangelism, missions, and Scripture. What opponents claim as being Platt’s “liberal” or “woke” politics, supporters see as the 42-year-old preacher’s commitment to Christ above all.
“We will not apologize for our increasing diversity or our commitment to humbly address racial issues from God’s Word as we unite together on a glorious mission to proclaim this good Word and our great God in a city where five million-plus men, women, boys, and girls are on a road that leads to an eternal hell and need the good news of God’s love for them,” he said.
While Platt raised concerns that the opposing group deceived members at the Tysons location into voting against the new elders, a lawsuit filed July 15 alleges that church leaders at McLean illegally barred some of their opponents from voting in the follow-up elder election. The suit is pending despite the announced vote outcome. “The heart of the complaint really comes down to truth, transparency, and a free, open, and uncoerced process,” plaintiff’s attorney Rick Boyer told RNS.
Sarah Merkle, an attorney and professional parliamentarian, said the incident highlights the importance in any church of establishing and following sound voting procedures. She added that she is not familiar with the specific policies and procedures at McLean.
“When you don’t follow the rules and it has an effect on a consequential vote, you have now created a huge distraction from your mission,” Merkle said. “If you’re the Red Cross, that’s problematic. If you’re the church of Jesus Christ, that’s really problematic.”
Church leaders say the current round of conflict predates Platt’s pastorate. He became a teaching pastor in 2017 and left the presidency of the SBC’s International Mission Board to dedicate his ministry to McLean the following year.
Under founding pastor Lon Solomon, McLean launched a church planting partnership with the SBC’s North American Mission Board in 2016 while remaining nondenominational. As Solomon transitioned from leadership following a 37-year pastorate, McLean made major budget changes, scaling back the percentage of income spent on personnel and incentivizing staff departures. Both moves raised questions for some members.
“Over the last several years, we’ve watched David take the church—the church we built, the church we love, the church we’ve poured are hearts and souls and lives into—and turned it into a political, stripped-down version of what it used to be,” wrote former elder Mark Gottlieb, who is encouraging members of a group called Save McLean Bible Church to “admit defeat and walk away” after the July 18 vote.
Under Solomon, the congregation had been known as “a holy destination for GOP senators and Bush aides.” Tensions ramped up the past two years amid political turmoil in the DC area and nationwide.
In June 2019, then-President Donald Trump showed up at a worship service and Platt prayed for him from the stage, an action that drew criticism from some in the church. A year later, Platt and African American McLean pastor Mike Kelsey participated in a Christian march following the death of George Floyd, which was construed by some as support for the Black Lives Matter organization. McLean stated in a Q&A on its website that Kelsey’s son held a poster that read, “Black Lives Matter to God.”
Platt’s 2020 book Before You Vote also drew criticism from some church members as being soft on traditional evangelical issues like abortion and sexuality.
Allegations that leaders were seeking to join the SBC in violation of the church’s constitution led McLean to suspend all contributions to SBC causes this month.
In its Q&A, McLean states that it is not Southern Baptist and links to an undated letter from SBC Executive Committee employee Ashley Clayton stating, “The SBC Executive Committee recognizes that McLean Bible Church is an independent, nondenominational Bible church, and they are not affiliated denominationally with the SBC.”
However, Baptist Press, the SBC’s news service, stated in a July 21 article, “McLean Bible Church is a cooperating church with the Southern Baptist Convention, yet like all Southern Baptist churches, remains independent and autonomous in its functionality and governance.”
To some observers, McLean’s conflict seems like a replay of other recent episodes from American evangelicalism, where leaders who appeal to Scripture to address social issues are accused of theological liberalism or secular influence even if they continue to hold traditional Christian views. The level of suspicion around such leaders appears to have grown during the Trump administration and during the reckoning over racism following George Floyd’s death last year.
College Park Church in Indianapolis was accused in a blog post this spring of caving to “ever-increasing social justice infiltration.” Dallas pastor Matt Chandler and former SBC president J. D. Greear both have been accused of being “woke,” and the SBC’s emerging Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) has charged some convention leaders with advocating critical race theory and downplaying the Bible’s sufficiency. CBN-backed candidate Mike Stone received 48 percent of the vote in last month’s SBC presidential election, finishing second to Alabama pastor Ed Litton.
Chuck Hannaford, a Memphis clinical psychologist who has helped churches mediate conflicts for 30 years, said McLean’s troubles are the latest iteration of a broader conflict between younger Reformed Christians and older generations of white evangelicals.
“There is some resistance from what some would consider the old guard in evangelical circles to younger guys” accused of being soft on doctrine in an effort to reach a more diverse audience, Hannaford said. Some older evangelicals “see it as sort of a coup.”
Meanwhile, leaders like Platt see the pushback as its own sort of coup and remain concerned about the influence of opposition fueled on social media and watchdog blogs.
“We want MBC to be a place where people with all kinds of convictions on matters of conscience can thrive,” the Q&A stated. “So wherever possible, we want to work together to move forward together on mission even with our different perspectives.”
Hannaford advises pastors not to make changes too quickly and recommends cooperation from both sides, allowing believers to differ on secondary doctrinal and ethical issues. He also warned against letting tensions swell.
“We have to address conflict intentionally” and “face to face,” Hannaford said. “Putting it off is only going to make it worse. It never goes away on its own.”
Back at McLean, Platt and his fellow elders are urging the church in that direction.
“We have walked through tumultuous days over the last year in the world, surfacing many challenges in our lives, families, our country, the world, and the church,” Platt told CT. “We all need God’s grace to love one another well and to live for the spread of his love in a world that desperately needs what only he can give. And as we walk faithfully with God during these days, keeping our eyes fixed on him, I trust that he will work all these things together for our good and ultimately his glory.”
David Roach is a reporter and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama.