Though I will not be naming names in this article, I want you the reader to know that I am writing about true events that have taken place in the Salt Lake area over the past decade, the most recent part of the story in the past few months. I am writing this for three reasons: first, as a cautionary tale to pastors and churches. The events outlined in this article are wicked and un-Scriptural, but an example of what happens when self-interest drives the decision-making process of a church. Second, as a warning: if you know someone who has been contacted about taking a church in the Salt Lake Valley, you might want to make sure it doesn’t involve the people I am discussing in this article. Send me an email or a private message, or call my church to discuss it with me. I am not naming names here for the sake of innocent friends who have been affected by these things, to safeguard their identities. Should the need arise, I will not hesitate to name names in a future article. But for now, I will relate the events and leave the principal characters anonymous. If you are an Independent Baptist living in our area, you are no doubt familiar with the story. If you aren’t already familiar with these things, it won’t hurt you to know the history without knowing the details. Third, I write this as a rebuke: the men who have done this deserve to be rebuked and exposed. I am not sparing for their sake, but for the sake of others who would be affected should I expose the main characters. But also, a slew of pastors who have supported the main perpetrators of this ungodly act also deserve to be rebuked. And I rebuke them. That said, I will be relating here the history of two church splits, and then re-visiting a few of the points I have just made.
The story involves two churches and three pastors, and unless I give them each some name, the story will be hard to follow. For the sake of simplicity, we will name the two churches The Original Church and The Church Split. With that clarification, let me begin.
Transitions can be a messy affair for a church, and our sister church in Salt Lake City was no exception. After forty years of pastoring a church there, a man who was a dear friend and a great influence on me, and who supported me through one of the darkest times in my own ministry, decided it was time to hand over the church he pastored to a man he had groomed for more than seven years as his replacement. For clarity’s sake, we’ll call this man The Grand Old Pastor, and his replacement The Replacement Pastor. Sometime after the transition was made, some of the members of the church decided they didn’t like the way The Replacement Pastor was leading the church, and began to stir up others in the church against him. The group opposing The Replacement Pastor turned to The Grand Old Pastor for support, and unfortunately, he gave it to them. While The Replacement Pastor was out of town on a vacation, The Grand Old Pastor held a meeting with key men in the church to discuss the leadership of The Replacement Pastor and organize against him. Faithful men in the church interrupted the meeting to say that this kind of thing was both ungodly and contrary to the church’s constitution. But the stage was set for insurrection, and within a few weeks, thirty members of the church left at once. Those thirty members met at a separate location on a Wednesday night. They composed a letter withdrawing their membership from The Original Church en masse, and sent a certified letter to the church that very night. The Grand Old Pastor had delivered a letter to the church office earlier that day withdrawing his own membership from the church.
The next day, I received a phone call from The Grand Old Pastor. My friendship with this pastor has been no secret. The support and help he gave me early in my pastorate was so invaluable to me that I have often vowed that I would look for any way to do the same for other young pastors. When I received the phone call from The Grand Old Pastor, I was not surprised that he was calling. What surprised me was his approach to the events that led to his withdrawal from the church he pastored for so many years. The first thing he said to me on the phone call was this: “Can we still be friends?”
I did not hesitate in my response. Friendship for me is not a weapon to be wielded, nor is it a tool for manipulation. Friendship is a commitment I make to seek the well-being of another person. I do not withdraw it easily. I told The Grand Old Pastor that I would still be his friend, but that given recent events, the nature of that friendship would be changing. He proceeded to explain and defend the things that were being done. Unfortunately, his defense came out more as a denial than a defense. In fact, his denials sent a clear message: The Grand Old Pastor knew better than what he was doing.
As part of our discussion, I asked this pastor not to attempt to persuade people to leave The Original Church. He insisted that he had not and would not. I asked him, if you haven’t, then how is it that thirty people signed one letter withdrawing their membership and on the same night called him to be the pastor of The Church Split? He feigned confusion on this point and pretended not to know what I was talking about. As he described it, “there was a group of people who met for fellowship and prayer on that night; they asked me to say a few words.” As I pressed him on this, it became apparent that the point was evasion of what had really happened. The Grand Old Pastor claimed that he did not know how this group came together all at once on that night or even how they all knew where to meet. So, I asked him, “well, how did you know when and where to meet?” To which he once again pretended uncertainty.
A few weeks later, an article appeared in a periodical I receive celebrating a “new church plant in the Salt Lake Valley.” The article described how a group of believers had come together with the goal of planting a new church in the area, how the church had called both an Interim Pastor and an Interim Assistant Pastor, how the church had searched for a sending church and finally settled on one in Florida, and then outlined their plan for the church in the immediate future. I found the article highly offensive. The group that was meeting was a church split, not a church plant. It was an abuse of the term to refer to it as a church plant.
In response, I wrote a letter to all involved – The Grand Old Pastor who was leading The Church Split, his “assistant,” the pastor of the sending church in Florida, and the four or five pastors who formed the “board of reference” for the periodical that published the article. In my letter, I protested the use of the term “church plant.” I asked why The Church Split would need to shop for a sending church if it were a legitimate church plant. I questioned the approach taken in commissioning the church and what the sending church’s involvement would be in establishing the church. Was this anything more than a token sending church? Based on the language included in the article, there was no clear sending authority. Quoting from that article,
An Independent Baptist Church of like faith and practice was recommended to give counsel, help with procedures, assist with good financial practices, and to guard our godly faith and practice” (emphasis mine).
In my letter of protest, I asked: is this Sending Church the authority, or does it merely serve in an advisory role? As it turns out, the Sending Church itself did not know anything about this so-called Church Plant. No vote was taken by the sending church. The pastor of the so-called sending church unilaterally commissioned this church plant without the knowledge even of the church he pastored.
I received a snarky letter in response from the “Interim Assistant Pastor” of this so-called church plant. Also, one of the several pastors on the board of reference called me. He admitted that he had very little involvement in the content of the paper. He then defended the article by saying that he just figured this was another case of The Replacement Pastor changing everything and compromising. He figured The Grand Old Pastor had a right to stand against it.
I asked him if he knew about any specific compromise. He mentioned something about some associations The Replacement Pastor had that were a problem. I informed this pastor that The Grand Old Pastor told me directly that he did not leave the church for any of those reasons. The reasons he gave me for leaving the church had to do with the fact that his now “Interim Assistant Pastor” was let go from a staff position with The Original Church without approval from the Church Education committee. Throughout the conversation, this pastor made it very clear that he didn’t really want to be involved in the issue, but he was fine with calling The Church Split a church plant.
I then wrote a letter to The Grand Old Pastor. Because of the history between our church and The Original Church, I asked him to tell me the Scriptural reasons he had for leaving the church. In our phone conversation, he had expressed disagreement with a handful of issues, but had not given me anything that would qualify as a Biblical reason to leave a church. Due to the close fellowship between our church and The Original Church, I wanted to know what those reasons would be in case I needed to reconsider our fellowship. The Grand Old Pastor replied to my letter saying that God told him that he didn’t need to answer me, so he wouldn’t.
Because of this, the church I pastor refused to recognize The Church Split as a church, and refused to extend fellowship of any kind to it. Berean Baptist Church does not extend fellowship to a church split.
Fast forward to about a year ago. I ran into one of the men instrumental in leading the group of thirty out of the church in Salt Lake and forming The Church Split. He informed me that they had called a pastor (we’ll call him The New Pastor), and that this pastor would be arriving shortly. He was very excited about The New Pastor, and believed that he would provide fresh leadership in the place of The Grand Old Pastor. Several months after The New Pastor arrived, he called me on the phone with an interesting request. He wanted to know if I would be willing to meet with him and The Grand Old Pastor to discuss what happened in forming The Church Split. I was happy to do that, so we set up a date to get together for lunch so we could attempt to hash out the issue.
In the course of the conversation that day, The Grand Old Pastor insisted once again that he was ignorant of any concerted effort to split his former church. He insisted that The Church Split was a legitimate church plant, and that he left The Original Church because he was threatened and told to leave (a brand new excuse). I told him that I knew better than that – no threats had been made, and he had not been told to leave. I told him that I would never agree to what was done in splitting The Original Church. But I told him that I would be happy to extend friendship to him once again and to reconsider our church’s relationship to The Church Split, based on the leadership of the new pastor. As a sort of olive branch, I invited The Grand Old Pastor to visit our church so we could renew our relationship to him. The Grand Old Pastor served the Lord faithfully for many years here in Utah, and was dearly loved by many in our church. I cannot describe what a grief this whole affair has been to many in our church.
That visit was initially agreed to, but then eventually canceled by The Grand Old Pastor. And a month or two later, I received a phone call from The New Pastor. He let me know that The Grand Old Pastor was at it again. There was a movement, led by The Grand Old Pastor, to oust The New Pastor. This time, a showdown occurred in an actual church service. The New Pastor was physically and verbally assaulted by men loyal to The Grand Old Pastor. When the dust had settled, the church voted, and over 75% of the church voted to stand with The New Pastor against The Grand Old Pastor and his cronies.
What happened next still flabbergasts me. The Grand Old Pastor and his cronies had all the financial dealings of the church in their own names, rather than in the name of The Church Split. The bank account, the lease for their building, the phone and copier, even the church’s website, were all held in the personal names of men loyal to The Grand Old Pastor. The Church Split had no access to the bank account, and the men who lost the vote on that night took immediate steps to freeze the church out and take over. Before the night had ended, The Church Split’s website was stripped of any reference to The New Pastor. The address was removed from the website. The service times were taken off. The phone number was changed to the phone number of The Grand Old Pastor. This despite a church vote in support of The New Pastor and his leadership.
Shortly after this, the men loyal to The Grand Old Pastor shut off the copier machine and phone lines to The Church Split without notice. Then, about two weeks ago, the Church Split was informed that they were to vacate the building before the end of June, as the locks would be changed and The Grand Old Pastor would be taking over the church once again. The men loyal to The Grand Old Pastor have conspired together to keep all the tithes and offerings given by the church, and have turned the majority of The Church Split out on the street. They are keeping the church’s name, furniture, chairs, pulpit, piano, hymnals, everything except what belonged personally to The New Pastor.
One good thing that has come of this. The New Pastor, recognizing that The Church Split was never a legitimate New Testament church to begin with, has decided to bring the believers who stood with him under the authority of his home church, and will be re-constituting (and renaming) the church. So, there will be another true New Testament church in Salt Lake City when this is all said and done.
The Church Split has taken over the building where they were meeting, and the two men who have been instrumental in both church splits will get to sit under the “preaching” of The Grand Old Pastor once again. Most of all, and no doubt most important to these wolves, they will maintain control of the shreds of what they call a church. Judges 17 describes a similar situation. Congratulations Micah. “Now know I that the LORD will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest.”
The Necessary Rebukes
Let me begin with the men behind these two church splits. As I am certain that this article will make its way to you eventually, I want to address you personally. You will answer to God for what you have done. You are dealing with God’s church here. You don’t mess with the bride of Christ. Jesus is very jealous over his bride, and I would not want to be anywhere near you when you stand before the Lord for what you have done. You have stolen God’s money. You have sown division and strife among brethren. You have slandered two godly pastors. You have driven away God’s people. You have made yourselves the authority. You have not followed God’s Word, and have rejected its authority in your life. You have sought to have your own rent-a-pastor. And when the pastor you sought to hire refused to be your hireling, rather than repent and follow the Bible, you put him out. You are filthy dreamers who defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities. You have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and you will perish in the gainsaying of Core. You feed yourselves without fear; you are clouds without water, carried about of winds; you are trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; you are raging waves of the sea, foaming out your own shame; you are wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever (Jude 1:8, 11-13). Unless you repent, you ought to fear to stand before God in the judgment day. May the fear of God strike your heart.
But I also need to address here the pastors, especially those who identify as “unaffiliated,” who have supported The Grand Old Pastor as he has led now, two church splits. You should have stood against it the first time, but you didn’t. To some degree, I tried to be patient and understanding with pastors, because The Grand Old Pastor has served the Lord faithfully for many years. I understand the desire to honor him, and the hesitancy to stand against him. Yet, I have watched more than one Pastor, after a lifetime of service to God, throw it all away out of selfishness. I have thought throughout this process that, at the very least, pastors should have contacted The Replacement Pastor to hear his side of the issue. But very few did. The Church Split held an annual Bible conference, and many of you attended it and even preached for it. You extended the right hand of fellowship without knowing whether The Church Split had legitimate or Scriptural grounds for what they did.
I have been troubled, and to a degree disgusted, by the blatant hypocrisy of some who consider themselves to be strong on the local church, who are dogmatically closed in their communion, and yet who supported The Church Split. Why did you do it? I can’t pretend to know your heart, but I suspect that a big part of the reason has to do with the fact that in the initial church split, The Replacement Pastor wasn’t part of the club. He wasn’t one of your boys. He didn’t preach in the “unaffiliated” circles and – I think most importantly – didn’t invite many “unaffiliated” pastors to preach for him. The Grand Old Pastor did. Somehow, despite all our high principles and sound doctrine, our loyalties often lie with those who invite us to preach. Because what preacher doesn’t love to travel and preach out?
Only you know the real motivation behind your support for what was undeniably a church split. I think you should take a little time to re-examine your support, to examine your own heart, both towards The Grand Old Pastor and The Replacement Pastor. Too many times, pastors have set aside their Biblical convictions if it would cost them a friendship. Perhaps you have allowed your loyalties to lie with a friend when you should have stood against what he was doing. You know, and God knows. But I believe in many, many cases, repentance is in order.
The Replacement Pastor has been slandered and has borne too much of the blame for what happened in the original church split. Because of the cold, calloused way many pastors sided with The Grand Old Pastor – with little regard for The Replacement Pastor – this godly man suffered unspeakably for many years. We nearly lost one of God’s choice servants because of things that were said and implied against him. Praise the Lord, he did not quit, and continues to serve the Lord to this day. But pastors, you really need to consider the message you send when you support a church split. A few weeks ago, I called The Replacement Pastor, who is one of my closest friends, and I let him know that, whatever people may have thought about him in the past, he can now consider himself vindicated. The first church split may have left some in doubt. When the same man splits two churches, nobody should consider him to be the one who is in the right.