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Breach of trust

Why did three pastors resign from the high-profile Bethlehem Baptist Church?


Illustration by Krieg Barrie. Photo by Jim Mone/Genesis

Breach of trust

In a year when Bethlehem Baptist Church, an influential Minneapolis church known for John Piper’s 33-year tenure, celebrates its 150th anniversary, it also faces a public image problem.

This summer, three pastors from Bethlehem’s Downtown Campus abruptly resigned, one after another, including Jason Meyer, Piper’s successor. One pastor charged Bethlehem’s elder council with “domineering leadership,” “spiritual abuse,” and a “toxic culture.” Another wrote in his resignation letter that Bethlehem has “a unity or ‘one voice’ culture that puts a lot of focus on institutional protection.”

Meanwhile, the congregation hurts over the sudden loss of pastors and distressing media reports about their church. Elders struggled to understand what happened, even as they attempted to answer difficult questions from their flock.

What happened at Bethlehem is not just a reflection of ideological fractures in broader American evangelicalism. Complicating Bethlehem’s situation are charges of spiritual abuse from one pastor and several former members. Does Bethlehem face the same crises that high-profile congregations at Mars Hill Church and Harvest Bible Chapel faced after revelations of similar problems?

I talked to former pastors who resigned, four current pastors, five former church members, and nine current church members. Each interview provided a single jigsaw piece to a complicated, thousand-piece puzzle, but there’s a common theme. Somewhere along the way, trust eroded and people got hurt. This is a story of how that happened.

Tensions at Bethlehem had simmered for several years.

In March 2019, after complaints that the church and Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS) are “toxic” and “unwelcoming” to minorities, Bethlehem’s elder council approved church members’ motion to create an Ethnic Harmony Task Force to investigate how it can better represent minorities in its leadership. Bethlehem’s 2,400 members are governed by a 45-elder council, only five of whom are nonwhite. Its entire deacon council is white, and according to a former BCS director of admissions, not a single potential black student had applied to BCS in six years.

The task force spent 800 volunteer hours developing recommendations and presenting them to the elder council, but members said the elders didn’t follow up.

Elders told me they sent the report to each of Bethlehem’s three campuses to implement within its own context. “From that point on, the communication was very bad,” said Kenny Stokes, pastor for church planting. “What that meant, people were guessing. But it meant that Bethlehem was busy. It didn’t mean that the report wasn’t important or worked on.” The elders were also planning to collaborate on a statement on ethnic harmony, which they finished in early February 2021, to clarify the church’s position on race. Half the task force would eventually leave the church.

Few in the church knew about the report, but members Steve and Janette Takata had friends on the task force. The Takatas had worshipped and served at Bethlehem for decades—Steve since 1990, Janette since 2003. They met and married at Bethlehem, raised their six kids at Bethlehem, and served in various ministries. They watched as under John Piper’s leadership, Bethlehem made a collective decision to pursue ethnic diversity and listed ethnic harmony as one of its 14 priorities. Under Jason Meyer’s leadership, Bethlehem corporately recognized that it had not always cared well for women and the abused and formed a domestic abuse ministry. It also revised its stances on divorce and remarriage. The Takatas saw those changes as heading in the right direction.

But others grew alarmed at the speed with which cultural mores morphed. They saw pressures from the cultural left. They worried about the seemingly subjective way some people used psychiatric terms such as trauma and abuse to describe their experiences. Andy Naselli, an elder and influential professor at BCS, was one of those concerned.

A tug-of-war erupted when now-BCS President Joe Rigney appeared on an episode of the Man Rampant podcast hosted by controversial Pastor Douglas Wilson. He’s known for provocative statements, such as saying in one book that Southern slavery produced “a genuine affection between the races.” Church members for years had raised concerns about Bethlehem’s perceived affiliation with Wilson through Piper’s Desiring God Ministries (which is not formally affiliated with Bethlehem).

The podcast episode Rigney appeared on was called “The Sin of Empathy.” In it, Rigney distinguishes “empathy” from “sympathy,” which he says is more Biblical than empathy. He defines empathy as “a modern term that’s been invented in the 20th century” that means to “suffer in” instead of “suffer with.” Empathy, he says, “demands, ‘Get in here with me, otherwise you don’t love me.’”

Rigney’s definition of empathy “is so against what BBC is teaching,” Janette Takata wrote in an email to several pastors. Later, she discovered that Naselli had given the episode a five-star review on Amazon, calling the interview “thought-provoking and insightful.”

The Takatas were already wondering what happened to the Ethnic Harmony Task Force. The podcast episode heightened their concerns. They decided to address those issues with the whole congregation, and the only way to do that was to present a motion at Bethlehem’s quarterly churchwide meeting on Jan. 31.

THE SIMMERING TENSIONS reached a boiling point at the meeting. When she presented her motion to meeting attendees, Janette Takata explained that though “it is and should be permissible” for someone at BCS or the church to express their individual views, the only public comment from Bethlehem about the episode was a five-star review from a pastor that could “easily be assumed to be an endorsement from BBC.” She then moved that “the full council of elders make a written, public statement separating the views” expressed by Rigney “from the views and teaching of Bethlehem.”

Though the church and BCS function as separate entities, with two separate boards of trustees, they’re intertwined in significant ways: BCS is considered a “church-based institution” and shares Bethlehem’s Downtown Campus building; many trustees, faculty, and staff at BCS are elders at Bethlehem; most BCS students attend Bethlehem, and some become pastors at Bethlehem or its church plants.

Naselli was the first to approach the mic and defended his review: “If the elders were to move for the motion, I would resign out of principle.”

The audience went silent. Bethlehem states it’s one church with three campuses, but it functions more like three separate churches, with three separate sermons preached to each congregation that has different needs, emphases, and cultures. The Downtown Campus sits in the urban core of Minneapolis, a few miles away from where George Floyd died, with a slightly more ethnically diverse congregation, whereas the North and South Campuses are suburban and more than 90 percent white.

Naselli is an elder at the North Campus. The Takatas attend the Downtown Campus, whose members had already been debating the podcast episode. Many at the North Campus wondered what the controversy was about. The meeting ended after the congregation voted to table Takata’s motion. After the meeting adjourned, the commotion continued in whispers, texts, phone calls, and emails about Naselli’s reaction and the Takatas’ supposed motives.

Ten days later, Naselli emailed all the Jan. 31 meeting attendees: “I’ve run that Sunday night several times, and I wish I could have a do-over.” He wrote that he didn’t intend to make a threat or a power play by saying he would resign. “I intended to convey that I steadfastly refuse to be part of what I perceived to be a kind of ‘cancel culture.’” The Takatas then asked some elders if they could email the meeting attendees also, but the elders said no.

In an email, Naselli told me he had heard Takata’s motion as “an unwarranted attack” on Rigney and BCS. It triggered memories of a former BCS professor who resigned in 2020, charging BCS with “spiritual abuse,” a “lukewarm” and “sometimes even antagonistic” climate toward racial progress, and “a culture that devalues women.” A shepherd must protect the flock, Naselli wrote: “What was going through my mind was the sense that I should jump on a grenade to protect our church members, faculty, and students.”

The Downtown Campus sits in the urban core of Minneapolis, a few miles away from where George Floyd died.

The Takatas saw Naselli’s email as a self-justifying “non-apology.” When Naselli emailed that apology to the Takatas, he added, “I’m guessing you’d wish I’d state a bit differently.” That remark made the Takatas doubt his sincerity. For an elder to view them, also his flock, as a “grenade” or “cancel culture” felt like character assassination—and in the Takatas’ view, was an example of sin the church needed to call out.

Unbeknownst to the Takatas, counseling pastor and then-BCS professor Bryan Pickering had harbored concerns about Naselli since February 2020, when a BCS student visited his office, asking if what he had experienced in Naselli’s classroom was spiritual abuse. The student said he knows about a dozen other students and alumni with similar experiences with Naselli. That’s a pattern, not just one experience, Pickering thought.

Other students came to Pickering for counseling. One BCS graduate, Cameron Crickenberger, said Naselli “created a culture in our cohort of argument, competition, exclusivity, and theological fundamentalism.” Crickenberger said when a student disagreed with him, Naselli would react in a way that was “dismissive, belittling, and an attempt to control his classroom to the detriment of his students.” According to Crickenberger, Naselli told several students that they were “prideful and foolish,” “on a slippery slope towards liberalism,” and “stated quite clearly that he was concerned for the state of our salvation.” Crickenberger brought his complaints to administrators who listened well but defended Naselli and responded with “a wholesale dismissal of our concerns.” Naselli denies ever questioning a student’s salvation over secondary or tertiary issues.

Different students have different perceptions about experiences with Naselli, even regarding the same incident. Naselli is known for being a straight shooter who doesn’t mince words—and his words hurt students’ feelings. But some who know Naselli, including his former students, say his demeanor became milder over the years and he has been open to critiques. Students like Crickenberger say Naselli’s behavior points to a deeper cultural problem at Bethlehem: “I saw these patterns of control, of power, of authority, of expertise, of silencing and dismissing others, play out multiple times in multiple situations during my time at Bethlehem and have heard of the same afterwards.”

Twelve students sent written complaints against Naselli through an anonymous survey. Only two were willing to be identified. Between July and August 2020, academic dean Brian Tabb led an internal investigation. According to an email he sent to four elders, Tabb met with three concerned alumni, Naselli, four Bethlehem elders, and another professor who witnessed a recent classroom incident. He reviewed student feedback, exit surveys, email correspondence, and an anonymous survey. He did not find “sufficient evidence to corroborate the charge that Naselli has been ‘spiritually abusive’” or has “intentionally sinned against his students,” but acknowledged that Naselli “made several mistakes” in a specific classroom interaction. He and an associate dean met with Naselli to “offer him both steadfast support and loving correction.”

Around that time, BCS had also hired an independent law firm to investigate complaints about BCS workplace practices and environment. The investigators reviewed 2,500 pages of documents and spent 50 hours on interviews. They concluded that they found no evidence of illegal or unlawful workplace practice at BCS. Over the next few months, two faculty members and a staff member announced their resignations. One of the professors cited the school’s culture and its approach to women and race. Pickering also resigned as professor on Aug. 20, 2020

Eventually, Pickering confronted Naselli face-to-face with two other elders and listed 10 ways he believes Naselli displayed “a pattern of controlling and egregious sin against God and people.” He asked Naselli to step down from eldership. Naselli told Pickering that they barely know each other: “I don’t even recognize myself in this letter.”

On March 10, 2021, the Takatas and Naselli also met in person, in the presence of other elders and witnesses, with the goal of peacemaking after Naselli’s comments.

Naselli went into the meeting “hopeful that we would be able to live at peace with one another.” The Takatas believed Naselli needed to repent in order to reconcile. They read six “sins” they believed Naselli committed against them, including “attacking instead of shepherding” and “falsely accusing us, gossiping about us, and slandering us in private meetings with other members of the church.” They too asked Naselli to step down from eldership.

Bethlehem Downtown: Jim Mone/Genesis; Bethlehem South: Anderson Companies; All others: Bethlehem Baptist Church

ACCORDING TO BETHLEHEM’S BYLAWS, two members in good standing bringing grievances against an elder or deacon triggers a “thorough investigation and consideration” to determine if the grievance is “true and substantial.” On March 16, 40 elders gathered to investigate Pickering’s and the Takatas’ grievance against Naselli. The elders received four other letters signed by six people with concerns about Naselli, but the elders only responded to the Takatas’ and Pickering’s. “This constituted in reality one grievance with multiple parties,” said Kurt Elting-Ballard, chairman of the elders’ council.

At the heart of the Takatas’ grievance against Naselli is his refusal to repent of the sins they accuse him of. But Naselli told me he wasn’t convinced he had sinned: Repenting “would be to lie in order to make peace with other people.”

Though many elders agree Naselli could have chosen wiser words on Jan. 31, and some weren’t satisfied with his apology email, they didn’t think that disqualified him as an elder, said North Campus Pastor Jon Grano: “There’s normative sin that we’re guilty of all the time because we’re sinners, and then there’s disqualifying sin that would be so egregious that you won’t be able to retain the position of an elder.” 

The elders overwhelmingly voted to dismiss the Takatas’ grievance as “untrue or unsubstantial.” Pickering and Jason Meyer were surprised and disappointed. They had expected the downtown pastors to push for an investigation committee. Instead, Naselli was present to defend himself at that meeting, yet none of the other people who had filed their grievances, except Pickering, were allowed in the room. Only elders were.

Pickering seethed: “It was a sham. My only regret is that I didn’t just walk out.” What he saw then was a problem with the culture at Bethlehem. When the elders turned next to Pickering’s grievance, he refused to speak: “I had lost all trust. It was completely broken. I had no confidence the elders would handle this well.”

Pickering’s silence befuddled the elders. The only concrete evidence most had was the Jan. 31 incident and the BCS internal investigation that had ruled out spiritual abuse.

North Campus Lead Pastor Steven Lee told me that the elders “took seriously the accusation of spiritual abuse.” He said the elders later perused a six-part series of articles on spiritual abuse that Pickering had sent them. But they still didn’t find Naselli’s actions abusive: “There are things he can learn, like communicate better. But he wasn’t abusive.” What they saw instead, Lee said, was “concept creep”—“People were saying, ‘I’m triggered or traumatized by what you said.’”

After six hours of deliberation, the elders voted to dismiss Pickering’s grievance as “untrue and unsubstantial.” Only Pickering, Meyer, neighborhood outreach pastor Ming-Jinn Tong, and another downtown pastor voted against it. Tong said the way the elder council conducted the grievance process was “unethical.” Pickering called it “evidence of the corruption and toxicity of the system and culture at Bethlehem leadership.” Meyer called it “incomplete” but “not immoral.”

A month later the elders passed a motion telling Tong and Pickering to “reflect on how they can continue to partner in ministry with the elders” despite the disagreements.

One downtown elder, Tom Lutz, said “the gospel has been subordinated at Bethlehem’s downtown campus”—referring to both Pickering and Tong, but mainly to Meyer as the lead pastor. One elder objected, but a few others voiced similar concerns. Lutz later apologized to Meyer, and Meyer said he forgave him.

But that meeting widened the chasm between the three pastors and other elders. Meyer described that meeting as “like a tribunal” and “the low point for me in my time at Bethlehem.”

"When the church splinters, the whole body hurts together."

"When the church splinters, the whole body hurts together." Photo by Jim Mone/Genesis

LUTZ’S WORDS STRUCK an already-tender spot. A month before, Lutz sent an email to Pickering and Tong, copying Meyer, complaining about Tong and Pickering’s framing of the Atlanta massage parlor shooting. The Sunday following the Atlanta murders, Tong had donned traditional Chinese attire and preached a sermon in which he mentioned his experience as a Taiwanese American. Pickering, in his pastoral prayer, lamented the rise of violence against Asian American and Asian immigrant communities.

Lutz worried that Bethlehem looks “like the world when we view this first as a crime perpetrated with racial motives, when it clearly was not.”

For years, Meyer had received blowback from all sides. Some people said he didn’t support minorities enough. The Sunday after George Floyd’s murder, Meyer preached a sermon on responding to suffering. In closing, he said, “If you as a church don’t like what I said today, you will have to get another pastor, because I believe this to the back of my teeth.” Dozens of congregants left upset. Several elders said his statement was unhelpful and overly forceful.

The ongoing tug-of-war between elders who emphasize compassion and elders who exercise caution wore down all three pastors. But to Tong and Pickering, the way the elders handled the grievances against Naselli wasn’t a matter of differing Christian convictions—it was a matter of right versus wrong.

Tong resigned first on May 17 and in a statement thanked the church and explained why he resigned. Two elders objected to his explanation. One worried that Tong’s reasons for resigning would “invite continued controversy and will potentially be divisive.” Another agreed and suggested to Tong, “Perhaps you believe that controversy is warranted.”

Concerned Tong’s letter would prolong controversy, the elders sent to the congregation an edited version that only included positive statements. Soon after, Pickering resigned. “There was no doubt when I saw how Ming-Jinn was being treated when he was leaving,” Pickering told me. “I knew at this point that no efforts to change the system from the inside would be effective.”

Meanwhile Meyer, who had been on sabbatical since May 1, was in constant contact with Tong and Pickering. Though Meyer avoids the term spiritual abuse, he told me he saw signs of “domineering” and “impression management” in the church and school.

Meyer emailed his resignation on July 12, before his sabbatical ended. “Unity is a great goal and should be sought and prized,” Meyer wrote in his resignation letter. “The problem comes when unity moves from a desired goal to a demanded outcome. … This dynamic is especially prominent when an institution feels threatened.”

Then the Takatas left. “There was no one left to support us and speak for us,” Janette Takata said. “There was no reason to stay.”

BASED ON MY INTERVIEWS with remaining church members and audio of a meeting between elders and the congregation, reactions from the church were mixed. Many were confused about the differing narratives about what had happened. Some felt hurt about how abruptly the pastors left. Some wondered if the elders are being fully transparent. Most were sad and angry. One church member told me she burst into tears when she read the public comments on an article about Bethlehem: “These people, they don’t know anything! They’ve never been part of our church. … Are they getting on their knees and praying for us?”

The remaining elders spent almost 100 hours responding to questions from the congregation and acknowledging areas they need to improve: communication, trust, and unity. Lee, the North Campus pastor, wrote in a long email to his congregation: “We recognize that this has been an extremely difficult season in the life of our church, and we want to learn from these challenges.”

Several members told me they trust and respect the elders more since the resignations. “The consensus was that [the elders] did a great job explaining what happened, and it’s sinful to want to dig deeper,” one member told me. Many told me the event has prompted them to pray more fervently for their church. “God is sovereign over all these things,” one member said. “His name will be proclaimed, He will be glorified. We’re not sure how, but we’re hopeful.”

The recent events also confirmed to some people that Bethlehem needs to stand guard. Naselli told me he felt even more “burdened” that Bethlehem and BCS not “drift along with the prevailing views” of the wider culture: “I must pursue peace when possible, but I must not idolize peace to the detriment of the truth.”

When I asked Naselli what he learned from these events, he wrote: “I have learned that I must clearly articulate what is true and what is false and not attempt to appease highly reactive people who are virtually unappeasable.” He learned to be more aware of others’ perceptions of his words, but that wasn’t the main lesson. He quoted 1 Corinthians 4: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.”

The Takatas say they went through all the proper channels of raising their concerns to the church because they love the church. To leave knowing some at Bethlehem view them as divisive and troublemakers is painful.

Various essays, such as at Mere Orthodoxy and The Gospel Coalition, have tried to make sense of the division within evangelicalism by identifying several categories of evangelicals. These categories, though helpful at times, can unintentionally flatten individuals into one-dimensional stereotypes—which can further breed a climate of suspicion.

Some say Naselli did this to the Takatas and imagined they harbored a certain agenda. Others counter that the same happened to Naselli: People ticked through a checklist of “spiritual abuse” and stuffed Naselli into that box.

When that happens, trust breaks down between individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, personalities, and sensibilities. And when the church splinters, the whole body hurts together.


Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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DCal3000

As always, excellent reporting by Sophia Lee. One of the things that concerns me about this debate over BBC though is the absence of discussion of ideas. Setting aside everything else (demographics, the use of undefined terms like "spiritual abuse," etc.), it seems the two sides have two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world, and the heart of the disagreement seems to stem from those viewpoints. The key to their debate, therefore, is to discuss the biblical or unbiblical aspects of the viewpoints.

not silent

I give a lot of credit to World for addressing difficult issues like this and to writers like Sophia Lee for doing the hard work of investigating all the complicated viewpoints involved. This was hard to read and no doubt hard to write.

I feel sad about this whole situation, but I am very encouraged by previous comments from readers. I agree that we must seek God first and pray for unity (and I specifically mean unity IN CHRIST, vs "unity at all costs"). I am not personally involved with this situation, but I have seen more than one contentious split in churches I was involved with. With that in mind, I pray God keeps me humble, teachable, willing to hear his guidance, and able to admit it when I am wrong.

AKIM3284

Thank you for your careful reporting on this heartbreaking situation. I am prompted to pray for all parties involved, that God would bring reconciliation and that those who remain at Bethlehem would continue to love and serve the church body even in the midst of their pain.

Larry & Debbie Snodgrass

Thank you Sophia for what appears to be a balanced, well-researched examination of a painful conflict between these Christ-followers. I grieve to read of this division, but I realize afresh that Christian unity is a gift from God because it runs against our very nature. Plus, we have an enemy who works hard to divide us from each other. You have given all of us an invaluable tool by the manner in which you reported.

BMER7984

Thank you for a balanced look. I was a member during this time, at Bethlehem, and even having an insider's perspective, I feel as though I don't fully understand what has happened. We all need to pray, that the testimony of Christ is not sullied, that those who left and those who remain will reconcile, because we will spend eternity together.

CJ

Thank you for taking the time to hear and report from all viewpoints. Disputes over important but non-essential issues can over power and tarnish the one indisputable truth of the Gospel.

catalystken

It seems the Takatas used the appropriate measures to bring their concerns before the church and the board but when the Elders did not agree with them they decided they are no longer obligated to submit to their authority. That makes it seem like their goal was not to point out sin or find the truth or work toward reconciliation but to win.

dcsfoylecatalystken

catalystken, if the Elders are willing to protect and sanction sin, I believe that the Biblical response would be to leave.

S Smithdcsfoyle

That's a big "if". I, for one, am not convinced there was sin. Regardless, Amos 3:3 perhaps applies, as does the split in Acts 25:36-40 between Paul and Barnabas regarding John Mark, in which God continued to work and later brought reconciliation (2 Tim 4:11).

CMCC8153

As a member of BBC, this season has been exhausting. I have felt compelled to be ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger’ (James 1:19) with all claims of abuse while also understanding that ‘the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him’ (Proverbs 18:17). What has been discouraging is the vocal minority of former members online that insist any external account be a full-throated support of all claims of abuse without wanting outsiders to hear leadership’s defense. I am grateful for Sophia’s balanced reporting. Pray for justice and healing.

NBrooksCMCC8153

CMCC8153, Wisdom taken from a tough situation. I was in a church that went through this for years. I hope that Sophia's careful, detailed reporting will help those involved understand when and if they veered slightly off course. But mostly, I just want to bless you. Hang in there, fellow traveler!