WASHINGTON — The leaders of McLean Bible, one of the D.C. region’s largest and most high-profile evangelical churches, are facing attempts from their own members to spread disinformation and take control of the church, Pastor David Platt warned the congregation in a sermon this month.
In June, the church was supposed to vote in new elders who oversee the church, and a group tried to shore up enough votes to block the appointed leaders. In a sermon on July 4, Platt said that group told other church members as they were walking into the meeting that the new elders would try to persuade church leadership to sell the church’s building in Vienna, Va., to local Muslims who would build a mosque.
McLean Bible, which is seen as a conservative evangelical congregation that once had more than 16,000 attendees, has long been an important church in Washington with four locations near the city. But threatening McLean now is a group that has spread all kinds of rumors, Platt said.
Platt said in his sermon that this group claimed, as members walked into the church, that new elders would lead the church “down the road of leaving the Gospel behind, leaving the Bible behind, embracing liberal theology and cultural Marxism, like the author of the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ that we would change our stance on abortion and sexuality, that we would allow Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter and defunding the police to drive our agenda as a church.”
Platt described these claims as “unquestionably untrue.”
The three new elders, who needed 75% of the vote, were voted in on Sunday with more than 80% of the vote and will join four existing elders. Congregants who want to become members of the church attend a class, are interviewed by elders or staff and are introduced to the congregation. On July 15, five members of the church filed a lawsuit claiming that the Sunday election violated the church’s constitution because the church did not allow a secret ballot.
Some of McLean’s members are nostalgic for the days of Lon Solomon, who led McLean for 37 years before handing the reins over to Platt in 2017. A July 8 letter from former church elder Mark Gottlieb described Platt as changing McLean into a “political, stripped-down version of what it used to be.”
Jeremiah Burke, who describes himself as the leader of more than 200 members who oppose current church leadership, including Platt, has been a member for 16 years and said he began raising questions about six months ago during a congregational meeting. His wife has been moderating the Facebook page called “Save McLean Bible Church” where members share articles that identify Platt and elders as “woke,” warning that McLean could go “woke” like other churches.
Burke, who has a financial adviser, said he noticed that while attendance had been down in 2020, giving had not gone down, and he wondered why. Burke believes that local Muslim leaders are looking for church buildings to buy and could have sights set on McLean’s property.
Burke, 36, is primarily focused on how the church has been giving money to the Southern Baptist Convention, even though it describes itself in its constitution as a nondenominational church. The SBC is “riddled” with controversy, Burke believes, with its sex abuse scandals and doctrinal disputes.
“McLean was one of the most influential churches in America. It had an incredible influence over the power players in D.C.,” he said. “We’re coming to try to take the church back. There’s no intention of us leaving the church. I think that’s what David’s scared of.”
Burke believes that Platt distracts from the issue of whether the church has ties to the SBC by bringing up other issues, such as its focus under Platt on racial justice. Under Platt’s predecessor, Solomon, the church began giving to the SBC in 2016, but it has recently suspended its contributions because of the confusion over whether the church could be considered Southern Baptist.
Under its FAQ page, the church also addresses whether it teaches critical race theory, an intellectual framework used to examine structural racism.
“CRT is a buzzword today, often used as an accusation (like “woke”) to label someone in the body of Christ in a way that cuts off any further discussion,” the church states. “We understand CRT to be a human (and therefore inherently flawed) effort towards understanding injustice.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Platt estimated that the church’s membership is more than 2,500, and several thousand people are attending services. Like many churches, attendance has taken a major hit during the pandemic, but it has been fully open with mask-optional services since May.
Platt said he believes the recent controversy has been a collision of several things, including racial tensions and political tensions.
In 2019, Platt was given a five-minute warning that former President Donald Trump would show up at McLean Bible and Platt would be asked to pray for him. Platt, who aims to be nonpartisan, wrote a letter to his congregation saying that he did not intend to endorse Trump or his policies, and some members took that to mean that he was apologizing for his prayer.
Then in the summer of 2020, Platt, led Christians in prayer as part of larger protests against racism and police brutality. Some in his congregation later took his involvement to mean that he supported the Black Lives Matter organization.
Platt said he doesn’t believe the controversy at his church is isolated, since he has been texting with several other pastors who have been through similar tensions.
“We are all walking through hard days,” Platt said. “The fundamental question is, how are we going to love God, one another, and the world around us in the middle of them?”
Platt has long been a popular evangelical preacher who wrote “Radical,” a best-selling book that called Christians to take their faith back from the American dream and live more like Jesus. He was considered one of the youngest megachurch pastors in the country when he was appointed to Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., in 2006 at 28 years old.
Before he led McLean, Platt was president of the SBC’s International Mission Board. In his final address to the IMB, he criticized the “politics of the SBC” where he described “continual self-promotion” and “backroom deals.”