About That Church Fight

The headline in Saturday’s Times-Picayune read, “Feud simmers in Fla. church.” The story was one we hear so often and one which I dread with everything in me. This time, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale is ground zero.

When longtime pastor D. James Kennedy died in 2007, the church leadership set out to find God’s man to lead their church into the future. Some of us who have been around a while had observed the Kennedy era from start to finish. By his own testimony, he had been a mediocre preacher until God got hold of him and filled his life. Out of this came the “Evangelism Explosion” program for training laymen to share their faith. Soon, the church began to experience great growth and Dr. Kennedy was given celebrity status in preaching conferences across America. In the last few decades of his ministry, he was constantly on television. From that pulpit and in print, he preached a message of conservative Christian doctrine and conservative politics through which he called this nation to return to Christ.

Now, the new pastor is the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham by their oldest daughter Gigi. His name is Tullian Tchividjian. The newspaper even tells how to pronounce his name: TUH’-lee-uhn chuh-VI-dee-uhn.

“But some Kennedy loyalists, including his daughter Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, are upset with the direction Tchividjian is taking the church and have called for his ouster.” (T-P article)

So, what is this heretic doing that would provoke such a hostile reaction?

First, he looks different. “His hair is spiky, his beard sometimes scruffy, his skin tan. He has forgone wearing a choir robe at services.”

In other words, he looks like half the young pastors in America.

Second, “he has rejected politics as the most important way to change the country.”

A letter circulating through the church from the dissidents charges the young pastor with deceiving the leadership when they first considered him for their pulpit. And just how? They’re not saying.

Is it theology? Is Tchividjian preaching false doctrine? Nope. Apparently, they have no trouble with that.

There is the matter that the new pastor brought in the staff from his previous church (New City Presbyterian) and “they have taken complete control.”

The letter accuses the pastor and his staff of “violations of ethical standards that have guarded the purity of the church for decades.”

What violations, what standards? They’re not saying.

When invited to a meeting to discuss these matters, the dissidents did not show up.

Now, I’m tempted to say here “I don’t have a dog in this fight” and leave it there. But I do have one. Every disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ has something at stake every time a church goes through this kind of internal conflict.

If indeed there are important ethical or biblical standards being violated, then the plaintiffs–if they’re not to that point yet, it would appear they’re getting close–should speak up and say so.

If not, I have some counsel for them: walk away from this.

It ain’t your father’s church, dear.

In fact, it never was his church. That church existed before D. James Kennedy arrived on the scene. God called him there and used him there, but please note–at no time did the Lord God turn over ownership of Coral Ridge Church to that pastor and his descendants or supporters.

“Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:25) “Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

It’s His church. Not the pastor’s and not the former pastor’s. The church does not belong to the denomination, not to the membership, and most definitely not to the heavy givers or members with the longest seniority.

Give it back to Him, folks.

No pastor worthy of the calling of God enters a new assignment asking, “Okay, now, what would my predecessor want me to do here?”

When Steve Horn took the reins of the great First Baptist Church of Lafayette, Louisiana–which incidentally is a larger church than the Coral Ridge congregation–the longtime and well-loved pastor Perry Sanders was still in the church. But while he honored this illustrious pastor–we all adore Brother Perry–Steve preached his own messages and is leading the church as he feels God is leading him.

It’s how these things are done. And to my knowledge, Perry Sanders is fine with that. He knows it wasn’t his church, even though he assumed its leadership in 1959 and served for almost half a century. That church is a phenomenon, planted in the heart of Catholic Cajun country and one of the largest congregations in the state.

When the longtime pastor retires or goes to Heaven and a new pastor arrives, nothing is the same thereafter.

It’s the nature of things. It ‘s how we would plan it ourselves if it were left to you and me. It’s how a church keeps from becoming a historical society and dying and regenerates itself for a thriving ministry to a new generation.

No one in Coral Ridge is asking for my advice, and were I to give it, I’m confident the response would be a version of, “There’s so much you don’t understand; the newspaper article did not give our side of it.”

No question. No matter.

Walk away from it, folks, those of you who are upset with the directions the new pastor is leading.

The French had a saying when a monarch passed on: “Le roi est morte; vive le roi.” The king is dead; long live the king.

I’ve told on these pages and will not go into the story of how a local church experienced a similar schism in the early part of this decade. The pastor for over 50 years was gone and a new pastor had arrived to take over. In this case, he seems to have been leading the church precisely as the founding minister had done–a one-man rule. Problem is, he had not earned the trust of the congregation or the right to make such unilateral decisions.

In short order, there was a lawsuit against the pastor and the church’s trustees. In my position as the new leader of the Baptist churches of our association, the plaintiffs invited me to hear their side of the story before things went further. At the end, I said, “My advice is to drop it and walk away. No one wins in these things except the lawyers.”

I’ll never forget their answer: “We can’t. It’s gone too far for that now.”

That was not so and is almost never the case. But they went ahead, a trial ensued, and the eventual result was a vindication of sorts for the pastor but such heavy attorneys’ fees that the church soon had to be absorbed by a larger church to avoid bankruptcy. The dissidents–all of them solid Christian people in my estimation–joined other local churches or relocated out of the area following Hurricane Katrina. No doubt some members of their group are still mortgaged to the attorneys.

No one ever wins except the lawyers and the enemy of the Lord’s church.

One of the most liberating doctrines in the entire Scripture ought to be carved in stone and erected at the entrance of every church building: “This is the Lord’s Church.”

Thank God it’s not mine. And thank Him it isn’t yours.

Now, some of us need to quit messing with His church and put our eyes back on Jesus Christ.

It’s the only way to live.

16 thoughts on “About That Church Fight

  1. Amen! Preach on! The church is the pure undefiled bride of Christ and populated by sinners saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. I like your advice, walk away. The world is watching.

    The Church should be evidenced by showing love to each other as Christians and to the world as ambassadors for Christ. The love action by the Church often “speak” louder than our words.

    Dr J

  2. Bro. Joe,

    When I read that article about Coral Ridge in the paper, my thoughts went to what we went through in the local church fight you mentioned. It was truly awful because I had friends on both sides of the issue.

    I really enjoyed the writings and preaching of Dr. Kennedy and at first, I was tempted to side with his daughter, but then realized exactly what you mentioned in your article, the church belongs to God.

    If the new pastor takes the church in a new direction, how do we know that is not exactly what God wants to happen?

    BTW, the pastor involved in the local church fight you mentioned once told me that he feels for the pastor who eventually takes over from Dr. Charles Stanley at FBC in Atlanta.

    All I can say to that is, Amen!

  3. My brother Russell was one of the original 27 which formed the church in Ft Lauderdale [not Miami]. I knew Dr Kennedy personally and know he wouldn’t like what is going on there. they have switched from formal traditional worship to contemporary, and have sold some of the church’s holdings which headquartered evangelism explosion and knox seminary.

  4. Unfortunately this syndrome is common. All too often when a long-time popular pastor leaves, the next guy is a sacrificial lamb to enable the church to get over it. The subsequent pastor is then free to have a good ministry. Ck out FBC Dallas after Criswell. Took awhile for even that famous church to settle down. I want to be very competitive in sports, and leave the competition on the playing field.

  5. Who in the world would expect things to continue the same after a pastor retires or passes on? They have not been to a McDonalds lately…

    All change means loss and loss is hard. Living in Dr. Kennedy’s shadow would not be easy. I respect the new pastor for following his calling.

    I am always amazed at how people take up the charge for “God” and how church wars are the worst wars. But again, we are in a spiritual battle – right?

  6. When I first typed this article, I quoted the Times-Picayune in saying Coral Ridge Church is in Miami. Thanks to Dr. Foltz for calling our attention to its being in Fort Lauderdale. You’ll notice I changed that in the lead paragraph.

  7. when are we allowed to do what Jesus did? He didn’t clean out every synagogue but He did take a stand for righteousness in the Temple. is there EVER a reason to stand up against unrighteousness? your article makes no allowance for biblical (unbiblical?) wrongdoing by a person who has been called to lead God’s people. your kenner church called at least one who it seems was not walking in obedience. should a congregation sit still (we are talking baptist) while its leader manipulates, lies, steals, ruins reputations? on whose testimony do you base your statement that the local church went under due to exorbitant attorneys’ fees? did you consider that the local man ran off the members he considered disloyal to HIMSELF (those are his words) not disoyal to God or the church? it’s true that there are 3 sides to a story (yours, mine, God’s truth). it’s also true that when the local folks appealed to baptist leaders NO ONE helped; they believed the man’s every lie, taking the easy way out–“they don’t like me ’cause i’m not the dead guy.” in the long view, God’s will prevails, as Dennis Watson said. “by their fruit you shall know them…every man shall have praise of God.” we’ll see in eternity how God cleans up all our messes.

  8. Bro.Mckeever, How sad to hear this news about Coral Ridge. As others have said this happens too often. I wonder if long tenured, well loved pastors like Criswell, etc could have done more to prepare the congregation for the transition? People have a hard time accepting this new generation type pastor, but that’s what is available. It seems to me more needs to be done BEFORE he steps down.

  9. Hey, Joe. Great post. And too bad some anonymous person decided to do a drive by on you. Oh, well. One of my mentors used to say that an anonymous letter is written by a coward. And look at the anger and unforgiveness. Seems to me the Bible has words about forgiveness and unity and lawsuits between believers. Truly “by their fruit you shall know them” (originally said by Jesus and not Dennis, though). Indeed.

  10. A friend of mine was telling me recently that in her denomination the standard practice is to have an interim minister for a few years before calling a new pastor. This gives the congregation some breathing room, to determine what sort of a minister would be a good fit for where they are now and where they are going before starting the search process. Otherwise they’re too likely to be looking for someone exactly like (or diametrically opposed from!) their last minister. Building some breathing room into the process makes it easier for the new minister to be his own person. It seems like a good strategy to me.

    I’ve read articles with other prominent ministers talking about how important it is to have a succession plan in place, to identify their successor years ahead of time and plan out how to gradually shift over the reins so the eventual handover is not jarring for the congregation. I understand the sentiment, and fully believe their hearts are in the right place, but it seems to leave so little space for growing and adapting for changing needs, and so likely to end up with a minister who is very similar to the retiring pastor when maybe the retiring pastor’s ministry was God-honoring and wonderful, but the congregation’s next step needs to be also God-honoring and wonderful but in a different way.

  11. read it one more time, Mr. Miller, and note where the commas and periods are. i apologize that my questions were perceived as a drive-by; that was not my intent. did you read my “name”? i haven’t healed from the personal or corporate hurts that many of us experienced during this trauma; four years later, i’m only beginning the walk of forgiveness. to tell folks to walk away from every disagreement bothers me. arguing about the color of the carpets? walk away. arguing about the budget? arguing about forcing staff members say it’s their own idea to leave? arguing about lying to the board? where should we draw the line? i’m STILL just asking…

  12. I understand the point of view from the Pastor and I also understand the feelings of the congregation. Dr. Joe has presented the real issue, CHANGE. However, have the Church’s constitution & bylaws been trampled on by either side? If not, then Dr. Joe is entirely correct. If the new Pastor has discarded these legal instruments to bypass the authority of the congregation then perhaps that Church should no longer have non-profit status. Regardless of spiritual issues, everyone has a moral obligation to observe the Church’s constitution & bylaws until they are properly changed. The Pastor should have the full support of the Deacons & congregation. If someone is unhappy and can’t be consoled, there are over 250 evangelical Churches in the Greater New Orleans area.

  13. Dr. Joe,

    Thanks for the positive word about our transition at FBC, Lafayette. When I first read about Coral Ridge, I paused immediately to thank the Father, as I have done many times before, for my situation. We have made four years already.

    Some have suggested that Bro. Perry and I put in article form or book form our story. The only problem with that is neither of us could put into words anything that we uniquely did. Just God’s grace, common sense, and as you said, an understanding that it’s His Church.

    Steve Horn

  14. Currently this church generation is fighting a barrage of attacks in the name of Yahweh that has nothing to do with Him. And they are using today’s culture and media to appeal to the unchurched, the disgruntled church, the lost, those that say, “Yes this is my Bible, but I’ll never open it again” and those that think “if it ain’t entertaining, it ain’t church.” “They” are leading in the culture war of the religions because we (the Christian church) continue to come to church and sit down in the pew and say, “Ok God, what in it for me today?” and then we wonder why the average “Joe Church”(sorry Joe!) is as shallow as he is and he fights change as hard as he does. Instead we should be saying, “Ok God, how can I love you with my life today?” If we stand still in the current context of a previous generation and do not embrace change AS GOD LEADS, then we risk being the last Christian generation. Church is NOT reactive it’s proactive, that what the Great Commission tells me!

    Shout out to Bro. Perry…I think you should write that book…!

  15. Reminds me of what Tommy Bowden said when asked if he’d like to follow his daddy, Bobby Bowden, as Florida State’s football coach. He said, “Nope, I want to follow the guy who follows Daddy.”

  16. Dear anonymous person,

    Four years, and only “beginning the walk of forgiveness”? Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:21-22; Ephesians 4:30-32. Four years? How can a Christian carry a grudge that long? How can a Christian hold on to anger like that? Oh, I pray that you draw near to Jesus that you might find forgiveness and cleansing for your bitterness. You are only hurting yourself by clinging to the past. It is past time to walk away. It is by our love that the world will recognize us as His. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is what we are too often known for–and the point I think Joe was trying to make.

    It just so happens that this past Sunday, I preached on this, and I told our congregation that when someone offends you, the first thing is to speak to no one about it. Then, forgive, forgive, forgive. In fact, we are to show love to those who we perceive as enemies. I wonder how you are expressing your love to those who hurt you.

    I also addressed what to do when the church or church leadership does something you don’t like (other than preaching false doctrine or commiting an immoral, illegal, or unethical act). I said, “You have two choices. You can complain and be an agent of disunity, or you can be positive and be an agent of unity.” I know that people like to refer to Jesus turning over the tables. But guess, what–that’s not what we’re talking about, and it’s not “our house.” It’s His.

    I really do hope you find forgiveness in the Lord.

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