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.