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Three pastors have abruptly resigned this summer from Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, signaling a "painful and confusing moment" at a megachurch that gained national prominence under longtime pastor John Piper.

The pastors cited several reasons for resigning, including how the church's leadership council has handled race and diversity issues, and what one labeled a "bullying" and "toxic" culture toward those who hold different opinions.

At least one of the pastors said he was disturbed over the council's refusal to distance the church from remarks about abused women by the incoming president of the church's college and seminary.

The tensions at Bethlehem reflect the fractures rocking the nation's evangelical Christian community as it finds its way in a climate of racial reckoning and the MeToo movement, sparking challenges that stretch from Washington, D.C., to Texas.

Congregation meetings have been held to help members process the sudden exodus of pastors, including Jason Meyer, the senior pastor who succeeded Piper in 2013.

"I believe our leadership culture has taken a turn in an unhealthy direction as we try to navigate conflict and division," Meyer wrote in his July resignation letter. "Institutional protection can go too far when other viewpoints are unwelcome."

Former care and counseling pastor Bryan Pickering, who also resigned, went further and claimed there was "domineering leadership, spiritual abuse and a toxic culture."

Members of the church's 40-member leadership team, called the Council of Elders, said they strongly disagreed with Pickering's assessment, though they said they may invite outside training to address issues raised.

Most elders believe "we have a diversity of opinions, views and perspective," according to a recent statement to the congregation.

"Bethlehem is not characterized by a domineering culture," said lead pastor for operations Jon Grano. "We don't take lightly that some people perceive this."

But Dave Zuleger, lead pastor for Bethlehem's Lakeville campus, acknowledged the toll the allegations have taken on the congregation.

"This is another painful and confusing moment for us," Zuleger wrote in a letter to the congregation following Meyer's resignation. "I'm personally heartbroken."

Tensions are such that Bethlehem has postponed its 150th anniversary celebration, originally scheduled for this month, to November. No successor to Meyer has been chosen.

Widely known church

Religion observers across the country have watched the resignations at Bethlehem, particularly because it's the birthplace of Piper's global influence. The church's senior pastor for three decades, Piper is an internationally known theologian and bestselling author with 1 million followers on social media. He remains chancellor at the affiliated Bethlehem College and Seminary, downtown next to the church.

Piper, 75, has not publicly commented on either the sudden resignations of Meyer, who left in July; Pickering, who left in June; or Ming-Jinn Tong, the downtown outreach pastor, who left in May. But interviews and correspondence with the departing pastors and congregation members point to several underlying issues.

One stems from church officials' response to a "racial harmony" task force in 2019, which analyzed the diversity of the church's leadership or lack thereof, and made numerous recommendations to recruit and retain members to the council, made up overwhelmingly of white men.

Task force members wanted the 85-page report to be sent to the congregation, but it wasn't. Some elders charged the report was influenced by Marxism and critical race theory, task force members said. The elders now say the report will be released.

"We believe that in the absence of biblical clarity, ethnic harmony becomes a 'wax nose' that we can shape and twist any way we like," according to a Council of Elders statement. "We simply cannot allow politics or secular culture to define our terms or determine our beliefs."

Likewise, talking about "the sins of racism" or spousal abuse from the pulpit was not welcomed, Pickering said.

Another flash point occurred after church members became aware of Bethlehem College and Seminary President Joe Rigney's appearance on an episode of "Man Rampant," an Amazon Prime video series hosted by controversial religious figure Doug Wilson. In a discussion about what to do when a woman reports physical abuse to a pastor, Wilson and Rigney stressed it was important not to immediately believe her until they've heard the abuser's side of the story.

Upset church members introduced a motion at a Council of Elders meeting this year, asking that the full council "make a written, public statement separating the views expressed by Joe Rigney in Man Rampant from the views and teachings of Bethlehem Baptist Church."

A council member who had given the episode a five-star online review threatened to resign if the motion passed. It was tabled.

The elders had mixed reactions to the video, said pastor for church planting Kenny Stokes, but concluded "it was not the role of elders to put disclaimers on things."

Church leaders declined to sanction a seminary professor who had been accused by a dozen students of abusive behavior. An investigation later determined there were no legal violations.

"Any challenge is viewed as a threat," charged Johnathon Bowers, who resigned last fall after 10 years teaching at the college and seminary.

The tensions reflect the challenges for evangelical leaders seeking to address contemporary ethical and social issues without going against their church's interpretation of the Bible — and without being accused of drifting toward liberalism.

That's true around the country and at the heart of conflicts for the largest of the various Baptist denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention, said Barry Hankins, a history professor specializing in evangelical culture at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"Evangelicals don't want to give on these issues," said Hankins. "There is a heightened worry of a slippery slope."

Over the past year, several Black pastors have left the Southern Baptist Convention over the denomination's opposition to critical race theory. McLean Bible Church, an influential evangelical megachurch outside Washington, D.C., even faced an attempted takeover this year over a perceived liberal shift.

The church responds

Stokes attributes some of the tensions and resignations at Bethlehem to the impact of the nation's climate of polarization.

"You talk about racial issues too much, and some people will say 'I'm leaving the church,' " he said. "You don't talk enough about racial issues, and people say 'I'm leaving.' "

In response to the resignations, the church has sent out Meyer's resignation letter to the congregation along with its own comments on his stated reasons for leaving, and is hosting meetings to discuss it.

While leaders disagree that Bethlehem has a toxic culture of domineering leadership, the spate of resignations has shown a need for reevaluation.

"We need to be open to ongoing evaluation of leadership," said Stokes. "We need to agree on a grievance policy and protocols. We need to improve leadership culture in terms of accountability and approachability."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511