For six years, two bloggers at a website called The Elephant’s Debt have raised questions about an influential evangelical pastor and his Chicago-area megachurch, criticizing his leadership style and the church’s finances.
Now, claiming that reputation-harming “false information” published by the bloggers caused 2,000 people to leave the congregation, pastor James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel are fighting back — with a defamation lawsuit.
The suit names the bloggers, their wives and a freelance reporter writing about the church for a major evangelical magazine.
“We are indeed living in an age of rage, fueled by ‘fake news’ where the presumption of innocence has almost universally given way to the presumption of guilt,” MacDonald wrote recently in explaining the lawsuit to the church’s friends, including its 12,000 attendees at seven locations in Illinois.
“No more sitting by doing nothing while digital attackers ravage the body of Christ,” the pastor added later in the online statement. Through a public relations firm, MacDonald declined an interview request from Religion News Service.
In a number of posts over the years, bloggers Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant have cited what they characterize as the “low character,” “greed” and “love of money and power” of MacDonald, founding and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, which is based in Rolling Meadows, Ill. Mahoney is a former teacher at the church-affiliated Harvest Christian Academy. Bryant is a former Harvest Bible Chapel member.
The church disputes the way the bloggers have characterized MacDonald and their allegations about the church’s finances. The lawsuit claims Mahoney left the church after his Harvest Christian Academy contract was not renewed because of his criticism of MacDonald’s sermons. Bryant, the lawsuit claims, left “after being declined a teaching opportunity he repeatedly pursued.”
Mahoney and Bryant declined an interview request from RNS, citing the advice of counsel. They have defended their blogging on their site.
“While the authors of this website would never have chosen to resolve our differences in a litigious manner,” Mahoney and Bryant said at The Elephant’s Debt after the lawsuit was filed, “we are confident that the legal process will ultimately uphold the values of the first amendment right to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, all of which are essential to safeguarding the values of the Protestant Reformation and our common life.”
The lawsuit, filed last month in the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, lists five defendants: Mahoney and Bryant, their wives and Julie Roys, an independent journalist and former talk show host for Moody Radio, a Christian network.
“These bloggers have First Amendment rights to criticize the church,” said Kenneth Pybus, a journalist and lawyer who teaches media law at Abilene Christian University in Texas and reviewed the lawsuit at the request of RNS. “They don’t have First Amendment rights to lie about the church and damage the church’s reputation.”
However, a doctrine in the law called “substantial truth” could give protection to a “technically false” statement — such as the amount of a church’s debt — “if the gist of the message, or the overall message, is still true,” Pybus said.
Roys is accused of conspiring with The Elephant’s Debt authors and “asserting false allegations” against the plaintiffs, who include MacDonald and other church leaders. Roys referred questions to her attorney, Charles Philbrick, who said she has no connection with The Elephant’s Debt and “categorically denies any wrongdoing.”
“As to Mrs. Roys, the complaint doesn’t actually explain or show what it is that she said that was supposedly untrue,” Philbrick said, noting that Roys’ personal blog makes no mention of MacDonald and contains only a positive reference to Harvest Bible Chapel in an interview of a worship leader.
Until the lawsuit was filed, The Elephant’s Debt — a blog name inspired by The Elephant Room, a controversial theological conference run by MacDonald — had not published a new post since December 2017.
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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Bobby Ross Jr.