I believe this last article touches on the most arrogant, egregious change made to the bylaws.
The other three articles:
Now, the last portion:
Under the new by-laws, Article XIV entitled "Discipline", Section 2 is explained a process that must be followed for any church member that has a "grievance" against the church, including Pastor and/or staff. The process involves first Matthew 18 reconciliation, followed by arbitation with the Florida Baptist Convention. But after this process is explained in Section 2, the section closes with this statement:
"By joining this Church, all members agree that biblical conciliation efforts shall provide the sole remedy for any dispute arising against the Church. All members waive the right to file any legal action against the Church in a civil court or agency."
So defining a process was not enough. The Pastor and the Trustees decided to go the extra step and include this clause that members can't bring any legal action against the church.
As students who have learned from Mac Brunson over the last 3 years, we know in order to understand why this change was made we should look at the historical context within which these changes were made. What was happening in Jacksonville, and in the SBC that would make our leaders want to declare that all of its members have given away their right to file legal action against their church without telling them why?
Since our pastor and the president of the Trustees moderating the business meeting didn't explain this clause, or explain why this was necessary, they must not have wanted us to know. So we will be good students of history...and the Watchdog notes two prominent events that may have served as the impetus for such a change to our bylaws:
1. Trinity Baptist Church and the Bob Gray scandal; and
2. Two-Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, TN
Trinity Baptist and Bob Gray
During 2006 and into the spring of 2007, the news about the sexual abuse by Jacksonville's Trinity Baptist Church's former pastor, Bob Gray, was front and center in Jacksonville. This formerly beloved pastor was accused of sexual molestation of little boys and girls at the church's school and church in the 1980's and 1990's. Lawsuits ("legal action") were brought against the church by the victims seeking monetary compensation for the terrible pain and suffering that was inflicted on them by their pastor. Some of the lawsuits were thrown out because of the statute of limitations, but some are still working their way through the courts. Click here for a list of First Coast News articles on the subject.
What is amazing is that Trinity Baptist Church denies any wrong-doing in these matters, even though First Coast News has reported that there was a cover-up and that the current pastor stated he knew of the abuse when it was going on. Obviously their church had a faulty system of church governance and discipline. There was such a lack of accountability between the pastor and the congregation, they put the pastor on such a high pedestal...that it provided a fertile environment for a monster like Bob Gray to operate for years. So yes, the church, the ones that allowed this monster to feast on little boys and girls, shares in the responsibility and liability.
One wonders: does Mac Brunson and our lay leaders who dreamed up this new clause in our bylaws think that these victims are wrong to bring a lawsuit against Trinity? They must, because OUR bylaws now state that we are to bring NO legal action against the church under any circumstances. The question becomes: if our pastor or any staff member or even layperson is accused of sexual molestation, and there is evidence that the church's negligence contributed to it, does the church leadership expect the victims to never bring a lawsuit under any circumstances? If they do, will the victims be thrown out of the church using the church discipline process? Does our church leadership think it wrong and immoral for a Christian to seek relief within our legal system when abusive church leaders harm them and won't admit to their wrong doing? We see that Trinity will not admit to ANY wrong-doing...so legal action is the only recourse available. Is our church leadership seeking to shield itself from lawsuits by this clause in the by-laws? It sure makes one wonder, since the timing of these by-law changes came right after the news of the many lawsuits against Trinity Baptist Church.
Two Rivers Baptist Church
Back in early 2007, a church squabble erupted at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The Watchdog has blogged about their church dispute several times (here and here). What started out in 2006 as some members having questions about how money was spent and personnel decisions made, grew into a dispute where some 70+ members brought a lawsuit against the church to gain access to spending and salary records at the church after they claim their questions were not answered sufficiently. The lawsuit gained national attention in SBC circles - but the judge threw out the lawsuit but did allow some access to records. The members who brought the lawsuit were voted out of the church for their diviseness. Eventually the hurt ran so deep that the pastor resigned last July and now is a professor at Liberty University.
Perhaps the pastor and our trustees watched the events unfold at Two Rivers Baptist Church, and they feared that some at FBC Jax might make the same maneuver as did the "recalcitrants" at Two Rivers and take legal action to have access to records like pastor and pastor wife salary and benefits, A-Group church marketing expenditures, personnel records related to staff departures, etc. This by-law change gives the church grounds to withdraw the membership of anyone bringing any kind of legal acction, effictively nullifying their right to have access to any church information since their membership can be revoked for having brought legal action. Brilliant move, if the purpose is to let the pastor and trustees now AND IN THE FUTURE know that what they do with the money can NEVER be found out by the people giving it.
OK, what now? The by-law changes are made. The Watchdog still says that a legal challenge could be brought to nullify the new bylaws, unless the church can prove that 2000 members were present and voting on November 28, 2007. Given attendance at Wednesday night services, its likely there were less than 2000 members on that night and without casting ballots, there is no way to prove it.
FBC Jax members should consider:
- this kind of clause empowers abusers (in the present and far into the future) and is another move in the direction of LESS accountability and LESS transparency. This clause makes it rock-solid, 100% certain that no lay person can get their hands on any financial records of the church that the church leadership doesn't want them to see.
- did we really want to forfeit our right, and the right of future church members to bring legal action against the church? Could there not conceivably be SOME reason in the future, whether with this pastor or some other pastor, that would be a reason for the laity to have the force of law at their disposal for church records?
- if through our church's negligence we or our children are harmed, and the church and/or their insurance carrier refuses to settle for damages and a lawsuit is brought...do we really want the church to be able to kick that member out of the church?
- what does this say about the pastor and church lay leadership that they would make this change and NOT desire to explain it to people that they know are voting on it?
- should members resign their membership to preserve their "right" to bring legal action?
- what does this say, once again, about how the leadership views the laity? They lay out a process by which grievances are to be resolved, but to make sure the stupid sheep don't ever bring a lawsuit under any circumstances, we need to tell them in the bylaws that they forfeit their right to bring legal action.
Well, that is all on the by-law changes. Again, if any member wants to read them for his/herself, they can be checked out at the library.
The overall lesson here in these articles for churches, especially mega churches where these kinds of shenanigans are more likely to occur: if you're going to propose significant changes in your church by-laws that affect how the church is governed, how off-budget spending is approved, how church discipline will be exacted on its members, and rights that members forfeit as a condition of membership....MAKE SURE YOU DO YOUR DEAD-LEVEL BEST TO EXPLAIN AND COMMUNICATE THESE CHANGES TO YOUR CONGREGATION BEFORE YOU TAKE A VOTE. If you're not willing to distribute these changes and openly explain them and allow questions in an open forum: DON'T MAKE THE CHANGES!!