Guest Post: Deciphering the Language of Harvest Bible Chapel

I recently read this insightful article by Wade Mullen, the director of the M.Div. program at Capital Seminary & Graduate School, and was so taken with it, I asked Mullen’s permission to reprint here. Thankfully, he consented. Mullen is a former pastor with a doctorate in leadership and clearly is skilled in detecting spiritual abuse and training others to do the same. 

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who create divisions and obstacles that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Turn away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Rom. 16:17-18)

I have been closely following the news about James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel since World Magazine published an article in December about alleged “financial mismanagement,” “deception,” and “intimidation.” I read the statement HBC released shortly after and was immediately concerned by what I saw in that statement. Here is what I observed in their first 153 words.

It is a sad day when once-credible Christian publications consider the opinions of a few disgruntled former members, already rehashed ad nauseam, of greater weight than the carefully expressed viewpoint of a plurality of local church Elders.

Even though the story was about specific wrongs done to others, they brought attention to their own pain and how “sad” it was they were being exposed. This tactic is called supplication and is meant to cause others to grant them the compassion and support people would normally give to the wronged.

They then used a tactic I call “tarnishing.” Just as your shoes might effect your overall appearance if they are tarnished, they sought to increase public condemnation of the whistleblowers by suggesting they lacked credibility, were motived by malice, and were alone in their concerns.

Dr. Wade Mullen

The former members and journalist were further tarnished by the suggestion that their concerns had been “rehashed ad nauseam” — brought up repeatedly to the point that they had become irritating and unproductive. People were then led to see them as disgruntled former members who couldn’t move on.

Acknowledging that this wasn’t the first time they were hearing about the accusations required them to then focus on defending their own credibility. At that point they were simultaneously managing the impressions the public was forming of the whistleblowers as well as the impressions the public was forming of their leadership.

They used a tactic I call “polishing.” Just as your shoes improve your overall appearance when polished, the organization sought to improve public approval of their leadership by suggesting they were credible, careful, and greater in number.

By stating the behavior was addressed by others who continued to support James MacDonald, and later even signed their unconditional support, they used them as a witness to his legitimacy. Members were then forced into rejecting the polished credibility of all their leaders if they were to accept the tarnished credibility of the whistleblowers.

I believe the whistleblowers are truthful, concerned for the well-being of others, and compelled by a responsibility to speak up. This tarnishing then is a seriously devious tactic of deception that makes those in the right appear wrong at great cost to the harmed. And knowing the leadership was being less than truthful, concerned for its own reputation, and compelled by a desire to remain in power, this polishing was a seriously devious tactic of deception that sought to make those in the wrong appear right at great cost to the harmed.

Harvest Bible Chapel has owned its mistakes and endured to become a happier and healthier church, whose members recently pledged — financially, in their walk/work for Christ, and in their promise to share Christ with others — at unprecedented levels.

They then claimed to have “owned” their “mistakes.” Hidden underneath labels like “mistakes” is a desire to escape penalty in which the harm done to others is acknowledged but the need for any significant consequences is denied. It’s a form of excuse called “denial of intention” that says, “This was accidental behavior that caused unintentional harm and is unlikely to happen again. Had we known of the harm, we would have made a different decision.” People tend to excuse honest mistakes.

These events are then described as something the leadership had to “endure,” revealing a perspective that sees one’s self as the primary object of harm. It is another type of excuse that denies responsibility by giving others the impression events were outside of their control. We “endure” harm that happens to us and is unmanageable. We change behavior that is causing harm and within our conrol.

The claim is then made that the product of their endurance is a “happier and healthier church.” People are asked to believe that the behaviors from the past are no longer in the present. Not only that, people are asked to credit them for their endurance in the face of challenges which produced greater happiness and health. People are made to see the mistakes of its leaders in a positive light and even be thankful for them.

Just as the elders were used as witnesses of Jame’s qualification to lead, the members were then used as witnesses of the church’s happiness and health. These members were exemplified — “happier and healthier than ever before.” Now any who sided with the credibility of the whistleblowers also had to side against the credibility of the members. Members were also reminded of their “pledge” and their “promise” as a way to exploit their loyalty to the organization.

They then entered into what I think is the very heart of spiritual abuse with this statement:

The anticipated attack that comes with God’s kingdom moving forward has come, sadly, not from those in the world but from other professing Christians.

Not only do the whistleblowers lack credibility, good motives, or support from others, but they are apparently working as agents against God’s kingdom. They are not just made out to be the enemies of the church. They are casted as the very enemies of God. The people were indirectly led to believe that a choice to side with the whistleblowers would be a choice to be God’s enemy and a choice to side with the church would be a choice to be God’s friend.

This also provides people the justification they need to be saddened and upset, not over the church’s actions, but over the actions of the whistleblowers who were launching an attack against God’s kingdom. They were then asked to expect this kind of attack from the “world” but not from true Christians, bringing into question the spiritual state of the whistleblowers.

It can be hard for those who receive these messages to side against the church when such lies are planted in their minds.

We have chosen the high road and refused to engage in public assault on people we once served closely with who just can’t seem to “let it go,” even after all these years. The Elders are privy to many grace-filled private attempts to reconcile, extended in hopes that these unhappy Christians would find peace.

Having tarnished the credibility and motives of the magazine, the journalist, and former employees; having pitted them against God Himself; and having aligned them with the non-believing world, the church then argued to have “chosen the high road.” This is the heart of hypocrisy: claiming to be righteous while holding a rod of oppression.

It was the whistleblowers who took the difficult high road of truth-telling in the face of those who had taken the easy low road of truth-repelling. Harvest attempted to turn that landscape upside-down.

This rotating of the map gave others the impression that the organization was taking the difficult high road of pursuing peace, inviting reconciliation, maintaining confidentiality, letting go of the past, demonstrating love, and promoting unity; while also giving the impression that those speaking out had taken the easy low road of pursuing revenge, rejecting reconciliation, spreading gossip, harboring bitterness, demonstrating hate, and promoting division.

They went on to claim the former members were engaging in a public assault, which they viewed as a betrayal of the close relationship they once had. This indirectly put the blame for any relational losses on the shoulders of the former members, and and also painted them as those who would betray loyalties and friendships.

They never refuted the substance of the concerns raised by the former members or journalist, only their right to raise the concerns, concerns which they suggested no longer had relevance since they were handled “so long ago.” I call this tactic “distancing.” Knowing people tend to care more about recent and current wrongs, the organization gave the impression that the concerns were in the distant past. This also fit their narrative of becoming a happier and healthier church.

Even though claims made by the whistleblowers were backed up with detailed evidence, claims made by the leadership amounted to saying “just trust us.” They repeatedly defined the situation for others through ambigious statements knowing the details had the power to disrupt that definition. This explains why they acted swiftly to bury those details once they began to emerge.

Drawing attention to their “many grace-filled private attempts to reconcile” also gave people the impression the church was in the right, willing to extend grace to those who were in the wrong, patient, committed to protecting another’s privacy, and desirous of reconciliation. This indirectly presented an alternative impression of the whistleblowers of being in the wrong, unwilling to receive or extend grace, impatient, unwilling to maintain privacy, and rejecting of reconciliation.

All of these deceptions and dynamics of spiritual abuse are contained in a mere 153 words. This is extremely concerning when you consider the thousands of people who sit under an organization that exists largely because of its communication. It is no wonder that many who have left describe a systemic culture of spiritual abuse.

These statements are indicative of an organization governed by deception.

A Postscript:

I have been troubled by Christianity Today’s publishing of James Macdonald’s op-ed in which he defended the church’s decision to sue the former elders wives, the former elders, and the journalist. It is not unusual for exposed and threatened powerful leaders to turn to outside friendly systems for support and help. I am not exactly sure who James turned to at Christianity Today, but the editor in chief, Mark Galli, acknowledged making the final call to publish the piece despite debate from within his staff (which is a concern in and of itself.)

Christianity Today’s primary defense strategy for why it published the piece is a type of justification in which a party acknowledges the concerns, concedes the basic facts about the decision, but argues the decision was just by appealing to historical and industry practices. Their specific appeal was to a past decision to allow Andy Stanley the space to defend his views on the authority of the Old Testament.

This is not a valid justification. James MacDonald was not simply defending a controversial view on lawsuits. He was defending the harmful action of suing innocent people; an action that I believe was meant to intimidate and threaten. Christianity Today empowered that action when they chose to give James MacDonald a platform. They should have listened to the wisdom of those on their staff who disagreed with the decision. I suggest they retract that article and publicly apologize for publishing it.

Below is the full statement Harvest posted on December 13, 2018, but has since removed from its website:

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35 thoughts on “Guest Post: Deciphering the Language of Harvest Bible Chapel

  1. FedUP

    We made a commitment to the Lord during the Closer campaign and will keep our commitment – but will direct our finances and efforts that we pledged to other organizations until HBC cleans house.

    • _StandForTruth_

      Good call. We’ve done the same. Our tithes and offerings are currently being directed towards kingdom work elsewhere and we feel so much better about it than we ever did when we tithed at Harvest.

      This article is wonderful and eye opening. At the time the Harvest statement was alarming but quickly reinforced by several individuals in leadership. They also told us to not bother to read the article from Julie but rather to read Harvest’s response in CT. So manipulative and controlling.

      Can we please also talk about the closer campaign and how disturbing “creative giving” is? For real, that needs to be discussed.

      • Marc Rettus

        Sorry, the consensus teaching of the tithe is the tithe MUST go to the local church.

        OTOH, I don’t give anything to any Christian organization, and I just keep getting blessed beyond my belief.

        No one can explain that.

    • Kimberly

      What is The Closer Campaign? More money to HBC?

      • _StandForTruth_

        Yup. But this time with a disturbing aspect. They called it “creative giving.” Basically you can donate your cars, boats, houses, jewelry, gold…anything like that. So messed up. And interestingly enough, I tried accessing the harvest closer website (harvestcloser.org) and it appears to not be working now. Hmmm…

        • formerharvestmember

          Yep, the website is down. Just a blank screen. Good riddance.

  2. FedUP

    There were many times when we felt manipulated – especially when James & Sons kept saying “don’t have God’s money in your house” – but, thought maybe it was the Holy Spirit tugging at our own pride – we wanted to do the right thing – even when we got James’ Christmas Card with the whole family around his Harley and in their poser leathers – something didn’t feel right, but James wouldn’t lie to us, would he?…..

    • Watching and Praying

      Do pastors in churches outside the Harvest network send full color picture Christmas cards of themselves to everyone in their church?

      • Marja Rausa

        yes–at my church they send picture of all the staff with spouse and kids.

      • Kimberly

        Nope—not in at church we’ve been in or even heard of, Watching and Praying.

    • Marc Rettus

      I would call you a chump. Sorry.

  3. K (ex staff member)

    Just saw that Willow sent HBC cupcakes as a kind gesture. Oh… if Willow only knew how much crap the MacDonalds and staff would say about Willow behind their backs. HBC has never liked or showed respect to Willow. What a joke.

  4. Susan Vonder Heide

    Happy talk public relations is a poor substitute for biblical servant leadership.

  5. David Jankowski

    Unfortunately, self-justification is the default response of most of us when we feel attacked. I know it’s true for me.

  6. David Jankowski

    I should have added: The heart of man is deceitful, and desperately wicked, who can comprehend it. Jeremiah 17:9.

  7. Gary F

    Can someone provide a link to the article where originally published, please ? I have searched and cannot find it. Thanks much.

  8. tony

    Julie – Can you direct those who feel they have been impacted by spiritual abuse to a creditable resource to start their healing journey?

    This last post is brilliant, demonstrating yet again the manipulation from HBC is indeed deliberate. In fact, the level of manipulation is actually very well architected.

    For the “so what”, the comments across the various blogs following this story line indicate there are essentially two group of people:

    1. Those who are persuaded to believe HBC leadership has been manipulative and the culture is toxic
    2. Those who either will always feel HBC leadership is faultless regardless of circumstance, or do not feel it is appropriate to raise objections.

    For those in group #1, it would be beneficial to have a constructive dialogue about how one earnestly grieves their hurts and (internally) confronts their sense of betrayal. How do they process these hurts, start their journey towards restoration of faith and hopefully trust in church leadership? Persuading group #2 to join group #1 probably won’t help, and it doesn’t appear anyone will find healing if they are waiting on HBC leadership to fully (and specifically) own their wrongdoings.

    For those in group #2, it seems no amount of evidence or compelling arguments will persuade them to acknowledge they are in a toxic environment that demonstrates the behaviors consistent with a cult. If the local and federal law enforcement concluded the sex abuse was illegally covered up with documented evidence and five character witnesses, it wouldn’t be surprising if the “godliness” of the investigators and witnesses would be brought into question.

    The great work of TED, your reporting, and Mancow’s message (not to mention the courage of many people who told their story) has brought the facts to bear so that those who have been marginalized now have a voice. The collective work has revealed the facts in a fair and honest way so that many people can discern that they probably have been in group #1 for quite a while, and they actually aren’t alone.

    To those wondering, or concerned, I do not attend HBT personally (though know people who do), but I am on a similar path in my faith that has always aired on the side of suspicion when it comes to church leadership. Seeing these stories come out have only affirmed what I have believed to be true.

    Please keep up the great, and courageous, work to expose abuse of power. For those that have been hurt and disillusioned by their interaction with HBC, I hope that (whether or not HBC as we know it continues to exist) finds a way to remove themselves from toxic elements (whatever that may be) and find a place where they are safe and growing in their faith.

      • Jennifer H.

        Broken Trust by Dietrich has been the most helpful book to me as I’ve recovered from a toxic church.

    • ntfellow

      There are several books on the topic of spiritual abuse. They each have different strengths and weaknesses. Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, is probably best all around (although I don’t agree with everything in it). Another good one is Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Johnson & VanVonderen. Churches That Abuse by Enroth. I just received Stephen Mansfield’s, Healing Your Church Hurt (haven’t read it yet). It is sad that these books need to exist, but they are helpful to understand what has happened to you–an important step in the healing process.

      • hprin

        The statement ntfellow makes, “but they are helpful to understand what has happened to you – an important step in the healing process”, This is a step that must not be overlooked. Just as most of us do not understand how an individual can be a thief, murder, rapist (the list is long) because we do not think like they do. The work that is put forth to understand the mind of one who abuses will reap benefit. Because we do not think like they do. Their tactics, overt and covert in nature, are insidious. And over time these behaviors must be more frequent in nature and more rewarding to the abuser. In much the same way as a addict becomes acclimated to their drug choice and therefore needs more to reach the same level of satisfaction. The abuser must continue to feed the habit. We would never think to treat another human being abusively in any manner. Please do the hard work of understanding. It will be worth the effort.

  9. Left in 2017

    Isn’t it likely the elder update was written by James?

    • formerharvestmember

      Of course. It reads like one of his sermons.

  10. Video from a former member of Harvest Bible Chapter under James MacDonald
    VIDEO
    https://youtu.be/L4lpYgAjG0Q
    My Response:
    These filthy Reprobates who make merchandise of the unlearned. 2 Peter 2:3… I’ve never been to Harvest but I’ve seen James Macdonald’s disgusting beggar video that screams hypocrisy promoting unbiblical social gospel and encourages Pathological Altruism. Please see link below. Please take a moment to read Blog of my personal testimony of 50 years of attending church (literally hundreds, Black churches, Korean, Mega, Evangelical, Baptist, AOG, TV ministries YouTube ,all over the United States and around the world) a thoroughly documented experience in the fraudulent 501C3 building operations, including even the private enterprises and foreign operations calling themselves churches that are run by mostly Jesuit influenced Seminary trained apostate CEOs calling themselves pastors. We have recently completed an 800 page Ebook with over 2,000 source based references to substantiate every detail and we also include solid King James Bible referenced doctrine that has completely been removed from every church operation. We will send a free copy of our Ebook to anyone who requests a copy by emailing us in link attached or people can purchase the $0.99 Ebook on Amazon direct. Or people can simply read through the Blogs attached in links below to glean information that is essential in understanding what’s happening today in these churches. I begin with first hand accounts of my days going back to our home church of Calvary Temple in Denver Colorado when Charles E Blair was arrested on SEC violations in 1975-6, 17 counts of securities fraud and still only a fraction was ever repaid of the millions parishioners lost to Blair’s Ponzi scheme. This is only a drop in the ocean of what is going on in churches today. I detail it in my Blog. One of my favorite to date is me on the phone with Kenneth Copeland ministries asking to speak to Kenneth about how my seed faith money of over $80,000. in multiple ministries including his, wasn’t working out very well as we were losing our home. Or my years in Viet Nam to learn the extent of the Vatican’s infiltration etc. Praise God I have now been homechurching and fellowshipping in small groups the same way I did in the underground church movement while living in Vietnam and visiting China. I’m now retired and have committed my life to exposing the Apostate Church and Charlatans that are fleecing the flock. Thank you.

    https://thirdheaventraveler.blogspot.com/2018/12/i-don-go-to-church-from-blood-bought.html

    https://thirdheaventraveler.blogspot.com/2019/02/social-gospel-is-not-only-not-biblical.html

    https://thirdheaventraveler.blogspot.com/2018/06/who-are-you-amir-tsarfati-my-brother-in.html

    https://thirdheaventraveler.blogspot.com/2018/12/an-open-letter-of-rebuke-to-stones.html

  11. HBCGCC

    Sometimes you didn’t need to “decipher” Pastor Jame’s language or motives. On one of the Vertical Nights Tour dates after the “vertical” worship to honor the Lord, Pastor James expressed his biting sarcasm, joking about how small and insignificant our town was and the only reason they were here was because of a booking mixup with a larger venue nearby. Those comments were unnecessary and insulting. Then he asked all the “change partners” in the audience to identify themselves and I think everyone clapped. That was followed by his aggressive appeal for new partners and pledges. There was also an expensive, multi-page full color brochure handed out complete with pledge card. When the event was over people (including Luke I believe) were strategically positioned at the all the auditorium exit doors to ensure those pledges were collected. The whole thing just turned my stomach because it turned “vertical” into such a cash grab. I’m really disturbed my local Harvest (now a Great Commission Collection) church promoted the event to the congregation.

  12. lostsheep72

    This is a great article Julie! Thank you so much for your courage during all you endured from Harvest. I am thankful to you, The Elephants debt, past Elders, members, Mancow and all those who risked much to proclaim the truth and set free the captives who were abused by Harvest. Only God himself knows the depths of injustice from Harvest. I have been at Harvest for many years and I am shocked to learn that what was happening behind the curtain is much worse than I realized. May God bless you and protect you as you continue to proclaim the truth for the Lord! I pray for all those affected by this tradgedy and that God would bring good out of this as he only can.

  13. Gerry jacoby

    Excellent article by Dr. Mullen interpreting the HBC statement they tried to spin as truth. They have alot of experience twisting Scripture.

  14. Timtlee

    Enjoy Dr. Mullen’s comments on Christianity Today. Looks like Mark Galli and Harold Smith got stabbed in the back by Jmac: the pen is not mightier than the sword.

  15. David

    The best break down of all the events that have occurred that I’ve read. There is much more to be exposed if people have the courage to come forward.

    I hope for sake of the “Church” the flock from this “church” is scattered to healthier institutions.

  16. Ex Member 2001-2013

    The article reveals exactly what most people should realize as the elders read statements instead of just talking to the congregation. They are written with a purpose and probably with the help of a Public relations firm (would love to see that line item on the expense ledgers). The use of written statements and having them read verbatim is for one reason and one reason only – liability. no going off script and keep the congregation thinking they are spiritually motivated when the reality is they are doing what they always do…protect the brand.

    What church has a logo that has to be plastered everywhere and on everything. again, its PR – it creates association. it drives you to remember – see the logo and know its harvest.

  17. Kimberly

    Where was Garrett Higbee, Jame’s personal advisor in all of this?

  18. Ann Grondin-Charpentier

    Hi,. We go to harvest on Oakville Ontario. Are we in the same boat? Also we went thru a similar cult like situation many years ago. Not fun.

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