Bethlehem Baptist Church
Several elders and ministers at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota have resigned in recent months. (Photo: BBC / Facebook)

Former Bethlehem Baptist Pastors Say Church’s Culture Breeds Fear, Tolerates Abuse

By Julie Roys

The church where John Piper pastored for 33 years is arguably facing one of its greatest crises in 150 years. Elders and ministers at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota have resigned over what Piper’s successor, Jason Meyer, calls an embrace of “neo-fundamentalism” and a “unity” culture that breeds fear and seeks to protect the institution. Another pastor who resigned is accusing a Bethlehem elder of spiritual abuse and calling on him to resign.

In Meyer’s letter of resignation, which The Roys Report obtained, Meyer writes, “Despite the charge that Bethlehem is drifting toward liberalism, I actually think we have lost some of our elasticity as the wind blows more in the direction of neo-fundamentalism.”

Meyer also wrote, “I personally fear we are in danger of veering too much towards a ‘unity’ culture. A unity or ‘one voice’ culture puts a lot of focus on institutional protection.” Meyer adds that while “unity is a great goal,” the “problem comes when unity moves from a desired goal to a demanded outcome.”

The Roys Report has also learned that Pastor for Care and Counseling Bryan Pickering, who also recently resigned, called for the resignation of a fellow elder, Andy Naselli, who’s a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary.

According to Pickering, Naselli had been the focus of an internal investigation at BCS due to allegations of bullying and spiritual abuse brought by about 12 former and current BCS students. Those allegations were dismissed by BCS last August.

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However, this past spring, several church members also brought allegations of sin and misconduct against Naselli.

In a letter that Pickering presented to Naselli in February, and the church’s Elder Council in March, Pickering accused Naselli of “displaying a pattern of controlling and egregious sin against God and people.”

“I do not think you are presently qualified for the office of elder,” Pickering wrote, and urged Naselli to resign to “spare the church, and the elder council, grief upon grief.”

Naselli did not resign. He also did not respond to The Roys Report’s repeated requests for an interview.

On March 16, the elders dismissed the grievances against Naselli. However, three pastors/elders voted against dismissing charges—Pickering, Meyer, and Ming-Jinn Tong, former pastor of neighborhood outreach who also recently resigned.

According to Pickering, Tong called the elders’ process and decision to dismiss the allegations against Naselli “unethical.”

Former Bethlehem Pastor for Preaching & Vision Jason Meyer

In Meyer’s resignation letter, Meyer writes:“(I)t seemed that a committee of non-staff elders from each campus would be the best group to be able to take the allegations and sift them. I thought others agreed with me as we talked about taking that approach. But the vote said the opposite. I still believe we should have done the investigation, but I was able to get to the point where I regarded the March 16 process as incomplete, not immoral.”

On April 20, the elders met again for what Pickering and Meyer likened to a “tribunal.” Pickering said that in that meeting, the elders accused Meyer and Tong of “subordinating the gospel” and embracing Marxism and Critical Race Theory—a controversial approach to understanding systemic racism.

In his resignation letter, Meyer added, “Ming-Jinn, Bryan, and I were called shame terms like ‘coddlers,’ and Ming-Jinn was called ‘Absalom.’”

Both Meyer and Tong spoke out against racism, Pickering said, but added that the charges were not true.

Meyer wrote in his letter, “It is hard to avoid seeing (the charges) as retribution.”

The Roys Report reached out to several elders for comment. Two Bethlehem elders, Ken Currie and Chairman Kurt Elting-Ballard, responded that they are “focusing our energy on the needs of our flock” and had “no other comment or statement to add.”

Long-simmering tensions at Bethlehem come to a head

The resignations and fractures in leadership at Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC) extend to the congregation and have been simmering for years.

So far this year, about 200 people—nearly 10% of the megachurch’s total membership—have resigned as members from Bethlehem’s Downtown campus, according to statistics provided to The Roys Report by former BBC members. (The Roys Report was not able to obtain statistics for member resignations at Bethlehem’s two other campuses—North and South.)

Some of the resignations were due to normal factors, like families moving out of the area. But many were due to tensions resulting from racial and women’s issues, ties to controversial pastor Doug Wilson, and the elders’ handling of allegations of misconduct by Andy Naselli.

Former Bethlehem Pastor for Care & Counseling Bryan Pickering

These tensions came to a head at a contentious BBC congregational meeting on January 31 in which two members, Steve and Janette Takata, submitted motions for the church to consider. (BBC has about 40 elders, but the congregation is considered the “final authority” and meets quarterly to vote on church matters.)

One motion concerned the Racial Harmony Task Force, a group formed in early 2019 to address the lack of minority representation on BBC’s Elder Council. In the summer of 2019, the task force presented an 85-page report to the elders, which essentially died in committee. This prompted many members of the task force to leave the church, according to Janice Perez Evans, a task force co-leader.

At the meeting, Steve Takata moved that the task force’s unedited reports be released to Bethlehem members. The motion passed on a voice vote and Takata told The Roys Report that three of the task force’s five reports were eventually released to church members with redactions.

The other, and far more contentious, motion concerned an October 1, 2019, episode of Man Rampant, a podcast on Christianity, leadership, and masculinity hosted by Doug Wilson. The episode was titled “The Sin of Empathy,” and featured guest Joe Rigney, who at the time of the January meeting had been appointed president of Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS) but had not yet assumed office.

The episode, which argued that empathy is sin because it leads to siding unquestioningly with aggrieved parties, deeply upset several people at Bethlehem.

One of them, Ann Mekala, wrote in a 2019 letter to several elders, “There is an air of disdain and distrust towards women woven throughout the episode.” She noted that Wilson and Rigney gave examples of women falsely accusing men in the podcast and encouraged listeners to be skeptical toward those who report abuse.

Mekala, who says she was emotionally and spiritually abused for eight years while serving in a campus ministry overseen by Bethlehem, told The Roys Report that listening to the podcast was traumatizing.

“Having just come out of an abusive system where women aren’t believed, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is exactly what I’ve lived,’” Mekala said.

A few Bethlehem elders responded positively to her letter, Mekala said. But when urged to make a public statement that BBC did not endorse Rigney’s view, one elder instead directed Mekala to meet with Tim Tomlinson, who was then president of BCS.

Mekala, her husband, and another BBC elder met with Tomlinson in December 2019, Mekala said. She said the meeting did not go well, and Tomlinson told her that he supported Rigney’s view.

The Roys Report reached out to Tomlinson for comment, but he did not respond.

Janette Takata also wrote emails to BBC elders in 2019 with concerns about the episode.

Brian Tabb, a BBC elder and dean at BCS, told Takata in an email that he could understand her concerns. He added that Wilson’s church “has received a great deal of scrutiny about its poor handling of abuse cases in the past, so I cringed when I heard (Wilson) bring up . . . examples (from Wilson’s church).” (An investigation by Wilson’s denomination found several serious errors in Wilson’s handling of sex abuse cases in his church, including shifting blame for sexual abuse from the perpetrator to the father of the victim.)

Bryan Pickering also expressed concern about the Man Rampant episode to Takata. He wrote in an email to her that he believed the elders would be “taking up the issue in the days ahead.”

However, Takata said nothing ever came of her efforts. So, at the January 31, 2021, meeting—just months before Joe Rigney was installed as president of BCS—Takata moved that the elders make a public statement separating the views expressed by Rigney in Man Rampant from the views and teaching of BBC.

In arguing for the motion, Takata expressed that it was disheartening to her that an elder “who calls himself a pastor” had given the Man Rampant episode a 5-star rating.

That elder was Andy Naselli.

And according to audio obtained by The Roys Report, Naselli responded to the motion by stating publicly: “I am the pastor that Mrs. Takata just quoted. And I stand by what I wrote. And I want to speak against her motion. And if the elders were to move for that motion, I would resign out of principle.”

Naselli Bethlehem College and Seminary
Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder and BCS Professor Andy Naselli

When someone at the meeting asked Naselli to explain himself, he responded that what was happening in the room—how some were taking sides “without any judgment”—was exactly what Rigney and Wilson were protesting in their podcast.

Steve and Janette Takata told The Roys Report they were shocked by Naselli’s ultimatum. And though Naselli would later apologize for what he said, the Takatas said Naselli made disparaging statements about them in the months following to elders, BBC members, and staff at BCS. This led the Takatas and other BBC members to file grievances against Naselli with BBC’s Elder Council.

Pickering, however, said he was not surprised by Naselli’s response at the meeting. Instead, he said it confirmed the pattern he already suspected after speaking with nearly all 12 former BCS students who in 2020 submitted allegations against Naselli to BCS administration.

In our next article on events at Bethlehem Baptist Church, we’ll explore the allegations against Naselli, as well as the response by BCS administration and BBC elders.

Pastor Jason Meyer’s Letter of Resignation – July 12, 2021

MeyerResignation_Redacted

*This article has been updated for accuracy. 

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34 thoughts on “Former Bethlehem Baptist Pastors Say Church’s Culture Breeds Fear, Tolerates Abuse”

  1. James Lutzweiler

    I never met Jason Meyer but I know an oblong blur generality, when I read one. I’d like to see his surgically precise definition of neo-fundamentalism —or even fundamentalism for that matter. From afar it looks to me like Bethlehem Baptist has dodged a bullet of baloney. But I am glad Fod called Jason to be a preacher instead of an air-traffic controller. Whew!

    James Lutzweiler
    Co-author of the entry on “fundamentalism” in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

    1. ““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees (preachers and teachers,) you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

      Jesus Word speaks as loud today as it did then. Any theology that creates abusive jerks is all doctrines taught by demons. Is this not the very thing that the Pharisees did that got Jesus so mad that he would call them out by comparing them to that which was the most filthy and disgusting thing in their own theology?

    2. James,

      Jason refers to an article in his letter, which describes “neo-fundamentalism” as one of six groups into which evangelicals are “fracturing.” Here’s a short definition offered there, but you’d have to read the entire article for the more complete definition:

      “Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelical– Neo-fundamentalists are those who have deep concerns about both political and theological liberalism. There is some overlap and co-belligerency with Christian Nationalism (a syncretism of right wing nationalism and Christianity) but neo-fundamentalists do so with more theological vocabulary and rationality. Concerning threats within the church, they have deep worries with the church’s drift towards liberalism and the ways secular ideologies are finding homes in the church. Outside the church, they are concerned by the culture’s increasing hostility to Christianity, most prominently from mass media, social media, and the government.”

      https://mereorthodoxy.com/six-way-fracturing-evangelicalism/

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Rebecca. Sadly, this teaching is gaining ground in the biblical counseling circles I move in as well. What shocks me is that these men have not bothered to look at the clear examples in the New testament, including of sympathy and empathy in Hebrews.

      1. Just wanted to insert that my wife and I have been taking biblical counseling classes through CCEF and they have a strong emphasis on the need to grow in empathy. Today was the first time I’ve ever heard of the controversy re: the concept of empathy as discussed by Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney, and also now the idea the some biblical counselors are also thinking similarly. I’m stumped over this direction.

        1. I don’t see how there can be any interpretation other than empathy for the Romans 12:15 instruction to “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

        2. Lydia Brinkmann

          Patrick, I believe Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney are NOT associated with CCEF, so hopefully that helps. I doubt CCEF itself is changing direction on that.

    2. I enjoyed your article. As another biblical example, I’m reminded of Job’s 3 friends. They did great for a week when they simply sat with Job in silence. Then they got themselves in trouble (ultimately with God) when they opened their mouths and spoke “words without knowledge” in their attempt to fix Job.

  2. No one should be surprised by these revelations of spiritual abuse -especially against women- in the Bethlehem ecosystem.

    Many of us (myself included) were blessed by John’s teachings on Christian hedonism and we gave him a pass on certain teachings because of his warmth, enthusiasm, and geeky charm, but make no mistake, this is the house he built. This is the hyper complementarian house that says a woman can’t divorce even an abusive, philandering husband. This is authoritarian house that says women shouldn’t teach in seminary.

    We should not be surprised then that this is the house that disregards the voices of the abused and protects the abuser. It’s a simple case of the seeds of the founder coming to fruition.

  3. Using language like “unity culture” waters down and redefines what is really going on.

    What was described in this article is one of the clearest examples of a local church functioning as a narcissistic family system.

    A narcissistic family system can be a family, a local church, an organization, or any other group.

    When the image of the family is more important than the individual members of the family, this is a narcissistic family system.

    When the legitimate needs of the individual members of the family are expendable for the sake of the image of the family, this is a narcissistic family system.

    And when the truth and the truth-tellers are minimized, marginalized, and demonized, this is a narcissistic family systems.

    The leader of the narcissistic family system is always, always ALWAYS a narcissist themselves, and they are adept at manipulation and emotional coercion to maintain the status quo and silence any naysayers (Naselli’s ultimatum – in public, no less – is a classic example).

    Over time, for a variety of reason, the members of the narcissistic family system are trained, conditioned, molded, shaped, and manipulated into becoming co-conspirators in the idolatry of “The Image.”

    And they are coerced into being temple prostitutes at the temple of “The Image.”

    So, let’s call this what it is, address it as the foul, malevolent, pernicious evil that it is, and stand against the manifold oppression and abuse that are not only forbidden by God, but condemned by Christ Himself.

    And let us pray for God’s rescue and healing of those victimized by these wicked hired-men posing as undershepherds.

    1. Thank you for this comment, Pastor Lamb. I found it very helpful.

      If the church would take seriously the scriptural qualifications for elders, it would protect the sheep from these narcissistic leaders.

  4. What a thorough article. May they work it out together in a godly manner.

    In the podcast Mr. Rigney basically said, “show compassion but don’t have empathy.”

    He kept saying “don’t get sucked in” which is quite a different thing than having empathy. I think he’s unnecessarily connected the two.

    He seems to be warning that a large amount of empathy will muddy the waters. But empathy that is true does not result in that.

    He may have a point about detached wisdom in making hard decisions. But he loses people when he says empathy is a sin.

  5. Why anyone would align themselves with Doug Wilson—whose latest in a string of anti-Christian behaviors is authoring an erotic novel about a sex robot—is beyond me.

    No decent man, and no credible minister of Jesus, should enter the same room with such a craven and corrupt person as Wilson, much less appear on his radio show or promote his thinly-veiled sexual fantasies as credible theology.

    “Man Rampant”? Seriously? Wilson tells you very plainly what his show is about: his own male self aggrandizement. Not Jesus.

    The Bethlehem pastors reveal their own corruption by their alliance with Wilson, and church members are right to flee.

    1. You can thank John Piper for that mess. He’s the one that featured Wilson repeatedly on the Desiring God website, and (to my knowledge) he’s never once called Wilson out for his revolting rhetoric and his various public misdeeds.

      As far as I can see, Piper’s church and seminary are just carrying the torch.

      1. It’s one of the things that meant I never took John Piper seriously, or trusted his exposition of Scripture. Doug Wilson’s carnality is so blatant that a sincerely devoted follower of Christ would be unable to be around him for long, and certainly would not repeatedly seek him out.

      2. Speaking as a 18 yr attender at BBC (currently planning on leaving) the closest Piper ever got to decrying Wilson was during a interview with Joe Rigney. It is on YouTube, “Race and Culture” (???), I believe in 2013. Piper quite dysfunctionaly “spoke” in regard to Wilson’s “repentance” over his hurtful and honestly unsupportable writing, I believe in regards to “Southern Slavery As It Was”.

        -It is honestly appalling that he has not called Wilson’s use of savagely misogynist rhetoric, specifically in Wilson’s blog. –

        To my knowledge, and I have researched it, that is the only time Piper got even close to creating distance. On the whole, I think you are correct that the majority (of those with power) at the very least appear to be carrying the same torch.

    2. If you’ve seen much of Doug Wilson or his church/school/publishing empire in Moscow, ID, and you have some understanding of narcissism, you’ll immediately recognize the warning flags. He’s brilliant, which is what makes him dangerous. I’ve always been mystified by Piper’s attraction to him.

      1. I’ve always been mystified by claims that Doug Wilson is brilliant. He’s good at multi-syllabic word salads, but he’s basically a fast-talking hyper-aggressive con artist who just happens to have chosen the church as the source of his narcissistic supply. His writings are dreck, laughable to those who haven’t already decided to worship at his temple.

        Wilson can easily be intellectually challenged, but he uses verbal and physical intimidation as a shield to avoid it. Brilliant people don’t do that because they don’t need to.

  6. Something that gives me hope that BBC will be able to navigate this very difficult time is that they seem to have a church government in place designed to serve the congregation. The congregation is the highest authority and there are systems in place which allow congregants to bring up concerns (motions) to the rest of the congregation.

    I have never been a member in a church which allows a member to put forward a motion to the entire congregation designed to rebuke an elder. That’s actually kind of incredible. Maybe this is normal for most people, but it’s mind-blowing to me. Even if the motions don’t pass, at least the option is there to address major concerns with the entire church.

    I’m sure that systems like this may be corrupted (or at least those whose ideas aren’t accepted may think the system is corrupted), but at least it allows the collective will of the people to be expressed and it allows individuals to speak openly.

    1. Dawn Zimmerman

      Former Elder, and BBC professor of Biblical Counseling “ Pickering, however, said he was not surprised by Naselli’s response at the meeting. Instead, he said it confirmed the pattern he already suspected after speaking with nearly all 12 former BCS students who in 2020 submitted allegations against Naselli to BCS administration.”

      For twelve BBC students to submit allegations against N is not insignificant.

  7. Cynthia Wright

    It seems as though one issue is differing views regarding the church’s theological emphasis, while another issue is abusive leadership and a culture of fear. I wish the congregation the best in getting this all sorted out.

  8. “a “unity” culture that breeds fear and seeks to protect the institution” — Jason Meyer
    ++++++++++

    what took him so long? this is old news.

  9. One need only look at the life of John Calvin, father of Reformed theology (deformed is more like it) and how his followers minimize his past (as Piper himself does; this is referenced in Dave Hunt’s book “What Love is This? Calvin’s Misrepresentation of God”) to see the outcome as we see here.

  10. What a dysfunctional mess. When Pastors leave a church due to a fear culture there is a massive problem with that church. Piper should intervene to save what is left at Bethlehem.

    Here is a checklist to determine if someone should leave a church:

    1. Are the Pastor(s) abusive? If yes leave the church.
    2. Are the elders or board members abusive? If yes leave the church.
    3. Are there good reasons for why Pastors are leaving the church? If not leave that church.
    4. Are there good reasons why members are leaving? If not leave that church.

    1. Dawn Zimmerman

      Yesterday I saw a Video from John Piper asking for prayer during his upcoming 7 week writing sabbatical.

    2. Piper can’t step in, from what I understand. When he resigned, he came to an agreement of some kind where he committed to not interfering in the elder’s leadership or the direction of the church.

    1. It is indeed worth noting the problematic environment of the school where Naselli chose to incubate himself. Thanks Megan.

  11. Amid these accusations, I recommend trying G.R.A.C.E to investigate the matters facing Bethlehem. This organization investigates any level or kind of abuse within the church, and founded by Boz Tchividijian, (an attorney) and his team has done excellent work to help churches navigate through this kind of thing.
    An outside investigation TEAM is objective, trained, experienced, know what they are looking for, knows how to speak to the church about what they see, and love Jesus Christ.

    I’ve worked with victims for 26 years in the Christian Reformed Church. I have found abuse of power issues typical among conservative churches. A better way to describe this is “rigid and controlling.”
    I attended Bethlehem for nearly 3 years, belonged to one of the small groups. But what I noticed, underlying the meaningful time I worshiped at Bethlehem, was rigidity and control among leadership.

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