McLean Bible Church Leaders Hope New Church Election Will Resolve Lawsuit

By Bob Smietana
David Platt
David Platt has served as lead pastor of McLean Bible Church in McLean, Va. since 2017. (Photo: MBC)

Leaders of a prominent Washington, D.C.-area congregation hope to end an ongoing conflict by redoing a contested church election.

That election is the subject of a lawsuit pending in Virginia state court. Several current and former members claim McLean Bible Church leaders failed to follow the church’s constitution during an election for church elders in July 2021.

Church leaders have fought the lawsuit in court. Now they hope to render the suit moot.

“We have an opportunity to resolve conflict in our church biblically and peacefully and move forward together as a united church, bringing hope to our city and to the nations,” Pastor David Platt told church members in a video announcing the resolution plan.

The conflict over the McLean election is part culture war, part battle over bylaws, fueled by political polarization and the broader evangelical “woke wars,” combined with a recent pastoral transition and a global pandemic. 

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Last summer, McLean Bible held a routine church meeting to elect three new elders for the Northern Virginia congregation. Those elders needed at least 75% of the vote to be approved.

But the vote failed, a first in the church’s history.

The failed vote took place during a time of conflict at the church, with critics claiming Platt, a bestselling author, had replaced Bible teaching with Critical Race Theory and liberal social justice. Many church members had also taken to watching services online during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than attending in person — making it difficult to defuse tensions.

Platt blamed a conspiracy for the failed election.

“A small group of people, inside and outside this church, coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church,” he said in a sermon last year.

platt mclean
Pastor David Platt preaches at McLean Bible Church, July 18, 2021, in Vienna, Virginia. (Video screen grab via MBC)

The elders were approved in a follow-up election, which was held under new rules. Those rules required church members to show identification and to fill out a ballot with their name on it. Some church members, who had been labeled as inactive, had to cast provisional ballots while their status was reviewed.

Under the resolution plan, which must be approved this week by the congregation, the church would redo last summer’s election, using secret ballots. A neutral observer would oversee the election and count the votes. All active members, including anyone who was a member at the beginning of the pandemic and claims to still be a member, would be allowed to vote. 

If the elder election fails, the church has 90 days to select and approve replacement elders. If they are unable to do so, the church elders — including Platt — would face a vote of confidence.

The proposal to redo the election is not a settlement, Wade Burnett, a pastor at McLean, told media. Instead, he described it as an effort to resolve the conflict internally, rather than relying on the courts to referee the dispute.

He said the proposal would give plaintiffs almost everything they have asked for.

“This remedy, if approved by the church, essentially renders the lawsuit moot,” he said in an email. “The plaintiffs will receive a revote with essentially all of the relief they are requesting from the court.” 

One sticking point is over who can vote in the election.

Rick Boyer, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said his clients have rejected the church’s proposal and plan to go ahead with the lawsuit. The proposal has also been criticized in a Facebook group called “Save McLean Bible Church,” which has about 850 followers online.

Boyer, a conservative lawyer known for his support of “Vexit” — a plan for some Virginia communities to defect to West Virginia — said the church’s plan allows hundreds of new members, who joined McLean in the past year, to vote.

mclean platt election
A prominent multi-site megachurch, McLean Bible Church has its primary campus in McLean, Va. (Photo via Facebook)

Instead, Boyer said in an interview that plaintiffs want to exclude new members who joined the church after July 2021.

“You can’t come in after an election is over and bring in a whole bunch of people who have no right to vote in that election, then redo the election,” he said. “They’re inviting us into a rigged game and the whole reason we’re in court is because we’re trying to undo a rigged game.”

Burnett said several hundred people have joined the church in the past year and they would be able to vote in elections. He also said the church has hired an outside observer with no previous ties to the church to oversee the election if the proposal is approved by the congregation.

Burnett said church leaders believe they followed the church’s constitution during last year’s vote, but they are willing to redo the election to bring the conflict to an end. He said he and other McLean leaders are still open to meeting with the plaintiffs in order to resolve the dispute outside the courts.

He admitted there are risks in the proposal. Church members could reject the plan outright, or they could decide to vote in new leaders, rather than the present elders. The church’s constitution, he said, also sets a high bar for consensus — one that may be difficult to achieve.

“It’s hard to get 75% of people to agree on anything these days,” he said. 

During a congregation meeting Wednesday, Burnett highlighted a passage from the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians, which criticizes early Christians who took each other to court. He called the legal conflict “a black eye for the bride of Christ and a mark against our testimony to the world around us.”

“The thing that I wish was different is that we could have talked together as brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said. “I wish that would have been true before the lawsuit was filed, after the lawsuit was filed. I wish it was true today.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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8 thoughts on “McLean Bible Church Leaders Hope New Church Election Will Resolve Lawsuit”

  1. This is a “Church?” Seriously. People outside are probably looking in and laughing at the absurdity. Jesus said you would know us by our love, not our fights in the court system over who should be elders. Ok, let’s say they resolve this one dispute. Do you really think that these people can work together and magnify Christ in their community effectively. They will remain divided, and suspicion will always reign until one faction or the other leaves.

  2. Kathleen Zielinski

    How was this lawsuit not dismissed on First Amendment grounds as soon as the papers were filed? US law could not be any clearer — matters of church governance are absolutely outside the jurisdiction of the courts because of the First Amendment. There’s easily a dozen cases on it, including at least three from the Supreme Court. The problem is that resolving the lawsuit necessarily requires the court to decide questions of doctrine, church polity, and church governance, all of which are protected under freedom of religion.

    1. No, the church’s Constitution was not followed according to the plaintiffs. It’s a breach of it and the bylaws. It’s a legal document.

      1. Kathleen M. Zielinski

        But under the First Amendment, interpretation of the church Constitution is up to the church and the courts can’t touch it; otherwise the courts are getting involved in church governance issues. There are multiple court cases directly on point.

        If the church were to split, the courts could resolve any property disputes. But anything that smells like church governance is off limits.

  3. Platt must have told he is going to lose. If he and his buddies were honest in the first place this wouldn’t have happened. I’m glad his plan is not being accepted. Yes, it’s too bad to go to court against fellow Christians. Yes, it’s too bad to divorce, but when one side betrays, it is a remedy.

    1. Mark Gunderson

      Platt never should have taken that position, and definitely should have resigned when it was clear he couldn’t lead a church in any semblance of unity. It doesn’t help the cause of racial reconciliation to drag a church with you, kicking and screaming. It just gives ammunition to the ones who have already weaponized those efforts.

      At the same time, demanding that only members from the time of the original election be allowed to vote a second time around is childish beyond belief. It kills most of the sympathy I would have felt for them as members at a church where outside leadership came in and tried to upend everything. It reeks of a preference that the church should die rather than you not get your way.

    2. Liz, the Bible speaks clearly on both divorce and lawsuits between Christians. This lawsuit is clearly outside of Scripture. Win, lose or draw it is non-Biblical.

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