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Yesterday, Christianity Today published an interview with the head of Acts 29, a major evangelical “church planting” network, about the group’s future plans. One of their major initiatives is giving Christian men who go through their training process a total of $50,000 to help launch their new churches. More than 500 men are currently going through that process.

The president of Acts 29 is Matt Chandler, and he told CT that, despite the pandemic, their group had been doing relatively well. “We didn’t have a ton of churches die” due to COVID-fueled membership drops like many other faith-based institutions, he said.

But a couple of his responses were eye-opening for reasons that were entirely unintentional.

The Interview

For example, Acts 29 was founded by Mark Driscoll, the spiritually abusivemisogynisticplagiarizing internet troll. He was booted from the ministry in 2014, only to be replaced by another preacher, Steve Timmis, who was subsequently booted from the ministry for… spiritual abuse.

So CT’s Daniel Silliman rightly asked if the current Acts 29 system would have weeded out guys like Driscoll and Timmis. In other words, has Acts 29 modified its training in order to prevent assholes like those guys from obtaining power?

Chandler seemed confident about their new system:

I would hope they would get caught by it. I think there’s something about the dynamics of narcissism that makes it hard to catch, so I want to be careful, but we’re trying to organize as best as we can so that we can vet men before they get our sticker on them. And then after they’ve been vetted, get them in the kind of community that they might be encouraged or challenged if you start getting red flags.

We’ve done a lot of work around this and we hate abuse in all its forms.

That last line is like the “All Lives Matter” of church-planting. Saying he hates all abuse is an easy way to ignore the very specific kinds of abuse that often crop up in evangelical churches.

Also, narcissism isn’t the problem. At least it’s not the only problem. There’s a serious lack of accountability in these churches that lets these problems fester. Chandler is blaming individual bad apples while ignoring the orchard that produced them.

Even when he says they’re working to vet the problematic guys. he doesn’t elaborate on how they’re doing it. (Perhaps the fact that Acts 29 believes only men ought to be running churches is part of the issue.)

CT’s Silliman (whose own reporting helped expose the late evangelist and sexual predator Ravi Zacharias) kept pressing the matter, pointing out that there’s no shortage of stories about Bible-believing pastors who say and do all the “right” things, but who still end up facing credible accusations of spiritual or physical abuse.

Isn’t that concerning?

Again, Chandler stressed how much he wanted to break that cycle:

… I think that needs to be exposed. My concern is, the moment we live in lumps guys into that category who don’t belong there.

He didn’t need to say that last line. But he did. Instead of just saying those bad apples needed to be eradicated from white evangelical culture, he tossed in an additional comment about how our culture goes too far in accusing people of abuse.

Weird thing to say. Even weirder because he just volunteered it.

What makes those comments even worse is that Chandler himself is one of those bad apples.

Matt Chandler’s Own Disturbing History

In 2019, the New York Times published an article about Matt and Christi Bragg, who had told leaders at the Village Church in Texas that their 11-year-old daughter had been abused while attending the church’s 2012 summer camp. The culprit was eventually identified as Matthew Tonne, an associate children’s minister, who was later arrested by local police.

The reason this became even more controversial is because the church’s lead pastor never told the congregation about those allegations. Instead, he just said there was an allegation of abuse by a church member but that the unnamed culprit did not have “access to children at the Village Church”… which was only technically true because Tonne no longer worked there. The pastor separately emailed the congregation to say Tonne was leaving the church due to an “alcohol abuse problem” without acknowledging the connection between the two stories.

That pastor was Matt Chandler.

That wasn’t the only concern. In 2011, a staff member at his church died of suicide. But instead of responding with compassion, Chandler shamed him from the pulpit. A transcript of his sermon revealed how he spoke to the congregation about what that staffer (named Mo) did.

In short, Chandler described Mo’s suicide as “selfish and sinful.”

What Mo did was selfish and sinful, and it was not beyond the saving work of Jesus Christ. All of Mo’s sins were just like yours and mine; they were future sins when Christ died on the cross. Which means Mo’s last sinful, selfish act was covered by the blood of Jesus.

… here’s the other thing I want you to hear me say. God did not abandon Mo in his darkest hour. Mo had all the weapons available to you, to me and to anyone else to combat the lies of the enemy in that moment. In a weak moment, he did not pick up those weapons, he believed in the lie and he took his own life.

Chandler could have used his pulpit to educate his flock about the nature of depression, and encourage other people who may be suffering from it to seek professional help. Instead, he shamed a dead man and created an environment where others in similar situations may choose to resist help if offered. (After all, why share your depression with a pastor who sees your emotions as falling short of God’s will? Why open up to a pastor who will eventually mock you as selfish and sinful in front of your church family?)

In 2019, all of this hit fever pitch a couple of weeks before the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission hosted a conference on caring for abuse survivors. The group’s Twitter account promoted Chandler’s book to their followers as if to undercut the goal of their own conference.

They seriously sold it as a “moving, compelling, hope-filled book that will bolster your faith in times of trial” without acknowledging that it was written by someone who cared so little about abuse that he covered up a serious scandal in his own congregation!

The Reaction

The Christianity Today interview raised red flags for at least one prominent Christian who’s worked with survivors of faith-based abuse:

That wasn’t the only criticism of the CT article but it all boils down to one idea: People who have followed Chandler’s history can’t trust his claim that Acts 29 has fixed its problems because Problem Number One is running the damn place.

Given his responses blaming abuse on narcissism and suggesting the real problem is that too many good men get accused of spiritual abuse — he’s telling on himself right there — there’s no reason to trust whatever he’s selling. It’s the same broken Christianity, packaged for the most gullible audience, which means we’ll inevitably see the same stories about abuse in the future as well as the same denials from guys like Chandler who will forever claim they had absolutely nothing to do with it.

(Screenshot via Vimeo. Portions of this article were published earlier)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.