Lawsuit against David Platt’s megachurch revived by appeals court

David Platt, pastor of McLean Bible Church near Washington, D.C., and founder of Radical, a resource ministry that serves churches, preaches during the second session of the two-day 2019 Pastors' Conference held June 9-10 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
David Platt, pastor of McLean Bible Church near Washington, D.C., and founder of Radical, a resource ministry that serves churches, preaches during the second session of the two-day 2019 Pastors' Conference held June 9-10 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. | Baptist Press/Adam Covington

The Court of Appeals of Virginia has revived part of a lawsuit filed by disgruntled longtime members against the multi-campus McLean Bible Church in Tysons Corner led by Pastor David Platt, reversing a lower court decision that dismissed the entire case as moot.

The lawsuit, initiated by five members of the nondenominational megachurch, accuses Senior Pastor David Platt and the board of elders of violating the church's constitution during a 2021 leadership election.

The plaintiffs allege that the church leadership unjustly classified some members as "inactive," thus depriving them of their voting rights and denying them the secret ballots guaranteed by the church's constitution.

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A year after the litigation commenced, the church agreed to adopt a "Plan for Lawsuit Resolution" and conducted a new election under many but not all of the terms the plaintiffs sought. This action, according to Judge Frank K. Friedman of the Court of Appeals, rendered much of the initial complaint moot.

However, in the opinion released this week, Friedman states that the lower court erred in dismissing the entire lawsuit because "factual disputes" still exist between the two sides "regarding alleged ongoing member disenfranchisement." The judge argued that MBC failed to convincingly refute allegations that it continued to wrongfully classify members as "inactive."

"For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the circuit court's ruling that appellants' request that the court award a reconstituted 2021 election is not available relief — and that the issue is moot," the ruling reads. "We reverse the circuit court's ruling that the entire case is moot. MBC bore the burden of establishing that appellants' claims were moot. On this record, MBC's evidence was insufficient to establish that the alleged 'ongoing' violations of MBC's constitution failed to present a justiciable controversy."

The three-judge panel in Fredricksburg remanded the case back to the Fairfax County Circuit Court for further deliberation on the matter.

Rick Boyer, a conservative attorney representing the plaintiffs, celebrated the decision, stating that his clients eagerly anticipate a jury trial.

"God through the Holy Spirit ought to be able to lead his people to vote their consciences and choose the direction of the church that way," Boyer said in a statement shared with WUSA9. "You don't really need to purge people from the voting lists if you don't think they'll vote the right way that in the context of the church, there is no need for this. And unfortunately, that's what happened. And that's where the breach of contract comes in."

Boyer and his clients maintain that they represent about 400 church members who, they argue, were wrongfully deemed inactive. Church leaders, however, dispute this figure, suggesting it is significantly smaller.

The lawsuit contends that the church "purge[d] members by designating them 'inactive' on an arbitrary basis, with no record that the members had missed eight consecutive Sundays, and without investigation into whether the members had 'reasonable excuse.'"

After the court's decision this week, MBC expressed regret over the harm caused to their community due to the ongoing lawsuits but reiterated a commitment to refute the "repetitive lawsuits and claims," which the leaders believe lack merit.

The church states that the appellate court's decision only revives minor issues not addressed in the resolution plan. 

"As we continue to seek ways to fully and finally move past all of this, our church family will respond in the same ways we have from the beginning: working with courts to show that this group's repetitive lawsuits and claims are completely without merit, while at the same time remaining steadfast in our commitment to show the love of God in our city and the world around us," the church said in its statement to WUSA9. 

Platt, a popular author and former head of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, was hired as pastor at McLean in 2017 and succeeded longtime senior pastor Lon Solomon.

Critics argue that Platt has moved the church away from its founding ethos. He has refuted claims that he wants to take the church in a "liberal" direction and change the church's stance on abortion, sexuality and race as "unquestionably untrue."

Platt and church leaders also refute allegations from a separate lawsuit filed in December that they have not been transparent about the church's monetary transfers to the Southern Baptist Convention as part of a church-planting partnership.

That lawsuit alleged that elders inappropriately transferred at least $375,000 to SBC entities. It also alleged the church disciplined members who raised questions about the financial issues at the church.

"We are aware of yet another recent lawsuit filed by this same small group, which again seeks to 'make changes to the church and its leadership,'" the statement from church leaders to The Christian Post reads. "And just as before, we will respond to the suit as a unified church committed to our future direction."

The megachurch, which attracts a weekly attendance of around 8,000-10,000 people, has incurred about $750,000 in legal fees due to these lawsuits, elders recently told members. 

In an attempt to address the issues raised in the lawsuit, the church members voted last month to adopt an amended constitution that removes the requirement for members to miss eight consecutive weeks of church before being classified as "inactive," WUSA9 reports. 

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