When Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson steps to the podium this afternoon at the annual meeting of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), his presence will represent a contradiction both for him and the organization. Patterson has publicly denounced Christians suing one another as violating Scripture, but he privately told Missouri Baptist leaders they were justified in suing five Missouri Baptist ministries.
Patterson may not address the hot topic at the meeting—the MBC’s ongoing legal battle against the Missouri Baptist ministries—but the case highlights his contradictions on Christian lawsuits. Additionally, the MBC’s claims about the legal actions, especially concerning the use of Cooperative Program (CP) money to fund the lawsuits, are filled with contradictions and are likely to garner substantial attention during business sessions at the annual meeting.
In September 2007, Patterson questioned the salvation of Christians who sue other Christians. He made the remarks during a sermon at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary just six months after being sued for fraud, breach of contract and defamation by former Southwestern professor Sheri Klouda.
“I am unalterably convinced that a significant percent of those who listen on any given Sunday to your message, though they are church members, are in fact lost,” Patterson said. “I judge that based much on the behavior of the church member. I cannot imagine a situation occurring among saved people where this one is taking that one to lawsuit in front of the pagan world. We are expressly forbidden that.”
Patterson’s perspective against lawsuits among Christians was reiterated in a cease-and-desist letter from his attorney, Shelby Sharpe, to then-blogger Ben Cole. The letter argued that Cole had defamed Patterson in blog posts and urged Cole to retract the remarks. However, Sharpe wrote that the letter was not a threat of legal action.
“Do not interpret this letter as a threat to bring a lawsuit against you,” Sharpe wrote. “Dr. Patterson has the conviction that 1 Corinthians 6:1-7 precludes such action being brought by one Christian against another Christian.”
However, according to court testimony in the MBC’s lawsuits, Patterson previously told MBC leaders it was biblically permissible for them to sue the five ministry organizations. While considering legal action in 2002, the MBC’s Legal Task Force (now known as the Agency Recovery Group), contacted Patterson seeking his opinion on the potential lawsuits.
According to the deposition of Randy Comer, head of the task force, Patterson wrote that “if it were my decision, I would take the whole matter to Caesar, because it is ultimately Caesar’s law that is involved.” Comer added that the task force considered Patterson’s perspective as they weighed the decision about whether to file the lawsuits.
Patterson noted in his letter to MBC leaders that he “would not be disappointed with the Missouri Baptists if the decision were to keep the whole matter out of the courts for the sake of the witness.” However, he added that it seemed that the churches were “not able to adjudicate civil matters, and judgment rendered would have no effect on the question of corporate ownership.” Thus, he added, “the question of corporate ownership is a civil question which has a spiritual dimension, but is something that can only be decided by the civil court.”
In August 2002, the MBC filed its legal action against the Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist University, Windermere Baptist Conference Center and Word & Way. Although MBC leaders justified the lawsuit as biblical since individual Christians were not named, another lawsuit filed in 2005 also named several individuals.
Seven years and $5 million later, the MBC has nothing to show for its legal efforts, having essentially lost its case against Windermere, the only case that has gone to court yet. Additionally, the MBC must defend itself against a $15 million countersuit from developer Bill Jester, who was sued by the MBC in 2005.
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When first making the case for the lawsuits, MBC leaders promised that Cooperative Program money would not be used to fund the legal efforts. However, as a March 2009 EthicsDaily.com analysis of MBC’s audits proved, the MBC used more than $1.5 million of CP money on the lawsuits from 2002-07. MBC leaders continue to deny they have used CP money, even while admitting that they used money from a “Strategic Initiatives Fund” that was created with CP money.
MBC leaders attacked the EthicsDaily.com article, which also noted a lack of transparency from MBC leaders concerning funding of the lawsuit. The EthicsDaily.com article particularly investigated the lack of information provided by MBC leaders about a 2008 bridge loan to themselves to pay for legal fees, including questions about how large the loan actually was and what would happen if the MBC’s predictions of paying it off within one year did not come true.
During the MBC executive board meeting two weeks after the EthicsDaily.com exposÃ©, more information was forthcoming. The bridge loan was for nearly $350,000 – not the roughly $200,000 as previously suggested. The MBC also had to take out another loan because contributions did not pay off the bridge loan. The MBC’s new $500,000 line of credit used CP money as collateral.
At the April meeting following the EthicsDaily.com article, MBC leaders also decided to put the lawsuit as a line item in the proposed 2010 CP budget. However, after hearing complaints from many Missouri Baptists, the executive board changed its proposal in July to provide two CP giving plans: “Plan A” that will give 3 percent to the lawsuits and “Plan B” that will give that 3 percent to Missouri Baptist ministries. Messengers will debate this proposal during the annual meeting and will likely also consider a motion from the floor to drop the lawsuits.
An analysis of the 2008 audit report obtained by EthicsDaily.com reveals continued problems with transparency concerning legal funding. Although the audits are typically approved at the April executive board meeting, this one was not approved until July.
The MBC’s bridge loan to itself, which was authorized in April 2008, does not appear in the audit, thus providing no information other than the three different numbers provided in public statements by MBC leaders. It remains unclear exactly where the money came from.
Additionally, the MBC’s audit does not report the total legal expenses for 2008, even though all previous audits provided this information. The absence of this information makes it difficult to determine if CP money was spent on the lawsuit during 2008 as had occurred in previous years.
However, two items in the audit report raise serious questions about how the lawsuit has been funded in 2009. In 2008, the MBC’s building line of credit was maxed out and their Agency Restoration Fund (ARF) was depleted. Based on the average annual legal spending and the average annual contributions to ARF, the MBC will likely not have enough money to fund its legal fees without using CP money. However, even if the CP budget proposal is passed, it would not go into effect until 2010.
Despite the lack of transparency and the false denials that no CP money has been used to fund the lawsuits, MBC leaders are asking messengers to trust that the “Plan B” option of the proposed budget will not be used for legal fees. Regarding the question of CP money being used to pay for the lawsuits, MBC Executive Director David Tolliver claimed, “You can say to people, if they have this question, please tell them that it is a guarantee that their money will not go to lawsuits.”
Like Patterson, Tolliver has offered contradictory positions on the lawsuits in the past. Tolliver claimed he opposes the lawsuits for violating 1 Corinthians. However, he also praised the MBC’s legal efforts. Additionally, Tolliver said in an email to EthicsDaily.com that the MBC had not used CP money for the lawsuits, even though he admitted in the same email that the MBC had depleted the CP-funded Strategic Initiative Fund for the lawsuits.
MBC President Bruce McCoy has also offered his opinion that the lawsuits violate 1 Corinthians 6. McCoy, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in St. Louis, is running for a second term as president.
“In my personal opinion, the Lord has not blessed our convention’s efforts to violate 1 Corinthians 6:1-8,” McCoy recently wrote. “So, to me, the sooner we humbly fall back into compliance with the Word of God, the sooner the Lord will restore His mighty Hand of blessing.”
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com and editorial assistant for the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.