Bethlehem Baptist Leaders Clash Over ‘Coddling’ and ‘Cancel Culture’

Written by on August 21, 2021

This was supposed to be a landmark year for Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, as the historic congregation, best known for John Piper’s 33-year tenure as pastor, marked its 150th anniversary.

Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS)—which grew from the church’s lay training institute to an accredited program—also has reason to celebrate. This fall, the school will inaugurate its second president, 10 years after its first graduating class.

Ahead of the commemorations, though, the community finds itself in the midst of what current leaders have called “a confusing and challenging time” and “a hard and difficult season in the life of our church.” Three pastors and a staff member resigned from the downtown campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in recent months, alongside dozens of lay members. Another four faculty and staff left the college and seminary in the past year.

Some of the faces that appear in the compilation video of “150 God’s Grace at Bethlehem” no longer belong to the multisite Twin Cities church—most prominently Jason Meyer, Piper’s successor and Bethlehem’s pastor for preaching and vision. Members who spent 10, 20, or even 30 years worshiping and serving there, who expected they would be part of Bethlehem for the rest of their lives, said goodbye to their spiritual home.

“Bethlehem was the plan until we were going to be in Jesus’ arms. We can’t even think about what’s next,” said Debby Pickering, whose family left when her husband, Bryan, resigned his position as pastor. While he was trying to work for resolution, she didn’t know where to go with her own frustration and anxiety. “Nothing in seminary wife class prepares you for this.”

They leave behind a sizable community—2,400 members, spread across three campuses—whose leaders are also disappointed and grieved, enough that the church decided to postpone its 150th anniversary event scheduled for this weekend to November.

Unlike other high-profile evangelical scandals and shakeups in the headlines, the story at Bethlehem is not so clear-cut. In a letter emailed to his congregation, the pastor of one of the three Bethlehem campuses referenced “nuanced and complex issues at play” in Meyer’s resignation last month. Even people who’ve left in frustration agree there’s no single cause or person beneath the conflict.

Those leaving and those staying recognize some of the issues that have divided Bethlehem, many of which are straining other conservative churches: racial justice and critical race theory (CRT); the #MeToo movement and the call to believe women; and the nature of trauma and abuse.

Beneath this constellation of hot topics, though, there’s also a deeper philosophical disagreement over how to approach the various conflicts themselves. At its heart are questions over whether, when, and how Christians might challenge those who say they are hurting—and how they balance calls to show compassion, seek out truth, and repent of sin in such situations.

“If I just resign and pretend that I think everything at Bethlehem is fine, I would be dishonest,” wrote Meyer, who left August 1. “Rather, I believe our leadership culture has taken a turn in an unhealthy direction as we try to navigate conflict and division.”

Particularly since Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s been a deepening of divisions among American evangelicals, exposing disagreements not in theology per se but in how they as Christians see their greatest priorities and fears in society. It’s been accelerated by political polarization, racial reckoning, and pandemic stress.

Commentators have tried to parse the fault lines, and evangelicals themselves—including CT’s president and editor in chief Tim Dalrymple—have generated their own categories for how people of common faith can find themselves at odds.

In his resignation letter, Meyer referenced the “fracturing of evangelicalism” described in a recent Mere Orthodoxy article, which details how certain groups will experience “significant philosophy of ministry differences in how to contextualize the gospel in this cultural moment.” While accusations swirled of liberal drift under his leadership, Meyer instead saw the congregation moving in the other direction and suggested a pastor in the “neo-fundamentalist” category would be a better fit.

Several current leaders at Bethlehem as well as BCS’s new president, Joe Rigney, pointed to a similar taxonomy laid out by The Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung.

“Part of what’s happened, in the last five years plus especially, is emerging fault lines among people with sensibly shared theological commitments,” Rigney said in an interview with CT. At the same time, “There’s been an escalation of language and inflation of language such that when a certain issue rises to where it becomes the litmus test, where it becomes, ‘You’re either with us or against us’—as opposed to simply a different instinct or tendency within a same shared theological commitment—that’s when there’s real problems, and it’s hard to work together.”

Rigney has become known for raising concerns about the “sin of empathy,” a topic he’s written about on Desiring God and discussed in a video series hosted by Doug Wilson. His worries center on what he sees as contemporary expectations that people join others who are hurting in their pain. Such sensitivities, he fears, can threaten Christians’ relationship with the truth.

“God commands us to be compassionate. He commands us to show sympathy, but people demand empathy, and they regard it as a kind of betrayal if you refuse to join them in their pain, in their grievance,” he says in the series with Wilson. In this context of untethered empathy, he argues, “you lose the ability to actually make an independent judgment about anything that they’re saying or doing. In other words, you lose contact with truth.”

Rigney acknowledges that a criticism of empathy sounds provocative, and he’s made efforts to explain and defend his position online. But his take has also resonated. More than 25 people spoke to CT at length about their experiences navigating conflict at Bethlehem for this article. Many brought up the “untethered empathy” concept as a factor that they believe shaped leaders’ responses when confronted with claims of bullying, institutional protection, and spiritual abuse.

Three ‘empathetic’ pastors

Meyer’s exit last month followed two others’ at Bethlehem’s downtown campus. Ming-Jinn Tong, pastor for neighborhood outreach, announced his resignation in May; and Bryan Pickering, pastor for care and counseling, in June. All three had conflicted at times with Bethlehem’s 40-plus-member elder council, and they eventually saw their own ministries and the focus of the church going in different directions.

One point of tension was a months-long process evaluating grievances made against a Bethlehem elder and a BCS professor, Andy Naselli, who was accused of failing to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,” and thereby unfit for his positions, after his remarks at a church meeting. The elder council concluded in April that the charges against Naselli were not true, but the pastors were three of four elders who dissented in hopes that further investigation could take place.

They felt pressure for not going along with the rest of the elder council, to the point where some elders said they considered it “untenable” for Tong and Pickering to stay given their disagreement.

But it wasn’t just the situation around Naselli. During a meeting in May, the downtown pastors faced further challenges from some of the council. “Another elder in the meeting said of Pastor Jason, of Pastor Ming-Jinn, and of me that when we preach or pray publicly, or publicly communicate to the congregation, we are subordinating the gospel to other things,” Pickering told CT.

Jason Meyer

Image: Screengrab / Bethlehem Baptist Church

Jason Meyer

While Meyer was on sabbatical in May, Pickering and Tong were removed from the Sunday prayer and preaching schedule. They resigned not long after.

Meyer, whose involvement at Bethlehem dates back to 1999, returned from his sabbatical with what he says was a clear calling that it was time for him to go too. He described his reasons for leaving in a 3,100-word resignation letter that was recently leaked, nearly a month after the church announced his departure in a brief email.

He says the accusations against him were “(1) that I have subordinated the gospel, (2) that I empowered victims (‘coddler’), and (3) that I allowed compassion for others to steer and dictate my leadership direction.”

“In a climate of suspicion, compassion can look like coddling,” Meyer wrote.

A lay member, who attended Bethlehem for over a decade and asked not to be named to preserve ministry relationships, told CT it made sense that Meyer, Pickering, and Tong were the ones to go since they were seen as the “empathetic” ones. For some, these three pastors’ willingness to listen to and advocate for congregants, their teachings on race and abuse, and their leadership at the downtown campus were particular assets to Bethlehem.

“I’ve heard from various people who have said things like when they heard Jason preach or Ming-Jinn preach or me pray publicly, or things that I would post on social media, they would feel like they were very cared for, seen, or felt alignment with us,” said Pickering, who led the church in prayer the Sundays following the Capitol insurrection, the presidential inauguration, the Atlanta spa shootings, and the killing of Daunte Wright. “And if I’m saying it’s no longer a place to be able to say those things publicly and remain safe, they’re thinking, ‘That’s not a place for us then either.’”

But for others, the pastors’ focus on race and abuse issues reflected a differing philosophy of ministry.

“I believe that the issue isn’t whether or not we should show compassion (we should), but whether our compassion will be rooted in the gospel—deployed with discernment and with a willingness to provide correction or rebuke (Titus 1:13),” Steven Lee, pastor of Bethlehem’s North Campus, wrote in a response to Meyer’s resignation letter.

“I had a growing concern that compassion that lacks discernment would ultimately and subtly undermine sound doctrine. I observed leadership patterns that sought to help hurting people but left those same people even more frustrated and disappointed.”

‘Man Rampant’ fallout

Piper has hosted and defended pastor and author Doug Wilson over the years, even as he’s become an increasingly contentious figure in evangelicalism for his teachings on slavery, women, and other issues. Rigney has a degree from New Saint Andrews College, founded by Wilson’s Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and has maintained ties with him.

Rigney’s “sin of empathy” interview in Wilson’s series, called Man Rampant, released in October 2019 as the debut episode. A year later, Rigney, who had taught theology and literature at BCS since 2007, was named the school’s second president in an announcement by Piper as chancellor. Though Rigney serves as a pastor at a Bethlehem church plant in St. Paul, Cities Church, he is the first head of BCS who doesn’t belong to Bethlehem Baptist Church itself.

Bethlehem College and Seminary grew out of the church-run training center that dates back decades. It transitioned to a formal degree program that eventually became accredited in 2015. It remains based at Bethlehem’s downtown campus, and though BCS has its own board of trustees, there’s significant overlap in leadership.

“Our academic dean is an elder at the church. Five of our professors are elders; four of our trustees are elders,” said Rigney. “In terms of the leadership of the school, it’s the same guys. It’s the same individuals who are sitting in both places. Now, obviously I’m a pastor at a separate church, but that church has the same doctrinal commitment as Bethlehem does.”

Rigney and Wilson discuss the “sin of empathy.”

Rigney and Wilson discuss the “sin of empathy.”

With Rigney slated to lead the college and seminary, some worried that his theological views and his affiliations would become conflated with Bethlehem’s—specifically his concerns on empathy discussed in the hour-long Wilson interview (which is now on YouTube).

Janette and Steve Takata, who have attended and served at Bethlehem since 2003 and 1990, respectively, were concerned enough that Janette made a motion at the churchwide quarterly meeting in January. She requested that, prior to Rigney taking office, the elders make a statement to “separate” Rigney’s views in the episode from “the views and teachings of Bethlehem Baptist Church.”

Janette Takata pointed out that Rigney was identified as being from “Bethlehem” in the video and that a BCS professor and Bethlehem elder posted a five-star review of the episode. She asked how the message, with Rigney and Wilson discussing examples of women using emotional manipulation or falsely claiming abuse, would square with the church’s own ministry to care for victims.

Naselli, associate professor of theology and New Testament at BCS, spoke up to identify himself as the five-star reviewer and said that if the motion passed, he’d quit. The threat effectively shut down discussion. The Takatas were jarred by the response. In the following weeks, as the church attempted to make peace between them and Naselli, the couple felt maligned in the process, as the professor went on to characterize their motion as divisive and disrespectful.

The Takatas’ concerns quickly became about more than the motion, and they filed grievances challenging Naselli’s qualifications as an elder. Their dispute stirred underlying issues and philosophical differences, including over the subject of Rigney’s remarks themselves.

“The attitude undergirding the motion is too easily offended or hurt, and it turns that woundedness or offense into a crusade,” Naselli wrote in an email to fellow elders in February, referring to the move as a form of “cancel culture.”

Naselli stated that he reacted in the meeting because he worried about discrediting Rigney prior to his presidency, after BCS had undergone a careful, scrutinizing selection process to choose him. But he also saw the debate as a proxy for the other issues stirring around Bethlehem.

He told the elders:

I have been majorly burdened for our church for the past several years regarding how we approach ethnic harmony and related issues in our culture, including partisan politics, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, Black Lives Matter, etc.

I feel like we have encountered wave after wave after wave, and that in a good-faith effort to keep the peace and maintain some form of unity, we have not spoken with sufficient clarity about what is true and what is false and instead have attempted to appease left-leaning folks who are virtually unappeasable …

By the time the Takatas eventually met with Naselli and church leaders, they saw that “there are more dividing lines being formed here than we expected,” Janette told CT. They insisted he sinned against them “by explaining and denying” instead of seeking to understand. They said he “falsely accused us of insubordination to a pastor and acting in a manner that is intentionally divisive.”

But Naselli, according to the Takatas’ transcripts, spoke up about the difference between intent and impact and ultimately did not see his response as sinful. “I feel terribly that I hurt you, and I own that and I regret it, and I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m not convinced that I sinned against you. I had zero ill intent against you.”

He later apologized for not being quick to listen in the moment and in later discussions of the incident, though in April the elders considered the grievances against him unfounded. Naselli did not reply to CT’s multiple requests to offer comment for this story.

Andy Naselli’s direct speech

The news of official grievances against Naselli, one of the best-known professors at BCS, spread among its 400 or so graduates. He is well respected for his scholarship and rigor, earning two PhDs (from Bob Jones and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) before he turned 30. He writes for The Gospel Coalition and has served as D. A. Carson’s longtime research assistant.

Naselli often started the semester with an explanation of Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology of direct speech vs. mitigated speech—direct being the commands you give when a plane is crashing, and mitigated, the niceties you use as a matter of courtesy. The implications were clear: He would not be sugarcoating in this class.

Even with the warning, there were moments where the tone and classroom demeanor intensified in contrast to others at BCS. Four students recalled intense debates in their 2019 undergrad course in christian ethics and apologetics. In one class, Naselli argued with those who disagreed with him over whether evil was created, to the point that he clenched his fists, grunted, and called the opposing position “almost a heresy.” He accused a student of “watering down the Bible with his understanding of evil and its existence,” according to Brax Carvette.

“This was baffling to me. We learned Augustine in doctrine class,” Carvette said. “That was a very heated conversation. I was pretty disappointed. Up until this point, I thought he was a pretty cool guy and authoritative in his teaching.”

As the debating and name-calling escalated, Jeffrey Hall joined the group of students defending the Augustinian position of evil as privation, or evil as the absence of good. His experience in the class led him to hear from others who had been called out by Naselli, and he brought concerns from a dozen students to leaders at the church at BCS the following year.

BCS is a confessional school where professors teach from its 52-page affirmation of faith, but students from other traditions can attend. Most, though, come through the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. They’re drawn to Reformed theology and Piper’s christian hedonism, which is reflected in the school’s motto: “Education in Serious Joy.”

“In a classroom full of men who would give their lives for the gospel, to have somebody who’s supposedly training you for ministry doubt your commitment to that gospel because you’re not convinced he’s right about everything is really hard to deal with,” said Karl Grant, who studied under Naselli in the seminary, as the as the sole Lutheran in the program. “He had the power to just wreck me. I used to wonder if I was too soft. Now I wonder why he was so harsh.”

Hall’s was one of two official grievances filed against Naselli last year. Tabb and fellow leaders at BCS conducted the investigation of the former students’ complaints, which concluded last August. Some current seminary students say they were satisfied with the outcome and have seen repentance from their professor following the investigation.

Though the process was done with the approval of Bethlehem pastors and the elder chair, some wanted the church to do its own review of Naselli last year. Even before Rigney’s selection and the Naselli investigation at BCS, church leaders had begun to rethink what it means for the college and seminary to be a “church-based” school when the church now has three campuses instead of one. Kenny Stokes, a pastor and elder at Bethlehem and associate professor and trustee at BCS, told CT they are currently in discussion to clarify protocols and policies between the two institutions.

Last year, Pickering and Meyer resigned from their teaching roles at BCS, with Pickering citing “egregious” student complaints against a “professor-elder” among his top reasons. He also opposed the selection of Rigney as president for how it complicates BCS’s relationship with the church and for his Wilson affiliations. Meyer had stepped down from the BCS board of trustees as well.

When Christina Boyum, a graduate of the college, discussed what happened in Naselli’s class with a fellow church member at Bethlehem, she was told, “A student feeling hurt does not mean that the student has been sinned against. It’s not bad to feel hurt.”

The BCS alumna said that he went on to say, “We came from a generation where Naselli’s teaching philosophy—and Don Carson’s—is completely normal. They’re trying to toughen you up. You are learning not to be led by your emotions. This generation—young people—are not being prepared to survive in the world they are going to find themselves in.”

This idea has come up in the cultural conversation with more loaded and often less theological terms: the overly sensitive “snowflake generation,” the debate over trigger warnings, and the 2018 bestseller The Coddling of the American Mind.

At Bethlehem, Rigney said, “we want to un-coddle the American mind, or at least the christian mind. We don’t want that kind of escalation, inflation, and fragility in play. That’s part of our entire educational approach.” (He declined to comment on Naselli or any specific faculty members.)

Boyum said it was because of her training at Bethlehem that she felt like she should raise concerns. Overall, her professors and pastors “modeled a way to engage the world not from fear and suspicion, but with openness and critical thinking.”

“There’s much I love about Bethlehem. Frankly, it’s because I graduated from our undergrad program that I have concerns. I believe aspects of BCS culture are inconsistent with the mission and vision I came to love,” she said. She referenced the six habits that shape BCS education: observing, understanding, evaluating, feeling, applying, and expressing. “When we talk about the six habits of heart and mind, [we need to] actually do that.”

Rigney said that as christian hedonists, feel becomes an educational distinctive at BCS. “We put a high premium on education in serious joy, and therefore we think the emotions are important,” he said. “The key thing in a lot of ways—maybe I’m feeling this one more directly now—is the way that our emotional responses to reality need to be in accordance with reality.”

Rigney recognizes spiritual abuse as something that does happen in christian contexts, but he also challenged what he saw as the possibility for criticism or correction from a position of authority to get “inflated” as abuse. Similarly, Lee at Bethlehem’s North Campus referred to the spiritual abuse accusations against Naselli as the result of “concept creep,” suggesting that conceptions of abuse and victimhood are being expanded too far.

Ethnic harmony

Last year, as BCS academic dean Brian Tabb reviewed the students’ grievances against Naselli, the school also underwent a separate investigation in response to a group of current and former employees who raised broad concerns about leadership and workplace culture, including the position of women and minorities at the school. The investigation found that BCS policies did not violate workplace law. The school also hired its only female faculty professor, Betsy Howard, this year.

At the conclusion of the two investigations, Johnathon Bowers—who had taught for a decade at BCS—felt no better about the growing reservations he had over his place at the college. “There is no one factor that has driven me away from this school. It has been multiple factors in concert over time,” he wrote in a resignation letter last year.

Bowers had been a professor who looked forward to the first day of school every year and loved interacting with students—and it showed. Tabb, in an October 2020 email announcing Bowers’s final days at BCS, described him as being “beloved by students and colleagues for his excellent teaching, good humor, compassion for the marginalized, and faithful friendship.”

It took a lot for him to leave the classroom behind. He said he felt a conviction that he couldn’t in good conscience stay at BCS and by the end of 2020 his family left Bethlehem too.

Among his concerns, the former assistant professor of theology and philosophy wrote that leaders used “Scripture or christian vocabulary to dismiss employee and student complaints,” and that he felt pressured to “tiptoe” around addressing racial progress. Bowers said that at BCS, “‘Black lives matter’ feels more threatening than the racism that has made that phrase necessary.”

He also expressed misgivings around the treatment of women, which he claimed was the result of attitudes that went beyond complementarian convictions, as well as around Rigney’s ties to Wilson.

Piper responded to Bowers’s account in an email to the campus community, saying that his characterization did not line up with his own as chancellor.

“If you find over time that Johnathon’s perceptions are true, you will rightly seek out another place to study or work. And in such a case, the school will rightly wither and die. As it should,” he wrote. “But if you see what I see, and if you experience this community (leadership, faculty, and students) as loving, and supportive and fair, and if you share my excitement about the future with Joe Rigney’s leadership and under God’s merciful providence, then I believe we will together walk in truth and love, and have a great impact for the glory of Christ.”

The sensitivity over Black Lives Matter and differing approaches to contemporary racial issues hits particularly hard in the Bethlehem community. Many at BCS, including Bowers himself, were influenced by Piper’s 2011 book Bloodlines, his confession of his own racism, and his desire for diversity.

The christian conversation about racism has come a long way in the 10 years since Bloodlines, and has taken on more weight amid the recent string of high-profile police killings—three in the Minneapolis area alone: Philando Castille, George Floyd, and Daunte Wright. At the same time, worries around secular thinking overriding biblical approaches to race have spiked, particularly over critical race theory.

“I didn’t start experiencing regular conflict until I started advocating for racial justice issues,” Bowers told CT.

The three departing pastors from Bethlehem were based just a few miles from where George Floyd died in 2020. Tong led the church’s efforts to help the community in the unrest and grief in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, including setting up pop-up grocery stores.

Tong preaches to the downtown campus in March.

Image: Screengrab / Bethlehem Baptist Church

Tong preaches to the downtown campus in March.

A Taiwanese American, Tong also wore traditional Chinese attire as he preached on the Sunday following the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. He and Pickering, who read the names of the victims in prayer that week, received criticism from a fellow elder for bringing up race as a component in the incident.

Students saw the effects too, where professors were becoming less willing to find merit in concepts that have become associated with CRT, such as institutional bias. “The stakes continue to be raised,” said Josh Panos, a BCS alumnus. “There are things that professors would admit in classroom settings when I began that they wouldn’t be willing to admit now.”

Bethlehem uses the phrase “ethnic harmony,” believing ethnicity is a better match for the the cultural categories described in the Bible than race, which is primarily biological or physical. The church formed an ethnic harmony task force in 2019 to review issues such as representation and diversity within the church and leadership.

The group faced pushback from elders and pastors, who were worried that their approach focused only on where Bethlehem was not doing enough on matters of race. Then, its findings weren’t released to the church as a whole until a year and a half after issuing a report to elders. In the end, seven of the 17 original members of the task force ended up leaving Bethlehem, which some elders saw as confirmation that their misgivings about the group were justified.

In February 2021, the church released a statement on ethnic harmony that affirms Christians’ neighborly love across ethnic lines but denies that “ethnic diversity should be an end in itself” and rejects “all systems of thought that view relationships primarily through the lens of power—that is, those with more power are inherently oppressors, and those with less power are inherently oppressed.”

Like in many evangelical churches that are majority white, some members of the congregation believed the church was putting too little an effort into addressing ethnic harmony and justice, while others felt like it became too much of a focus.

The downtown campus was the most diverse of the three, with people of color making up 21 percent of attendees. Meyer told his congregation to expect that race would continue to be addressed from the pulpit. The Sunday after George Floyd was killed, he preached on racism and the call to sit in solidarity with those who are suffering. Meyer said, “If you as a church don’t like what I said today, you will have to get another pastor, because I believe this to the back of my teeth.”

Rethinking abuse

The issue of abuse also has particular resonance at Bethlehem. In the years after Piper stepped down in 2013, Bethlehem had its own reckoning on domestic abuse in complementarian marriages. Meyer preached in 2015 against the dangers of “hyper-headship” and made the case that doing nothing when faced with abuse is taking the side of the abuser. The church went on to revise its stance on divorce and start a ministry response team to care for victims.

Looking back, Pickering, as a counselor, wishes the church had established an understanding of systemic abuse prior to its focus on domestic abuse back in 2015.

It would have been easier, he said, to move from understanding abuse within institutions and systems, as can be the case with spiritual abuse and racism, to the ways abuse manifests in marriage relationships. But it’s more difficult to shift people’s thinking the other way, though more resources—books like Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse—and Freeing Yourself from Its Power by Wade Mullen and A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing by Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight—are changing how people see abuse within the church.

Leaders in the Bethlehem community, though, said they worry that the new sensitivities are hurting their ability to pastor and shepherd those in their care. Rigney at BCS lamented the challenge of responding “if a harsh word immediately becomes abuse.” Lee at the North Campus worried that even tenderhearted, gentle pushback is at risk of being dismissed. “Is there a way to do any rebuke or admonishment when someone is hurting?,” he asked.

Sarah Brima and her husband were former members of Bethlehem and Rigney’s Cities Church but left in part over his affiliation with Wilson. She described how hard it was to leave a church they’d helped plant, even as disagreements about race and gender emerged. “These churches that are really heavy on theo

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