"I went to Jerusalem to become acquainted (Gk. istoria) with Cephas" - Paul's words from Galatians 1:18.

Let Him Alone; God Hath Bidden Him to Speak: FBC Jax and the Consequences of Silencing Dissent

On April 8, 2009, three years ago this Easter Sunday, the religion reporter of the Florida Times-Union newspaper quoted Rev. Mac Brunson, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida as giving a statement that would eventually get Brunson and his church in some legal hot water. Rev. Brunson said, "What you're dealing with is a sociopath."

Brunson was referring to Tom Rich,  a long-time member and Sunday School teacher of  First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida. Tom had anonymously started a blog in 2007 called FBC Jax Watchdog in which he criticized his pastor's leadership, particularly regarding financial decisions pertaining to the church.  The church's security team, which included members of local law enforcement agencies in Jacksonville, opened an official "criminal investigation" to find the identity of the anonymous blogger. The means the church used to identify Tom Rich led Rich to file a federal lawsuit claiming "the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office violated the blogger’s First Amendment right to anonymity and free speech by wrongfully uncovering his identity and providing it to the church in 2008." The city of Jacksonville and the state of Florida eventually settled the lawsuit with Mr. Rich, after acknowledging "accidentally destroying" several of the official records involved in the case. The city newspaper editorialized at the time that the church's use of power was troubling.

Last Friday First Baptist Church, Jacksonville settled the defamation lawsuit that came as a result of Tom Rich being publicly identified as "a sociopath" by their pastor. Last Sunday, Rev. Brunson read a statement of apology to his church (emphasis mine):

"In April of 2009, I was quoted in a Times-Union article regarding an Internet blog which concerned this church. The article stated that I had labeled the author of the blog "obsessive compulsive" and a "sociopath." I did use those words and those conditions to describe Mr. Tom Rich, the author of the blog. These are serious and debilitating conditions. These statements have resulted in protracted litigation for myself and this church. Mr. Rich and his family were longtime members of this church. Mr. Rich is not obsessive compulsive  and is not a sociopath. I regret making those statements. I want to apologize to Mr. Rich and his family. I also want to apologize to you and the church."

I read Rev. Brunson's apology in the April 2, 2012 Times-Union newspaper accounting of the event. Reporter Jeff Brumley writes that Stan Jordan, a former Duval County School Board member and state legislator, was in attendance when Brunson made what Jordan calls "a statesmanlike" apology. "It was the right thing to do. That's what Christian life is all about," Jordan said. "I respect him for it. When you err, you fix it."

I do not know Stan Jordan. I must, however, politely disagree with his dogmatic assessment that Brunson's apology exemplifies "what Christian life is all about." The apology could also be about the appropriate and just end of legal recourse. Newsrat, one of the commentors on the Times-Union website, gets it right when he asks, "If the apology was “what Christian life is all about,” why did it take a lawsuit to get it?"

That is a good question, Newsrat, particularly in light of events in the past few weeks. For example, on February 8, 2012 (less than eight weeks ago),  Mac Brunson stated under oath (page 36, lines 24 and 25 of his 91 page deposition) :

"I think based upon what he (Tom Rich) has written that I've formed an opinion of the man."

Mac Brunson's deposition continues (page 37, line 6 through page 38, line 8) with Tom Rich's attorney asking follow-up questions (Q) and Rev. Mac Brunson giving the answers (A):

Q You're basing your opinions on what you've read (on Tom's blog); correct?

A. Yes

Q Or really, what you've been told?

A No, what I've read. I don't have to put a gallon of gas in my mouth to figure out I don't want to drink it.

Q Well--

A I don't have to read everything he said to reach an opinion about what I think is going on with him.

Q But if Mr. Rich or any church member wrote an article and published it on the Internet that was critical of you, that doesn't make that person a sociopath, does it?

A No.

Q It's doing it over and over again that makes him a sociopath?

      Mr. Weeden (Rev. Brunson's attorney): Object to form. Go ahead. Unless I tell you don't answer it--there's just something wrong with the way the question has been asked.

A That is one of the contributing factors. That gets close to a definition of obsessive-compulsive.

Q And a sociopath.

A I think so.

_______________________________________

As recently as February 8, 2012, Mac Brunson stood by his statement that Tom Rich was "a sociopath," a statement orginally published by the Times-Union on April 8, 2009. Thankfully, last Sunday, Rev. Mac Brunson apologized for his statement. Nobody knows the motive for why Rev. Brunson apologized after three years, but there are at least two possiblities:

(1). The Holy Spirit brought Rev. Brunson to repentance for his statement in less than eight weeks (February 2012 to April 2012) after He could not bring the gift of repentance to Rev. Brunson during the previous three years (February 2009 to February 2012). After all, the Holy Spirit is the One who enables us to display to others "what Christian life is all about," right? Or,

(2). Part of the settlement of the lawsuit, which included an undisclosed financial payment to the Rich family, included reading an apology to the church for the original statement by Rev. Brunson that Tom Rich is a "sociopath."

I do not claim to know which of the two reasons above is the one which led Rev. Mac Brunson to apologize. The original judge in the defamation lawsuit was replaced by one of the best friends of retired judge A.C. Soud. Judge Soud, whose name has been mostly kept out of the newspapers, was front and center in orchestrating the events at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville that led to a trespass warning issued against the Rich family. Judge Soud was Chairman of the Trustees at First Baptist Church , Jacksonville at the time the trespass warning was being issued to the Rich family. Last week, Soud's friend and fellow judge handling the lawsuit recused himself from the case. He  apologized to Mr. Rich and his attorney for not knowing the extent of Judge Soud's involvement in the events. An out of county judge was then chosen last week to replace the judge and adjudicate future lawsuit proceedings.

First Baptist Church, Jacksonville reached settlement with the Rich family before the end of last week, and the statement of apology was read on Sunday morning. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways, His powers to behold, as does the legal system too! Real Christian life involves calling a spade a spade.

This sad chapter is finally over. I think Christians everywhere owe Tom and Yvette Rich a debt of gratitude. They have displayed courage and conviction during a very difficult, trying time. I have never met Tom or Yvette, but I admire their tenacity and principles. Though I personally choose to always write things with my name attached, the tactics taken against Tom by his home church of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville AFTER his identity was discovered, only proved accurate his initial belief that his family would be in too much danger were his identity to be known by leaders of First Baptist Church. I think the favor Tom and Yvette Rich has done for us all is make it a little more difficult for Christian leaders to publicly denigrate and damage the character of those who criticize or question them.

Finally, just a word to my fellow pastors. If you are publicly criticized, censured, or condemned, it would be good to follow the advice of King David, who when verbally castigagated by one of his subjects and asked by Abishai if he could "go cut that dead dog's head off," responded, "Let him alone. God hath bidden him to speak."

34 comments:

Thy Peace said...

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Thank you Wade for showing this sad saga in perspective.

I have always believed from personal experience, that Mac Brunson has a very, very thin skin. He for some reason is not used to people even mildly criticizing him. The way he went after me to reach me through the LIVE video session of watching FBC Jax service over a very mild comment, showed me that he and the people who work under him were out of control. Not even ONE person was able to stop Mac from making a fool of himself. Luckily for him, I could not record those "sessions".

I am VERY, VERY GLAD that Watchdog (Tom Rich) and Yvette, persisted with patience and tenacity and we are fortunate for it.

Mac: A word of advise ... Develop a little more thick skin.

Wade Burleson said...

Thy Peace,

What happened to you is remarkable. Do you know (remember) what the video comment pushed to your computer IP address said?

What happened to you takes some technological prowess, and I realize some have said in the past it could not have happened. But what I've learned over the last few years about SBC politics and the thin-skin of leaders, as well as learning a little of your own testimony and consistent veracity, causes me to not only believe they did what you said, but suppresses in me any surprise.

What I am thankful for, Thy Peace, is that your experience has not soured you on Christianity.

As always, thanks for your words and assistance, my friend.

Allen Krell said...

I have never commented on Mac Brunson, but I have been amazed by how very mild comments on other pastors have launched vindictive attacks from their staff members. Pastors who are public figures definitely need thicker skin, it is part of being a public figure.

Wade Burleson said...

Allen,

Amen. I've noticed the same thing. We've fixed that at Emmanuel Enid though.

My staff is allowed to bash me all the time with impunity!

Laughing.

Wade

Thy Peace said...

Do you know (remember) what the video comment pushed to your computer IP address said?

Wade, I commented here, what happened. I was very, very shocked with what they did.

Wade Burleson said...

Thy Peace,

That is incredible.

Other adjectives apply: Sad, stupid, childish, innane, etc...

I remember you mentioning it before, but I never read your comment about what happened.

Truly an eye opener.

Thy Peace said...

Wade, I would like to thank you and Emmanuel - Enid, for allowing me to listen to your sermons. I went through about 70% of your old sermons. They have taught me, the Bible in a CLEAR way. Even though I read the Bible many times on my own front to back, your preaching brought the TRUTHS our very clearly.

I would also like to state some personal matters here ... I have been separated from my wife for more than 20 years. She is currently holding a high political position in South India. We have reconciled and I am planning to move back to India in September. I have been hesitant to reveal my name in public to undermine her position. I do have to say your teachings have made a personal effect on me and they have influenced my reconciliation with my wife. Thank you Wade and Thank you Emmanuel - Enid. It will be interesting when I go back to India. All my relatives are Hindus and some of them are shocked that I have become a Christian. Truth is Truth. I can not waver from Jesus Christ.

Wade Burleson said...

Humbled is too small a word to express what I feel right now, Thy Peace. Ecstastic may better express my feelings over what you have written.

My commitment to you, Thy Peace, is to pray for you daily as the Lord brings you to my mind. When I think of His peace, the Peace the passes all understanding, and my peace with God, I will remember Thy Peace and voice my request for the Lord's immeasurable grace and mercies to you.

Thanks for sharing the news.

Wade

Anonymous said...

I have a very hard time congratulating Tom rich on a supposed win in this case and thanking him for his blog when he has been so ugly to dr. Brunson. It makes no sense to me why you would laud him for this.

I'm also convinced that thy peace is greatly mistaken in his belief that dr Brunson said anything about his comment from the pulpit. It's kind of bizarre that he doesn't have that particular video, bc it just so happened to be when the church was switching over to an updated system.

Rev burleson, I really hope that you would focus on other things than topics such as this. This is what is devisive to the church.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:06:

It is hard to take your comments seriously when you can not even spell divisive correctly.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Burleson,

How were you able to post transcriptions from the deposition?

Debbie Kaufman said...

Ecstastic may better express my feelings over what you have written.

I concur Thy Truth. Thank you for your friendship and help to me the past few years. I have been and will be praying for you. I will see you in heaven.

I am very grateful to Tom and Yvette Rich. What they went through before this lawsuit was incredible and what they went through during this lawsuit and some of the senseless comments being thrown at them now is incredible. I am deeply grateful.

Wade Burleson said...

Thy Peace,

King David it is! Thanks for the correction. The student is brighter than the teacher!

:)

Wade Burleson said...

Anonymous,

I was given a copy of the transcript weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

You're allowed to post pieces of the transcript even though its not part of the public record?

Wade Burleson said...

Two things Mr Anonymous,

(1). Any United States citizen may request and receive a copy of the deposition by filing the appropriate paper work in Jacksonville, and

(2). What are you afraid of that keeps you in hiding? Exposure? The truth sets people free. Truth should never be hidden. Light is the nature of Christianity. What are YOU afraid of?

Tim Rogers said...

Wade,

Just one observation. You are calling into question an Anonymous commenter for remaining anonymous and criticizing you for posting statements from a private deposition? While you chastise FBC Jacksonville for exposing a person who wanted to remain anonymous? Seems there is a saying about a pot and kettle that applies here.

Tim

Wade Burleson said...

Tim,

What, kind sir, needs to be hidden in your opinion?

Randall Slack said...

Someone once said, "If what they are saying is true, learn from it; if what they are saying is false, move on."

Sound advise, me thinks.

It is a shame that this entire event had to be played out in the press, before the world. Knowing the reaction of some pastors to criticism (even constructive) I do not blame the blogger for trying to remain anonymous.

God help us to be open and humble enough to allow others to be honest with us - even if it is true or not.

Wade Burleson said...

Randall,

Good word. However, I'm not so sure that "it is a shame" that it played out in front of the world and the press.

The gospel is for sinners, not righteous people, and the sooner the world sees that there are sinners in the church the better.

:)

Anonymous said...

No one owes Tom and Yvette a "debt of gratitude," anymore than Mac Brunson deserves to be commended for his comments at the beginning of this episode. I have zero tolerance for what Mac Brunson said and did as a pastor. Likewise, I have no appreciation for how Tom has handled it either. Both sides have been less than "Christian" in their positions and it's a shame that things went as far as they did. There are no heroes in this story.

Caleb

Wade Burleson said...

Caleb,

Thanks for your comment. And, thanks for signing your name.

JaxLawyer said...

Please let Tim know that depositions are not "private." They are the same as testimony given in open court and a public record is being made by a court reporter. If that deposition is transcribed, anyone willing to pay for a copy can request one. And they can give a copy to Wade. :)

By the way, my personal belief from watching this all unfold over the years, is that it is not, and was not, Mac Brunson who has the thin skin. Other people close to him (Wife?) and trustee/deacon (A.C. Soud?)may have been closely reading the blog and getting so irate over criticisms of not just Mac, but of themselves and their families (driving luxury Jaguar, putting son on staff, putting wife on staff, Soud hosting "night to stand with Israel",etc.) that it was other people that decided to make it personal and go after Mr. Rich. Hard to explain otherwise why they decided to go after his wife, Yvette, by including her in Soud's letter of 16 sins. Yvette, by all accounts, is a loving Christian lady who never hurt anyone and who served for years at the church and who is an intelligent and classy Christian lady. Why they would trespass HER and keep her from being in the service while her 14 y/o daughter sang on the stage while Mac Brunson was sitting on the stage listening, is beyond explanation unless personal vengeance was involved. Maybe we can get Wade a copy of Mrs. Brunson's deposition for furher insight to her involvement in all of this?

CB Scott said...

I have not made a comment here in a long time, but today seems like a good time.

I think Caleb's comment is dead on and well stated. There were problems on both sides.

Yet, if Mrs. Rich was really kept from "being in the service while her 14 y/o daughter sang on the stage while Mac Brunson was sitting on the stage listening" as the Jax Lawyer states, Mac (and I mean Mac) personally should be ashamed, truly ashamed, and he should tell the lady and the lady's daughter he is sorry for allowing such a thing to happen on his watch. If it happened, it was of the highest of rude behavior by a man toward a woman not to let her hear her daughter sing. Why anyone of proper character would do that is beyond even a wretch like me. Again, I base my position on an "if."----if it happened.

Lastly, I must state, we are all wretched sinners and thank the Lord Jesus for providing atoning grace on the tree for all who call on His name.

Mike Frost said...

Wade -

When does exposing the wrong of someone move to a verbal assault of the one who has been exposed?

If exposing a wrong is acceptable, when do the blogs and allowed comments (which often move quickly to judge, jury and hanging) become a wrong also?

This is where I become angry with the blogsphere on this. The whole desire to hold Mac accountable but never hold the reins for things others say concerning Mac. As good as the blogs may be, the wicked plethora of character bashing allowed is sickening. Even when words used are typed with tints of grace but stink of arrogance.

Wade Burleson said...

Mike Frost,

I went back and tried to see what comments you might perceive as 'bashing.' I don't see Thy Peace's comments or others bashing anybody. I see people who've either been scared or hurt speaking out.

Thanks for your comment.

Mike Frost said...

Wade Burleson,

I wasn't speaking of this blog entry specifically but the blogs and the entries of those you support in exposing wrong. You link to the fbcjaxwatchdog and have posted there a few times. Have you not observed the level of mean spirited comments that often show themselves when any disagreement with Tom is given? Have you not read the trash about Mac and others there which goes way beyond exposing the wrong?

It is possible you have not seen this. I doubt it but it is still possible.

Maybe the injustices towards those being written about are not a concern to you. I just wanted to know when does accountability start for those exposing wrong?

Wade Burleson said...

Mike,

I don't disagree. However, I learned a long time ago that 90% of the people forget 100% of the things written that do not pertain to them. I ignore anonymous, caustic remarks--and would encourage others to do so as well.

Thanks, again, for your comment.

Randall Slack said...

Wade, of course you are correct. My comment was intended to address the problems within the church that really shouldn't be there. Jesus prayed for unity among believer; yet, we do not often see it. To me, that is the shame. I appreciate your blog and your comments.

Thou almost persuadeth me to be a Baptist ;)

Anonymous said...

Wade:

Very good summary. I, too, have congratulated the Dog on the settlement.

It seems from the excerpt of Brunson's deposition that you quoted that a month or two ago Brunson had not backed up a bit.

You know, it would have been more appealing for Brunson to just say, "I have heard that term used, but am not an expert and don't know what it means exactly." That would be closer to the truth, probably.

I think it would be really interesting to read Brunson's deposition. I hope that you or someone else who has a copy will post it.

Also, you said that Brunson's recanting about whether Rich was a Sociopath was either a product of the Holy Spirit's work on a settlement deal. I suspect it's the later.

But in describing the settlement, you said that the settlement included a payment of money to the Riches in an undisclosed amount. I read the Times Union article and Tom's post, but this is the first time I have seen that stated.

I suspect that a payment was involved, but I was wondering where that was reported so I could read that story. If you could post the link or source, that would be great.

The OT quote was great. Thin skin is often a cause for downfall in leaders.

Thanks.

Louis

Wade Burleson said...

Louis,

The financial settlement is confidential and all parties have a gag order in place. I do not know the terms, but I believe it involved a payment, and you probably may never read an article about the payment because nobody is going to talk about it. I could conjecture on the amount, but that would be fruitless.

The reason it must have involved a payment is because the city and state settled with a cash payment. I can't imagine, under any circumstances, how this case would be settled for anything less than the other case, but if you have information that is different, please feel free to correct me.

Anonymous said...

The settlement may simply be that FBC paid Tom Rich's lawyer's bills.

Mark said...

Wade,

Can you recommend what you think is an accurate interpretation of I Kings 2:8-9, where David, as he lay dying, remembered the words spoken against him and instructed Solomon to "Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood."

Those verses have bothered me, since they seem so vindictive. Matthew Henry says David's instructions "did not come from personal anger, but for the security of Solomon's throne." They just strike me as much harsher than that.

Thanks,
Mark

Wade Burleson said...

Mark,

I agree with you. They are much harsher than Henry allows in his commentary.

I will not press my interpretation, and I believe I could be wrong--but I have understood David's dying words as prophetic and inspired. Meaning, there is only One who takes revenge, Only one who punishes the wicked, and only One who takes vengeance on the unjust, and that One is God.

Similar to the imprecatory Psalms, David's last and dying words are a confirmation of reprobation on the wicked, and the one who went down to the grave bloody experiencing the rightesous, just and holy vengeance of God. In other words, this sinner had no atonement for sins.

In short, eternal judgment is not harsh, but it is serious and scary, and David's words are an inspired prophecy of imprecatory judgment on the one who cursed him.


That's my opinion, and thanks for the comment