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Mess in Memphis: Bellevue Baptist, Another Mega-church in Trouble!

Published May 14, 2007

Now we have the Memphis Mess as Bellevue Baptist, the flagship church of Southern Baptists is embroiled in a major battle that involves charges against a longtime associate pastor—charges of incest, molestation, sodomy, and rape; a major cover-up by the new pastor and his alleged trespassing on a critical deacon’s posted property; lying; intimidation; misuse of church credit cards; and on and on and on!  As the crisis continues in the cornerstone church of the SBC, the world laughs and points with scorn to a church with an incredible history under three big league pastors.

Dr. Steve Gaines took the pulpit at Bellevue on Sept. 11, 2005 after serving as pastor for 14 years at Gardendale First Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala.  Gaines became one of the leading conservative voices in the SBC. Dr. Gaines was called to replace the retiring Dr. Adrian Rogers. Almost immediately the new pastor made some changes such as moving toward elder rule; a major change in the music program to one with blended traditional and non-traditional music; and maneuvered the popular music director out of his position to be replaced with one of Gaines own liking. One member said, “I have been a member of Bellevue since 1952,… I have been in the choir since 1960. Every time my mail comes, I look for the letter telling me that I am no longer needed in the choir, that I am too old. I do not clap and stomp. I do not wave my hands.”

Recently the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story dealing with Rick Warren’s church-growth methods which include replacing hymns, choirs and pews with rock-style praise bands and laid-back sermons. The story correctly reported that many mega-churches were suffering splits and confusion because of this market-driven approach. In that story, Bellevue was mentioned as being divided by the Purpose Driven approach to church building.

After accepting the call to Bellevue, Dr. Gaines allegedly told church officials that he needed to renegotiate his financial package, and it is charged that he is making twice what the previous pastor made; some members say as much as $500,000 per year plus benefits! Church officials deny his salary is that high but will not reveal the amount. 

There are also charges that Gaines used a church credit card for his own use, taking friends out to expensive restaurants and picking up the non-church tab. Another charge of misuse of church money is that the pastor gave $25,000 of church funds to a pro-abortion, pro-homosexual church! I would like to hear Gaines’ justification of that.

A website critical of Gaines charged that he gets his way by intimidation and an arrogant use of power not permitted by New Testament pastors. When concerned members asked for a copy of the church’s bylaws, they were refused. When members confronted Gaines asking for clarification of his actions, they were told, “If you don’t like it here; go find another church? The pastor has called his opponents “kooks,”  “cowards,” “adversaries,” “servants of Satan,” etc., during his sermons according to reports.

A member of Gaines’ former church in Gardendale, AL wrote: “For one we allowed him to take over and gave him ultimate authority. That is not biblical. He treated godly men we loved like dirt and we did not stand up to him and hold him accountable. He changed our services to be seeker-sensitive. I applauded at the time. Now I see it as a violation of the Bible. We had no transparency and no openness. No one could challenge or question him, just like at Bellevue. He damanded (sic) absolute loyalty and conformity and he got it. We were stupdid (sic) to allow it. Some of us were deceived into believing it was the right thing because our attendance was up. He bragged about the baptisms and the giving. The Bible says God gives the increase, not the pastor and not any of the rest of us. I knew better and foolishly went along because on the surface it looked like we had success.”

Another complaint against the pastor includes a story about his sending a staff member to discourage a long-time church member from saying “Amen,” during worship services! However, others report that Gaines, like many fundamentalists, elicits such responses.  It is alleged that Gaines had a dream that the “amener” was under demonic influence and needed to be silenced before the next Sunday morning service. Gaines denies the dream ever happened, claiming the amens were a distraction and hurting his concentration. If that statement is true then why ask for them. I don’t know one preacher who would seek to silence public agreement with his sermon!

In another lapse of judgment the pastor with three other men sought to talk to Mark Sharpe, former deacon, who questioned Gaines about his  compensation and other administration matters. Sharpe lives in a gated community and the four men climbed over a fence that was clearly posted with a no-trespassing sign. In discussing the incident, the pastor said the fence was only “knee-high” while Sharpe said it is over four feet high! Now, Gaines is charged with lying to keep himself from looking silly (and illegal) as he and his cohorts climbed a fence that was there to keep out unwanted people.
Gaines allegedly told Sharpe that he was “Hezbollah” and sending people to hell by his actions, but Sharpe replied that he didn’t have the power to send anyone to hell.  Sharpe said. “I have to admit, I was shaken by the words I heard my pastor speak to me. I was shaken to the bone but reminded that these were not the actions of a pastor.”

However, all the preceding is pale compared to the sexual misconduct of an associate pastor who is now on paid leave. On Dec. 18, 2006, Pastor Gaines announced to the 30,000-member Bellevue church that Paul Williams, a 34-year employee at Bellevue, was placed on paid leave pending a church investigation regarding “moral failure.” However, “moral failure” is somewhat ambiguous and insufficient. Specific details of the case, allegedly involving sodomy with a minor 17 years ago, have not been released to the public, although claims of sexual abuse have been posted on the Internet. Williams has not been officially charged with any criminal activity as of this date.

Another member wrote that Gaines “has admittedly known that there was a minister on staff that has committed rape, homosexuality, child molestation, sodomy, as well as incest and has done nothing about it for 6 months.  Well, that does constitute “moral failure.”

Pastor Gaines said of his delay in dealing with the alleged sin: “Some people have questioned why I waited for several months. It’s simply this: I acted out of a heartfelt concern and compassion for this minister because the event occurred many years ago, he was receiving professional counseling, and I was concerned about confidentiality,” Gaines said in a statement. “In light of the events that have unfolded, I realize now that I should have discussed it further with this minister and brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately.”

Gaines was concerned about confidentiality but he should have been concerned about obeying the Scripture as well as the law to report accusations of child abuse. He also said that the “activity” was in the past and Williams was undergoing counseling.  Gaines had no way of knowing that the sin was in the past and not ongoing and only time will answer that question. Furthermore, no sensible person believes that Williams is undergoing counseling for a 17-year old “activity” or “moral failure.”

Jim Barnwell, Bellevue’s director of communications said, “I think the important thing to remember is that Steve Gaines realized he made a mistake, he’s taking ownership of that and trying his best to fix it. I don’t believe there was a deliberate attempt to hide anything.” Maybe, maybe not. Note that part of Jim’s job is damage control.

If Gaines wanted to “fix” the problem, he would have followed New Testament procedures immediately thereby protecting innocent children from harm and himself from legal repercussions.

Michael Reagan dealt with the Bellevue issue on his national radio talk show on Dec. 18, 2006, stating that pastors like Gaines must be held accountable for not reporting sexual-abuse allegations. Reagan declared: “God forbid that, in fact, someone stands up in that church and says, ‘Oh by the way … my child was sexually molested by this pastor Williams,’ because that church, which is a 25,000 member church, is going to go bankrupt too, and well it should.” Reagan added, “It should have been dealt with the moment he found out, but instead, he waited six months. And he better pray no children were touched by Pastor Williams in that last six months, because if they were, there will be hell to pay.” Reagan also blamed Pastor Gaines for the current “turmoil” in the church. Whoever is to blame, they all need our prayers.

Dr. James Dobson declared, “When prominent leaders have no accountability and make these kinds of decisions, other prominent leaders must stand up and hold them accountable.” Dobson is correct. Where are the Southern and Independent Baptist leaders on this subject? Many are hiding behind the maxim, “I don’t have a dog in this race.”  Many are hiding because they are guilty of covering sin as did Gaines.

Michael Spradlin, president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary situated across the street from Bellevue Baptist Church (on 51 acres given to them by Bellevue Baptist) said Steve Gaines should resign the pastorate because of his deliberate silence about sex-abuse allegations against Williams. The seminary is supported by the Bellevue church although the church does not control the school. Spradlin is a member of Bellevue.

What a mess! From my research, there is little doubt that there are legitimate complaints on both sides. No doubt, some members, dissatisfied with Gaines inability to walk on water as did Rogers, are using any complaint to make their point; however, Gaines has done some super dumb things that almost invite criticism. Some of his supporters resort to the old, “Touch not mine anointed,” but that is a defense guilty preachers have used for centuries. However, what do you do when one of the “anointed” (associate pastor) reaches out and “touches” innocent children as asked by one of Gaines’ critics.

Therefore, while some of the complaints may be overdrawn and even “picky,” the mess is so entangled, it seems that Pastors Gaines, for the sake of the church, the cause of Christ, and himself should resign, book passage on the Delta Queen, and sail down the Mississippi where there is plenty of Christian work he can do. Maybe if Gaines is counseled by his friends, is repentant, and makes any restitution, then there he can find forgiveness and professional redemption. And maybe a great church can be salvaged.

Tags: Bellevue, , , SBC

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