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In a dramatic turnabout rarely seen in formerly communist Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian parliament passed a law protecting the liberties of the country’s religious minorities on the final day of its 2018 session.
The original version of the bill threatened to restrict the rights of religious groups representing less than 1 percent of the population—which included at least 100 of the country’s growing evangelical churches. How the turnaround happened—through eight weeks of prayer vigils and organized protests—is a lesson for other threatened believers.
When the government first proposed revisions to an existing religion law in spring 2018, many Bulgarian evangelicals assumed the restrictive articles would be rejected outright. But by autumn, concern turned to alarm as the revisions moved forward, according to Vlady Raichinov of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance.
The proposed law would have negatively affected evangelical and Catholic churches, some Muslim communities, and other minority religious groups: It called for restricting seminary training, limiting foreign donations, banning foreign preachers without the presence of a Bulgarian minister, and banning worship outside of designated registered buildings.
The government claimed the measures were to protect Bulgaria—one of the EU’s border nations—from outside radicalism. Critics voiced alarm that majority parties would back a proposal that threatened a return to communist-era repressions. Although exempted by the 1 percent population threshold and standing to gain financially from the new law, Orthodox and Muslim leaders also criticized the proposal as dangerously intrusive on religious life.
By October it became clear parliament would proceed with considering the measure. Evangelical leaders across denominations gathered to plan a unified response. Pastors mobilized churches to pray and encouraged congregants to write their parliamentarians. They also organized protests. For seven consecutive Sundays in November and December, evangelicals went from church services to the streets, rallying 4,000 demonstrators in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, alone. The peaceful protests spread to 11 other major cities.
Initially Bulgarian media ignored the protests, but the letter-writing campaign spread to European diplomatic institutions, and the movement gained wider traction. Bulgarian television invited evangelical leaders to present their case, and international pressure began to mount on the Bulgarian parliament.
“This is a quick issue with far-reaching effects that caught our leaders there by surprise,” Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Elijah Brown told WORLD, as the group’s network of congregations on five continents took a stand against the proposed law.
In December, blizzard conditions threatened but didn’t halt protests. Leaders gathered in front of the parliament building, gave Bibles to passing lawmakers, and explained why they opposed the legislation. Evangelicals held a vigil outside the parliament building during the Dec. 21 vote on the law, praying for an outcome that seemed anything but certain. “It’s amazing that the parliamentarians took out every offensive article when only two months before they had voted the complete opposite,” said Raichinov. “Only God can do that.”
Raichinov believes the legal challenge brought unity to the Bulgarian evangelical churches. An unexpected positive outcome is recognition of the evangelical community by government and society: Even with protests still underway, a government committee invited evangelical leaders to provide input on moral considerations regarding other issues, like human organ donation.
“We were encouraged by the response of the global Christian community. No country is an island, and every denomination is a global family. We want to support other countries in the same way,” said Raichinov.
Sofia was the setting in A.D. 311 for the “Edict of Toleration” that paved the way for the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Evangelicals believe they’ve again witnessed a victory over excessive state control. Said the Baptist World Alliance’s Brown: “God has granted us a remarkable blessing, by allowing us to see the will of the political powers changed.”
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A canceled event at South City Church (PCA) in St. Louis, Mo., brought renewed attention to ongoing friction among Presbyterians in the city also home to Covenant Theological Seminary—the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.
In January, South City Church leaders had agreed to allow an event to take place on its campus that was sponsored by an organization called Faith for Justice. The MLK Day-related gathering was set to include speaker Jay-Marie Hill, a lesbian and an activist for transgenderism.
A Faith for Justice announcement said Hill would “teach us how to not only mourn the tragic death of trans folx, but learn to celebrate their lives and humanity.”
In a Jan. 14 statement, the session of South City said the elders and pastoral staff had become aware of the details over the past few days and “determined that some of the planned elements … appeared to be inconsistent with South City Church’s theological convictions.” They retracted the offer to use the church’s building.
The statement didn’t mention that one of the founders of Faith for Justice is Michelle Higgins, South City’s director of worship. And one of the group’s board members is Mike Higgins—the father of Michelle Higgins and the lead pastor of South City.
The event moved to a nearby PCUSA church, and both Mike Higgins and Michelle Higgins attended. (South City elders and the Higginses didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.)
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On Jan. 16, elders at the Chicago-area megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel announced that Senior Pastor James MacDonald would take an “indefinite sabbatical.” The announcement came a month after WORLD detailed accusations by former elders and staff members that MacDonald and other leaders at the multicampus church had fostered a culture of deception and intimidation (see “Hard times at Harvest,” Dec. 29, 2018).
In a statement posted to Harvest’s website, the elders said they were launching a “peacemaking process.” An accompanying statement from MacDonald expressed remorse at his having “battled cycles of injustice, hurt, anger, and fear which have wounded others without cause.” He welcomed the sabbatical and added that he might continue to preach at the church’s newly acquired campus in Naples, Fla., throughout the winter months.
But that news didn’t sit well with John Secrest, the lead pastor of the Naples campus. In a letter to Harvest elders the next day, Secrest complained that he had not been consulted and did not support the decision to allow MacDonald to preach in Naples during his sabbatical. Secrest also emailed his congregation, expressing his objection and his desire to return the Naples church to independent governance.
Hours later, Harvest leaders fired Secrest.
Secrest planted the Naples church in 2016 after attending a training program in the Chicago area with Harvest Bible Fellowship, Harvest’s former church planting network.
Within a year, Harvest Bible Chapel Naples had grown to about 100 people. Secrest told me that last June, MacDonald called him and said Harvest wanted to plant a church in Naples and suggested a merger.
Secrest said he had reservations about merging with Harvest but in September signed a ministry agreement making HBC Naples a wholly owned subsidiary of Harvest Bible Chapel.
Within three months, the congregation of 120 more than doubled, according to congregants who attended at the time. On Jan. 6, when MacDonald preached in Naples, 350-400 people showed up, and the church had to add a second service.
Now, Secrest says he signed the merger agreement under false pretenses. In the email to his congregation, he wrote, “When we entered into this agreement there was not a disclosure of the investigative reporting which led to a lawsuit and the resulting fallout.” (The “lawsuit” was a defamation suit against me and four other defendants that Harvest filed last year and recently withdrew.)
Secrest told me that, hours after he emailed his congregation, Fred Ananias, an elder from the Naples campus who sits on Harvest Bible Chapel’s 34-member elder board, arrived at his home.
Holding a cell phone with Harvest Assistant Senior Pastor Rick Donald on the line, Ananias, reading from notes, informed Secrest that he was fired. Secrest said he was stunned because his contract stipulated that he could be fired only for moral failure.
After firing Secrest, Harvest sent its own email to the Naples congregation, calling Secrest’s earlier message to the congregation “insubordinate” and saying it was “clear that he no longer desires to work for Harvest Bible Chapel.”
In Chicago on the weekend of Jan. 19-20, elders addressed Harvest campuses during weekend services, admitting “shortcomings in the decision-making process” concerning Secrest’s termination. They also announced that MacDonald would not preach at any campuses during his sabbatical.
Harvest spokeswoman Sharon Kostal told me in a statement, “While the peacemaking process is underway, Harvest Bible Chapel does not presently intend to respond to further media inquiries.”
Secrest says he has no immediate plans, but he pledged not to abandon his former congregants in a Jan. 22 email to them: “There may come a time soon when we can gather to pray, to talk, and to clarify any questions and confusion.”
This story has been updated to correct the date on which MacDonald preached at HBC Naples.