One of the reasons that I have resumed blogging even after our case against NewSpring was settled is that the underlying issues that caused the problems are still there. NewSpring shows no evidence of having learned anything from the events of 2009, and, remarkably, continued to preach a violent response to critics well after they found out about Josh Maxwell, and even well after our lawsuit was underway.
Our argument was that Josh Maxwell acted in accordance with a culture of anger and violence that Perry Noble and other NewSpring leaders had carefully created and embraced. We expected that after anticipating that we were going to make that argument to a jury one day that they would try to dial back the rhetoric so they could claim that Maxwell’s actions against us were unfortunate, unforeseeable and unusual.
Not even close. NewSpring took money from other churches and pastors to train them to be as angry and agressive as they were. They also paid their teaching pastor, Clayton King, to pinch hit for Perry and teach the same thing to all of NewSpring’s members (a service King also performs for Steven Furtick). Had we gone to a jury, Clayton King’s violent teachings would have been one of our most valuable collections of evidence.
For a little bit of context, Clayton King is NewSpring’s contracted “teaching pastor,” which means that he is an official NS pastor and regularly fills in when Noble is on vacation. He also teaches for NewSpring at their annual Unleash conference. Perry calls him his best friend and accountability partner. King is the campus pastor at Liberty Univeristy, and preaches relatively frequently for Steven Furtick in Charlotte. He manages his own ministry as an itinerant preacher. He also regularly preaches at Anderson University, where I work and where he was awarded an honorary doctorate just last month.
He is in demand and respected by many people. Nevertheless, he is dangerously wrong and biblically backwards on one of his apparent specialties–how to protect your pastor.
Let me show you why.
2007: Be bodyguards
In October 2007 King delivered a sermon entitled Protecting your pastor where he said that pastors are attacked by rumors, criticism and jealousy. Even though he complained about the criticism, he did acknowledge that “you can’t say some of the things that Perry says and not expect to be criticized” (24:12, audio version). On this one point I agree with him, but King goes on to describe what steps NewSpringers should take to stop the criticism by “waging war on the Devil” on Perry’s behalf. He preaches from the example Beniah, one of David’s bodyguards, to explain that everybody should take on the role of pastoral bodyguard. (He may have forgotten his proof text a little later in the sermon when he mocks as crazy a rumor that Perry has armed bodyguards. Perhaps not, but when you have preachers advocating bodyguards for preachers, such rumors aren’t baseless.)
He says that pastors need people he trusts who will have his back and defend him. He’s willing to join the bodyguard ranks himself.
I will not let people talk about my friends. I will defend them.
So, even though King acknowledges that Perry says things that ought to be valid targets of criticism, people must not be allowed to talk about him. The people who do are working for the devil and ought to be confronted with military might.
2010: Be pitbulls
At this point, NewSpring leaders know about the actions of their security guard and of his church-security friends (just a meaningless coincidence, surely). They know that they are being sued for their role in creating a culture that encouraged the aggressive behavior of their staff and volunteers. Clayton King also surely knows the details of my case, serving as he does as Perry’s closest confident outside of his own family.
On March 4, 2010, NewSpring hosted its annual Unleash conference, where a couple of thousand pastors and church leaders pay NewSpring to teach them how to do church the Perry Noble way. One of the breakout sessions was given to Clayton King who reprised his teaching on Protecting your pastor, which was subtitled The sermon your pastor wants to preach but can’t.
Now we know why King is hired to come and do these sermons for Noble and Furtick. They endorse what he says, but they don’t want to say it themselves. Which raises a little question: why not? Paul calls pastors to preach the Word. Nothing more, nothing less. If protecting your pastor is a lesson solidly based on God’s Word, a senior pastor who doesn’t preach it is failing in his most basic duty. If it’s not based on God’s Word, senior pastors are being faithless to their congregations by recruiting hirelings to preach something to advance a personal agenda.
In this Unleash session, King had actually amped up his 2007 teaching by deputizing the congregation to be attack dogs, not just bodyguards. According to NewSpring’s own outline notes from his session, he advocated shutting critics out and encouraging the congregation to race to see who could defend the pastor first. Then came this gem:
Defend them!! Be a pitbull.
“Your pastor needs his sheep to grow fangs.” @Clayton_king #unleash
Let’s consider just how spectacularly wrong this is.
It reviles revelation.
Where do you find anything like this in Scripture? Nowhere. If something isn’t in Scripture, it shouldn’t be preached.
Even if we accept his 2007 interpretation that we should all be Beniahs protecting Davids, aren’t you also saying that pastors are kings? Well, that explains a lot, doesn’t it?
It reverses roles.
The dominant metaphor for the pastor’s role in Scripture is that of a shepherd. We learned a few years ago that it’s not a model that modern super pastors like, so they just unabashedly denounce it. This quote from Andy Stanley is worth another look:
Should we stop talking about pastors as “shepherds”?
Absolutely. That word needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to. But to bring in that imagery today and say, “Pastor, you’re the shepherd of the flock,” no. I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus, but it’s not culturally relevant any more.
Once you reject your role as shepherd, you not only don’t have to perform your shepherd’s role (something that we hear from Perry often), but you can shift the shepherding function from the pastor to the congregation.
A faithful shepherd would want to surround himself with sheep and keep the sharp fangs far away.
What kind of leader would seek to surround himself with a pack of sharp-fanged dogs?
It removes restraint.
Once you abandon Scripture and just start making up new rules and roles for pastors and their congregation, the only thing that limits anyone’s behavior is the pastor’s heart and the congregation’s conscience, which is partly shaped by their unrestrained pastor. In fact, when your pastor dreams about critics being killed, where would you draw the line of propriety?
Once you understand what Noble and King were teaching, it’s not a surprise that none of the many NewSpringers who knew what Maxwell was doing tried to stop him. According to King’s teachings, they were simply doing God’s and the pastor’s will.
I have considerable sympathy for Maxwell and his friends who must have been surprised at how quickly their leaders abandoned them once law enforcement uncovered their identities. They had been doing what they’d been asked to by Noble and King, and what they were doing was known to church leadership and apparently condoned. What, from NewSpring’s point of view, did they do wrong?
It retains risk.
By the time that King is offering this paid advice to other church leaders, NewSpring had seen the results of a staff member and other volunteers who had used their fangs against me. We were preparing to make a legal argument that they had acted consistently with NewSpring’s culture, preaching and vision. You’d think that, if they thought what had happened to me was wrong, that they would change what they taught to make sure that this was an isolated incident.
On one hand it was surprising that they didn’t, assuming that they’d want to limit their legal exposure for what they’d done. On the other hand, if they really believe this stuff, it’s not surprising.
2011: Get physical
In October 2011, Perry brought King back in to preach another protect-your-pastor message on his behalf, this one called I got your back. At this point, NewSpring was well aware that one of our complaints was that we had been assaulted by one of their staff members. Nevertheless (though by now we know why it’s not a surprise) King responded by amping up his rhetoric to advocate assault.
At first, he demeans Perry’s critics as cowards.
I’ve got his [Perry’s] back. And if you’re one of those cowards who says something stupid on the Internet about him that you wouldn’t have the courage to say to his face, standing on level ground, looking eyeball to eyeball with him, I want you to know that if I ever meet you face to face, I’m going to cause a scene. [Applause]
By now, you know the story of Perry’s changing rules about meeting critics like me who do have the courage to meet with him face to face. Around this time, I had the surreal experience of listening to King speak to students at the university where I work where he smack talked about online critics who are too cowardly to talk to Perry in person. He’s come to the place where I work to talk about online critics; it’s obvious to everyone who cares about Perry that he’s talking about me. But he’s not telling the truth, and he knows it. He’s also in my physical presence promising to cause a scene and inviting anyone else to do the same thing. I got the message.
So, what kind of scene ought someone following King’s lead cause? In his NewSpring sermon he tells the story of an airport security guard who was about to arrest King after he had joked about carrying bombs onto the plane. As King has been pushed against the wall and is about to be handcuffed, he says his mother rushed through the security barriers towards him to touch the guard and put a stop to the arrest.
That, my friends, could be construed as assault.
King uses the parable of his mother as the example for NewSpringers to follow. Actually, she was his momma, not his mother in this instance. Here’s his distinction:
There’s a difference between a mother and a momma. A mother will warn you; a momma just starts throwing punches. Big difference.
Sucker-punch theology. This is what you can quickly get to when your preaching is not constrained by Scripture, and why shepherds and their sheep are always so much safer when preachers limit themselves to what’s written and don’t go beyond it.
And just in case anyone had missed the point, King finishes the sermon by spelling out the connection to his assault story.
My momma got my back. That’s what our leaders need. That’s what our staff need. That’s what pastors need. That’s what Perry needs. We need to know that our people [have] got our back. That we [have] got each other. I praise God for this church. You’re doing a great job.
By Noble and King’s standards, they sure are.
(While this post was being written, the prediction that this would happen again came true. You can read the account here.)Footnote: Clayton King has a regular chapel speaking role at Anderson University, where I work, and was awarded an honorary doctorate and appointed an honorary professor of evangelism there last month, so writing about him in his role at NewSpring is difficult, especially because his recent appointment makes him my honorary faculty colleague. My issue with King is not with him as a person; people I like and respect think very highly of him. Instead, it is with his unfortunate and unbiblical teaching that he has repeatedly propagated at NewSpring. Lest you worry that this post is some sort of ambush against him, I contacted him last month to arrange a meeting or conversation about these issues and told him that I may be posting about this in the future. So far, I have received no response from him.