I was having one of my regular bouts with insomnia Monday night and I started perusing blogs. There have been several articles in the last week or so that have been very critical of one of the past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. James Merritt. He was, for a time, involved in some way in a financial program called Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing. I had never heard of it until blog posts appeared questioning the organization and criticizing Merritt for his involvement in it.
There was a video of Dr. Merritt posted on several sites in which he spoke highly of FHTM and even how he could use it to help people in his ministry who were in financial trouble. By Monday night, the video had been taken down and was no longer available for viewing. That made me curious.
So, I decided to send an email to Dr. Merritt and his church and ask them what this was all about. We spend a lot of time talking about people on blogs, and we criticize them, but seldom do we actually ask them if they want to give an explanation. So, in the middle of the night I sent an email to Cross Pointe church and told them that SBC Voices would love to hear and publish Dr. Merritt’s side of this thing. I got a response yesterday from Gene Mason, the Communications Director at Cross Pointe telling me that, in fact, Dr. Merritt would be very willing to give a response.
Today, I received this communication from Mr. Mason, which expressed Dr. Merritt’s view. Here it is in its entirety. Below, I will have some comments of my own.
Thanks for your inquiry. Pastor Merritt is no longer involved in FHTM. His preaching schedule and church leadership responsibilities take priority. During the time he was involved in FHTM he found it to be a reputable organization. Pastor Merritt has chosen not to respond to blog entries he recently was made aware of because (1) the authors have already defied Matthew 18:15; (2) the allegations are patently untrue and unfounded and (3) considering the source, it would unwise to respond to someone acting as an unbeliever. As Solomon warned, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly or you will be like him yourself” (Prov 26:4).
Pastor Merritt’s integrity is well established through more than 35 years of pastoral ministry. He has never, and would never be a part of an organization that breaks federal law, nor use his ministry for personal financial gain. We understand Pastor Merritt is among many prominent and respected pastors, authors, educators and theologians who have been the target of these and other rumors, all of which lack credibility, have been put forth in a manner inconsistent with scripture, and without regard for the reputation of the cause of Christ, or scriptural instructions regarding conflict resolution.
Of the many that attend Cross Pointe Church and the tiny audience that has glanced at these rumors, you are one of only two individuals who have approached Pastor Merritt directly. No other respected target we know of has dignified these rumors with a response, but your direct inquiry was Christ-honoring, and so Pastor Merritt has elected to respond to you. This will be his only public statement regarding these false rumors.
Grace to you,
Cross Pointe Church
(NOTE: for some reason, Mr. Mason’s email text would not copy into this format, so I retyped it. I checked and rechecked to make sure it is correct, and I believe it is an exact copy of his original letter. If I find any errors later, I will make note of them in the comments. Unlike God’s Word, I am VERY errant.)
I would make the following responses to Dr. Merritt’s response (through his communications Director).
1) Dr. Merritt is as, as Mr. Mason notes, a well-respected figure, enough so that he was elected president of the SBC twice. That does not mean he is beyond being questioned or even criticized, but it does mean that whatever has gone on here needs to be viewed within the context of a 35-year ministry track record.
2) It is clear that Dr. Merritt feels injured by accusations made by bloggers (or, perhaps one blogger). We who blog need to work through the ethics of blogging. I have seen discussions of Matthew 18:15 as it relates to blogging. Am I required to contact the party involved before I criticize them publicly? Does Matthew 18:15 apply to blogging? Here’s my current thinking.
- If I am responding to published ideas of an author or blogger, I should reference those clearly but am not required to make prior contact.
- If I am going to make public accusations (such as was done in this case – in which Pastor Merritt’s ministry judgment and integrity were at question) it seems that integrity and common courtesy would demand that an effort be made to contact the person prior to publication. I can remember three times in recent months that I have published articles critical of a particular person. Each time, I contacted the person prior to the publication and tried to get their response in advance. One agency head said he would respond, but then chose not to. In other instances, we had some exchange before publication, and both articles were softened from their original tone as a result.
- It just seems like common courtesy to try to reach someone with an opportunity to explain or respond before you publish articles that criticize them, their ministry or their choices. Is it required? I don’t know. But it took me about 3 minutes to write that email to Dr. Merritt. It’s not that hard. Why not at least make the effort? Even secular news sources usually give a person the chance to respond before they go to press with critical information. It would seem that our ethical standards ought to be higher, not lower. I think we all, as bloggers, need to think through this. We might each arrive at different conclusions, but we need to work through it.
3) Dr. Merritt is convinced FHTM was a reputable organization. There are certainly others who would disagree. Ultimately, it is between him, the Lord, and his church. I think things like this open doors that pastors should be wary about walking through, but ultimately, Dr. Merritt stands before his Lord and that isn’t me.
4) At the risk of setting off a fire bomb here, there seems to be one more thing that needs to be said. Dr. Merritt is the father of the now infamous Jonathan Merritt who has made statements about the environment (which I am not completely on board with) and about homosexuality (which I think are basically biblical and misunderstood) which have been controversial at best. He is the one to whom Dr. Mohler made statements which were the subject of so much debate at and after the convention. Is there more here than just a discussion of FHTM and a megachurch pastor? Would these issues have been raised if other issues were not in play? The juxtaposition of these two controversies would at least open the door to that question.
The comments may tend to be lively here, and I will probably wield a heavier hand than usual in moderation. As always, direct your complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.