Controversy and Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

I believe Western civilization is at a crossroads. I have no idea where it will go long term. The Christian consensus has been lost and the influence of Islam is rising. It is doubtful that the Europe of 2050 will look anything like the Europe of 1950. Demographics alone will almost surely guarantee a radically different future. America, on the other hand, remains highly religious but with less and less understanding of what the claims of Christ really mean. While I am not a futurist I do know that the changes we are passing through are huge.

What I find particularly tragic, and quite often write about in these posts, is that the church is also at a crossroads. God’s truth remains. His Word will not pass away. But judgment begins at the household of God. God’s Word speaks of warnings and of hope. It also warns us of judgment, both remedial and final. Nations come and nations go but the church will remain. In some contexts the church flourishes while in others it is in decline or retreat. In America it is clearly in decline and much of the time in spiritual retreat. At such moments God confronts his church with her sins. He withdraws the showers of blessing (Ezekiel 34:26). The rains of his righteousness are withheld (Hosea 10:12). When this happens we find ourselves in what the prophet called “waterless pits” (Zechariah 9:11). One of the most obvious evidences of this state of things can be seen when churches become centers of conflict rather than centers of refuge and blessing. When Christians protest and fight each other the world has every right to say, “What is this all about?” And we, the righteous, should grieve and ask God to grant us repentance and trust.


I was reminded of this judgment on the church when I read the news about Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) voting to retain their new senior pastor in a specially called congregational meeting last Sunday, September 20. 

Pastor W. Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, became the senior pastor of the famous church six months ago after an extensive process was followed to call him as successor to the late D. James Kennedy. Tchividjian promised, in his pastoral call, to set the church on a different path from that charted by the late Dr. Kennedy. He has done precisely what he, and the elders, said that he would do. (The elders have been strongly supportive of their pastor.) Tchividjian, 37, refuses to preach politics. He would much rather preach on a specific biblical text than on topics in the news. He also prefers contemporary music (drums, etc.) to organ music and podcasting to broadcasting.

Tchividjian’s ministry was attacked almost from the beginning. No surprise here since a core of the church was likely to feel betrayed by his call. Some people wanted the same music and the same type of sermons that had heard for years from Dr. Kennedy. Six church members, including Kennedy’s daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, began to stir up conflict. They went so far as to hand out protest fliers outside the church on Sunday morning. These members were banned from the premises for their actions. This led to a September 9 petition to call for Tchividjian’s removal as pastor. A member of the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church in America was brought in to moderate a members-only meeting held last Sunday.

In the church meeting ten people spoke for the pastor’s removal and ten for retaining him. The critics said he had failed the legacy of Dr. Kennedy and altered the church’s traditions, such as calling for people to come to Jesus at the end of every sermon. (This is particularly odd since this is a Presbyterian church.)

The ten supporters argued for retaining the pastor because attendance is increasing and the congregation should stay united. The Miami Herald reported that Tchividjian did not attend the meeting but in his early morning sermon he warned the church against choosing to honor one man instead of choosing to honor God. He issued a written statement which said, “My family and I thank the Coral Ridge family for standing behind us and supporting me as your new pastor. Change is difficult for any institution but it is especially difficult for a church which has known only one pastor in its 50-year history and I understand that.”

The final vote was 940 to 422, to retain the pastor. The margin was thus 69% to 31%. Several things stand out in that count to me. First, there are about 2,000 active members of Coral Ridge. That means that over 600 did not come to participate in the meeting. That does not speak well of the past or the present. Second, the opposition was very active in getting out the vote. My guess is that they will have very little recourse in the future thus I hope they will leave, or change their approach promptly. A church of any size, with 31% of the people wanting the pastor to resign, is in deep trouble. If these people stay and continue their effort to remove Tchividjian they will succeed in destroying this church over time. Remember, no church, regardless of its legacy, will survive spiritual breakdown over time. Most of the greatest and grandest churches in Christian history are gone today. Many, like the Hagia Spohia in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), are just museums.

Finally, I hope all of those who participated in this meeting will seek the Lord above all else. The effort to remove the pastor is thankfully over. Get back to the mission of Christ and stop the fighting. If any in the leadership of this flock read my words I plead with you: Get your perspective back and pursue the kingdom of God. Let this skirmish go and begin meetings for prayer and healing now.

Tomorrow: Lessons from the Coral Ridge Controversy