The dynamic builder of a 6,500-member congregation bent on winning Seattle's upscale Eastside suburbs for Christ has resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Bob Moorehead, senior pastor of Overlake Christian Church since 1970, steadfastly maintains his innocence, but stepped down June 15 because his credibility in the community had been "seriously damaged."
Overlake's board of elders decided to dismiss the allegations of 17 accusers, based upon "the biblical process" for handling accusations against an elder. Moorehead, 61, was one of 14 elders governing the nondenominational evangelical church, which in November moved into a new $37.5 million facility in Redmond, Washington.
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR HIRED: The events that led to Moorehead's resignation began in July 1996 with his arrest on a charge of indecent exposure in a public restroom near his vacation home in Daytona Beach, Florida. Under controversial circumstances, charges were dropped. But news coverage of the story prompted four men to make accusations that Moorehead had molested them during adult baptism and wedding ceremonies. A private investigator hired by the elders interviewed 17 men who gave similar accounts of events that occurred as long as 20 years ago. The statute of limitations has expired in nearly all the cases.
The overseers of the largest church in Washington State interpret 1 Timothy 5:19 to require another witness, besides the accuser, in order to consider an accusation against an elder. The elders conceded, however, that Moorehead was not "above reproach" as required by 1 Timothy 3:2 and consequently needed to resign. They presented a verbal summary of their decision to the congregation on May 27, based on information from the private investigator's report and their own interviews with the accusers.
"This is not like a secular case, where conviction can be based on a preponderance of evidence, or evidence that's beyond a reasonable doubt," elder Duane Atkins told a hushed Wednesday-night gathering of more than 2,500. "Ours is a biblical investigation."
The congregation erupted in a standing ovation when elder Gary Scott declared that the leaders found "no basis for church discipline" against Moorehead. Most church members interpreted that to mean that their pastor had been exonerated.
OTHER PASTORS SPEAK: Two days later, however, four area pastors who originally had been asked to help oversee the investigation, held a press conference claiming that Overlake elders misinterpreted key biblical passages and failed to settle the question of Moorehead's guilt or innocence by not releasing the investigator's report as originally expected. The pastors lamented the "firestorm" of division that the decision had provoked and called for the elders to resolve the matter for the sake of church unity.
"My English language and my biblical understanding don't allow me to accept the position they came up with," Jerry Mitchell, pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church in Bellevue, Washington, told CT after the press conference. "If the man is not innocent, which they have said, then in my estimation he is guilty. They say, 'No, he's not guilty'; therefore, in my estimation he's innocent. Where in the English language and where in the Bible is the in-between stage?"
Overlake's elders and staff declined interview requests from CT, saying the May 27 verbal report "stands on its own."
Phil Ling, pastor of the largest of Overlake's eight daughter churches, Northshore Christian Church, agrees that the issue is unresolved. "If you set yourself up with We're not going to deal with the world; we're going to use a biblical process to deal with this issue, then the eldership is the judge and the jury, and they have to come to a verdict; and I haven't read any verdict," Ling says.
Critics of Overlake's interpretation of Scripture point out that cases of abuse are rarely witnessed by a third party and insist that the requirement for more than one witness is not confined to each individual case.
Seventeen cases add up to "a preponderance of evidence that can't be ignored," says Jan David Hettinga of Northshore Baptist Church in Bothell, Washington. Hettinga, one of the four pastors publicly challenging the decision, says the group is now "in dialogue" with Overlake about the possibility of re-examining the biblical premise for the decision.
SATANIC SCHEME? Communications from Overlake elders to their congregation in the months leading up to the resignation evoked images of spiritual warfare and included numerous references to "persecution" and an "orchestrated" attack on the church being carried out by the news media and the alleged victims.
Overlake's elders say their decision took into account Moorehead's 41 years of ministry without "a chink in his armor."
Known for his aggressive evangelism and powerful expository preaching, Moorehead had a daily radio program and wrote a dozen books.
But focus on Moorehead's fate, critics say, has ignored the accusers, who need either discipline or ministry, depending upon who is telling the truth. Moorehead has called on those who brought the "horrible, perverted" charges against him to repent.
"I would have a particularly challenging time with this congregation, because they are fishing in Scripture in a way that is not going to be very healing for them," says Kibbie Ruth, senior consultant for the San Mateo, California-based Kyros Ministry, formerly known as the Pastoral Center for Abuse Prevention. "It makes them an unsafe congregation for anyone else who has been wounded by one person in a one-on-one situation."
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