Last week Buzzfeed News reported on a “quasi-socialist” Baptist church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that is fighting the “ills of capitalism” by paying off the debt of its congregants and community members. John Thornton Jr. is one of three co-pastors at Jubilee that the piece glorifies:
He’s a classic extrovert who thrives on more conversations, more coffee meetings just to chat. But he’s funnier, and far less dorky-dad, than your typical youth pastor. He’s also a raging socialist who wrote his first divinity school paper on how the church should focus on debt forgiveness, and he hasn’t shut up about it since.
He is also accused of “abusive sexual behavior via online” by a young woman, the INDY Week reports. The woman alleges Thornton pressured her to send him nude photos, undress for him via a FaceTime video connection, and engage in sexual conversations.
Thornton denies abusive behavior, but not the sexting.
“I was very interested in us dating or being in this romantic relationship of some kind, and within that context, the sexting and sending pictures seemed to make sense,” Thornton said. “Knowing what I do, I was completely shocked to see the language of sexual abuse used to describe the situation as I know it. I am open to hearing how I misunderstood our relationship. I am open to knowing what I could have done differently or what I did that was hurtful.”
John, let’s start with you could have asked the young lady out to dinner instead of explicit direct messages. Treated her with respect by seeking to protect her (and your) chastity. Obeyed Christian sexual ethics that offer protections against sexual misconduct. Then you could have preached on singleness as a high calling and sexual gratification reserved for marriage between a man and woman.
It seems a focus upon the “ills of capitalism” left aside the dangers of sin.
After reading the Buzzfeed article, it was clear that morality was not one of Thornton’s priorities. Additionally, Jubilee Baptist Church is “sex-positive,” as the INDY reports. In other words, anything goes when it comes to sex and sexuality.
Thornton has been placed on paid leave until January 12, as the allegations are investigated further.
Thornton might be one of three pastors of a small lefty Baptist congregation. But don’t underestimate his growing influence. Thornton is somewhat of a rising star among the Religious Left. He regularly contributed to Jim Wallis’s Sojourners and the left-leaning Catholic journal Commonweal Magazine.
But I want to set the allegations against Thornton aside for a moment and address Jubilee’s “sort-of socialist” mission.
We learn from the Buzzfeed piece that Jubilee is a “quasi-socialist, anti-burnout, anti-racist, LGBTQ-affirming church focused on debt forgiveness and worker solidarity.” It’s also affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. No surprise there.
Here’s how Buzzfeed describes Jubilee’s mission:
Jubilee is not about changing the world in the “we’re gonna win the war on Christmas,” soldiers-in-the-culture-war sort of way, with its focus on rooting out any element of society that could be considered “secular,” from Harry Potter to queer people. Nor in the “we’re gonna collect change for overseas missions” or “volunteer once a month at a soup kitchen” sort of way. Not even in an “I’m going to try to be a kinder person” sort of way. Jubilee believes that truly following Jesus’s teachings, especially in the contemporary, capitalist world, requires a radical reconsideration of wealth and work and power. It means working toward revolution: political, economic, and social.
I once took a class on collectivism and failed utopias. I’m pretty sure the synopsis for the class read identically to the description above. “A radical reconsideration of wealth and work and power. It means working toward revolution: political, economic, and social.” Funny enough, a Wednesday night (Bible study?) group is mentioned in the article. The author notes they aren’t reading Galatians, but Karl Marx’s Capital.
It is Liberation Theology repackaged for a younger “woke” audience.
“All the sermons I’d heard before were always so inward-looking, like, talk to Jesus all the time, and you’ll get rich and prosper. But Jubilee addressed the precarious position we’re all in — the general feeling that we’re all f***ked,” Josh Fugate, a Jubilee church member, told Buzzfeed.
He continues: “I mean, I got laid off, I’m in debt. What happens if I get sick? Most of my problems aren’t actually spiritual. Jubilee is fixated on working people. On keeping our hands in the dirt.”
It’s not that providing financial support is wrong. There’s much to affirm about churches providing grocery money to single mothers and financial assistance to congregants and community members struggling to make ends meet. The glaring problem with Jubilee, Thornton, and the lot is that the Gospel has been dropped from focus, only to be mentioned when politically useful.
I’ll share something personal here briefly, in regards to my point. Recently, my husband had to close his small business because it was not able to pay our bills. Amid our disappointment and anxieties, our church family has been incredibly supportive. I am so grateful for our fellow congregants’ love, prayers, and generosity. But I don’t go to church because it has a mission to fix my earthly problems. The church would never be able to keep up.
I go to my local church to be reminded regularly of God’s purpose for me here on earth. On Sunday morning, I want to hear sermons warning me of the dangers of sin, instead of scapegoating the “ills of capitalism,” “powers of whiteness,” or even the dangers of liberal Christianity. We all need to hear stories from the pulpit of the imperfect heroes and heroines of the faith who gave up the comforts of this world to tell of Jesus. We should be participating in our church evangelism efforts. And, most vital, we need the church to continually remind us of what Christ did for us and what He continues to do.
When a church prioritizes anything over the Good News of Jesus, it is doomed. No matter (or especially) how radical an idea they have.