I first heard of Dr. Michael Vanlaningham when my sons Luke and Landon spoke of him appreciatively as a favorite Bible Professor, during their time at Moody Bible Institute. When the inerrancy controversy erupted at Moody, and President Nyquist was unjustly fired (by another group of laymen, clueless about the issues, saving face for themselves and throwing the best under the bus to satiate the worst), I was approached by Luke and Landon as to finding a temporary space for their former Bible professor. Though my Moody contacts relayed that he was a source of division, I had seen others escape legalistic Pharisee world in HBC’s “love the sinner, hate your own sin” environment, so I thought we’d give him a try, if others agreed.
I had only a small role in the interviews and was very busy when “Dr. V” arrived in the spring of 2018, meeting him briefly at the Act Like Men Palooza. He objected strongly to the Fall 2018 decision to file a lawsuit against online bloggers for their attacks against me and HBC. Though I explained my position, he was adamant that I was wrong. I teased him that he held his viewpoints as something to entrench your identity in, like a Bible professor, rather than as a minor we could ignore while rallying around our common center, like a church leader frequently must. I think he was offended.
He pressed me again about the lawsuit after church on a Saturday night, so knowing there would be rigorous debate in the Elder meeting about to begin a few feet away, and wanting him to observe our plurality, I invited him to ‘listen in.’ During the discussion his agitation was evident, so I reluctantly invited him to speak – then was surprised when he took out a prepared list and begin reading 11 reasons he believed we were making a mistake. At number four, I interrupted and invited others to participate, to which he clearly took great offense. When the discussion continued, I invited the Elders to make the final decision in my absence and stepped out of the meeting, tapping Dr. V on the shoulder as I passed.
In the lobby I explained that he was in the meeting as an observer and should not have seized and held the floor as he did. Dr. V explained that he had personal experience in the matter and felt strongly, which by then I surely knew. We were both bothered, but I was not worried. Afterward he texted me to resolve, and I responded with grace, and he apologized to the Executive Staff as well.
On February 7, just four months later, Dr. V was in my office with Greg Bradshaw, as I met with Greg in an effort to corral his aggressive letter lobbying (unaware at the time that it was a Dallas Jenkins campaign). Greg had refused to meet with me unless Dr. V was allowed to attend for his support; I agreed, stipulating he was to listen as the meeting was between Greg and me). I knew Greg had no theological training (he was the only campus pastor not allowed to preach), but in that meeting it became clear that Dr. V was behind Greg’s surge of self-righteousness and reported as leaking that he believed I was disqualified.
As Dr. V jumped into the discussion multiple times, and Greg pushed him to provide exegetical opinions, I had to interrupt. I explained again why I did not support his Bible-thumper view of Elder qualification, and how he continued to hold his Bible opinions on minor issues in a Bible professor way that was not helpful in leading a large ministry. As he got more stiff necked, I regrettably told him he was being an “asshole,” and I don’t remember with certainty but may have said “bullshit.” Despite the fact that I did not frequently use coarse language (it had never been referenced in my annual Elder review, or reported from Elder interviews with those who worked with me as part of my annual performance review), those instances became the totality of why the whole church was told I was fired for inappropriate language – evidencing how influential Greg and Dr. V both were in my firing.
Prior to my being fired, Dr. V had a major behind-the-scenes role. Once I was gone, he had a front-and-center role, even joining the Elder board in 2020. As the arbitration approached, I began hearing examples of Dr. V undermining things I had taught, such as Absolute Total Commitment or ATC (from Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness by Stanley Baldwin) to the Act Like Men group. Apparently Dr. V was teaching that we only owed total commitment to God – classic straw man argumentation. I never taught that ATC meant not telling each other the truth or holding one another accountable, which any one who heard it could attest.
During the arbitration I heard for the first time, in Brian Laird’s testimony, that the Laird Elders now believed I had taught false doctrine at Harvest in some instances, but he gave no examples. When Dr. V’s testimony supported the same view, I knew where the source was. Dr. V’s view on 1 Timothy 5 and the matter of public rebuke is simply false and is not supported by any conservative biblical scholar I can find – I refute it here.
Dr. Willam Mounce, whom Wayne Grudem told me is ‘the world’s premiere commentator on the Pastoral epistles,’ was prepared to testify against Dr. V’s view, which so negatively impacted all post-firing actions at HBC (while he knew so little of what was really happening and why). HBC lawyers made a big deal of my calling Dr. V an “asshole,” hoping the panel would be appalled, but during cross-examination my attorney admitted occasionally using the phrase and Dr.V smiled, saying he could not claim he had never said it. Asshole was defined for all to hear as “mean or contemptible,” and Dr. V claimed he was not that.
No man should be defined by his worst moments, but I have to say, Dr. V has been mean and contemptible in my life and ministry. He has done incredible damage to Harvest, which has driven out some of the most beautiful people and morphed the entire ministry toward small-thinking, old school Bible church, where Elders are employers and any “called of God preacher/leader” has no chance. (Recently HBC removed all pictures of Staff from the website; now only pictures of Elders remain. In January 2019 it was the opposite – all pastoral staff were pictured, and no Elder pictures existed.) This power struggle between Elders and Pastors for the leadership of HBC has existed for nearly 30 years.
Post-arbitration, I hoped to meet with Dr. V personally and asked our mutual friend, Dr. Michael Rydelnick, to assist us in a “Philemon meeting.”
In the meeting I finally had with the Laird Elders on October 19, 2020, it was Dr. V who destroyed the slow but substantive progress being made. When Tim Stoner refused to apologize for the false financial accusations, then blamed the Wagenmaker report, the other Elders started an “all for one and one for all” circling of wagons. I made a heartfelt plea, “You guys ruined my life with this garbage.” To which Dr.V reactively shouted, “You ruined your own life! You RUINED it! YOU RUINED YOUR LIFE!” – pointing his finger at me and showing his bitter heart.
I tried turning the subject to his strange interpretations of 1 Timothy 5, mainly that he claims the duty of going to the person first (as in Matthew 18:15ff) has no bearing on interpreting 1 Timothy 5. This is an outrageous assertion, given that most commentators believe “no scripture is of private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20), and that the totality of biblical instruction on any key point of ecclesiology must reflect the unified instruction of Scripture. For clarity, this is significant because the authors of the letters used against me (especially as church leaders themselves) should not have had their content circulated to the Elders before bringing it to me in person, or at least not before my being allowed to see the letters – or at the very least, the Elders should have brought the content to me before taking action based on what the letters alleged.
This was a seminal moment on a seminal topic, between the person damaged, and the person responsible – face to face. I pressed Dr. V by saying, “I don’t know of a single conservative biblical scholar who holds the position that Matthew 18 has no bearing on 1 Timothy 5…” “I HOLD IT!” Dr. V interrupted, “I HOLD THAT POSITION!” The room went silent. Pastor Jeff Gill or Dave Stone jumped in to calm everyone down, but that ended efforts to reconcile. As we left, key HBC leaders lamented that Dr. V “deep sixed” this long awaited meeting. Yes he did, as he has done again and again.