In the latest blow in the long-running fight that tore apart a Nashville megachurch, the Rev. Jerry Sutton has filed a libel suit for $600,000 in damages against the congregation member who led the charge against him.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Davidson County Circuit Court accuses Frank Harris of engaging in a “personal crusade to defame” Sutton even after he retired after 22 years as pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church and moved to Lynchburg, Va.
“We just decided that enough was enough,” said Larry Crain, the attorney representing Sutton.
Harris, who could not be reached for comment, was kicked out of the church in 2007 during a hastily called business meeting. At the time, Harris was a longtime church legal trustee. He then sued Sutton and began publicizing claims against his pastor. Among them: Sutton inappropriately spent more than $4,000 of church funds on a wedding reception for his daughter, and improperly met with representatives of a resort hotel who wanted to buy some of the church’s property.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit, declining to become involved in ecclesiastical matters. But, according to the latest court action, Harris refused to end his pursuit of the pastor, sending a 14-page letter full of the same allegations to officials at Liberty University in 2008 when Sutton applied for a teaching position there.
The letter accused Sutton “of theft of God’s money,” saying he “lived a lavish lifestyle on the back of tithers” and claimed the district attorney was investigating Sutton.
Despite the letter, Sutton was given the position at Liberty’s Baptist Theological Seminary and teaches there now, Crain said. But the lawsuit says Harris “inflicted devastating harm” to Sutton’s “personal and professional reputation and served to lower him and the estimation of him in the academic and church communities.”