John Thornton Jr. (middle): Jubilee Baptist Church, Facebook 

A pastor at Jubilee Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, a “quasi-socialist” congregation featured in Buzzfeed last week, is on paid leave following an allegation of online sexual misconduct. 

The Buzzfeed article described the church as an anti-racist, queer-inclusive place where Karl Marx is read during Bible study and contributions are used to pay off people’s debts in the community. 

Shortly after the article was published, the church became aware via Twitter that co-pastor John Thornton Jr. “had engaged in abusive sexual behavior via online and text correspondence” with a person not affiliated with the church, according to a statement given to the INDY. 

Thornton is on paid leave from the church pending an internal review of the complaint. Reached Monday, Thornton said he was shocked to see the language of “sexual abuse” used in the statement and that he may have misunderstood the nature of this relationship with the woman who lodged the complaint. (The INDY is withholding her name to protect her privacy.) 

An INDY reporter was one of about forty-five people handed the written statement Sunday morning, which was also read aloud during services. The church has redacted the initial statement in part, including striking the word “abuse” in an updated version sent to the INDY Monday afternoon.

“We as a church understand sexual abuse differently than the legal use for that word,” says Jubliee co-pastor Heather Folliard. “We look at abuse of power and misconduct similarly. Legally, those are very different things. We are understanding that there could be more legal implications for the [initial] statement that we released than we wished.”

Thornton was placed on paid leave until January 12. The decision to continue Thornton’s pay was due to the church’s “core belief in helping workers avoid financial precarity,” according to the statement. The church is also offering assistance to the alleged victim.

“The facts of the matter under review are not in question. We are reviewing John’s suitability to continue in any capacity at Jubilee Baptist Church,” according to the initial statement.

After the Buzzfeed story was published, the alleged victim tweeted about her frustration with the praise the article was receiving. She does not name Thornton but alludes to a pastor soliciting her for naked pictures online. 

Reached by the INDY, she explained that Thornton began messaging her on social media last summer and asking if he could call her. He started calling her every night, she says, and their conversations became flirtatious. 

“I was okay with it and even liked him, but then he started becoming extremely pushy about sexual conversations. I gave in at first because I felt like I had flirted with him, so I must want this, but I always felt uncomfortable,” the woman told the INDY. “That continued for some time, but then I started to push back when he would ask for naked pictures or for me to take my clothes off during FaceTime. He knew I was uncomfortable, but he would try to keep calm me down so I would keep going.”

After one “particularly bad FaceTime” call, she shared the situation with a friend who also knew Thornton. “I felt extremely isolating to have John treat me like this when he acted so different to everyone on Twitter,” she said. 

The two stopped talking for a few months. After her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Thornton reached out again, she says, under the guise of offering support. “But after a few minutes of talking about that, he started telling me he was coming home to [her hometown] and that he was gonna get us a hotel room [for] a night.”

“I felt so angry that he was still trying this while my dad was dying and that I actually still felt pressure to say yes to him, all because he pretended to show he cared about my dad and my family,” she says. “It was rough, but overall, I just felt so much guilt and manipulation, and like I could never say no to him because he would just try to push for more so I might as well give in.”

Thorton says he believed he was embarking on a consensual, romantic relationship with the woman, who is nine years younger than him, when they began corresponding online last year. 

“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 says. 

When the Buzzfeed article was published, the alleged victim realized Thornton “was about to have a ton more social media attention and access to more younger girls.”

“I realized he had probably done something like this to girls before, and they were probably thinking the same thing I was, so I realized I needed to say something,” she says. “The church is doing amazing things, but I don’t want that to be ruined by younger women getting hurt by a man in a leadership role.”

After learning of the woman’s tweet, Thornton says that only then did he discover that she “felt pressure to chat and engage with me over that time period because of partly the age difference, that I was older, and partly because I occupied a certain space in our sort of Twitter world.”

He continues: “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.”

While Folliard says the church is “sex-positive,” what concerned its leaders was that “there was a misunderstanding between the two as to the nature of the relationship. That’s where the abuse of power comes in.” 

The woman says she appreciates how the church is handling the situation.

“My dad was a pastor, so I’ve felt guilty for feeling like I’ve taken down a pastor, especially when this church is doing really good things,” she says. “Pastor Heather [Folliard] has made me feel more peace that I did the right thing to protect other girls, and I really trust that she and others in leadership will handle this correctly.”

Thornton is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. He founded the church, formerly Ephesus Baptist, with co-pastors Folliard and Kevin Georgas. 

“I used to have this Wednesday dinner at church with people I knew from the church,” Thornton told Buzzfeed, “and then afterward I’d go down the street, and I’d have a beer and real food with my real friends. With Jubilee, I finally feel like those two groups aren’t separate.”

Folliard says she’s “very sympathetic” to Thornton. She hopes their review process with be “restorative.” 

“I believe that he was unaware of his behavior, and I think that is the nature of bringing light to these issues—that we all need to do much more in understanding what is consensual,” Folliard says. 

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at 

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