Sovereign Grace Churches1)Formerly Sovereign Grace Ministries, formerly People of Destiny International or PDI. has made it into The Washingtonian magazine for the cover up of sexual abuse over many years. The article is a good summary of events, although it leaves out some key facts, such as C.J. Mahaney blackmailing another leader.
Theologically, something has always been askew with SGM, as I pointed out back in 2011. Little did I know that there was also such an authoritarian milieu, leftover from the Shepherding movement. Having a strong man or strong men running a church or churches seems to be almost universally a bad idea. Also, churches that don’t brook dissent and freeze out those not on good terms with the pastor are fertile ground for covering up sexual sins when they occur – whether it is child abuse, adultery or anything else. Of course this has to be balanced against rampant Congregationalism, which is another disastrous polity. In all cases, wisdom is called for, and it seems like not much wisdom or speaking the truth to leadership occurred at SGM, and really, there is little evidence that anything has changed in its current set of leaders, although we don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.
About a decade ago, Ligon Duncan attacked a swath of evangelicals who “fell” for the New Perspective on Paul. He said:
Second, there are evangelicals who are social conservatives but who are bent on Christianity expressing itself societally. Among these are theonomists, reconstructionists, “ex-theonomists and reconstructionists” and other miscreants. It is amazing how quick they are to discard reformational soteriological teaching in order to advance their neo-sacerdotalism, kingdom ecclesiology/eschatology, and dreams of Christendom.
This claim of his was uncharitable, ill-informed and wrong. The word “miscreant” means “a wretch; a villain.” Presumably, he thought throwing this word around was funny, as he used it again in a footnote: “The Eschatological Aspect of Justification by James T. Dennison, Jr (formerly of WTS-California), is a short lecture on Romans 4:25, published in Kerux, criticizing Sanders, Dunn, and various other miscreants.” Who did Duncan have in mind with this ridiculous term? Probably men like Peter Leithart, James Jordan, Mark Horne, Rich Lusk and Joel Garver, who at that time had interacted with Wright’s work to varying degrees. Rich Lusk had this to say of Duncan’s charge:
Duncan barely even engages the mass of evidence that we put together to support our interpretation of Calvin’s high sacramental theology. He lists perceived errors, but never shows in detail how these are our errors or why our interpretation of the Reformed tradition is off-base. More than that, though, I must ask why Duncan thinks these students of Reformed theology are not worthy of respectful, loving interaction. Elsewhere, Duncan has referred to a similar group of Presbyterian pastors and scholars as “miscreants” (see his essay, “The Attractions of New Perspective(s) on Paul”). Those of us on the receiving end of Duncan’s attacks do not feel like he has adequately understood our views or accurately stated what we believe. But surely this is because he has determined from the outset to give us an unsympathetic reading. Why should anyone trust an interpretation that is so admittedly biased? Personally, I would like to know why Duncan thinks Joel Garver and Peter Leithart (to take two examples) are impious scholars. I’d like to know why he finds their theological work less than substantial. Surely it cannot be because these men present themselves in an arrogant, haughty fashion. Anyone who knows them would laugh at the charges. Surely it is not because they lack serious academic credentials. They both have doctorates from top flight institutions. I could further speculate as to Duncan’s motivations, but love restrains me.
A little later, during an interview with Mark Dever at a Sovereign Grace conference, Duncan lobbed some more shells at N.T. Wright, accusing him of Socinianism and saying:
So there is a doctrine of Scripture problem, I would assert, that underlies Dunn’s doctrine of justification problem. You can see this same kind of thing, actually, in N. T. Wright’s when he articulates his philosophy of knowledge. Wright’s epistemology is very much indebted to some 20th century epistemological thinking that I think, in my view, buttresses a Kantian relativism and an unknowing of the noumenal and hence a reductionism. So I think that once again you see how things will go back to a faulty doctrine of scripture.
Wright himself responded to this, writing:
Thanks again. I’ve read it through and it’s a sad and sorry thing of course… he simply hasn’t heard the question, hasn’t taken the trouble to read what I say in the light of what Paul says. Actually the view he describes me holding towards the end of his piece – a remarkable little outburst! – is quite close to the reformed view which he seems not to know much about either. On scripture and epistemology, it’s remarkable how he can wave his arms around and say `Kant – relativism — reductionism’ as though that proves anything (and as though it’s accurate!). And then, when he reads the text, isn’t it interesting that he stops at verse 28? Had he gone on (`Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not of Gentiles also… etc’) he might have been forced, by attention to the text he so reveres, to reconsider whether there is, to put it mildly, something missing in his exegesis of the passage to which that is the proper conclusion.
Fast forward to today: Lig is now best buddies with a group of pastors that include C.J. Mahaney, who is accused of some serious cover ups of sexual abuse. Furthermore, Mahaney admitted to blackmailing a former pastoral colleague of his. You might say that these actions could make one a miscreant. And yet, these very serious offenses have not caused Ligon’s faith in Mahaney to waver:
A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. We believe this lawsuit failed that test. For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.
Note that this doesn’t in any way address the previous blackmail that Mahaney admitted to. My belief is that the measure that Ligon used to judge Wright and all the other “ex-theonomists” is now coming back on his own head as he stands by an ethically compromised leader due to being part of a movement that has provided him with visibility and celebrity. It would be wise for him to reassess both his attitude towards Mahaney and his previous rash statements towards a group of men with whom he disagreed theologically, but branded with a wildly out of proportion term.
UPDATE: I have Duncan’s SGM presentation paper here.
Everything alleged at Covenant Life Church occurred while C.J. was the sr. pastor. John, Grant Layman, and Gary Ricucci did not act independently of C.J.’s counsel regarding how known sexual predation should be handled. That’s why he is a co-conspirator. C.J. was also close friends with Stephen Griney and an acquaintance with Mark Hoffman.
There are also many other names left out of the amendment due to motions by the Defense that are pending before the Judge. A wide circle of people at Covenant Life Church are now alledged to have committed horrible abuses. The FBI is busy! This doesn’t end in Civil Court. I’ve said for a while. More people are going to jail.
The horrific lawsuit details are here. While our system maintains innocence until proven guilty, this is stomach turning stuff and the Piper’s of the world should say something, or at least withhold approval for Mahaney until this is sorted out.
John Hill Burton (1809-1881), The Book-Hunter etc. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1862), pp. 5-6: True, there are many of our brethren violently ready to proclaim themselves frail mortals, miserable sinners, and no better, in theological phraseology, than the greatest of criminals. But such has been my own unfortunate experience in life, that whenever I find a man coming forward with these self-denunciations on his lips, I am prepared for an exhibition of intolerance, spiritual pride, and envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, towards any poor fellow-creature who has floundered a little out of the straight path, and, being all too conscious of his errors, is not prepared to proclaim them in those broad emphatic terms which come so readily to the lips of the censors, who at heart believe themselves spotless,—just as complaints about poverty, and inability to buy this and that, come from the fat lips of the millionaire, when he shows you his gallery of pictures, his stud, and his forcing-frames. No; it is hard to choose between the two. The man who has no defect or crack in his character—no tinge of even the minor immoralities—no fantastic humour carrying him sometimes off his feet—no preposterous hobby—such a man, walking straight along the surface of this world in the arc of a circle, is a very dangerous character, no doubt; of such all children, dogs, simpletons, and other creatures that have the instinct of the odious in their nature, feel an innate loathing. James Thomson (1834-1882): Once in a saintly passion I cried with desperate grief, “O Lord, my heart is black with guile, Of sinners I am chief.” Then stooped my guardian angel And whispered from behind, “Vanity, my little man, You’re nothing of the kind.”
Tim Challies saysin regard to the travails of C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries:
If I am going to believe and hope all things, if I am going to be slow to pass judgment, then I also need to understand that neither side has publicized all of the facts. These things may be known in time and I do well to wait for that time if it comes.
This is an issue of greater urgency to some than others. The way each of us thinks through it will depend on the extent to which we are stakeholders, to our relational proximity to those involved and even geographic proximity. If you are a member at a SGM church this issue is very urgent, and particularly so if your church is considering withdrawing from the association. However, the majority of us are far on the outside with very little at stake. For this reason many of us simply do not need to have an opinion.
Really? We do not need to have an opinion about the leader of an organization who has ensured that he has a very high profile publicly for at least the past 13 years? A man who publicly admitted to blackmail (aka ‘coercion’) on one of his fellow pastors:
It grieves me to report to you that in a particular phone conversation I sought to coerce Larry to present his leaving as I thought was right.
Quite the contrary, we are supposed to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing. Christians get really tripped up about the difference between public figures and Joe Q. Christian who goes to church with you. It wouldn’t be proper for me to blog about how Joe was caught blackmailing Suzie at his office due to their affair. But it is just fine for me or anyone else to write about baptized Christian Barack Obama, or the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Mahony who covered up for pedophile priests, or C.J. Mahaney, the public leader of SGM. D.A. Carson helpfully puts the matter like this:
The sin described in the context of Matt 18:15–17 takes place on the small scale of what transpires in a local church (which is certainly what is envisaged in the words “tell it to the church”). It is not talking about a widely circulated publication designed to turn large numbers of people in many parts of the world away from historic confessionalism. This latter sort of sin is very public and is already doing damage; it needs to be confronted and its damage undone in an equally public way. This is quite different from, say, the situation where a believer discovers that a brother has been breaking his marriage vows by sleeping with someone other than his wife, and goes to him privately, then with one other, in the hope of bringing about genuine repentance and contrition, and only then brings the matter to the church.
To put the matter differently, the impression one derives from reading Matt 18 is that the sin in question is not, at first, publicly noticed (unlike the publication of a foolish but influential book). It is relatively private, noticed by one or two believers, yet serious enough to be brought to the attention of the church if the offender refuses to turn away from it. By contrast, when NT writers have to deal with false teaching, another note is struck: the godly elder “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9 NIV).
I would add that these principles apply every bit as much to orthopraxy as to orthodoxy. Also, we should not expect that public discussions of the foibles of Christian leaders are going to be neat, tidy and Biblical. Once discussion spills into the public, there is every reason to expect rough and tumble, no holds barred treatment from all sides. This doesn’t excuse our own response, but to just expect Christians to tune it all out and ignore it sounds quite a bit like what cult leaders would suggest.
And where was this restraint of Challies when he was writing about Ted Haggard? Should he have approached Haggard before writing anything about him? Of course not, and to suggest so would be absurd.
I’d also point out to Challies that SGM and Mahaney have had well over a year to present the other side of the argument. They could clear it all up by explaining how blackmail really wasn’t blackmail, or how blackmail doesn’t disqualify someone from leadership, or how all the alleged sexual abuse cover-ups are misunderstood by the public. Instead, they have blamed blogs and told members not to read them or to engage in gossip – a foolish approach that makes them sound even worse.
In closing, the problems I and others saw with SGM pre-dated any of this and were more cultural and theological. As I wrote in 2011:
My observation of SGM over the years and what I’ve heard from insiders have raised the following concerns:
* Acting like clones. From shaved heads to speech inflections and cadence, the pastors at various SGM churches sound very much like CJ. Folks in the movement tend to use the same terms like affection, passion, serve and appropriate. One example of this is from the document “A Final Appeal” that quotes CJ in an October, 2005 email to Brent Detwiler saying, “From the first e-mail I have informed Pat about my support but in his desire to serve me he has continued to pursue this” and “I will be glad to explain my perspective on this if that would serve you.” The verb “serve” is something that you hear constantly from SGM folks and if you pay attention, it becomes like an in-group code word.
Christians need to be real, living in the real world with the transforming grace of the gospel, but also without falling into systems of jargon, denial, happy talk and sectarianism. When talking to another Christian, I want to be able to honestly discuss life without having to use phrases that end up meaning nothing because they are so overused.
* The gradual removal or “un-friending” of people who don’t toe the line theologically. Someone described this to me as “a hang-over from the charismatic shepherding movement, though in a less overtly authoritarian modality, a sort of soft-despotism” and I think that is an accurate description of what you read in Detwiler’s documents.
I’ve heard stories over the years including a guy who was on the inside at Covenant Life and whose WIFE had a theological view that was considered aberrant. This was enough to begin the gradual removal of the man from the inner circle and he eventually resigned his position. I grant that it can be hard to maintain friendships with people who have theological convictions different from our own, but a real love towards them should make it possible to continue in relationship, and not ice them out due to a Stepford wives type of conformity. Further, if we believe in the catholicity of the Church at all, it demands that we learn how to accept some degree of doctrinal variance within local churches. Someone I know was essentially asked to leave the church due to hesitation over the excessive demands for self-disclosure at small group. Add to this the many “de-giftings” where pastors are suddenly removed from their position with little or no explanation given to the congregation.
* Institutional arrogance / lack of Catholicity. Jesus said in John 17, “that I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The exact implication of what this verse demands are of course debated, but the failure to listen to warnings to change on the part of SGM sets a bad precedent. The SGM practice of rebaptism for people baptized as infants is a grievous affront to the catholicity of the Church.
I question why SGM cannot merge or cross-pollinate with groups like Acts 29, the Grace Network, and others. Does it really require a SGM church in every city, even if there is already a strong Calvinist and/or Reformed Baptist presence?
* A flawed polity. As I mentioned several months ago, SGM’s structure of church governance is skewed. It is similar to Calvary Chapel, where the pastor is Moses to his congregation and Chuck Smith is the Pope. The emails do show that CJ is treated akin to the Pope of SGM. He functions as an Archbishop, but without the time-honored constraints of a true Episcopalian system (vestry, church courts, and so forth). In the emails, leadership group members don’t want to be the one to confront him or deliver bad tidings to him. Local pastors are removed from on-high with no explanation. Systems of government do not solve problems, bad people can be in any system, but they can make it easier to correct problems.
* Morbid introspection and an incorrect understanding of “the Gospel.” Someone I know put it better than I can: “SGM deemphasizes the resurrection and overemphasizes introspection and “the cross”, which becomes morbid; they also decidedly deemphasize bible study; their view of culture is truncated as is their view of the Gospel: “Jesus died for my sins” v. “The good news is that the King has come in the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
This introspection is constant in these documents and in the lives of SGM churches. Every motive must be scrutinized at absurd lengths and a neo-Puritan desire to constantly work into emotional distress over being the chief of sinners and returning to the cross is modeled from on high. A view of glorification and Christian maturity give way to probing motives for pride, no matter what we do. SGM does not see the Gospel as the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus and union with Him (a more Calvinist approach), rather, it is simply imputation, which seems to be the hill that SGM always wants to die on.
The fact that the other Reformed “big dogs” like Piper, Dever and Mohler seemingly had no problem with any of this goes to show the weaknesses inherent to the entire T4G camp. The way they treated proponents of the New Perspective with dismissal and misrepresentation is now coming back to bite them. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
An email revealed today from the co-founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries minced no words with the attempt at whitewashing the behavior of C.J. Mahaney. Tomczak says in part:
Addressing the illegal, immoral and documented blackmail plus the reprehensible conduct that shattered our reputation, relationships and family ties (plus our livelihood) was afforded a dismissive SIX sentences in the report! Unbelievable.
I couldn’t agree more. I searched the PDF of the AOR report for Larry’s name and was surprised to see nothing about the blackmail imposed on him. And the Reformed “big dogs” Piper, Mohler, Duncan and Dever seem to think that C.J. is just fine, despite his attempted blackmail. They shouldn’t be taken seriously on much of anything.
You (CJ) continued by saying that Larry “must confine [himself] to the that point in order to leave peacefully.” In other words, you could accept Larry telling the movement he was abruptly and prematurely pulling out of the disciplinary process because he disagreed with our assessment of his character. You would not allow him to explain his departure in terms of doctrinal differences. But then you went further. You told Larry if he included doctrine as a basis for leaving “we will go into more detail regarding your sin and if necessary Justin’s sin.”
C.J. then went on to blackmail the Tomczak’s in a phone call where he threatened releasing details of their son’s confessions to him as a pastor to the public; this was in 1997. Mahaney acknowledged this in a confession to Covenant Life Church, but he called it ‘coercion’:
It grieves me to report to you that in a particular phone conversation I sought to coerce Larry to present his leaving as I thought was right.
Sovereign Grace has looked at this and many other things and essentially said “no problem”! Get back in the saddle and go get them big guy! Mahaney has repented of this sin and has confessed it, let’s be clear. But that does not mean that he is fit to serve any more. Imagine confessing your sins to a pastor and then having him use them against you or your family to get you to act in a certain way. Is someone who does that fit to be a pastor let alone a functional bishop?
But, C.J. is a Reformed big wig so he gets a pass. Disgusting, reprehensible and arrogant.
I think the days ahead are going to require more discernment as it relates to the identification of slander and the influence of slander in our churches. I think the days ahead are going to require courage on the part of pastors and when necessary publicly identify those who are divisive. I think the days ahead are not only going to require, I think they are going to require courage. I think in some ways in SG we have more humility than courage. And we are going to need more courage. Humble courage. It doesn’t mean we don’t learn from critique, we do. But there is a difference between learning from critique and allowing critics to define you. We are [not?] capitulating to slander in the name of humility.
The Post has been looking around for a couple weeks and has put out a fairly even-handed article for the general public here. Excerpt:
The Web is playing a powerful role in Mahaney’s woes even as his movement owes much of its popularity to it. His wife and three daughters co-write a chatty, hipster-looking blog about“biblical womanhood,” and Harris is something of a rock star in conservative evangelical circles for his book about dating and the importance of traditional courtship.
What happens next is unclear. Sovereign Grace officials emphasize they are deep into a period of spiritual reflection and management nit-picking. They clarified that he remains on staff. He joined with some other Sovereign Grace pastors at a retreat this summer, and some experts say he is too popular a figure in a thriving movement to disappear over the controversy.
So after all these years of sermons, books and conferences on loving the local church, Pastor Mahaney and his son in law pastors up and leave their local church because things aren’t going the way they like. Wow! Can you say “congregationalism”? Things are fine until they don’t go my way at which point I go down the road where the pastor is my buddy. What kind of message does this send to Joe Pew Sitter?
This situation reminds me so much of a local church I was part of that collapsed that it isn’t funny. Incidentally, we were moving towards SGM at the time and heavily into the Peacemaker. None of it helped. My pastor fled and a couple weeks later was somewhere else where he was never made accountable. He made sweeping statements about being the chief of sinners and being guilty of all sin (rather than acknowledging specifics) and he is now back in the pulpit having never fixed the issues that caused him to resign. This seems to be the template that Mahaney is fitting into. Discipline becomes impossible, people are forced to choose sides and believe who they like while demonizing the other side. Pastors write over-emotional letters about how they are “forced” to resign due to Biblical violations, and so forth and so on.
Really, if you have been around the church block a few times, none of this is new. It just destroys the integrity of Mahaney et al. Who can listen to him and believe him about his “passion” for the local church after this? And yet, there will always be the gullible, willing to follow no matter what. Absurd.