Thoughts on C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries

For once in my life, my wife trumped me in the news department. She mentioned casually to me a few nights ago that C.J. Mahaney was stepping down from his position at Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). “What?” I was floored and had to immediately navigate over to the SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge blogs to figure out what was happening.When I read C.J.’s statement, my first impression was that he is doing the right thing and his head seems to be in the right place. I don’t like the model of getting a group of celebrity advisers to minister to me as part of my eventual return to ministry (see Jim Baker, Ted Haggard and Todd Bentley among others); however, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion, guys who have serious issues would be better served to completely die to self and disappear into anonymity for the rest of their lives. It would be nice to try to figure out “whatever happened to that Mahaney guy” ten years from now – then you would really know that change occurred. But I am getting sidetracked…

So I clicked back to the SGM Survivors blog and saw a link to this document drop on Scribd. I started reading “The Untold Story” and my whole view of the situation changed. These files exhaustively document many of the inner struggles of the leadership of SGM. There is not financial impropriety, adultery or other sensational sin, but there is what I would call cunning, flattery, anger, bitterness, disengenousness or dishonesty and a pattern (that I have heard of before) of people being moved out or cut off when they don’t toe the party line. There is more than that, but that’s my high-level view of things. I would also say that there is excessive introspection to an amazing degree, but that is to be expected given the “cross-centered” theology that SGM has wrapped itself around the axle on over this past decade or so.

So why does it matter? Do these kinds of character faults, grievances and betrayals disqualify anyone from leadership or constitute serious sin? I haven’t waded through all of the documents yet, but I think they do. We are told that overseers are to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable…not quarrelsome..He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered…” The emails suggest a level of over-sensitivity and soft revenge that are not in keeping with a pastor (or bishop, as CJ really is).

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? (I’m looking at you Fredericksburg).
  • 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 prob- ing 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.

With all of this said, these men are brothers in Christ. They have produced good fruit in many lives (as well as bad fruit in others). Sometimes we can wonder how it is possible to read a book on humility and be changed for the better by it when the book is written by a guy struggling with just that issue? But God seems to work like this (we aren’t Donatists). We can receive good things even through flawed vehicles because Christ is at work in all. This cannot, however, become an excuse to allow these men to continue in their sins, be leaders for life, or be above the law somehow.

One possible response from SGM leaders is that people shouldn’t read these documents or they are gossiping. They may blame the internet for their problems. Susan Sontag wrote an essay about Abu Ghraib in which she talked about blaming the *pictures* rather than blaming the *actions*. It is similar to an abusive husband being angry because his behavior has been exposed rather than the fact that he sinned. In this case, C.J. Mahaney is an extraordinarily public figure who has brought attention on himself due to his increasingly high profile over the past decades. He writes books, speaks at conferences and leads a denomination. His activities can be scrutinized and public records (such as Detwiler’s) can be read. We don’t have to ignore the elephant in the room and play a pietistic game of pretend. I believe SGM needs deep reform in many areas, but it will be hard to change what has become an institutionalized culture of conformity to patterns of thought, speech, appearance, and behavior that most of the pastors have been steeped in for their entire professional lives.






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