Tim Challies’ Bad Advice

Tim Challies says in 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.






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