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UPDATE 01 (2019): Al Mohler admitted that he was wrong by ignoring the allegations against C. J. Mahaney. Nathaniel Morales, where C. J. Mahaney was the pastor, was sentenced to forty years in prison in 2014 for sexual abuse. There have also been numerous scandals in the Southern Baptist Churches, as well as the firing of James MacDonald. We can’t continue to ignore this giant log in our evangelical eyes.
UPDATE 02 (2019): The most thorough response to the Sovereign Grace churches controversy is on Rachel Denhonllander’s Facebook page.
UPDATE 03 (2021): I have been listening to Christianity Today’s podcast series, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The similarities between Sovereign Grace and Mars Hill are eerily striking.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance, a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.
He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37).
Let’s not get all wrangled up in the use of the word robbers in this story. That is not an overt or even a backhanded way of describing Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). They are my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, and I love them. The story’s point is the fellow who is hurting and the one who helped him. We can talk forever about how he got hurt, why he was hurt, who abused him, or whether or not he should have been going down that road.
Though those things are worthy of another discussion, the primary point of the story is that somebody is hurting, and another person chose to help this victim. Jesus’ illustration is a picture of the gospel, the main thing, which, ironically, is what SGM trumpets so loudly. It saddens me that this mess about SGM is in the public domain and the gnat-straining about how we should address and respond to our public laundry.
It also saddens me that one of the main reasons it continues in the public space is because the arguments have been mainly about the gnats and not the big fat camel in the tent. The more significant point that keeps getting marginalized is the hundreds of individuals who are the victims of sexual and other forms of abuse. This proven reality is undeniable, and they continue to hurt. A man is down. The body of Christ is skirting around him while fighting about the secondary issue of ethics.
When the stories began to hit the public domain, some of our more profile evangelical caretakers warned us about participating in something we don’t know or have limited facts about. These brothers are our presumed gatekeepers for the evangelical community. To whom the Lord gives a large platform, the more the Lord requires of them.
Their mandate is not to speak to the hurting while telling you to keep out of the SGM affair. That should not be the role of celebrity good neighbors who can care for many more sheep than most.
While I don’t altogether condone how things got to where they are or the side issues involved, the fact remains that there are hundreds of victims of abuse. Many of our leaders ignore it or warn us to pass by on the other side of the road because these damaged souls are not our concern.
Perhaps you were not involved in the SGM mess. Guess what: you are now. You were walking down the street, minding your own business. Good for you. I get that. Then there was a car wreck. Do you keep walking? Do you ignore it? No, you pull out your phone and start recording, take pictures, tap your WAZE app, or text somebody. That’s what caring people do. God’s fame is at stake, as well as a lot of hurting people. (Nobody has ever refuted or denied the sexual abuse allegations.)
You cannot ignore this pandemic problem in our body any longer. Some people want to call it a “family squabble,” which is right in the most profound way; it is God’s family, and we’re all in it. If the evangelical power brokers had not ignored it in the first place, it would have never made it to God’s larger family. To continue to ignore it is not the answer. We all should have learned that lesson the first time the sweepers came out to hide it under the rug. While I respect many of our celebrity leaders, I do not understand their disengagement as pastors who should be shepherding sheep.
Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:7).
The primary group of people in this story are the hurting and the angry. I understand this group on two levels. I was one of them (not sexually abused), and I help these hurting souls every week of my life. No doubt this group, at least some, are sinning. Some of them have acknowledged this struggle and owned their sin. That is right and biblical. Unfortunately, when most folks talk about this “victim group,” they point first to their attitudes. Though all of them do not have bad attitudes, some do, but that is not the main point.
They are hurting in ways that most of us cannot comprehend. Every counselor who has ever counseled the hurting understands this dilemma. It comes with the territory when evil people victimize fallen people. Sadly, when someone crushes a person, there is a temptation to sin in return. Have you ever sinned back when someone sinned against you? We’re all guilty of this—every blooming one of us, especially me because I know my fallen tendencies the best.
I would never condone my sin, but I do understand this tension. When a person is hurting, more than likely, they will respond sinfully. In such cases, I listen to them. I’m trying to discern what’s going on inside of them. I want to hear their real story, the hurt, not the sin coming out of their mouths. I want to help them.
In time, after these victims know that you hear them and they are experiencing help while on the road to healing, perhaps you can begin to address their secondary sinful reactions. If you rebuked them or marginalized them because they did not say it the way you wanted them to say it, you would never be able to help them. These folks are hurting. It took me two years to work through the abuse that I went through with SGM. It hurt, and they had no desire to help me. Their main concern was controlling the narrative; they always want to “protect” the flock regardless of what they do to those who won’t lock-step with them.
For us, it was “God and I time,” alone. Lucia and I cried privately as we slowly put our lives back together. I sinned many times. That is not a boast but a confession from a fallen man who was hurt by fallen men. It would have been nice if someone had the grace and courage to work with me to overcome my sin and hurt. But they didn’t.
One of the things that I learned while pastoring an SGM church was that if someone comes to you imperfectly, you should have the grace to hear the critique more than the flawed approach from the person who brought you the analysis. Ironically, it was C. J. Mahaney who taught us that nugget of wisdom. My friends, there is a critique that is being brought imperfectly to SGM, but they and their friends are mainly ignoring them. And up to now, Mahaney’s buddies have been mostly frustratingly quiet, except for telling us to mind our business. Telling victims to shut up or ignoring them while they suffer will only move them to speak more boldly.
A few years ago, I listened to an audio version of a “family meeting” that an SGM pastor gave to his church. He told a couple of lies, which was not the first time he lied to that congregation. He has a knack for twisting the truth into clever presentations, which is his way of controlling the church’s narrative. I talked about this with another SGM pastor who was in the meeting. He agreed with me and then said,
The pastor would not agree with the assessment. He would not see it that way. He did lie, though.
My friend was right. These leaders remind me of institutionalized convicts. They have been in the system for so long that they cannot see it any other way. I was this way when I was part of their ministry. My oldest brother was an institutionalized convict. He could only live on the inside—in prison. Each time he got out, he would purposely do something to go back. He could not function on the outside. The world for him was the prison, which is where he chose to live.
This lying SGM pastor told me one time, “We’re the only game in town.” That was a behind-the-scenes comment. Publicly he would say, “We’re not the only game in town.” He would never see the deceitful habituation. He cannot drink from any other fountain—there is only one way for him to believe. It’s the SGM way.
Many SGM leaders have willingly placed themselves in their hermetically sealed system. They have been there for so long they cannot see anything else. They are institutionalized. I’m not rationalizing their sin away, but I do want you to know this perspective.
Perhaps it will break your heart for them and motivate you to pray for them. More importantly, maybe they will care more about God’s fame than their reputations. And even more urgent than all these things, perhaps the victims of the abuse can find a fuller restoration in our Savior.
For the sake of Christ, we have men, women, and children hurting. If you have any influence whatsoever, will you speak up? Will you ask questions? Will you talk to the victims and the advocates for the victims? Will you bring the sides together and then make a comprehensive, public accounting of the conclusions? May we heal?