The Strange Case Of The Church Bouncers

September 27, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Awhile back, a reader using her full first and last name (which I’ve now edited to just “Cathy”) posted the following:

I and my family worshiped for about four months at a church seeking SGM affiliation.  We had already come into conflict with four different ministers over the course of twenty years who, though they were ministers in the OPC, PCA and CRC, suffered from the kingly delusion you describe in this post as characterizing SGM ministers.  On “Adoption Sunday” we were greeted in the parking lot by two bouncers, one of them the associate pastor, who informed us that we were not welcome at [Church Name], for they had identified us as blots on their love feast.  We tried to contact the pastor, with whom we had been friends prior to ever attending the church, but discovered that our phone number had been blocked by his phone service.  The catalyst of this situation appears to have been a facebook post I made two weeks previously asking for discussion concerning whether looking at Christ was really the same as looking at the Cross, which the pastor had intimated in a sermon.  My husband had responded to my posts saying, no, Christ is not identical with his cross and giving a Scriptural defense for thinking that Christ can no longer be found on the cross, just as he can no longer be found in the grave.  Whatever you think of this discussion, we were shocked to be turned away at the church door.  We knew immediately we were dealing with a cult.

Having come across this discussion on this blog, I thank God for His protection.  The scourge of authoritarian, dogmatic and bigoted pastors is hitting the church hard.

I will admit that when I read this comment, my first thought was that it sounded too outrageous to be true.  I mean, yes – throughout the nearly three years that I’ve been moderating this site, I’ve heard far more about Sovereign Grace Ministries’ “dark side” than ANYONE would ever want to know.  I’ve heard so many stories of manipulation, control, and pastoral abuses of authority that it’s difficult, sometimes, for me to remember which situation was which. 

But those stories have all followed a very similar pattern:  usually, ex-SGMers will have been heartily welcomed (“love-bombed”) into their SGM churches, often going on to spend years (or decades) serving as faithful members, only to at some point have reason to question their pastors’ unchecked authority.  Then – and only then – will things begin to go downhill.  Then – and only then – will they experience the bitter fruit of an authoritarian ministry, fruit like finding out they’re no longer embraced by the churchfolk they were instructed to regard as “closer than family.”

There are exceptions, of course, to the typical pattern of a bad SGM experience.  But the exceptions – the bad SGM experiences that do NOT center around heavy-handed unchecked pastoral authority – usually involve people who are still in the investigation stages, people who have attended their SGM churches for awhile but have not yet become members.  The exceptions will typically focus on oddities within SGM’s culture, oddities that newcomers to SGM eventually find off-putting enough to make them leave SGM before SGM can kick them out.

In other words, I’d never before heard of visitors or non-members being given the cold shoulder.  Actually, I’d never before heard of anyone who had been officially and obviously physically barred from attending a Sovereign Grace Ministries church.

Had an SGM church stooped to a new low, I wondered? 

I asked “Cathy” to provide additional details for us.

For whatever reason, she did not.

At that point, “Cathy’s” situation sort of slipped my mind.  What a lot of people might not understand is that I’ve never had to go hunting for interactions with SGM’s bruised and battered victims.  Maybe I should have been more curious about the veracity of “Cathy’s” story, but the reality is that I typically have more people contacting me than I can sometimes even interact with effectively.

So I kind of forgot about “Cathy.”  But another reader did not.  This reader – we’ll call him Tim – recently wrote and shared the following:

That whole Cathy [Last Name] thing was bugging me.  I kept wondering if her story was true at all.  That church’s site has a contact page, so I just went on there, referenced your blog — since this Cathy person is obviously not trying to hide and since I’m sure they read anyway — and asked about the scenario, saying that “I sure hoped it wasn’t true.”  I really did.  I wanted to see if anyone would even respond.

Well, the pastor wrote me back and here’s what he said:

It does not surprise me to see this post on the blog.  As always, there are always two sides to every story.  We have never had to do this before but after problems started to arise with this family, and after talking to several other churches in the area that they had attended, it was determined that these people (particularly Cathy) were “wolves” in our church.

As I have stated, we have never done anything like this before with any other family and we regretted having to do this.  

I write this just so you know.

Grace,

[Pastor’s Name]

I [“Tim” still speaking] think it’s interesting that he says there are two sides to every story when, actually, their two sides seem to line up pretty well.  The verbiage is different, but the attitude seems the same.  Cathy said they were told they were “blots on their love feast” and he said they were “wolves.”   To me that says, “We were told we were garbage” and the pastor agreed.  

I mean, am I reading it all wrong??

I wasn’t sure what to tell Tim.  So I suggested that Tim write back to the pastor and ask for clarification.  Here is Tim’s report:

Well, [Pastor’s Name] wrote back immediately.  

Here’s his response in its entirety:

We were their 4th or 5th church in several years (from talking to other pastors), and every other church that they went to, it ended badly.  One of those churches was the church of a good friend of mine in the PCA.  They put him through 2 months of sleepless nights.  When the same patterns started repeating themselves in our church we simply asked them not to attend until they had reconciled with the other churches.  We also told them that if they would like to talk, we could set up a meeting.  Instead, they went on the attack.  So, in other words, we didn’t “ban” them, we simply asked them to go back and make things right with these other churches before they attended our church.  

Also, this had nothing to do with SGM.  We tried to contact them prior to this particular Sunday (adoption) but they would not answer our calls.  We run our church as an independent leadership.  We were taking our job seriously, according to scripture, to protect our own church body from a family that was and is divisive.  I am still grieved that it had to come to this and am hopeful that someday I can be friends with them again.  As I have stated, in 17 years of ministry, this is the first time that we have ever had to do this with a family.

Here is a sermon by Mark Driscoll that might be helpful.  It is a little edgy but gives a good perspective of ministry:

http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/conferences/christ-controversy-and-cutting-words

Grace,

[Pastor’s Name]

So [Kris here again], I think I owe “Cathy” an apology for ever questioning her.  As “Tim” points out, “Cathy’s” story and the pastor’s story line up pretty perfectly. 
 
And you know, I think the pastor’s responses raise at least as many questions as they answer.  First of all, was “Cathy’s” posting on Facebook the same action that this pastor believes was exhibiting “the same pattern of behavior” as she and her husband had engaged in at those other churches?  Secondly, it sounds like “Cathy” and her husband had attempted rather desperately to get in touch with the pastor on the Sunday morning they were actually prevented from entering the church.  He never addresses why (or disputes that) he – their supposed longtime friend – did not respond to their calls.  Wouldn’t there have been a much kinder and gentler way of dealing with them on that Sunday morning?  Rather than having other church members function as bouncers, wasn’t there some other course of action that would perhaps have diffused the situation?
 
Thirdly, I’m curious as to what, exactly, this pastor thought “Cathy” and her husband would be able to do during a single Sunday meeting that would have been so dangerous to the rest of the church community.
 
Fourthly, this pastor may believe that this situation “had nothing to do with SGM.”  But that makes absolutely no sense, considering that as an adopted congregation, this pastor and his church now absolutely do represent SGM.  We know the adoption process is long and arduous.  This pastor and his church would never have made the cut if it hadn’t been understood by all parties concerned that they would be good representatives of the SGM brand.  And if this pastor really believes that he still operates his congregation “independently,” he might want to educate himself about the various situations where de-giftings have occurred.
 
Finally, now that he definitely knows that “Cathy” has shared her story online, I’m wondering what he has done to pursue reconciliation with her and her family.  He claims he wishes that he could be friends with them again.  If such a thing is true, then I’m sure he has attempted to reach out to them to clear up the misunderstandings about “Cathy’s” Facebook posting and how that could not possibly have been enough to get her and her husband barred from attending.  I’m sure he has carefully explained to “Cathy” and her husband just which of their behaviors constituted “going on the attack,” and what they did that was so horrific that it would cause him to label them as “wolves” and have no apparent qualms about sharing that loaded and judgmental label with any random person who asks him about the situation.
 
Anyway, people, there you have it.  It’s true:  there is a Sovereign Grace church out there that has bouncers.  (Or at least, has guys who “serve” their SGM church in the capacity so that they can perform the duties of bouncers, preventing undesirable “wolves” from entering meetings.) 
 
Even more creepy, it’s apparently OK for SGM pastors to go around gossiping with other pastors in the community about the members of their flocks. 
 
All in the name of protecting you, their helpless and stupid sheep, of course.