Do SGM’s Problems Shake Your Faith?

March 16, 2012 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Kris says:  What follows is one of those posts that some of you (those of you who come here looking for news) probably won’t like, as it’s an editorial of sorts – some of my thoughts about a recent trend I’ve noticed in my email and in comments people have left.  I really don’t presume to be any sort of teacher or profound thinker, so if you’re not usually interested in what I have to say, then you might want to come back another day, when we may finally have some news about things like the release of the report from the Ambassadors of Reconciliation.

That being said, if you’re still here – well, here goes.  :D

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In the previous post, new commenter “Shoreline” said,

I am much more interested in how to salvage shipwrecked faith as a result of the experience of sgm.

This is a theme I’ve been hearing more often lately. A few days ago, “yentl” wrote,

So…if good Christians throughout SGM stand up against spiritual abuse, will I be whole again? Unfortunately, if they find in my favor, my friends will hate me. Either way…I lose.

I get the feeling, from different comments and emails, that the issues with which Sovereign Grace Ministries has been dealing over the past 8 or 10 months or so have caused a lot of upheaval in at least some SGM members’ spiritual lives.

I’m looking at the last sentence that I wrote and realizing that what I just said probably seems really, really UN-profound to a lot of you.  But I think it’s important to understand that for people on the outside of SGM, their ideas about “church” are much more elastic…and much less foundational to their Christian faith.

And, if you find that SGM’s problems are causing you to feel differently about your Christian faith – your walk with Jesus – then that’s quite likely a sign that you have confused the real gospel (the good news of what Jesus has done for us) with something else (the role that your SGM church plays in your life as a Christian).

I believe that because of the way SGM churches were established (for years, SGM’s “missions” efforts were almost exclusively directed toward planting more SGM churches in already-churched suburban neighborhoods where there were already plenty of gospel-proclaiming, Bible-believing congregations), and because of what SGM pastors have believed and taught about church, too many people within SGM have made the way that SGM “does church” the defining aspect of their lives as believers. For instance, if you look at earlier SGM writings like the collaborative Why Small Groups: Together Toward Maturity, it is clear that for decades the leaders of SGM believed that SGM churches’ approach to “biblical fellowship” was the only real way to have sanctification…and of course, while sanctification does not save us (or so the book says initially), sanctification will be taking place if we are “truly saved”…and sanctification cannot happen apart from “biblical fellowship” as SGM defines “biblical fellowship”…so therefore, your SGM church, with its “biblically correct” approach to fellowship is crucial to your sanctification, which is required in order for you to actually be saved. (This is discussed here at some length.)

In addition to SGM’s rigid ideas about what constitutes “biblical fellowship,” SGM has for years marketed itself as practically the only purveyor of “correct doctrine,” because SGM is just about the only church out there that is – on paper at least – both “Charismatic” and “Reformed.”  Moreover, a lot of SGMers have absorbed the idea that pretty much no other church gives its people enough tough talk about sin.

The bottom line for many loyal SGMers is that although they like to defend their SGM churches by paying lip service to the idea that “no church is perfect,” the very reason that they feel the need to defend SGM in the first place is because SGM has in many ways historically believed itself to be “more biblical” than other churches, and about as close to perfect as it’s possible for a church to get in this lifetime.

SGM churches have also been “One-Stop Shops.”  For years, members were trained to look to their pastors for all their needs.  Within SGM, pastors were thought to possess special abilities to know their people’s hearts – abilities to discern a person’s sins better than the person himself could discern them.  From C.J. Mahaney’s Happiest [Dearest] Place On Earth sermon comes the following quote:

We need good and godly pastors to watch over our souls because we are vulnerable on a daily basis to the deceitfulness of sin, the hardening effect of sin upon our souls. So sin is deceptive. That’s the DNA of sin, the DNA of sin is deception, therefore we need the discerning and caring eyes of pastors and others because so – so often I’M BLIND TO WHAT IS OBVIOUS TO THEM.

Also, SGM members were for years taught to have disdain for anything having to do with the mental health profession.  No matter what the issue or problem, the SGMer was trained to seek help only from his or her pastor.  Professional counseling – even professional Christian counseling – was automatically suspect.  While it is true that pastors have been told within the past couple of years (since this issue has been discussed publicly here and on other sites) to tone things down, this stuff was taught to pastors as recently as 2009.  At the 2009 Sovereign Grace Ministries Pastors’ Conference, Andy Farmer gave a lengthy teaching to SGM pastors about The Counseling Process in which he provided ample evidence of SGM’s longtime antipathy for the mental health profession.  In that message, he even suggested that pastors might help members figure out whether or not to take prescription drugs such as anti-depressants:

But, uh, I think in generally speaking, we can engage people in their medications in a very helpful thoughtful way and they could – and they could – they could be, ah – and – and – and – we can become part of that process of the management of it.  [View the context for this statement in paragraphs 12-15 here.]

Back in the day, SGM pastors even believed that they ought to be the primary go-to guys for situations involving child sex abuse, weighing in on whether or not victims should involve law enforcement and the legal system, putting pressure on victims to forgive perpetrators quickly, and basically doing little to support victims while at the same time seeming to take the side of the perpetrator.

The bottom line is that if you’ve been part of an SGM church for a significant period of time, you will have very likely reached a place where you are dependent upon your church and your pastor in a way that simply does not happen out in “normal” Christianity.  You have been required to place so much faith and confidence in your church and your pastors that they really do need to be close to perfect. 

To summarize, you’ve been taught that 1) your church is one of the very few purveyors (if not the only purveyor) of truly “biblical” doctrine, particularly as it pertains to being (supposedly) both Reformed and Charismatic; 2) your salvation is dependent upon your sanctification, which is dependent upon a very particular formula for small-group fellowship; 3) your pastors have superior insight into your heart than you yourself do; and 4) your pastors ought to be the main source for all manner of advice.

With all those teachings, it stands to reason that if you discover your church organization might not actually be worthy of so much blind and unquestioning trust, the way you’ve been living out your Christian faith – with so much emphasis placed on your local SGM church – may start to bother you.  You may begin to question many elements of what you have been taught.

The good news in all of this is, well, the good news - the gospel.  The real gospel of Jesus – what He has accomplished on our behalf, what He continues to do now through the work of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that He never changes, despite what your church may have told you about how “constant change is here to stay.”  If you’re finding yourself feeling like the bottom has fallen out of your Christian life because the SGM organization is struggling to define itself, then maybe that’s a sign that you need to look at your church less and look to Jesus more.

The Bible tells us that Jesus – and not a particular expression of His church – is the author and finisher of our faith.  The Bible also tells us that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  While I believe the Bible also tells us that it is important for us to seek out the company of other believers and worship and study the Word with them, the Bible does not specifically spell out (as SGM has always spelled out) the precise way this must be done.  If you’re finding that your faith is being shaken these days, there’s a good possibility that you may have been putting your faith in the wrong thing.