The following letter was released today:
To the Leadership Team and the Board of Sovereign Grace Ministries:
I am writing on behalf of Sovereign Grace Church of Daytona Beach and our elders to communicate our decision to end our partnership with Sovereign Grace Ministries. What follows is my best attempt at a concise and forthright explanation of our primary reasons for leaving and an appeal to reconsider some aspects of your leadership convictions, priorities and decisions over the past 14 months.
Our primary reasons for dissolving our partnership are:
1. A loss of trust created by vague, one-sided and sometimes contradictory* communication, decisions that do not reflect stated priorities and goals, and also the failure to understand and take adequate responsibility for the patterns and problems that developed under the Leadership Team’s (primarily CJ’s) direction and example. (*without immediate explanation)
2. A poorly defined but clearly perceived belief and practice of spiritual authority that has created a leadership culture characterized by excessive authority and insufficient accountability.
I will expand on both categories and make a connection between them:
The Loss of Trust
This has been a slow and difficult process for us that began with Dave Harvey’s email regarding Brent’s then forthcoming Documents. We were indeed surprised by the content of the Documents and the way the Leadership team at the time responded to Brent’s concerns, appeals and charges. Some of the problems he claimed to be systemic we had experienced, both locally and extra-locally, and we were eager to see changes take place within our family of churches. We felt that God was moving to bring repentance, reform and revival to our church and the churches we love and have walked with for nearly three decades. We had significant hope for what might lie ahead. Our disposition toward the Leadership Team, while jolted by the awareness of what had transpired secretly between our chief leaders, was still primarily characterized by trust and a willingness to follow. Over the course of the next 12 months however, that trust was steadily eroded by the responses of the team and the board(s). Our initial eagerness to help build a culture of loyal dissent was reduced to a lack of confidence, and now ultimately to a lack of trust in the current board and leadership team.
In the recent response to the AoR report, John Loftness communicated the following on behalf of the board:
“C.J. was the object of an enormous amount of gossip and slander during this past year, and that has damaged his reputation, undermined his ability to lead, and created an atmosphere of suspicion in some quarters of our family of churches.”
While CJ assuredly was the object of gossip, we disagree that gossip was the primary source of what is deemed “an atmosphere of suspicion.” The decisions made by the board(s) and leadership team over the past 14 months (which I won’t recount here) and accompanying communications are what created a fracture in the trust that the leadership team has enjoyed from us historically.
And more recently, as the frequency and detail of communication has improved (which we were encouraged by and grateful for), the perspective that the board communicated shows us the lack of understanding regarding these most critical issues of trust and authority. The recent six-point letter from the board and follow-up phone conference with John and Ian reiterated this perspective that is foreign to our experience. Additionally, withholding this perspective until now also reveals a lack of trust from the leadership team and board toward the pastors and people of SGM and an unwillingness to be influenced by our perspective and concerns.
The final loss of trust for us comes as a result of a failure to:
- Understand and take adequate responsibility for the wrongs that have occurred,
- Restore and rebuild trust through listening, seeking to understand and being influenced by other perspectives,
- Provide open and clear communication and
- Act decisively with responses that reflect a heart of humility and compassion toward those you lead.
On the contrary, the board has made further appeals for trust and patience without sufficient effort to show trustworthiness. This mutual vacuum of trust is a climate we cannot continue to follow in.
Although I have been unable to find a clear definition of the spiritual authority that has existed in our family of churches, it is not hard to perceive. As the AoR report notes:
“Leaders at every level in SGM have significant authority over others in submission to them. While this in itself is not a problem, the misuse of authority…is a temptation common to man.”
We agree with the report that SGM leaders have “significant authority” but we disagree that this is “not a problem.” It is a problem; a very serious problem that slight adjustment and refinement will not address. In the SGM response to the AoR report, the board commented,
“We…will continue to teach and counsel pastors in the appropriate use of the authority God gives them in the conduct of their ministry.”
It is our understanding from God’s Word that God does not give authority to men as we have seen it practiced, but rather that Jesus exercises his own authority through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His followers and pastors are called to administer God’s Word for and to God’s people. Any additional authority or influence we have comes from our congregation’s affirmation, their trust and their willingness to follow our leadership, and it is not binding. The level of authority exercised by SGM leaders (including our own pastors until recently) is unbiblical to us, and the current accountability of checks and balances is not only insufficient, but in our opinion incapable of providing the required balance.
One’s understanding of the nature and limitations of spiritual authority will necessarily shape one’s approach to developing and applying polity. As a result, it is our opinion that polity changes, however drastic, will be ineffective in bringing real change to this dilemma unless there is first a fundamental change in the understanding of spiritual authority. This is a main factor in our decision to end our partnership before the polity committee makes their final recommendation/decision.
Brothers, please consider the following remarks as made out of love and a desire for your good and the good of SGM.
An observation: From my limited perspective, the offenses taken and accusations made against current and former leaders of SGM all tend to contain elements of that leader’s personal hypocrisy, lack of integrity and pride and tend to surface as an ethical dilemma. And yet, in my interactions with some of you men who have been the object of such charges and offenses, I have observed a stated disposition toward humility and a clear conscience. Paradoxically, the concerns I have heard from some of you (accused SGM leaders) and others regarding the offended and sometimes angry parties sound eerily similar to your accusers—that they are guilty of personal hypocrisy, ignoring clear Biblical commands and pride.
What could explain such a stark disparity between brothers and sisters?
I believe it goes beyond remaining sin and uncharitable judgments. Could it be perhaps that the theological understanding that pastors and leaders in SGM have held historically (regarding spiritual authority, pastoral gifting and discernment, congregational obedience, etc.) causes them to view themselves often as “right” and their followers/critics as “wrong?” Isn’t it possible that disagreement with a pastor/leader on an extra-biblical issue could be seen as pride, rebellion and disobedience? Isn’t it just as likely that an offended party might interpret their pastor’s stance and directives as abusive, proud and overbearing?
This approach to spiritual authority seems to produce some bad fruit: a division between clergy and laity, a strong fear of man toward gifted leaders, the cultivation of an unhealthy dependence on pastors, disillusionment among people who are let down by their pastors and among pastors who are eventually held to unattainable standards, and so forth. Could this be the direct result of an unbalanced understanding and practice of spiritual authority? While I can’t answer these questions with certainty, I believe the answer is yes. I do not presume to judge your motives for leading the way you have/are. I trust that you love the Lord and desire to serve him faithfully, and I am certain that the Holy Spirit will guide you and SGM into the future. I do know that at this point our paths are divergent, and the primary factors are the loss of trust and the nature and limitation of authority.
Because of my personal perspective and my love for you men, I would like to offer the following observations and appeals:
CJ, we bear your resemblance. We talk like you. Those of us who preach tend to preach like you. Our leaders lead like you. It is the blessing and the curse of impartation and imitation. It can be wonderfully fruitful and incredibly painful. What makes SGM what it is, has largely developed from your life and influence. I am among those blessed by God through you and indebted to you for your care, oversight and leadership, but this same reality is two sided. Please consider the gentle appeals of some and the angry accusations of others to serve as a kind of mirror. Only the Holy Spirit can sort out for you what is truly the result of your influence. But please consider the following questions: How would you define the spiritual authority you exercise? How might those around you answer that? Do the men around you fear your disapproval? Are they strongly motivated by your commendation? Do you trust your own discernment more than the voices of your critics? Could it be that the Holy Spirit is speaking to you through them? There are plenty of men who love you and will affirm you and agree with you, and there are some who will hate you and only criticize you, but please don’t underestimate the value of those who love you and disagree with you. Please listen again.
To the Leadership Team
Yours is the responsibility to identify where God is calling SGM to go and then to decide the best way to get there. Please reconsider the necessity of building and rebuilding trust. The spiritual authority I described above tends to presume upon the trust of one’s followers as godly submission, but the greater distance relationally and geographically you are from those you lead, the more important earning trust becomes. Secondarily, do you trust those you lead? Do you believe the pastors/elders of SGM churches are trustworthy enough to know what you know and affirm your motives and decisions? This is very important to us.
To the Board
At this stage of SGM’s history, the final responsibility is now yours and not CJ’s or the Leadership Team’s. I know you men are working tirelessly and without compensation. Thank you! I know that you all love the churches of SGM deeply and have a vested interest in the success of the movement. I respect you men for your willingness to serve the way you are. Please, please reconsider making polity the priority. Polity changes won’t fix broken trust, and restructuring won’t stop pastors and leaders from operating with authority they are not meant to possess (if that is indeed the case). I urge you to pause and Biblically define and evaluate your convictions regarding the nature and limitations of spiritual authority and re-listen/listen to the bad experiences of others, however unpalatable. They are real. Prayerfully consider making an effort toward the hurt and disillusioned if you haven’t already. I pray you will see a connection between the loss of trust and our divergent convictions regarding the nature and limitation of authority. At the very least we need to understand our differences.
Ending our 27-year partnership with SGM comes at great cost to us, and it does not come without fear of losing relationships we value with men and women we love and respect. We hope and pray that this decision will not prove to be personally offensive to you men or the churches of SGM and that we can retain a level of cooperation fitting between the churches of Jesus Christ. What has made this decision even more difficult for us is the closeness we have with the other SGM churches in our region and our increasingly beneficial experience under the care of Aron Osborne. The relational strength and mutual care that we have seen recently developing in our region is what we have desired for some time, but we cannot in good conscience continue under and affirm the Board and Leadership Team’s oversight simply for the sake of our positive regional experience. We love you men and pray for you in all that lies ahead. There has indeed been a lot of pain, disillusionment, offense and disappointment, but God has been at work to bring healing, truth, forgiveness and faith.
We are eternally grateful to God for our time in SGM. We love the churches of SGM. We are thankful for you men and leave with no ill will. We do not require a dialogue, but are definitely open to discussing the reasons for our departure further.
Sovereign Grace Church of Daytona Beach