And Here’s Our Story

November 22, 2007 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

This post contains what I originally posted on the defunct blog page that wandered onto the subject of SGM.  Here’s our story, with the comments from “Anonymous” (minus the diatribe he/she wrote against a particular pastor):

I found this blog site while searching for information about Sovereign Grace, PDI, and C.J. Mahaney. I have no idea if anyone out there is still reading these comments, but I wanted to add my own experience with Sovereign Grace.

The first thing I should say is that I truly sensed that the SG folks I knew were very serious and committed to their faith. The pastor and his wife (from the SG church we attended, which was NOT Covenant Life) were incredibly nice and kind people. I also liked how they seemed to really value the Bible’s authority and were careful in their preaching and teaching to stay true to the Word.

So why am I writing a comment that might be perceived by some as negative?

Well, since there’s basically ZERO information out there about Sovereign Grace except for glowing reviews of C.J.’s books and the SG in-house music, I’d like to add perhaps another perspective.

I do NOT think that SG is a “cult” or an “abusive” church – at least not where we attended. But I DO think that it fosters a certain mentality that is unlike any other church I’ve ever been a part of. There is a mentality there that simply LOVES authority. Everybody I knew loved the authority of the leaders at the top. C.J. was quoted more often than not in the Sunday sermons. We would attend meetings which involved simply LISTENING to AUDIO (yes, audio and not video) tapes of different well-known high-up SGM speakers from conferences.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with this, exactly. But…the knee-jerk response, if you asked questions, was to refer you to teachings available online by Josh Harris or C.J. Mahaney. It was like, “Our leaders have spoken.” At some level, it made me really uncomfortable.

There’s also a very strong leaning, at least in my church, toward some of the less intense teachings of “Patriarchy.” Many, many families homeschool their children. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but if you do NOT homeschool, you can be made to feel somehow less than Christian. It’s like being the lone meat eater among a group of radical vegetarians. Most of the homeschoolers do so because “God told them,” so implicit in that is definitely a sense of spiritual superiority toward those who aren’t mature enough to hear God’s voice in that way.

As someone else pointed out, there is also a never-ending focus on our indwelling sin. This was a common thing heard among parents, worrying about the sin in their children. It was also a theme, week after week, in the worship music. Even on Easter Sunday it was almost like they forgot that JESUS ROSE AGAIN! He did not remain on the Cross, which is, of course, our only hope.

The constant focus on the Cross, while at first refreshing in this age of seeker-friendly churches that NEVER mention sin, blood, or the Cross, eventually seemed unbalanced to me. I was reminded of Catholicism. It sometimes felt like the SG people wore invisible crucifixes, so intent were they on beating themselves up week after week over how their own sin had crucified Christ. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolute truth in this – but it can be overemphasized at the expense of other truths of Chrstianity.

People from “mainstream” Christianity might also be put off by SG’s music. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s gotten high reviews for its theological depth and doctrinal correctness, but frankly, since it was ALL specific to SG, it made me feel a little lonely during the worship times. It was like having so much in-house stuff divorced the church from the rest of Christianity. It also was very heavy on our sin and the Cross, with little emphasis on victory. Some folks might like that…others might find it discouraging.

I wonder if C.J.’s (and hence SG’s) roots in Catholicism might not have something to do with many of these issues. It’s like he is their pope, and anyone he endorses will also receive almost unquestioning acceptance from the people. Also, I did notice that many former Catholics seemed to feel right at home there.

Along with the homeschooling, I also noticed a heavy emphasis on “courtship” as put forth by Josh Harris and even other more radical types. Also, at least some of the church folks had been influenced heavily by the hyper-patriarchy teaching that girls should not attend college (as it demonstrates a lack of faith in their future role as wives and mothers). Many of the young ladies remained at home with their parents. Again, there is NOTHING inherently wrong with this. I am not judging. But I did find it a lot different from mainstream Christian thinking.

Like I said, I see a heavy emphasis on authority at this church, whether it’s C.J.’s authority, or Josh Harris’ authority, or parental authority. In that respect, it’s not surprising that they succumbed, at least briefly, to the “shepherding” movement. I believe that PDI/SG has for years attracted the type of people who like submitting to authority.

I even think, now, that the unquestioning acceptance we experienced in the “Care” group was more about the people’s submission to authority than it was about anything good or desirable about us as individuals and potential friends. We really enjoyed the Care group time. It was probably the best thing we did at the church. The leader had a way of making us feel very special and important and valuable to the group. But then I began noticing that this exact same level of acceptance was automatically extended to everyone, no matter how strangely they behaved. In fact, someone once remarked to me, in an offhand way, that it was good that I become friends with such-and-such because “she’s in your Care group, after all.” This made me feel really odd, as though we now had taken upon ourselves some sort of assigned social life.

One last thing that made me uncomfortable was a continual theme of how “Sovereign Grace is the only church for me.” I lost count of how many times I’d hear various people say that they’d “never live ANYWHERE where there wasn’t a Sovereign Grace church!” Now, again, there’s NOTHING wrong with being loyal to one’s denomination. Please don’t misunderstand me. But there were actually several people who were contemplating moving to our town just so they could be part of our church. Maybe I’m just too “mainstream” to understand how a person could want to uproot their entire lives for the primary purpose of a church. Or maybe there actually IS a level of spiritual exclusivity at SG. I really don’t know. But hearing people say that SG was the ONLY church for them had the effect of making me uncomfortable.

I could be wrong about this, but I’ve come to believe that if you somehow think that you can only function in ONE type of church setting – i.e. Sovereign Grace – then you’re out of touch with the reality of what the body of Christ actually is.  A particular church or denomination might have a unique approach to Christianity, but if you place too much importance on the approach, you’re going to slip into thinking that no other Christian group quite measures up to yours…which is a prideful error.  But again, that’s just me.

At any rate, to sum up, we’ve ultimately decided that SG is not for us. As I said, we loved many things about it. The people are truly the most open and friendly and accepting folks you’ll ever meet…but it’s almost to the point of being unnaturally so, because they’ve been TRAINED to be that way. We loved the pastor and his wife. They were so sweet.

But ultimately, our family didn’t fit very well into the church culture. Although we’re probably more intense about training our children (in things like Bible memory, doctrine, prayer, and the like) than other more relaxed Evangelicals we’ve known, we don’t share the same love of top-down authority that other SG parents do. We also do NOT believe that the parentally-controlled “courtship system” is the only Biblical way to find a mate. (About 99% of us would not BE here today if our own parents had had to follow that system!) And ultimately, we’d like to go to church and sing more songs about Jesus’ VICTORY over death and the grave, rather than beat ourselves up again and again about our sin (although there’s definitely a need to acknowledge our sinfulness). It’d be nice, too, to sing songs that have some connection to the rest of Christianity.

So there you have it. We’re still working through our Sovereign Grace experience, but it was definitely something about which we have mixed feelings. Is it a “cult”? I truly don’t think so. But any time you get a group so in love with authority and so paranoid about “gossip” and questioning anything, there are elements in place that could lead folks down unhealthy paths, if their leaders fall into error. I’m sure this won’t happen in SG, but if you don’t like this mentality, you might want to go to another church.

—————–

Here’s another comment I added:

I sure don’t want to seem like I’m hijacking a blog conversation that’s long ago died its natural death, but I do want to add one thing to my above post…

One thing that, as of yet, we have NOT done is share our concerns with the pastor. And currently, we have no plans to do so. I know that if there are any SG folks out there who happen to stumble across our story, that is one criticism they will immediately level at me – that we are not following the Matthew 18 protocol for dealing with offenses.

But I feel like our lack of “confronting” the pastor was appropriate. First of all, we were NOT “taking offense” to anything. As I’ve already said, SG is full of wonderful people who are happy with the way their church works for them. I’m not offended by their teachings or practices in any way. I just (now, finally, after several months of indecision) don’t think they’re for me.

Secondly, I can’t imagine anything productive that would have resulted from such a conversation. I do know that it would have made the pastor and his wife feel bad…and feel like we were criticizing their lifestyle choices. But should they change anything they’re doing just because some “seeker” comes in and sees issues with certain practices? I don’t think that would be appropriate.

Of course, my imaginary SG readers here are now saying, “Then you have no right to go public with your observations, if you haven’t shared them with the people concerned.”

And that’s the rub. I believe I have the right, as a member of the body of Christ, to share my honest observations with others who might not wish to spend months (like we did) trying to figure out whether or not SG is the church for them. Again, to repeat: I am NOT judging anything that our SG church did as “wrong.” We did NOT “take offense” to anything there. But we DID see several things that were out of our comfort zone as more-conservative-than-average Reformed Evangelicals.

And I wish that there had been other information available to us that would have shared some of these things ahead of time. Had we known some of this, it wouldn’t have taken us so long to put into words what was troubling us and to decide that hey, this wasn’t going to be such a good fit for our family after all.

So I suppose you are free to judge my comments here as “gossip.” But the very fact that this charge is thrown around as often as it is, and the very fact that there is ZERO information about SG other than the glowing, positive, glossed-over church history…well, to me, that says something. But again, you be the judge.

[PLEASE NOTE:  WHILE THIS COMMENT WAS ORIGINALLY TRUE, WE ENDED UP SHARING OUR CONCERNS WITH OUR SGM PASTOR AFTER ALL.]

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And here’s another comment I added:

Sorry…I keep forgetting things I want to say here, even if nobody will ever read this…

One thing that I forgot to mention was that our SG church had its own little bookstore. Initially, this struck me as perfectly normal, because many churches sell books. But then I realized that it was stressed over and over again that the books contained in the bookstore were somehow “approved” and “endorsed” by the SG leadership. Maybe none of you would be bothered by this. It didn’t exactly “trouble” us, but it did strike us as yet another way for leaders to exert “top-down” control over what the people thought.

I suppose my hesitations over this show more about me than they do about SG, but frankly, I don’t like the idea that people would even CARE about reading materials that have received the leadership’s “stamp of approval.” Isn’t there room for people to exercise their own God-given, Holy Spirit-led discernment? Can’t people be trusted to read and digest information and come to the right conclusions?

Along these same lines, the church (at least the one we attended) had an “ESV only” policy for the Bible translation used from the pulpit and in study. Again–the ESV is a great translation, more reliable than many, but you just have to wonder, why the need to endorse one translation above the rest? Why do that?

Again, it just seems like there is a great deal of effort put into making everybody fall in line with thinking the same, reading the same, and even using the same translation of the Bible.

I will repeat, I am NOT judging this as either right or wrong. I can even understand a denomination’s desire to do things like this. It’s just an observation…but I think it’s an observation that does give insight into how SG people view authority.

—————–

Then these were the replies:

1:40 PM  

Anonymous said…

Yea ,

Try reading the book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse”

You are describing ‘shepherding’ to a ‘T’.

Most charismatic churches operate like this. AG,YWAM,Teen Challenge,most non denominational,word of faith. It is a doctrinal problem. Its been documented since the early 1990’s as abusive but it still continues.

Who knows when the powers that be will correct it.

Here was my reply:

Actually, I have read “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” But I never saw anything that resembled “abuse” at our SG church. I did, however, see an overwhelming mindset of loving to submit to authority. If you had a question, the first thing you’d be told is, “Listen to this sermon, C.J. explains everything.”

I saw this in the way my friend kept urging me to discuss my concerns with our pastor…I didn’t know how to get through to her the concept that it didn’t matter what the pastor or anyone else would say about it, I trusted my own eyes and knew what I was seeing. Maybe I am the one with the problem, the unsubmissive heart or something, in that I really didn’t CARE what “an authority” would say to explain things. Nothing they could say would ever change my thinking about some of the stuff I saw, like the weird side effects of the “courtship system,” for instance.

But aside from this attitude of, “You must listen to the authorities,” I didn’t see actual abuse FROM those authorities. Definitely, if those authorities got it in their heads to sway their people to a wrong way of thinking, all the systems are in place to do so. But I never saw any of that. Their overt teachings and doctrines seemed “kosher,” for lack of a better word. And the leaders all pride themselves on their humble leadership. So I’d have to disagree that there was “spiritual abuse” taking place. At the least, I didn’t see any.

——————-

Then he/she wrote:

3:59 PM  

Anonymous said…

Are people allowed to think for themselves?
Did you fellowship with other churches or christians outside of your own group?
If someone had a different interpretation to something that was taught and mentioned it or questioned it what would happen?
If you visited another church and mentioned it say in a HFG or church to a pastor or leader what happened?
If you wanted to leave ( as you did ) or had stayed longer then left what happened ,or what do you think would happen?

And finally, I responded:

In answer to your questions:

I never saw it as a question of people being “allowed” to think for themselves. It was more like most people didn’t WANT to, or had, at one time, thought for themselves but then came to the conclusion that they agreed with everything (homeschooling, courtship, etc.) that the folks at my church did.  Also, they all seemed to have concluded that C.J. Mahaney was the greatest man on earth, and everything he thought, said, and did was worthy of their automatic acceptance and utmost respect.

(I have to add, here, that when we first stumbled into our SG church, we’d barely even HEARD of C.J.  So it was particularly bizarre to us to witness the utter hero worship.  People would giggle ecstatically over one of C.J.’s recycled one-liners.  A few of the folks who had attended CLC in the earlier years would drop the phrase, “I was talking to C.J. one day…” as though they’d had an audience with the president.  And their listeners would be in as much awe of them as if they’d indeed spent time in the Oval Office.  We’ve been in many churches over the course of our lifetimes, and we both agreed we’d never seen anything quite like the reverence given to C.J. Mahaney.

I’m NOT saying here that he doesn’t somehow deserve it.  But to an outsider…well, to put it bluntly, it seems weird.)

To your second question, no, we didn’t fellowship with other groups. But I don’t think it would have been a problem with anyone there if we would have wanted to volunteer for some parachurch organization.

However, there WAS, as I said, this attitude present that SG was the only church they’d ever consider attending, hence the oft-repeated phrase of, “We’d never live ANYwhere where there wasn’t an SG church!”

It’s a fine line, but again, I don’t think you can say it’s “cultic” to love your own little denomination and be single-minded about it. It just bothered ME, personally, because it felt like people were narrowing their life options. It also felt like they were saying, in effect, “No other church has quite the handle on truth the way that ours does.”

Visiting another church…I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye. However, there was this sense, from my longtime-member friend, at least, that if you did, you’d be wasting your time, because SG was so obviously superior. Yet again, is this “spiritually abusive”? I really don’t think so. It seems like there’s room for folks to think their church is the best church out there. I think most of us believe thus about what we end up choosing.

And leaving? Well…we’ve left, and nobody seems to care too much. Perhaps you could interpret that either way. I’ve always felt that the “instant friends” we made there were interested in us only because we were at the church. And that’s been about the truth, as nobody has shown much concern since we left.

So once again…I do not think that OUR Sovereign Grace church was in any way “cultic” or spiritually abusive. But I do believe elements were in place IN THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES where they might, at some point, be willing to accept abuse.

The very fact that PDI could have shifted, in a relatively short length of time (5 or so years, as I understand it), from essentially a “Charismatic” (tending more toward Arminianism) church to one that focuses on Calvinistic doctrines…and the fact that they did so without losing a huge percentage of their people…well, that tells you something about how committed the PDI people were to the views of their leader(s). Or how lightly they held their doctrines. Or how easily they were led.

© 2007 – 2008, Kris. All rights reserved.