Essentially Reformed…And Essentially Bummed – A Personal Note

July 20, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

I’ve been busy over the past couple of days and have not had much time to interact here. But I have still been thinking about everything.

One thought – it’s a good thing that I was very established in my own Christian beliefs before we made the random decision a few years ago to toss up a blog about our ambivalence over our experiences at a Sovereign Grace Ministries church. The things I’ve heard since then would have been faith-shaking if God hadn’t already rooted and grounded me in what I believe. And in WHOM I believe.

Another thought – for most of my life, I would say (as SGM’s promotional materials say) that I have been “essentially Reformed” in my doctrine. Guy and I did spend several years in a hyper-charismatic church that (especially toward the end of our time there) veered dangerously into “name-it-and-claim-it” theology, as well as the “Prosperity Gospel.” I did go through at least a few years of reading only books that were written by others with a “Charismatic” bent. I can remember spending lots of time in the Christian bookstore – but only near the shelves labeled “Charismatic Interests.” I didn’t want to read ANYTHING that didn’t have as its foundational assumption that we were “victorious overcomers in Jesus’ name.” I didn’t want to read anything that didn’t assume that God always answers the prayer of faith – in exactly the way that the person doing the praying wanted it answered. After all, if you’re going to be bold enough to take anointing oil to the hospital bed of a woman dying from cancer and believe that if you pray for her and anoint her with this oil, she might very well pop up out of bed, perfectly fine, you need a lot of mental fortification! :D

So for a few years, my “essentially Reformed” theological foundations were layered with “speak the Word” and “have what you say” and “we are glorious overcomers.” And “God wants only the best for His children.”

But I never really lost my grip on what I knew to be true in the Bible. In the back of my mind, I knew that God did not typically heal people in a dramatic fashion, even when we say all the right words…and even when we were told week after week that this stuff happens all the time when our pastor prays for people. (One day it occurred to me how funny/ironic it was that our hyper-Charismatic pastor had health insurance for himself and the rest of his staff, despite his own proclamations that it is always God’s will for us to “be in good health and prosper.” And that if we pray in faith – as he himself did – we would be healed. It occurred to me that if this pastor REALLY believed this, he wouldn’t be forking over so much money for health insurance.)

I also knew that the teachings about wealth (a sign of God’s favor, always good) and poverty (a sign that you weren’t giving enough money, always evil) weren’t right.

I discovered, after we left that church, that the way the message of salvation through Jesus was presented wasn’t very accurate. Awhile back I came across an old teaching tape that I’d purchased when we were new to that church, because I’d thought the message was just so good. And it was downright weird to listen to it again. I realized that throughout our entire time there, I’d filtered the sermons through my “already biblical” grid, where I’d assume that the pastor meant certain things just because he was alluding to terms that *I* understood in certain ways. But if you were coming to that church (as many people did) with virtually no background knowledge of Christianity, no grasp of the Bible in any sort of connected, systematic way, you would not really have an understanding of what the Christian life is supposed to be about. Or even Who Jesus is. (The Jesus at that church was more of a sugar daddy…and His Godhood was de-emphasized while His humanity was over-emphasized, where people were told that if we had “the anointing,” we would be just like Jesus in terms of miracles, signs, and wonders. And power. All the power. We could basically become “little Christs.”)

But even in the midst of that dysfunction, with my reading diet of nothing but “Charismatic Interest” books and the faulty preaching, I never really veered far from the faith in which God had planted me as a child. I knew the Bible well and just sort of filtered all that junk through my biblical grid.

When we grew disillusioned with that church and sort of woke up (when a visiting minister gave an altar call for all those who wish to prosper…and when Guy later met with the pastor to tell him how disturbed we were by that…and when the pastor just blew it off, unconcerned, we knew we had to move on), I found great solace in websites that emphasized Reformed doctrines. I loved Tim Challies and the guys at Pyromaniacs and read them daily. I loved it when they would take apart some false teaching and show how it did not stack up to the Bible. I loved how they emphasized all the things that “we can know for sure.”

(Matter of fact, Challies’ glowing write-ups of all things SGM, as well as the way that the Pyro guys seemed to speak so highly of CJ Mahaney, were part of why we started attending our SGM church and why we stayed for as long as we did, despite all the little things that seemed “off.”  Every time something odd would happen that struck us as wrong, we’d shrug it off and tell ourselves it must just be us – surely the big-name bloggers couldn’t be wrong!)

I have to admit that until very recently, I still would get a kick out of when these guys would deconstruct Rob Bell or some such. I would think to myself, “We need more of this in the church today! It is so vital for people to defend the TRUTH.

But (and yes, I’m finally getting to my point…I do have one) one thing I have realized over the past couple of weeks is that these “Reformed” types seem to turn a blind eye when it comes to policing any of their own. It’s like, if a group espouses a certain checklist of stuff, and if they like to quote Spurgeon, it becomes some sort of Jedi mind trick, where the group then gets a free pass for everything else.

I actually wrote this paragraph to someone with connections to one of the Reformed Big Dogs:

Something that everyone who claims to care about “biblical theology” ought to find extremely disturbing is just how badly people’s understanding of actual Reformed theology has been abused within SGM, to the point where I regularly deal with many who have walked away from their faith altogether. That this continues unabated and appears to be endorsed by so many Reformed celebrities – well, it’s one of those wrongs that I will never believe is supposed to be ignored in this life. If Rob Bell is guilty of distorting truth and leading people to hell, then so is SGM. Bell’s road to perdition is paved with what is preached. SGM’s road has been paved with twisted practices that render what is preached meaningless for far too many.

After a lifetime of considering myself “essentially Reformed,” and after so many years of respecting the guys who dare to “stand for something” and confront those who deviate from the clear teachings of scripture, I have found myself blown away by the way these same men have responded to concerns about CJ and SGM.

There are multitudes of stories online from people who have all experienced the exact same pattern of authoritarian abuse. But – according to these great Reformed Big Dog defenders – all those people are “just bitter” and “need to forgive.” The problem is with THEM and their anonymity or something. The problem simply can’t be with the jacked-up church system that CJ Mahaney created and sustained. Because CJ likes to quote Spurgeon! And CJ has been vetted as holding to the right checklist of beliefs!

And now there are pages and pages of internal documents online that (to me, anyway) prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that SGM has a completely flawed system of accountability for its leaders…a system that totally lends itself to this sort of authoritarian abuse…and that the men at the top of the organization will stop at nothing to protect and promote their “movement” – even to the point of tolerating total hypocrisy from their celebrity guru founder.

But again, the problem simply CAN’T be with the jacked-up church system that CJ Mahaney created and sustained. The problem must be with Brent Detwiler!  And those pesky “attack blogs.”  CJ himself can’t be a big part of the problem…because CJ likes to quote Spurgeon! And CJ has been vetted as holding to the right checklist of beliefs!

I’m starting to think that SGM’s move to the Reformed camp was brilliant in that SGM gained so many biblically and intellectually credible allies who utterly refuse to look beyond the checklist and the love of Spurgeon. Say the right words, and you can systematically abuse and disenfranchise anyone you deem expendible. And a chorus of internet “contenders for the faith” will back you up – simply because you say the right stuff and share the stage with other guys who say the right stuff.

Quote Spurgeon and get a free pass!

(On the other hand, did anyone else who actually read through Brent Detwiler’s documents find it rather sad and pathetic to see the letters from all the “Charismatic celebrities” whom Larry Tomczak sought out to vouch for him in his conflict with CJ? I actually sort of chuckled ruefully when I thought about how today’s Reformed types would sneer at the backing of the likes of Rick Joyner and Mike Bickle.)

If SGM Survivors were instead Rob Bell Survivors or even Rick Warren Purpose-Driven Survivors, these same internet contenders would be in a foaming lather to dissect Brent’s documents and find all the ways that CJ is messed up. But since CJ talks their talk, they are quick to leap to his defense…quick to do everything to discredit and discount Brent Detwiler…quick to find fault with anything and everything said on sites like SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge.

No wonder CJ wanted so badly to “go Reformed,” to the point where he and his cronies threatened to blackmail his non-Reformed cofounder into remaining silent about the doctrinal shift. It was the perfect move to ensure that the organization’s abuses would never be taken seriously by the outside Christian world. People who share about what happened to them? Bitter! Need to forgive! Don’t have a biblical understanding of submission to leaders! Don’t have a biblical understanding of the role of church discipline! Don’t have a biblical understanding of wifely submission! Don’t have a biblical understanding of the doctrines of sin!

Because, the guys accused of these abuses can’t be wrong. They say the right stuff. They espouse the right doctrines. So the victims’ doctrines must be wrong.

And doctrine is all that matters to these folks. If a practice twists the doctrine and renders it meaningless, well – no problem. They don’t care about that.

I almost think that these Reformed Big Dogs are doing exactly what I did while I was in the midst of my “hyper-Charismatic” mindset – they are simply filtering everything through the grid of what they know of Reformed theology and giving CJ and SGM the benefit of the doubt.

Like I said, it’s a good thing that I know what I believe and in Whom I believe, or I would be feeling very much like losing heart right about now. The men I’d so admired as “contenders for biblical truth” aren’t really that worried about the “truth” part – just their own ideas about what’s biblical.

I think I’m still “essentially Reformed.” But I no longer have any idea who speaks for what that even means.

© 2011, Kris. All rights reserved.