A Great Response To Tim Challies

August 18, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Kris says:  What follows was posted on the Evangel blog over at the First Things website.  I thought Mr. Auten did an excellent job.

An Insider’s View of the SGM Controversy

[Evangel Editor’s note: The following is a guest by Brian Auten, a member of a Sovereign Grace Ministries affliliated church in Fairfax, Virginia.]

Yesterday, Tim Challies offered some thoughts about what I would argue—and he himself admitted—is a narrowly defined aspect of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ (SGM) current difficulties; that is, the question of whether Christians should condone internet whistleblowing. The issue arises because it was an internet leak of a 600+ page document compiled and annotated by Brent Detwiler, a former SGM pastor and a founder of the movement (formerly known as Gathering of Believers and People of Destiny International), which has precipitated the continued, public airing of the denomination’s woes. The document outlined in great detail, reproducing internal emails and communications, Brent’s grievances with SGM’s top leadership, most specifically with the denomination’s president, C.J. Mahaney. In early July, Mahaney took a leave of absence in the wake of Detwiler’s dissemination of his document to SGM pastors nationwide. The document was subsequently leaked to the public, but not by Detwiler.

Challies’ position on Christians and whistleblowing is firm: If the issues-in-question are interpersonal in character and cannot be resolved privately, a Christian is prohibited the whistleblowing route. It is Challies’ contention that the issues in the document are indeed “largely” interpersonal and therefore fit—and only fit—within the Matthew 18 or 1 Timothy 5 parameters for Scripturally mandated conflict resolution. Conceding that it was Brent himself who leaked the information, Challies nonetheless argues that the sheer number of SGM pastors who received the document “pretty much guaranteed” its public release. Detwiler, therefore, had no Scriptural basis for his expanded distribution of the document.

Challies would undoubtedly agree that his argument rises or falls on (a) his interpretation of the document’s content and the overall conflict as almost wholly interpersonal; and (b) that Detwiler’s wider distribution was intended to result in public release. Neither Challies nor I can have any possible insight into the latter point, save what we might be told by Detwiler himself (and Detwiler has responded to Challies at his own blog). Where I think Challies’ argument falls flat is with respect to the first assertion. The document’s content is indeed chock-full of interpersonal conflict, yet Challies knows well that it’s not merely that, else he would not have pulled his punch (using adjectives like “largely”) or insist that he would not address other “blogs that seek to expose issues in SGM.” The fact is, there is a context that Challies leaves undefined. It’s much more than interpersonal, and the Mahaney/Detwiler conflict (and the leak of Detwiler’s document) is what we would label in history or political science an “immediate proximate cause” rather than an “ultimate” cause of the denomination’s implosion.

Unlike Challies, I’m a six-plus year member of a SGM church in Fairfax, Virginia. Granted, in a family of churches that originated with the Jesus People movement in the early 1970s, six years is admittedly small potatoes. I didn’t personally experience the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s in the movement, which means that my understanding of our denomination’s history is almost wholly based on what I’ve read, heard, and inferred from interactions with others. Much—though by no means all—of my information has been derived from the stories and testimonies posted to the blogs Challies obliquely references in yesterday’s post—blogs that are made up of flawed, sinful individuals, and blogs that, by analogy, I like to compare to political exile organizations, or groups of folks who, for one reason or another, have had to flee their beloved homeland to live in a “host country.” Political exiles are notoriously rowdy, unwieldy, and volatile, yet when one combines four years of reading consistent stories at the SGM “exile” blogs with personal observations and, now, what has been publicly shared by multiple SGM pastors (including my own) over the last month and a half, it becomes clear that the denomination’s problems are not individual, but systemic. Our separatist and, at times frankly elitist, church subculture and “slippery slope” skepticism of congregational forms of church government have produced, and reinforced, poor church practices that have been detrimental to both the health of SGM congregants and the shepherds who have led them. And, as an important caveat, I would assert that these are “bent versions” of otherwise admirable and good conservative evangelical practice. Some of these systemic issues include:

(a) hesitancy about the infiltration of humanistic, “therapeutic” concepts into church counseling (including skepticism over forms of “integrative” Christian counseling) coupled with an overly strict insistence, movement-wide, on the use of “Biblical” categories for describing one’s struggles led pastors to quickly focus congregants suffering from abuse and trauma on their own sin while in the midst of their own pain;

(b) the desire to apply Biblical conflict resolution models, but with the treatment and assessment of parties in identical ways regardless of individual or family circumstances, thereby leading to the misuse and misapplication of said models in cases involving victims of abuse and trauma;

(c) legitimate concerns about liberalizing doctrinal tendencies in the wider American evangelical world, when tied to SGM’s separatist subculture and non-congregational form of church government, resulted in a squelching of congregational initiative in ministry, a marginalization of laity input in church decision-making and strategizing, a tentativeness about non-pastor-led group Bible or theology study (save those focusing on what the pastors preached on Sunday mornings), apprehension over cooperation with local churches or ministries outside of SGM, and the creation of SGM versions of nihil obstat and imprimatur; and,

(d) a concern for “pure” and “sound” doctrine, coupled with a top-down governmental system led to the establishment and promulgation of single “Biblically based” authoritative practices for secondary and tertiary issues like dating and courtship, schooling choice, parenting style and child discipline, clothing, and media consumption.

Again, it is so important to note that these practices derive from solid conservative evangelical goals; however, I believe that it is the case that, over time, the combination of SGM’s separatist subculture and its authority structure mutated these practices into something much, much less healthy.


What might all of this mean for the wider conservative evangelical crowd in the near term?

First, for pastors or elder boards who are thinking of affiliating their congregations with SGM, or who are currently in the process of church adoption, may I suggest, as a SGM member, that you pause and take some additional time to think and reflect upon what you’re hearing about us as a whole? Call or email some local SGM congregations and ask pointed questions about what you’re reading and hearing in the public domain. By moving ahead full-steam into this currently divisive situation, you may be doing the congregation you shepherd a disservice, particularly if events lead to a split or dissolution as you’re just coming in. Ditto goes for young men who are presently considering the SGM Pastors College. I’m not saying you shouldn’t come; I’m saying that if you’re planning to pastor a SGM church or plant an SGM-affiliated church, the movement—and the pastoral possibilities within it—could theoretically look very different over the near-to-medium term. The wife and children you lead need you to walk with a clear-eyed assessment of the overall situation. Again, may I suggest that you call, write, and ask more than one local SGM church your questions about the movement’s state of affairs?

Second, for those who are basing their excitement about the upcoming Together for the Gospel (T4G) 2012 conference in large part on the up-front participation of SGM personalities, I would ask that you reflect upon the fact that, while no family of churches is perfect, we have over the years portrayed ourselves and our “brand” to the wider, conservative evangelical community as if our own house was in good order, or at the very least wasn’t as messy as some others out there. Our house has not been an orderly one; shiny surfaces, perhaps, but underneath some serious, grimy build-up. We’ve not been as healthy as has been generally believed over the last 5-8 years by the young, restless, and Reformed world. I actually think it would be more appropriate, irrespective of whether our leaders are determined to be ministry qualified or not, for SGM to sit on the sidelines at T4G 2012. By all means, we should go and serve our brothers and sisters, but we should do so from behind the scenes. Let our worship music be played, but let us not—this go-around—teach from the pulpit. Of course, there won’t be a pastor or speaker at T4G who has done his job flawlessly, but in this situation, the up-front presence of denominational representatives intimates to the audience a family unity that, realistically, isn’t completely there. Other T4G luminaries—some I expect with very clear, prior knowledge of SGM’s systemic problems and some who had merely a “vibe” or “sense” that something was peculiar or amiss—should carry the teaching load this coming April.

To end, I want to emphasize that I continue to love my local SGM church. I see change afoot, and I am cautiously optimistic about how this will all shake out at the local level. In all honesty, I am less enamored, at present, of what I see coming from our denominational headquarters, as well as the public pronouncements of some of the folks more closely tied to T4G. Together with Challies, though, I hope SGM eventually does recover and is strengthened from this trial. I hope there is reconciliation between Detwiler and the SGM leadership cohort this side of the crystal sea, and I really hope that, 50 or 100 years hence, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren sit and consider SGM’s impact on their own lives and the lives of their others in their generation, their assessment does not mirror that of Shelley’s traveler in “Ozymandias,”—witnesses to only half-buried ruins surrounded by the “lone and level sands stretch[ing] far away.”

A Powerful Note To C.J. Mahaney…And A Request From A Reporter

August 16, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

A couple of days ago, someone going by the handle of “Laconic Conservative” posted the following comment.  I thought it was pretty powerful:

Dear CJ,

I wrote you a letter of thanks and encouragement 15 years ago.  You told me later that you were going to keep it along with other special letters you had received over the years to share with your children as a legacy of your life.  I certainly hope you receive and keep a copy of this letter for them to read as a comparison of my disappointment as well!

So, CJ, let’s talk man-to-man.  You wrote that your 13 year friendship with Mark far outweighs the love and care that you believe can be provided for you by those who have loved you, worshipped with you and prayed with/for you over the past 30 years?  What greater insult could you heap upon the members of Covenant Life Church than this slap in the face from the man who held us all to such a high standard of accountability?  Well, so much for your preaching about your commitment to “The Local Church”.  We now see the true weight of your commitment to CLC, your fellow church members or your own teaching.  All the while we are shaking our heads ruefully.

CLC membership does not need to decide whether you are still qualified to lead.  You disqualified yourself upon abandoning CLC for the sake of your own pride and vanity.  You are obviously too embarrassed and ashamed to face accountability, corrective adjustment and your own reality.  You should be ashamed!  Looking back, it was a good thing Carolyn’s father told you at your wedding that he trusted Jesus!  How insightfully prophetic was he?  Do you ever wonder whether your father would still be so proud of you or would he simply shake his head ruefully?

1 Timothy 5:1 reads: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers” but you abandoned CLC and now disallow those who have loved you for years from either rebuking or encouraging you!  We are the same age, and “brother”, since you will not allow us to restore you gently, we shall treat you as an unbeliever while we continue to simply shake our heads ruefully!

I am sickened to my stomach to remember the day you were preaching about Larry’s departure from SGM!  In case you have forgotten, let recreate the moment for you, (and for everyone else who happened to miss your performance).  You were fully engulfed in tears!  Between sobs you asked that the microphone be turned off so you could “speak off the record”.  Your words still ring in my heart through your sobs, “I would rather die than to do what Larry has done.”  There was no explanation from you about what Larry had done and so you left CLC members sitting in our seats thinking, “WTF?” as we wondered what happened that would make you want to die?

Oh, yuck, that memory just made me throw up in my mouth . . . but just a little!

I praise God you preached for years to place our trust in our Sovereign Lord.  Abandoning CLC has perfectly demonstrated that placing our trust in man will always result in disappointment and failure.  I praise God that He does fulfill His promises and that my wife and I have taught our children to place ALL OF OUR FAITH in Him!

3 more short things . . .

1 – Christ’s finished work was not the Cross . . . the finished work was His resurrection!  Everyone dies, but Christ’s death was meaningless unless he had overcome death!

2 – Yes, I too am a sinner, but I don’t dwell on it all the time anymore because I am a redeemed sinner.  (SEE # 1 ABOVE)

3 – I have prayed for you at length.  Please know that I forgive you just as Jesus would.  But in my failures, I won’t trust you anymore.  Thank you, CJ, once again, for demonstrating a lesson filled with so much life application.  (SEE # 1 ABOVE)

—- From “Laconic Conservative”


Secondly, I received a request yesterday from a reporter at the Washington Post.  She is interested in talking with those who are willing to go on the record, under their real names, and speak about their experiences with Sovereign Grace Ministries.  This reporter and I have exchanged several emails, and we’ve come up with the following arrangement:  if you would be willing to be interviewed, please email me, and I will forward your message on to her.

Many of you have in the past expressed wonder over the idea that the news media has not paid more attention to the SGM situation.  People have often urged me to seek out reporters and try to get them interested in the story.  Frankly – as I shared with the Washington Post person – I have always hesitated to pursue the secular media, as I think SGM’s issues are extremely nuanced.  It’s always been my concern that any story would shortsightedly hone in on SGM’s conservative, Bible-based theology as the source of all the organization’s woes and completely miss the larger story, which is that a group that espouses essentially orthodox Christian beliefs can nonetheless redefine certain key terms and use social pressures and tactics straight out of thought-reform practices to end up functioning like a cult sometimes.

But I do believe that many of you have had experiences that are newsworthy, and I would strongly encourage anyone willing to be interviewed on the record to contact me at krisATsgmsurvivorsDOTcom.

“SGMnot’s” Response

August 16, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Kris says:  What follows is “SGMnot’s” response to GS’s message from last week.

To: GS and all the pastors at Covenant Life Church

Greg, I want to thank you for taking the step to be open and post on this public blog in relation to the past mishandled sex abuse cases discussed here. You have taken a great step to reach out to the hurt, angry, and disenfranchised people who have been in the past “discarded” by various SGM churches, as well as, those who patently disagree with various aspects of SGM’s doctrine and practices. My husband, daughter and I have discussed this entire situation at length and have decided not to call you in relation to the tragedy that occurred in our family. We are no longer CLC members and we wish to move on with our lives, serving God elsewhere. This is particularly true for our daughter. However, I did want to write a response to you openly on SGMsurvivors.

Your blog post appears, on first reading, an apology of sorts, and yet it is not. A number of commenters gave you a huge benefit of the doubt on that. I had not made it known publically before that John Loftness and Gary Ricucci were the pastors involved in our sex abuse case, but you as a pastoral staff most assuredly knew that. [These were the same pastors who 6 years earlier had been involved in exCLCer’s case] Both of these men have since then been promoted within SGM ranks. JL is a Senior Pastor and on the SGM Board and GR is a “SGM Pastor”. To send an email from yourself and “on behalf of the pastors of Covenant Life Church,” while it may be heartfelt, gave the false impression that there had been some sort of conviction of wrong doing by the pastors involved in these sex abuse cases. Nowhere in this email is an actual apology of the errors in judgment by these pastors.

You desire to talk to us, saying, “I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future,” and I’m glad that you do, however, I am sure that you can read between the lines of the various sex abuse stories and the resulting blog comments from hundreds of people and figure it out. You don’t need to talk to us. I would encourage you, though, to discuss an appropriate policy for handling sex abuse cases with professionals that deal specifically with sex abuse victims.

I agree with Kris’s comment #104 on 8/12:

“I would also encourage Mr. Somerville to step outside his SGM box and look at the larger picture. As he thinks about exCLCer’s and SGMnot’s stories, he needs to realize that the harsh and hard-hearted responses of the pastors involved in those situations have much broader root causes. He needs to understand that there is a much MUCH bigger problem beneath the surface than just two (or a half-dozen or however many) badly handled cases of sexual abuse….while I believe that yes, it is important for SGM/CLC pastors to reach out to all victims of specific situations, I actually think it is just as important for these pastors to examine the trends. Examine the root causes. Examine what it is about what their organization has trained them to believe what enabled these horrific things to happen in the first place.”

I believe many of the critical bloggers and commenters in the blogosphere have clearly communicated what these root causes are and there is much to be learned from critics.

Instead of calling you privately, I would like to ask some pointed questions publically, that summarize what I believe are the crux of the pastoral mishandling of our cases. And I would like to encourage you, or better yet JL and GR, to post responses on this blog. I believe that this will help in the healing process of all those hurt and abused in the midst of these sex abuse cases:

  1. What were the reasons that CLC pastors felt they had the authority and right to interject themselves into the legal system, as it dealt with the crime of child sex abuse, and to try to negate or minimize the appropriate sentencing for those crimes by asking victims’ parents to delay or not call the police and to ask parents’ of victims to advocate for the perpetrators by letters or statements asking for leniency? (This was, particularly egregious, in regards to exCLCer’s stepfather’s crime of child molestation of her sister of approximately 4 years!)
  2. When JL counseled us “don’t call the police”, after he ALREADY had directly pastored another family in the midst of a sex abuse case and DEFINITELY knew that the law required us to do so, AND that it would be in the best interest of our daughter and other possible victims, why did he do that and has he been censored/disciplined through his employers, SRC/SGM?
  3. Why did JL instruct us to tell no one, not even our Care Group, close family, and even close friends living with us? Did they consider the privacy of the perpetrator and his family as more important than the crisis that we were going through?  Or was the secrecy because they were more concerned with the reputation of CLC than our emotional and psychological needs? In both cases, why wasn’t the embarrassment and shame of others knowing about these crimes part of the NATURAL CONSEQUENCES of committing such a crime?
  4. Were there any direct funds or donations from SGM or CLC paid for the legal fees of either perpetrator or their family during these court cases? And if so, will you make financial restitution to the victims and their families, in particular, to the children of exCLCer’s family for any psychological counseling that they have needed from the sexual molestation or the errors in judgment by the pastors handling these cases?
  5. What was the length of time between the discovery of sin, which was deemed serious enough to excommunicate a woman with 9 children and no viable source of income, whose child had recently been a victim of such a horrible, longstanding sexual molestation by a church member, and the time in which she was asked to leave? Why was there not a LONG season of longsuffering for this woman and her children? And was there any impropriety in the decision to excommunicate her, because she had dared to not agree to your counsel or so that the perp’s identity would be protected?
  6. Why was the ENTIRE church of approximately 1000 members at that time, a church supposedly built upon the practicing the “One Anothers” of scripture, not allowed the opportunity to serve and care for all these children rather than having them placed in a often-flawed, secular foster system? Thus, multiplying many times over the re-victimization of these children and destroying in the process any faith or trust that some of them had in God?!
  7. Why did JL and GR not answer the confrontive letters and emails that exCLCer sent them each year on the anniversary date of her family being thrown out of the church? How could they turn a deaf ear to her cries for justice, year after year, until finally this past summer when a male member of CLC inquired about her case? She has more heart and passion than many who call themselves Christians!!
  8. After reading our case stories and the resulting outrage online, do you as a pastoral team understand clearly what child molestation is, so that this crime will not be minimized by calling it “teenage experimentation”, or in exCLCer’s case “attraction of the woman that she was becoming” or some other excuse. And will you create a written, zero-tolerance policy that will specifically support victims and their families with follow-up counseling, as needed, AND clearly protect other possible victims in the church family as the primary goals VS. emphasizing the care, legal advocacy, and privacy of the perpetrators?

It is my hope that through this very painful discipline of the Holy Spirit that CLC and SGM, at large, are experiencing will bear fruit and bring about a deeper understanding and practice of the love of God. I believe that the failures of CLC’s pastoral team in caring for sex abuse cases have become public as part of that discipline. As the other cases posted and referred to on SGMsurvivors testify, this mishandling of sex abuse cases has been a pervasive pattern within SGM. And it is my hope that this entire family of churches will decisively deal with this grievous pattern and the underlying root causes of wrong theological emphases, and put an end to it.

In conclusion, I would urge the pastors of CLC and SGM to not discount the criticisms and opinions of people commenting on this and other related blogs. I am sure that it is very difficult to hear strong words, sometimes communicated in anger or frustration. There is much to learn from those who have passion and take the time to express their thoughts. Also, I believe that the biblical step of a clear, detailed repentance is in order from JL and GR, even though all the victims and family members appear to not want to hear it. This blog would be a good format to do that in, since some of the family members from these cases, at this time, will not set foot in a church building!

May God continue to work in each of our lives,