Mystery Solved?

May 29, 2012 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

I have a confession to make:  I’ve been a fan (and regular reader) of the Pyromaniacs blog almost since its inception several years ago.  The site’s contributors – Frank Turk, Phil Johnson, Dan Phillips, and someone using the handle “Pecadillo” – have written much that I have found helpful.  I’ve always appreciated their willingness to stand on and for the authority of the Bible and to make every effort to let Scripture shape their positions.

My fandom is why I’ve long held out hope that if the Pyro guys could just get an inkling of the crazy dysfunction that has tainted Sovereign Grace Ministries under C.J. Mahaney’s leadership, they’d direct toward SGM some of the same righteous indignation they’ve beamed at the likes of the “Elephant Room” dudes.  Or, to put it another way, they’d at least quit acting like SGM were just another Reformed denomination…and quit giving SGM their implied endorsement every time they write excitedly about some conference where C.J. makes an appearance on stage.

I know I’m just a lowly woman, but I have tried.  At least a few times over the past four years, I’ve emailed Mr. Johnson.  Initially I explained the story of how we happened to start this site, and the craziness that resulted when we soon began to realize that SGM had a lot more troubles beneath the surface than mere “cultural oddities.”  In one of our last exchanges, I even attempted to explain to Mr. Johnson how SGM has redefined key words and concepts, so that although the Pyro guys may think they and C.J. Mahaney are all on the same doctrinal team, the SGM leaders have added many layers of SGM-cultural-specific meaning to the notions of (for instance) grace, the pre-eminance of the “local church,” and the necessity of participation in SGM-style small groups in order to experience sanctification (which, in SGMville, is absolutely essential “proof” or validation of one’s salvation…thus making SGM-style small groups practically a requirement, ultimately, for one’s salvation).

To his credit, Mr. Johnson did reply to me.  A good portion of his email was essentially a rebuke for blogging about SGM’s issues and providing this forum.  But he did respond.  And he never quite shut the door on my hopes that someday, he and his co-bloggers would come to a clearer understanding of the way SGM took Charismatic beliefs about present-day apostles, mixed those with 1970s cultic shepherding practices, and then over the years blended all of that with neo-Reformed ideas about pastoral authority to create a whole different animal, a whole different sort of denomination…er, family-of-churches.  I thought maybe someday, if those guys could just open their minds a little, they’d finally figure out how SGM has used and abused their own Reformed doctrines in order to shore up the SGM organization’s credibility and provide scriptural support for the systematic spiritual abuse of a lot of people.

Of course, the topics of C.J. Mahaney’s problems and SGM’s dysfunction were always off limits in the comments sections of Team Pyro’s posts.  But I still thought that maybe they’d hear from someone who would be able to metaphorically help them yank their fingers out of their ears and force them to stop loudly singing, “La la la la la la!” anytime someone tried to get them to understand that SGM is not a “normal” run-of-the-mill Bible-believing church organization.

I always held out hope, but that hope has grown dim over the years, especially after my last exchange with Mr. Johnson sort of fizzled out.  So you can probably imagine my surprise when Mr. Turk put up a post a couple of weeks ago – on a Saturday, oddly enough, when the Pyro guys almost never blog on weekends – that finally permitted people to talk about SGM’s issues.

To say I thought it was a strangely unbalanced discussion would be an understatement.  For one thing, Team Pyro’s contributor-in-training, Tom Chantry, was on hand to function as de facto moderator and SGM cheerleader/defender, vigorously attempting to argue with anyone who tried to explain SGM’s problems.  When the (de facto) moderator works so hard to dispute and refute anything said for one side of an argument while letting just about anything for the other side stand, unremarked, would indicate a stacked deck.  So, too, would Mr. Turk’s ground rules, which declared just about anything having to do with Brent Detwiler’s allegations against C.J. (as recounted n the Ambassadors of Reconciliation report) as off limits, along with other restrictions.

But what was most interesting was how fast and loose the Team Pyro guys played with the definitions of what constituted “slander.”  I did not participate in the discussion there that day, but I did watch in amazement as several comments – from people sharing their own personal firsthand experiences with their SGM churches and pastors – were deleted.

How was this possible?  Why in the world would Mr. Turk begrudgingly open up space on his team’s blog to have a discussion about a topic…and then refuse to really engage in anything related to the topic, unless it met some arbitrary standard of already-public information?

What was the point?

Why even go through the motions of pretending to be open to the possibility that SGM has problems, if you’re not willing to permit readers to talk about the problems they have experienced firsthand?

This all seemed sort of nonsensical to me.  I didn’t understand it.

So I was grateful for reader/commenter “That Bad Dog’s” explanation.  Here it is:

One of the issues that came up repeatedly with the Pyro post was the persistent deletion of first-hand accounts of abuse. Why, they ask, would my story be deleted, when this is something that, you know, actually happened, which I know about, because I was there? This they think, because they make the error of acting like a rational being, not having been schooled in modern Reformed ecclesiology.

In daily life we regularly accept first-hand accounts of events — life would not even be possible without it. Our court system so highly values the first-hand account that it is the only kind of account that is normally admissible, and then we allow the jury to determine if they believe some, all, or none of the testimony presented.

This method is highly objectionable to modern Reformed leaders, and a doctrine has been promulgated that I call “Pastoral Immunity.” It is based on 1Tim 5:19, Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. There is an interpretation of the verse that is now so common as to be uncontroversial in Reformed circles. For example, I found this statement of the doctrine readily accessible on the Founders (SBC) site.

Pastors are protected against a charge that is brought by a single individual. Paul is not simply saying that a pastor cannot be indicted and convicted based upon the testimony of one. He is saying that if there is only the testimony of one person, that testimony is to be thrown out of court. It is not be entertained or heard.

It does not take a genius to see how this verse can be wielded as a deadly weapon in the hands an authoritarian, abusive elder.

[The following story is not fictional, but is composited]

Let’s imagine you are a member of FBC Authorityville. You grow concerned about statements or actions made by Pastor Bigpants. You arrange to meet privately with Pastor Bigpants. During your meeting, Pastor Bigpants comes completely unglued, accuses you of a number of outrageous sins, and threatens to “expose you” for various imagined sins before the church if you don’t submit to him. In fact, Pastor Bigpants even pulls a gun out of his desk and waves it menacingly.

What to do? Do you go to the police? The other elders? The congregation? Your spouse? No. According the Reformed doctrine of Pastoral Immunity, there is absolutely nothing you can or should do (except pray, I suppose). You cannot tell anyone, because you are the only witness. It doesn’t matter that it actually happened — that is, that you are making a factually true and accurate record of events that you are willing to swear took place.

I cannot emphasize this enough, so here it is in bold — under this doctrine, a factual, first-hand adverse record of events is morally indistinguishable from malicious and intentional lies.

It gets worse.

Several people have said that people who give first-hand, public accounts of what happened to them were to be faulted for “failing to follow Matt 18.” This is a particularly cruel twist of the knife, because according to the doctrine of Pastoral Immunity, you are barred from seeking redress through Matt 18, and in fact are yourself guilty of sin if you attempt it.

Once again, this is non-controversial amongst today’s Reformed. Here is the Founders site again:

…not only is this accusation not to be acted upon, it is not even to be received. Rather, 1 Timothy 5:19 ought to be cited and the accuser ought to be asked if he or she has another witness to substantiate the accusation. If not, we are not to receive it. The Scripture tells us not to even listen to or entertain an accusation that is unsubstantiated. If it cannot be substantiated, you and I must not participate in the sin of the accuser by listening to it.

Do you see how this works? As long as the abusive pastor engages in his behavior privately, there is literally no limit on what he can do or say, and there is an absolute limit on what you can do or say about it. If you attempt to follow Matt 18 by bringing two witnesses to accompany you in your confrontation, not only are they not to accompany you, but rather, you yourself are to be reproved for your sin. Moreover, people like Team Pyro believe that they are morally obligated under these terms to “not participate in the sin of the accuser by listening to it” by providing a forum for its discussion, or allowing such accounts to be posted. That is why they delete all negative first-hand accounts.

And it still gets worse.

This multiple witness immunity is reserved for church leadership. You don’t get any. Let me explain by returning to our story.

Pastor Bigpants realizes he may have gone too far, and decides to get out in front of the issue. He goes to the other elders and says that during your private meeting, it was actually you who became angry and violent. You are called before the elders and confronted. No substantiating witness is required of the charges against you, because you are not a church leader. Furthermore, your disaffection is already proven — after all, didn’t you request a meeting with Pastor Bigpants to “complain about his ministry”?

Worst of all, you cannot even contradict the accusations made by Pastor Bigpants, because to do so would be — de facto — to accuse a church leader of telling lies, and therefore would require multiple witnesses, which is what you don’t have. And so, in the Kafka-esque world of modern Reformed ecclesiology, just denying the false accusations made against you by an elder makes you guilty of malicious slander.

Well, what do you think?  Is “That Bad Dog” right?

Is the mystery of the Reformed blogging world’s persistent turning of their collective blind eye to SGM’s problems solved?

© 2012, Kris. All rights reserved.