Challies Tells People How To “Think Biblically” About Sovereign Grace Ministries

March 1, 2013 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Yesterday, blogger Tim Challies published a post in which he discussed what he believes is the “biblical way to think” about the legal and organizational problems Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J. Mahaney are facing these days.   While I was glad to see that Mr. Challies was finally acknowledging SGM’s issues, I wished he would have done a lot more to own up to his own deep prejudices against anyone who dares find fault with SGM…and how those prejudices probably don’t make him the best person to be instructing others on how to “think biblically” about SGM.

First of all, Mr. Challies had this to say about his own connections to C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries:

Before I begin, it may be useful for me to explain the nature of my relationship with C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries, though there is actually very little to explain. I recall meeting Mahaney only one time and for no more than two or three minutes. To my knowledge we have never corresponded by email or any other media. He and I have never shared a speaking platform and I have never spoken at a SGM event (though I did liveblog a couple of them several years ago). All this to say that I write as an outside observer rather than as a personal friend and write this article primarily for the benefit of other outside observers.

While I do not question Mr. Challies’ technical truthfulness in this statement, I don’t think he’s acknowledging the full scope of what a great promoter of C.J., SGM, and SGM-related materials he has been.  Over at the Boar’s Head Tavern, contributer Brian Auten posted the following:

The part that *really* rankled me regarding Tim’s post was his caveat re: his “relationship” with CJM and SGM.

I’d argue — and have already argued in the past with Tim himself — that this isn’t the proper measuring stick for his “relationship” with CJM and SGM.

The proper measuring stick looks something like this (and this is just a quick review I did a while back, running “Mahaney” through the advance search feature on Tim’s blog — 26 pages of hits, this is just from pages 21-26 in date order) –

  • 13 June 2005 (Review of Piper’s Sex and the Supremacy of God — 1st he’d read of Mahaney)
  • 21 July 2005 (Jamming to Songs for the Cross Centered Life) – referred to how he’d been meaning to read Cross Centered Life for a long, long time
  • 22 July 2005 (Greatest Sinner I Know)
  • 25 July 2005 (review of Songs for the Cross Centered Life)
  • 12 August 2005 (review of Mahaney’s Sex, Romance and the Glory of God)
  • 2 November 2005 (Covergence — mentions Mahaney @ MacArthur’s church)
  • 21 November 2005 (A Desperate Jealousy)
  • 2 December 2005 (Link to review of Mahaney’s book on Humility)
  • 5 December 2005 (9th Commandment)
  • 6 December 2005 (highlighting Solo Femininity — SGM’s Carolyn McCulley)
  • 9 December 2005 (Sam Waldron part 2 – reference to Mahaney in MacArthur’s church)
  • 12 December 2005 (Link to Josh Harris re: biblical advice for blogosphere and emphasizing that Harris may soon write on his mentoring relationship with Mahaney)
  • 15 December 2005 (highlighting Bob Kauflin’s blogs for music)
  • 22 December 2005 (Warnock interview of Harris on Mahaney mentorship)
  • 22 December 2005 (Thursday Ramblings – highlights In the World but not of the World SGM audio series)
  • 20 February 2006 (link to Mahaney re: reading/study habits of Dever, Mohler, etc.)
  • 28 March 2006 (link to Mahaney’s interview of T4G guys re: serious threats to the gospel)
  • 29 March 2006 (link to Girl Talk – “a book well worth reading for mothers and daughters”)
  • 20 April 2006 (link to Mahaney’s article re: a plan for reading and study)
  • 3 May 2006 (Link to Harris letter re: his friend, hero and mentor, CJ Mahaney)
  • 13 June 2006 (link to Mahaney’s Deliberate Complementarian Pastors)
  • 9 August 2006 (WorshipGod06 — highlighting SGM as “never known more caring, humble people”)
  • 16 February 2007 — Friday Ramblings (Resolved Conference, included Mahaney)
  • 18 February 2007 — Resolved Conference V (session by Mahaney)
  • 26 May 2007 — New Attitude II
  • 27 May 2007 — New Attitude III (talked with Joshua Harris)
  • 28 May 2007 — New Attitude IX
  • 3 July 2007 — (Link to Shopping for Time)
  • 13 March 2008 (post re: traveling to Ligonier Ministries – Mahaney mentioned)
  • 8 April 2008 (link to CJ/Carolyn Mahaney re: when husbands are criticized)
  • 15 May 2008 (link to Mahaney’s posts on modesty and chance to pre-order his new book)
  • 15 May 2008 (link to SGM’s Carolyn McCulley in Ethiopia)
  • 9 June 2008 (highlighting Mahaney’s book list)
  • 30 October 2008 (Free copy of worldliness for your pastor)
  • 13 November 2008 (quote from Mahaney re: Busyness)
  • 3 September 2009 (link to free Kindle version for Carolyn Mahaney and daughters’ Shopping for Time)

In his 2005 post on Desperate Jealousy, for example, he wrote “[Joshua] Harris had his mentor in Mahaney, and I couldn’t think of too many guys who would do a better job of it. There isn’t much I wouldn’t give to have that type of relationship with a man like Mahaney.”

Like I said, I’m glad Tim Challies is finally writing about something SGM-related that is not all sunshine and roses.  For me, his frequent mentions of SGM over the years hold a special personal significance, as his seeming endorsements of C.J. and SGM were one of the main reasons Guy and I stuck it out for as long as we did at our own SGM church.  I’d had such respect for Challies’ discernment about other matters that even after we’d noticed a lot of little things that seemed odd or “off” at our SGM church, I kept telling myself that we must just be crazy – that if Challies thinks SGM is good, then it must be good.

After we started this site and I became aware of all the stories of spiritual abuse, I even wrote to Tim Challies, confident that if he just knew what was going on, he’d use some of his powers of discernment to take a closer look at SGM.  While he was nice enough to answer to my email, his response was just a couple of noncommittal sentences.  Yet as you can see from the Boar’s Head list above, he continued to write very positively about SGM while apparently ignoring anything that might be cause for concern.  Because I remained a Challies fan, I wrote him again on at least two other occasions over the ensuing 3 or 4 years, to no avail.

In the meantime, some of C.J.’s ministry cohorts wrote promotional blurbs for Challies’ book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.  If you go to Amazon.com and search for The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, you can click on the “Look Inside” button and view the back cover, where some of Challies’ celebrity-preacher endorsers’ blurbs appear.  It’s interesting to note the names there.  Of the five, three are C.J. cronies who have forcefully gone on the record defending C.J.:  Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and Mark Dever.  And Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Don Whitney wrote an introduction inside the front cover.  Go to the Index of the book, and you can see that C.J. Mahaney even has his own listing, apparently having been referenced (in a positive way, I’m guessing) on pages 95-96 and 159.

So what am I trying to say with all of this?

Well, while – as I’ve said – I think it’s a good thing Challies finally wrote something that actually mentioned SGM’s problems, it seems to me he is far from the neutral commentator he wants his readers to think he is.  The disclaimer about his lack of a personal relationship with C.J. is something of a smokescreen.  Does it really matter whether or not he is best buds with C.J., if he still has a plethora of other things motivating him to continue to “believe the best” about SGM and not do anything to tick off C.J.’s defenders – the very same guys who endorsed Challies’ books?

Tim Challies needs to take a more objective look at the possibility that he does indeed have a lot riding on having SGM and CJ remain worthy of all the admiration he has sent their way.  I posted the following as a comment in the previous discussion:

Forget about how great Challies is, or how awesome a Christian he is, what a good pastor he might be, or how much integrity he has.  He is human like all the rest of us.  A redeemed human, but — if the theology he promotes is correct — a fallen human nonetheless, one who still might face temptations just like everyone else.  Instead, think about what you yourself would think and feel if you’d written a book that had so many connections to the tight little circle of men who continue to endorse and support CJ.  Think of what you’d do if, in fact, you’d even quoted CJ to support a point or two that you’d made in your book.

Under those circumstances, what would you be most prone to do, when it came to any scandal having to do with CJ and SGM?

Wouldn’t you tend to be extremely reluctant to say anything that might make waves with the guys who had endorsed your book?  Wouldn’t you try to avoid offending them?  Wouldn’t you want to continue to believe that the guy you’d quoted in your book was worthy of being quoted and not actually, at the very time you were quoting him, doing his level best to avoid being held accountable by one of his top henchmen?  Wouldn’t you hate to think that maybe this guy had even stood by idly while the system he created spiritually abused and spit out people?

It’s not easy to get a publishing deal.  It’s no small feat to sell a significant number of books in the Christian community.  It’s impressive to get the big names like Mohler and Duncan to write blurbs for the back of your book.

If you’re a normal human, you’re going to be very inclined to do whatever it takes to preserve relationships with those men rather than alienate them.

I am sick of people acting like writing books and blogging and even being in the ministry somehow make guys immune to the same temptations that befall all the rest of us.  If I were Tim Challies, I’d be extremely motivated to “believe the best” about SGM and CJ.

Tim Challies believes and is trying to teach others that his advice – to withhold judgment, to learn as little as possible about the situation (only what you “need to know”), to give just as much credence to the silence of the accused as you do to the accounts of the accusers’ abuse – is “thinking biblically.”  I believe it’s another kind of thinking, wishful thinking borne out of a convluted mix of wanting to preserve certain beneficial reciprocal relationships and the all-too-human desire of wanting to be right about his long-held beliefs.

After all, how ironic would it be if the guy who literally “wrote the book” on discernment had to acknowledge that he spent years resolutely refusing to discern dysfunction and evil, pressing on in his blind admiration for a particular man and his ministry?

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If you’re interested in further analysis of Tim Challies’ defense of SGM, check out How [Not To] Respond to Abuse Allegations: Christians and Sovereign Grace Ministries by Rachel Held Evans.

© 2013, Kris. All rights reserved.