Dear SGM Defender, part 2

December 3, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Awhile back, I wrote a post entitled Dear SGM Defender.  In that post – which was a sort of generic response to the folks who write me to tell me that the SGM survivors who post here don’t know what they’re talking about – I offered up some thoughts as to why one individual might be having a great time in his Sovereign Grace Ministries church, while another individual may have had a terrible time.  Today I have another such topic to address.

Dear SGM Defender,

In your email, you said that I should “stop being a coward” and contact C.J. Mahaney or any of a number of other SGM leaders, so that I could hear what they have to say about what people have shared here on this site.  You seem fairly confident that if I go to your leaders, they will have answers for the trail of people that have been hurt by SGM because of the organization’s authoritarian ways.  They will have explanations.  They will convey to me a higher understanding of what so many former members have described, and if I just “go to them” and listen to their explanations, then somehow, everything will be different.

Of all the things that mystify me about Sovereign Grace Ministries, I’d say that the cluster of assumptions behind your suggestion is at the top of my “Most Mind-Boggling” list.

I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve been asked (told) to contact SGM pastors/leaders when I either express disagreement with their teachings or permit readers to share their experiences with these men’s bad behavior.  And what strikes me is that such a suggestion (“Just ask my SGM pastors/leaders to explain everything!”) presupposes a couple of things.  One, of course, is that the pastor/leader is truly open to hearing stuff that could easily be construed as “negative.”  Another is that the pastor/leader will be completely above-board and without guile in whatever he says.

And lastly, entering into a dialog with a particular SGM pastor/leader presupposes that the pastor/leader has some sort of authority over the situation or teaching.  (Otherwise, why would we care what he has to say about it?)

I get the feeling that some SGMers simply don’t comprehend that those of us on the outside of SGM don’t believe in or trust SGM pastors/leaders the way that they do.  For one thing, I don’t believe that many of these men are truly open to dissent or disagreement.  Sure, they may SAY they are, and they may have recently been told to put on a “new openness” and now work a little harder to appear as though they’re actually listening to complaints.  But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and unless things change significantly to reflect that the area of concern has truly been addressed, then all that “new openness” is pretty meaningless.

Another thing:  I don’t particularly believe that many SGM pastors/leaders will be completely open and without guile when dealing with their dissenters.  For some of them, this is unintentional, merely the product of what they’ve been taught about how leaders behave.  For some of them, though, to dissemble and deceive is quite deliberate.  I’ve said this time and again, but I will repeat myself – I think it’s the height of naïveté to believe that you can count on the full and unvarnished truth from someone whom you suspect of dishonesty, simply because you ask him whether he’s telling the truth.  I’m sorry, but such thinking is simply STUPID.  If you have reason to believe that a person is being less than fully forthcoming with you, WHY would you think that the person is then going to turn around and be honest about his dishonesty? 

Deceptive people aren’t gonna suddenly own up to their deceptiveness, just because one of their parishioners comes up and asks them about it!  Duh!  If you have reason to believe that someone is dishonest and/or manipulative, then chances are they will attempt to manipulate and deceive you when you confront them about it –  ESPECIALLY when you confront them about it.  Most of ‘em will not cave and fold like cheap lawn chairs and fully confess all, just because a member “brings an observation” to them.  If anything, dishonest manipulators will merely ramp up their dishonesty and deception to another level.  They will clean up the things that got you to suspect them – they will deal with the symptoms – but they will not actually address the real problems behind those symptoms.

And, like I said, some of these leaders/teachers don’t even fully grasp what they’re doing.  They’ve been so indoctrinated and well-trained that they actually believe this is how ministry should be done – that THEY are “the authorities,” and it is their members’ duty to simply put up and shut up.

But yeah…

What I’m trying to get at is that I have no interest in anything that the leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries would want to communicate about the things I’ve observed or that others have shared.  It’s not anything against these leaders personally.  It’s just that what the SGM defenders don’t seem to understand is that especially to those of us on the outside of SGM, what the leaders have to say holds no special authority over us.

Moreover, the opinions of those in leadership are no more valid than the opinions that we ourselves form about an issue through our own observations, through what our own eyes and ears (and guts) tell us.  To believe otherwise is to embrace certain presuppositions that I think would be false.

So no, I will NOT be ringing up Corporate Headquarters in Gaithersburg anytime soon.  They’re free to read here and learn whatever they can from what people have shared.  They’re CERTAINLY free to turn from their previous bad behavior and faulty teachings and treat their members with respect, as true brothers and sisters in the Lord.  They can implement changes – they don’t need to dialog with me to do that!

And I don’t need to dialog with them to discern what my own eyes and ears and logic tell me.

You know what else?  Neither do you.  Stop this foolishness of looking to your leaders to tell you what to think.  Start thinking for yourself.



Red Flags

November 28, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

[Kris says:  I found the following list on a site called Provender.] 

Red Flags

No one ever wakes up one day and says, “Hey, you know?  I think I’ll shame and abuse the flock today,” or “I think I’ll become a cult leader.”  Instead, gradual changes take place, usually involving the lure of power that slowly takes hold.

If you study spiritual abuse, you can get a feel for how this happens:  despite differing manifestations of abuse in churches, there are common denominators.  Several sources cited on this site point out the following traits and show just how it is a church can move from a healthy body to a dangerous one.

1.  Elitism:  We’re more special

One common finding in cults and spiritually abusive groups is something called “elitism.”  It’s a feeling that your vision for the church is superior to that of others.  Though all churches, and most leaders, feel that they are on the right path, that their doctrines or practices are what God wants, that alone isn’t elitism.  Elitism happens when you look at other churches or individuals and believe that your vision or your practices are among the very few that really please God.  It is comparative.  It is a superiority complex.  This initial pride and puffing up – that can begin so very subtly — ends up justifying any abusive behavior that follows.

2.  Information control:  Don’t trust the members

Another common denominator in cults and abusive groups is something called milieu control.  It is an attempt to control information available to members.  This may start out as an innocent desire not to have heretical teachings invade the body.  But this control becomes deadly in abusive groups.  Before long, only those things approved by church leaders, and only material that portrays the church or leaders in a good light are allowed. Information is censored.  Everything must go through the hands or control of the leader to make sure it is “appropriate,” “healthy” or “not divisive.”  This can lead to tight control of information and eventually isolation from society at large, as certain information is deemed unholy or worldly and forbidden from members’ hands.

Anything the leadership wants you to believe is allowed and anything harmful to the image of the church, no matter how accurate or useful, is kept from members.  In some cults, only certain translations of the Bible are allowed.  In others, only “correct” interpretations of scripture are tolerated. In some groups any information not originating from the headquarters is deemed unsafe.  How does this start?  How does this control over others’ lives and minds begin?

With a desire to control – perhaps at first a healthy desire to keep doctrine pure – that gets out of hand.  Sometimes it begins as a shortcut to keep hassles from members to a minimum.  Innocent beginnings, but they can lead to tragic endings.

3.  Image, image, image

Milieu Control is strongly related to another red flag: Image Consciousness.  Abusive churches are concerned about image.  Sometimes, image is everything.  This church has a vision superior to other churches.  To preserve that lofty status, anything negative must be quashed immediately, even if it is true.  If a leader is caught in sin, the sin is quickly swept under the rug.  If many members have left, no one is allowed to talk about it.  The church “represents Christ to the community” and you can’t let the public know that the church has a problem or people will think Christ does.  This is COMMON practice in abusive churches and is close to idolatry, equating the church, or church leaders, to Christ himself.

4.  Shame, flattery and manipulation

Image Consciousness, in many abusive churches, leads to harsh treatment and manipulation of members.  To keep negative information from leaking out of the body, members are sometimes shamed or spoken against — sometimes from the pulpit.  Ministries are whisked away from those who begin to ask questions, and ministries are used as rewards to “loyal” members who know how to keep quiet about the misdeeds of leaders, or who prove useful through slavish work or flattery of leaders.  And in abusive groups, flattery goes both ways.  Leaders know how to flatter and how to shame to keep the image of the church polished and gleaming.

5.  Authoritarianism:  I’m in control; you shut up

Another red flag is authoritarianism, the concentration of power in the hands of a few or sometimes even one person.  That power can start out used well.  The maxim “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” is especially true in churches.  It corrupts leaders in different ways.

6.  Two kinds of corruption

Some are lured by the financial aspects of power and begin to lavish on themselves gifts and luxuries.  How does this happen?  Possibly, these once godly leaders have sacrificed much over the course of their lives while watching other Christians live luxuriant lives.  When the church begins to do well, they see this as a sign that it’s “their turn now,” that they deserve some blessings because they have served so long and so hard for very little.  Soon, that feeling of dessert takes over and they feel entitled to more and more.  Eventually some may even feel they deserve other men’s wives or multiple wives.

More dangerous, though, than leaders who fall to hedonistic ways are those who believe that because their vision for the church is direct from God that God’s mind and their mind are becoming fused.  They soon begin to see their own actions as God’s.  Anyone who opposes them is opposing God.  When this happens, watch out.  They won’t phrase it that way.  They may not even realize what they are doing.  They feel they have a special place as God’s best spokesperson.  Because they are so special, they will steamroll over anyone in their way.  Because they are anointed, they soon feel they have a role in rooting out imperfections among lesser Christians.

7.  Excellence, or legalism?

These leaders can become more than just haughty; they can become harsh and demanding.  They look down on others around them and puff themselves up, all the while stressing the need for humility.  They begin to practice a perfectionism that kills.  It won’t be called perfectionism.  It might be called “striving for excellence” or “pursuing a holy life” or “giving God His due.”  It becomes legalism and it drains the life out of individuals and churches, as members try harder and harder to meet standards that become out-of-reach.  While members are whipping themselves for failing to perform, the preaching will be on grace.  While members are burdened and shackled to legalistic aims, the sermons will be on freedom.  But members are not feeling free or forgiven.  They are loaded down with guilt and work and feelings of failure.

8.  Calling concern “divisiveness”

Another red flag is a false call to unity.  When authoritarian pastors want to quell dissention, they label even legitimate questions “divisive.”  You are interfering with the unity of the brethren if you raise issues of concern.  This tactic ensures a lockstep, zombie-like following and cements the cult leader or abusive pastor into his place at the top.  Who wants to be divisive?  Who wants to cause trouble?  Who wants to be spreading heresy or harboring a critical spirit or injecting division?  (These are common phrases used against those expressing concerns about abusive leadership and serve as giant, fluttering red flags.)  Most humble, sincere Christians concerned about wayward leadership will be cowed by such tactics.  The abuses of the leader will continue unchecked.

9.  When people slink out

The final red flag in this short overview is the telltale indication of trouble signaled by people leaving a congregation.  If spiritual abuse is taking place, you might not catch on right away.  People in manipulative groups will have been warned – subtly or otherwise – not to talk about church problems.  They will be called weak or gossipers or immature if they mention why someone left.  Those who leave also may suffer residual effects of controlling mechanisms in the church and say little about why they left.

If you notice an exodus of people from a congregation, it’s a sign to dig further and check for other signs of spiritual abuse.

These are just some of the roots of spiritual sickness to watch for in your congregation, but they seem the most common.

“Normal,” And SGM…

November 19, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Yesterday, a reader (“The Missus”) took me to task for saying that “normal” Christianity is different from the Christianity practiced by most people who are members of Sovereign Grace Ministries churches.  Her comment got me to thinking – maybe it’d be interesting to list the ways that SGMers’ practice of the Christian faith is different from that of other churches. These are just the first “oddities” or “abnormalities” that popped into my head. They are listed in no order of importance.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  please note, I am NOT saying that these things in and of themselves are necessarily WRONG.  They’re just odd.   Of course, when you put a bunch of oddities together, it does make for a picture that raises a lot of questions.

So here we go.  Again – in no particular order:


  1. “Normal” Christians do not view the planting of more of their own denomination’s churches as “missions.”
  2. Consequently, “normal” Christians would think it quite odd to be asked to take a career setback or lose money on real estate or uproot their families in order to participate in such a church plant, particularly if said church plant were in a location that was already saturated with good Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming churches.
  3. “Normal” Christians are more focused on Jesus than they are on their church organization.
  4. “Normal” Christians refer to Jesus primarily as “Jesus” and not as “The Savior.”  Listen to any sound file of any SGM pastor, and you will typically hear very little mention of Jesus by His name.  Instead, you will hear Him referred to primarily by one of His roles.  (Again – this isn’t necessarily WRONG…but I believe it has a lot of implications.)
  5. “Normal” Christians do not claim to be “Reformed” while at the same time believe that there are modern-day “apostles.”
  6. “Normal” Christians would not accept it if their church leaders decided to change longstanding leaders’ titles to something more politically correct without some sort of explanation to (or better yet, some sort of input from) the people.  (And yes, I’m referring to the term “apostle,” which SGM has apparently decided is not Reformed Big Dog-friendly enough.  Or something.  Maybe CJ realized that God does not actually speak directly to him these days?  I don’t know.  But those guys at the top aren’t “apostles” any more.  Go figure.)
  7. In “normal” Christianity, it would be really odd to be able to travel across the country, attend another church from your denomination, and know that you will be doing everything in basically the exact same way that you would in your home church, even down to the strange little “intermission” between the worship time and the sermon.
  8. Oops.  In “normal” Christianity, when the pastor gets up to talk on a Sunday morning, what he says is typically called a “sermon.”  In SGM, that word is deliberately avoided, so that what the pastor says is called a “teaching.” Or “message,” if someone is slipping a little in his SGMese.
  9. Likewise, in “normal” Christianity, when a congregation shows up at church on Sunday, that is called a “service,” as in “church service.”  In SGM, it is called a “meeting.”  More to the point – it’s called a “mee-Ting,” with a peculiar accent given to the “t,” so as to sound precisely like the way that CJ pronounces the word.  Sometimes this Sunday time is also referred to as a “gathering.”  But almost never a “church service.”
  10. Along those same lines, in “normal” Christianity, it is typical for your pastor to speak like all the other pastors that live in the region where he was born and raised.  In SGM, however, no matter where you attend your SGM church, you can bet that your pastor will sound exactly like CJ Mahaney in his accent and enunciation, no matter where he might have been born and raised.  Likewise, your pastor will mimic CJ’s presentation style, with strange rushes of words tumbling out, followed by cackling at his own jokes, followed by frequent unpredictable dramatic pauses.
  11. In “normal” Christianity, the phrase “governed by a plurality of elders” typically means that a church makes major decisions through “elders” – men who in some way are representatives of the rest of the congregation.  The implication is typically that these men are selected through some sort of voting or nomination process.  In SGM Christianity, this phrase actually means “governed by paid staff pastors or other men who were privately selected by the paid staff pastors.”
  12. In “normal” Christianity, commonly accepted Christian terms (see “elder” above, in #11) are not redefined to mean something else in order to cloud outsiders’ perceptions of what is really going on.
  13. In “normal” Christianity, people are not afraid to express their honest opinions of what their pastors do.  Sometimes what they think will be positive. Sometimes it won’t be. But there’s no fear of recrimination for expression of one’s honest thoughts and opinions.
  14. In “normal” Christianity, one will – just like Jesus Himself did – have people who are closer to one, more intimate with one, and then others who are not so close, not so intimate.  In “normal” Christianity, the intimate friends are the ones with the freedom to offer one correction or to “make observations” about things that one might need to work on or change.  It is NOT normal, in “normal” Christianity, for one to strip oneself emotionally and spiritually naked around any and all other church members, just because they’re members of the same church.  It is NOT normal, in “normal Christianity,” to approach someone not in your intimate circle and offer that person “observations” or correction.
  15. In “normal” Christianity, being “Charismatic” is defined as actively teaching and actively and openly pursuing the more “dramatic” gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues.  In SGM Christianity, however, “Charismatic” seems to mean whatever SGM has decided won’t offend the Reformed Big Dogs.  In SGM, speaking in tongues, for example, is not actively taught against, of course, but it is also no longer taught as something to be pursued or practiced openly.
  16. In “normal” Christianity, people do not automatically read whatever their leaders are reading.  In fact, people typically won’t know what their leaders are reading and really won’t care.
  17. And that brings up another thing.  In “normal” Christianity, one would not feel odd to openly cart around a “non-approved” book in front of one’s leaders…because in “normal” Christianity, there is no such thing as an UNAPPROVED book!
  18. In “normal” Christianity, church leaders have a basic faith in the Holy Spirit’s working in their members’ lives and therefore don’t feel the need to micro-manage what their members read and think.
  19. In “normal” Christianity, members think for themselves.  They do not automatically look to their pastors for the final word on an issue.
  20. In “normal” Christianity, humility is seen and not heard.
  21. In “normal” Christianity, small-group Bible studies are encouraged, rather than tightly controlled or outright discouraged.
  22. In “normal” Christianity, the “serving” part of one’s Christian life may or may not have to do specifically with one’s church.  In SGM Christianity, “serving” is nearly ALWAYS about how one helps out in one’s church.
  23. In “normal” Christianity, singing songs like Friend of God would not be considered “theoligically incorrect” (and therefore not permitted).
  24. In “normal” Christianity, people are not so automatically defensive about their particular denominational leaders and practices.
  25. In “normal” Christianity, one is not discouraged by one’s church leaders from moving to a town not serviced by a church from one’s denomination family of churches.
  26. In “normal” Christianity, an organization that functions precisely like a denomination wouldn’t be so crazed about avoiding the term “denomination.”
  27. In “normal” Christianity, pastors are not taught to distrust the mental health profession.  In “normal” Christianity, church members are not taught that their pastors are supposed to function as their only source of “reliable” counsel no matter what the problem might be.  In “normal” Christianity, a pastor wouldn’t dream of trying to help a church member manage his or her psychiatric medications, such as anti-depressants.  In “normal” Christianity, there is not an automatic bias against such medications. 
  28. In “normal” Christianity, pastors will typically obtain undergraduate degrees and then go on to spend years in seminary.  In SGM Christianity, pastors receive 9 months of training at SGM’s so-called Pastors College.  No undergraduate degree is required.  Theoretically, it’s possible for a man – particularly if he is the son of someone in SGM leadership – to end up a Sovereign Grace pastor with no education other than a homeschool diploma and those 9 months of Pastors College.  Then he could be unleashed to “watch over your soul,” weighing in on your personal problems – large or small – and even perhaps helping you to manage your use of psychiatric prescription drugs like anti-depressants.
  29. In “normal” Christianity, a man would not train men to be the primary watchdogs of their daughters’ modesty.  Instead, such detailed and potentially embarrassing teachings would be given to women by a woman, so that mothers could help their daughters in this department.  In “normal” Christianity, men would not so eagerly blame a woman’s female form for his lust issues.  “Normal” men do not consider seatbelts or purse straps to be particularly kinky or lust-inducing.
  30. In “normal” Christianity, one is not asked, as a condition for church membership, to sign away one’s right to expect confidentiality in pastoral counseling situations.  As stated before, in “normal” Christianity, one’s pastors are not one’s ONLY source of counseling in the first place, as is the case in SGM.  But to add insult to injury, in SGM, not only are members taught that non-church-approved counseling is suspect – members are also then made to understand that their pastors are free to share whatever they wish with anyone whom they deem to be “part of the problem or part of the solution.”  This is NOT normal in “normal” Christianity.
  31. In “normal” Christianity, a church’s history would not be revised to make it seem like one of the denomination family of churches’ founders had never existed.
  32. Along those same lines, in “normal” Christianity, the departure of such a key founder would be addressed and explained openly and fully – and not vaguely – so that no mystery would linger for over a decade.
  33. In “normal” Christianity, if one ponders leaving one’s church, one’s first reaction is not FEAR.
  34. Similarly, in “normal” Christianity, if one decides that one needs to leave one’s church, one does NOT need an “exit strategy” in order to avoid being talked about, disciplined, black-listed, or otherwise made to feel bad.
  35. In “normal” Christianity, pastors would never consider attempting to make church discipline extend beyond the doors of their own churches.  “Normal” pastors would not expect other churches to abide by their recommendations and refuse communion or membership to their former members.  “Normal” pastors would never consider phoning a former member’s new pastor to tattle on the former member.  In “normal” Christianity, such a move would be considered gossip.
  36. In “normal” Christianity, one would not be placed under such binding and frightening church discipline for non-provable “sins of the heart” like pride.  Rather, in “normal” Christianity, church discipline is reserved for clear and documentable sins such as ongoing adultery.
  37. In “normal” Christianity, one is free to explain why one left one’s church without being accused of gossip or slander.
  38. And in “normal” Christianity, one does not fear losing all one’s lifelong friendships simply because one has chosen to attend another church.
  39. In “normal” Christianity, there is not a set of unspoken rules that govern what is REALLY considered acceptable (and necessary, if one has dreams of someday being in leadership).
  40. In “normal” Christianity, a single verse of scripture read at the beginning of a teaching, followed by 45 minutes of a pastor’s thoughts on that particular verse, is NOT considered “expository” preaching.
  41. In “normal” Christianity, members can hold leaders accountable to the congregations they serve.
  42. In “normal” Christianity, even denominational presidents are held accountable…and by people who don’t work FOR THEM.
  43. In “normal” Christianity, complaints about church structure and church polity are not handled as “Matthew 18” issues.  Objections to a church’s governance decisions and governance structure are not always turned into private personal grievances.  The focus in “normal” churches is first and foremost on fixing the structural problem, rather than on silencing those calling attention to the structural problem.
  44. In “normal” Christianity, children of a certain age – usually 8 or older – are welcomed to participate in the sacraments.  “Normal” churches do not deny such children baptism.  “Normal” churches do not require extensive (yet nonetheless arbitrary) “proof” of the “genuineness” of a young person’s salvation in order to permit the young person to be baptized.  In “normal” churches, kids’ normal childish mistakes and missteps (and yes, even kids’ SINS) are not seen as “proof” that these kids are NOT believers.  In “normal” churches, children are allowed to believe they are still saved, even if they may not demonstrate all the “measurable” Christian character and attributes that their elders would like to see from them.
  45. In “normal” Christianity, members do not fuse their continuing participation in a particular church with the perseverance of their Christianity.
     Here are some random reader contributions: 
  46. In “normal” Christianity, a man and woman who are not married to each other can still talk to one another without it being an affair.
  47. In “normal” Christianity, abuse victims are shown compassion and care…not abandonment and disgrace while perpetrators are celebrated and protected.
  48. In “normal” Christianity, deceitful, dishonest pastors are dealt with biblically, not covered and protected.
  49. In “normal” Christianity, caring pastors clear the “busy” schedules to care for those they have offended….as opposed to the classic SGM….wait till next month when we can fit you in mentality…..maybe.
  50. In “normal” Christianity, blogging is not the only way for members’ concerns and questions to be addressed.

I’m thinking this list could go on for far longer, but in this post, at least, we’ll stop at FIFTY ways that SGM deviates from “normal” Christianity.  If you can think of others, feel free to submit them in comments below.