Re: Sovereign Grace Ministries
Date: August 22, 2012 11:05PM
“When my husband pointed me to the SGM Survivor’s blog, I was dismayed, alarmed, and yet comforted by the many similar stories being told about the controlling spirit of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Somehow, after eleven years of being away from them, I had come to hope that things had changed for the better. It seems they have changed for the worse.”
“For a period of about two months, I began missing church meetings. My husband began to notice that I was growing in grace. When I’d go to a meeting, I would stumble into the old fears and expectations. He began to see that I did better spiritually when I was away from Sovereign Grace Ministries. That began to puzzle and intrigue him.
“Though it is hard to speak of, I want others out there under authoritarian church rule to see how different their lives can be when they recover their freedom in Christ.”
When I met my ex-pastor and his wife, I was very young, only eighteen. I was also a new believer. I came from a broken family. I was raised under a form of legalism, where outward appearance was very important. I was, unknowingly, a prime candidate for the type of practice that became prevalent in “church” – namely, a little grace mixed with alot of rules and expectations. The very night I was baptized and walking in waves of love from the Lord, a brother told me not to get use to those feelings. It was now time for the hard work to begin. I came crashing down from the great heights of communion with God. So, church wasn’t going to be any different from the way I grew up. Well, at least it was familiar. I’d fit right in.
The pastor and wife that I met began a church in someone’s basement. This was back in the late 70′s when non-denominations were a new thing. The leaders and members were young. With youth comes exuberance and pride. Somehow, the zeal for God kept our prideful moments in check. We were committed to living a New Testament life, building a community of believers who would reach out to the lost. Our focus soon drifted from Jesus to building His church. We were eventually adopted by a group known at the time as People of Destiny International (later became Sovereign Grace Ministries), led by a very enthusiastic Christian man, Larry Tomzcak. This was around 1983, I think. Everything changed after that.
An “apostle” was invited to take charge of our little church. The two elders, men we loved and trusted, were asked to step down. They soon left. Care groups were reorganized. Our pastor had to step down temporarily, to be proven by this apostle, who took over everything. A church split followed, as well as church discipline of a few people who did not submit to the new “authority”.
I was married the following year, and my husband and I began our family. A very lonely, dry time followed. It was as though I had been put off into a dessert. My prideful, youthful days were disappearing under the reality of giving myself to my family. It was good for me, yet very lonely.
Over the years, our church began to change. Our pastor was re-established. Teaching became more about doctrine than Jesus. Grace was preached for the first time, but hardly mentioned again. We were definitely under church rule. A hierarchy was established. Leaders became exclusive. My family moved into a neighborhood next to my husband’s good friend from college and his family. They were in leadership. Before our move, they told us that living near them didn’t mean we could be their best friends, as they had relationships to invest in with leadership. This wasn’t to be the last time we heard this sort of thing.
The pastor’s time was spent more and more on people being molded for entrance into leadership. Our leaders became a part of a hierarchy where, if you needed a pastor’s help, you had to go through your care group leader first. Pastors became more isolated from the little guys. They were busy investing their time in the people whom they felt were called to leadership. These people were the ones who showed the most submission, had their family life (at least on the surface) in order, and were tried and tested in loyalty to the upper leaders. Somehow, this made me believe that the only way God would truly be pleased with my husband and myself was if we became CG leaders some day. This meant man-pleasing, which I was very good at, due to my upbringing. There was also fear that we not step outside of the “umbrella of protection” established by our church. If only I had known then that this was mere superstition, as were some of the other practices in church.
Eventually, my husband was asked to lead a care group, although he was warned that a chance was being taken on him. I now realize that it wasn’t a matter of whether he was mature enough in Christ, as much as how loyal he was to leadership – this was the chance being taken. Funny, after we began leading a homegroup, it wasn’t like I imagined. There were people who needed care, but my love was just too small. I didn’t know how to support my husband.
Then, the Lord spoke to my husband about becoming part of a new church plant down south. When he mentioned it to me, I was horrified. Leave our church, our friends? I had never been anywhere else. These were our people. I hardly knew anyone going on the church plant. I had no faith for this.
We went to a conference put together for People of Destiny International churches. During worship one night, I told the Lord I’d be willing to follow my husband anywhere. The Lord suddenly filled me with faith to go on the church plant. It was complete. I never looked back. So amazing.
Well, our pastor was against us moving. He made it clear that he had plans for us. We told him that we had to obey God’s word to us. He was not supportive, but did not try to stand in our way. We left without a church goodbye. The only people who saw us off were a few friends. We had been a part of this group for over ten years, yet left quietly, as though we no longer existed to the pastor and his wife.
In our new home, we planted ourselves as quickly as possible. I was very insecure in my new environment. Pressure to perform became more overwhelming. Inside of myself, I could hear my heart crying out for something, but for what I did not know. I tried my hardest to meet the expectations placed on women in the church. With five young children under nine, I could never catch up on laundry, cleaning, or serving my husband. Then there were multiple “opportunities” to serve the church. We were actually signed up for different areas of service, such as children’s ministry, without being asked. Life was going in full motion, but I just kept getting much sadder, heavier, and more fearful than ever.
These are some things that I saw: PDI leaders moved from what seemed to be true humility in the Lord into a pride in their knowledge of doctrine. I saw them stop the Holy Spirit from moving amongst the people on several occasions. I saw more emphasis placed on obeying leaders rather than on walking in your own faith. Leaders became more distant. Women who had once been joyful began to look burdened. Their eyes began to show a sort of desperation. I felt that same thing all the time. Surely this isn’t all there was to knowing the Lord? Follow doctrine, tell your sins at care group, bake brownies for some function, be at every meeting (or you felt guilty), feeling guilty because you couldn’t keep up with everything expected of you…at one point our pastor even preached that we should have no junk drawers. Can you imagine a mother of five worrying about her junk drawers? I couldn’t even get the mountain of laundry done!
Now for confession: I do not blame all my dependency on leaders on the church. My heart was also to blame. I wanted a king to rule me, a man to walk my walk of faith. My ego was involved. I wanted to be the best of the best in my Christian walk. I wanted to be like the “holy men” who led us, because then I would be acceptable to God. This wrong thinking enabled my slavery to the rules of men. My need to please these leaders kept me in service to a false gospel. I won’t speak for my husband. This was my failing, completely and utterly mine.
I began to hunger for more of God. I wanted an authentic experience with Him. Church was not enough anymore. I had to have Jesus! My heart began moaning for Him, in the grip of fear and desperation. I could no longer keep up with the Sovereign Grace Ministries machine. I was always falling short. I wanted out.
Now I’m going to share an experience I don’t speak of often. If you are a cessationist, you probably want to skip this part. One morning, as I was on my knees in my room, praying desperately for more of Jesus, I had a deep experience. Suddenly, it felt like Jesus was in the room with me. He was sitting on His throne, looking down at me with great sympathy but a mighty sternness. If I could have fallen through the floor, I would have. I could tell that He knew what was in my heart. I was Pharisaical, a legalist, a person without the knowledge of grace. I began to cry and tremble. I don’t know how long we sat together. For days after, I walked around saying, “Who can stand before God?” I was totally undone. I was made to look into God’s cup of wrath, yet not made to drink. This was my Isaiah experience. Truly, who can stand before God?
This went on for about a week. One night, I was watching a “Matthew” video. I got to the end, where the actor playing Jesus looks straight into the camera and smiles a beautiful, complete smile of love and acceptance. Tears streamed down my face as I rewound over and over to see that smile. The Lord had looked at me sternly, shown me His cup of wrath, kept me from drinking of it, then smiled at me with total acceptance and love. My heart overflowed with joy. I was forgiven. Jesus paid the price. I would never suffer God’s wrath!
After my Isaiah-like experience, I began to hunger for the Lord. I read alot of Andrew Murray books. My bible became fresher to me. My friend, who was going through a similar experience, would call me and we’d talk for long periods of time. We were fellowshipping in a way I hadn’t really known before.
For a period of about two months, I began missing church meetings due to sick children. My husband began to notice that I was growing in grace. When I’d go to a meeting, I would stumble into the old fears and expectations. He began to see that I did better spiritually when I was away from Sovereign Grace Ministries. That began to puzzle and intrigue him.
A time of refreshing came to our church. Sundays would find men, women, and children going to the front of the theatre where we met, praying and weeping. My husband and oldest son were among those. Though they both found it difficult to speak of what was happening to them, my husband and son experienced definite heart changes because the Holy Spirit touched them. They, too, began to want more of Jesus.
All too soon, the senior pastor stopped the times of refreshing. When asked, our CG leader said the SP decided that it wasn’t the direction he wanted our church to go in. The Holy Spirit’s moving amongst us was no longer welcome. Now, understand that there were no abuses that I could see, just sincere people being touched by God. Still, it was not what the SP wanted to happen.
At the same time, women were going off to have their own CG meetings, and men to theirs. The first few times our little group of women met, we bonded through prayer, confession, and love. There was such beauty in the way the Lord was bringing us together. Suddenly, the freedom we experienced was taken away. We were given lists of sins to talk about at the meetings. No longer was the Holy Spirit free to move. We were put into a strangle hold. My friend and I labored over the care group questions, trying to answer honestly, but it felt so forced. It just wasn’t real. My husband became involved as he saw how stressed out I would become over going to a women’s meeting. He saw that the grace I was newly walking in was being squashed by the forced sin-digging. Our whole church was becoming like this. Every meeting was about our sin. The freedom, the love of God, the hope began to drain away. We heard hardly anything about Jesus. The focus was more and more on doctrine and the cross, our sin nature, etc. Our souls were so hungry for more of Jesus. It became apparent that there was a real problem.
We and two other couples met with the leadership. We truly loved and respected one of these men, whom we’d known for years. Imagine our surprise and dismay to find that he was defensive, impatient, and even angry because we had questions about why he stopped the Holy Spirit from moving in our church. I looked at these leaders and realized that they had no love for us. You could tell that they’d been through these kind of meetings before. They had an agenda. It turned out to be, follow their vision for the church, or go somewhere else. I knew suddenly that I was free of these false shepherds. They had no real interest in my soul, only my obedience to them. My husband felt the same way.
Of course, the SP would disagree with our point of view. We know what we saw and heard that night. It caused us to flee this church like the hounds of hell were on our heels. If we had remained, we would have lost our focus on Christ. We would have sold Him out for doctrine, church building, and sin-digging. I’m sorry, but that sort of focus just doesn’t satisfy the hungry soul.
During the years after we left, we became part of a small house church of other ex-sgmers. For three or four years, we helped each other heal. Two of the men were saved and baptized. So were some of our children. I did enter into a time of depression as the Lord re-educated me. There was so much about Him that I did not know, so many misperceptions. He was faithful to walk me through, partly because of the grace that my husband constantly showed me. It was as though all my plate spinning ceased to exist. The plates fell to the floor and shattered. The house was never clean, the laundry never finished, meals were sparse…I just couldn’t function. I questioned everything I’d been taught. Yet still, my husband patiently encouraged me, releasing me from all expectations. Through his actions, I learned the truth about God’s abundant grace. Eventually, I was able to serve my family again.
I also learned, during more difficult times, about God’s goodness. During one of my more fearful moments, I heard the Lord ask, “Don’t you believe in My goodness?” After 20 years of faithful attendance and involvement in a Sovereign Grace Ministries church, I looked up at the sky with a frown and answered the Lord. “I don’t know what that means, Lord. I don’t understand.”
So He proceeded to show me. I went through a serious health crisis that continued for about five months. During the hospital trips, Dr.’s visits, and testing, I saw the Lord meet my needs at every turn. When I was afraid, He got to the hospital before me. He put angels called nurses into my life at just the right moments. When I had to have an MRI, and was terrified of being enclosed in the machine, the Lord gave me courage. I laid down on the bed, and it was rolled into the MRI machine. The minute I got inside, the Lord was already there. He communed with me during the 25 minutes of my isolation. He spoke of me becoming like a butterfly leaving its cocoon. He made special promises to me that I still hold close to my heart.
After surgery and weeks of recovery, I began to see how the Lord had changed me. I could now say to Him, “Yes, Lord. I do believe in your goodness.”
In 2006, my husband and I, along with our five kids and multiple animals, relocated to the mountains of CO. We are beginning to know the body of Christ in this little community, though we have not committed to one church alone. We know that we are waiting for something that the Lord wants to give. I continue to walk in grace. I have learned how to love. When I fall short of love, I know where to go to get a re-filling. I trust in God’s goodness, now. I walk in the freedom that the Lord has given me, yet I do not desire to sin. I have found that the more love the Lord stirs in me for Him, the less I want to hurt Him by doing wrong. It is grace that keeps me, not passion for doctrine or unquestioning obedience to a group of leaders.
When my husband pointed me to the SGM Survivor’s blog, I was dismayed, alarmed, and yet comforted by the many similar stories being told about the controlling spirit of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Somehow, after eleven years of being away from them, I had come to hope that things had changed for the better. It seems they have changed for the worse. I am so sorry to hear that. If the leaders won’t listen after the mountain of times their wrong behavior has been addressed, then maybe the people will. It is foolish to blindly follow a group or a man without any faith of your own. It is a travesty to relinquish your freedom in Christ. He shed His blood to give you that! My husband has said that, one day, we will all stand alone before the Lord. We won’t have our pastor, our cg leader, or our accountability partner beside us. We will stand or fall based on our own faith. Before we can be a church, we must be our own, individual temples where Christ is revered. The bride that Jesus is returning for will not be a blind follower of men and traditions. He is looking for the bride who has filled her lamp with oil, is waiting expectantly, keeping fully awake until her Bridegroom comes. That is the sort of church I want to be a part of.
Sorry for the length of this post. I have to admit that it is nice to be finished. It’s not easy to go back and stir up old memories like these. However, if anyone receives ears to hear and eyes to see because of reading this, then it’s worth the effort. God’s favor and spiritual blessing be with you all.