‘Serious’ Charges versus Popular Pastor
April 8, 2011
by Peter Smith
C.J. Mahaney, one of the leaders of the resurgence in Calvinism among some conservative evangelicals, is taking a leave of absence from his ministry due to unspecific but serious charges, he and his board have announced.
Mahaney has been president of the Maryland-based Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting network that says it has 97 churches here and abroad. They are mainly clustered on the East Coast — none in Kentucky or Indiana — with others scattered throughout the country and abroad. But his influence extends beyond that church, as he is a popular author and speaker. He was one of the main speakers at a Together for the Gospel convention that drew thousands of attendees last year to the Kentucky International Convention Center. He appeared on a program that included Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Minnesota pastor John Piper and other A-list speakers from the New Calvinist movement, which promotes beliefs in such things as in male authority in churches and homes, the divine direction of events rather than human free will, and church discipline of its members.
On that last point, Mahaney and Sovereign Grace have long taken heat for what critics say is excessive and abusive church discipline. (See here and here.) The reasons for Mahaney’s leave aren’t spelled out.
A Sovereign Grace board statement said:
“The charges against C.J. are serious, but his response has been one of self-examination and, when possible, specific confession to those sinned against. However, given the numerous events, people, and perspectives involved, the work of an independent panel will be vital to fully examining these charges and arriving at an objective conclusion, especially on those charges with which the board does not agree.”
Mahaney issued his own lengthy statement here.
“These charges are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn’t minimize their serious nature, which include various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.”
“I believe God is kindly disciplining me through this. I believe I have by the grace of God perceived a degree of my sin, and I have been grieved by my sin and its effects on others. I have had the opportunity to confess my sin to some of those affected in various ways by my sin.”
Louisville Seminary President Albert Mohler Backs Mahaney
Dismisses Claims of Abusive Leadership
July 12, 2011
by Peter Smith
Seminary president Albert Mohler is forcefully defending C.J. Mahaney, a Maryland pastor and popular author who has taken a leave of absence over allegations of spiritually abusive and dictatorial practices in church network he leads.
C.J. Mahaney, longtime president of the Sovereign Grace Ministries, has acknowledged the accuracy of some of the charges against him, including failing to be held to accountable by others in his church network and using coercive tactics in a dispute with an estranged colleague with whom he has since reconciled.
“I always have had only the highest estimation of C.J. Mahaney as a man and a minister,” Mohler said in an interview — his first public comments on the situation involving Mahaney, one of his fellow leaders in the Reformed, neo-Calvinist movement. “That continues absolutely unchanged. There is nothing in this current situation which would leave me to have even the slightest pause of confidence in him.”
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has worked closely with Mahaney for years as leaders of a revival of teaching on Calvinist theology,male authority and church discipline among some conservative evangelicals.
Mohler said he believes Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace board are being prudent in planning an independent investigation from people outside the denomination to make sure those involved are above reproach.
But Mohler has already drawn his own conclusions.
He based that on hundreds of pages leaked to the Internet last week, detailing correspondence between Mahaney, his main accuser and former colleague, Brent Detwiler, and other Sovereign Grace leaders.
“There is nothing disqualifying in terms of anything that is disclosed in this,” said Mohler, who regularly speaks on programs along with Mahaney. “It’s just evidence we knew all along, that C.J. is human but a deeply committed Christian and a visionary Christian leader.”
Sovereign Grace itself is taking a more cautious approach. A statement from its board called the allegations “serious.”
“These charges are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn’t minimize their serious nature, which include various expressions of pride, unentreatability (inability to accept correction), deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy,” the board said. (One reader last week wondered how the board was defining “immorality” in light of that catalogue of sins.)
And in a Sunday sermon, Mahaney’s successor as pastor of the denomination’s flagship congregation, Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., refused to downplay them.
“We are walking through what is without any exaggeration the most difficult challenge that we’ve faced as a church,” said the pastor, Joshua Harris.
Harris called his former mentor a “father in the faith to many of us” but that Mahaney had “confessed to some of these sins” while disagreeing with others.
“It is as bad as it seems, and it is the fault of your leaders, and we desperately need the help of God and the wisdom and the accountability of the people who have looked to our leadership to sort through this mess,” he said.
In his own statements, Mahaney said that “God is disciplining me for my sin and leadership failures and I am very grateful for this discipline.”
“I was difficult to entreat,” he told the Covenant Life congregation Sunday night. “I sinfully judged their motives. I was arrogantly confident in my perception.”
Mahaney has been in ministry since the 1970s, when the one-time drug enthusiast was converted to Christianity through the hippie-friendly Jesus Movement, according to the 2008 book, “Young Restless, Reformed,” by Collin Hansen.
The bald-headed Mahaney captures audiences with his earnestly enunciated phrases and a broad circumference of gestures. His popular books include one titled, “Humility: True Greatness.”
The Maryland-based Sovereign Grace network has a network of 97 churches in the United States and abroad, many on the East Coast, known for their unusual combination of Reformed theology and a history of Pentecostal-like spiritual gifts such as divine prophecy. None of its congregations are listed in Kentucky and Indiana, although Mahaney has spoken to enthusiastic crowds in Louisville this February at Southern Seminary and last year at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
Mahaney’s leave follows years of once-secret deliberations among its leaders. The dialogue reflects a specialized vocabulary of a culture within Sovereign Grace of relentless scrutiny of one’s own sins and those of other members.
Detwiler, who resigned from his positions in the Sovereign Grace movement in 2009 after years of conflict with Mahaney, had documented the conflict in more than 600 pages of emails between him, Mahaney and other movement leaders. He included hundreds of footnotes, fastidiously parsing others’ words and phrases.as inaccurate or reflecting incomplete repentance.
Detwiler recently circulated them among all Sovereign Grace pastors, and someone posted them anonymously online last week under the label, “sgmwikileaks.”
Harris confirmed the correspondence was authentic, that much was accurate but that some allegations remain in dispute.
Detwiler charged Mahaney with dishonesty, “spiritual abuse and manipulation,” dismissing critics as embittered and failing to accept the harsh correction he doled out on others. For example, Detwiler said he failed to confess sins publicly and described general vices he was guilty of — without naming specifics or those he may have hurt through them. Detwiler said he did forgive Mahaney for areas in which he felt his repentance was genuine but felt justified in seeking vindication for things Detwiler feels falsely accused of.
For example, Detwiler said Mahaney’s scathing review of his job performance were unfair and had a major role in Detwiler’s ultimate departure from the North Carolina church he led and were harmful to his family. Mahaney disputes this.
Mohler said he saw no reason for Mahaney to take a leave from other leadership positions.
Mohler, Mahaney and two other ministers share leadership of the group Together for the Gospel, which has brought thousands of mostly young pastors and other attendees to conferences such as one held last year at the Kentucky International Convention Center. They are also on the board of a similar group, the Gospel Coalition, according to the group’s Web site.
“I assume he would retain every position in leadership,” Mohler said. “I expect he should be very quickly returned to leadership of Sovereign Grace.”
Mohler contended that Detwiler has “an obvious vendetta” against Mahaney and attributed the document dump on the Internet to him.
UPDATE: Detwiler said in comments via email this morning:
“I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mohler. He is a remarkable man and done incalculable good in Southern Baptist circles and the Body of Christ at large. People everywhere should listen to his radio broadcasts and read his published materials. I am sure his friendship and support is a great source of comfort to C.J. during this challenging time.”
“…Sovereign Grace Ministries has been a wonderful organization committed to planting Gospel-centered churches in the United States and parts abroad. There are many outstanding pastors and people in the denomination. But temptation and sin come with rapid growth and recognition. That was especially true for C.J. and we did not serve him well by allowing him to play by a different set of rules – a double standard. We certainly share the blame for his fall. But C.J. genuinely loves the Lord and people so I am confident he will respond to God’s discipline in his life.
Detwiler also said he did not post the materials on the Internet but has become aware of the person who did. Mohler’s characterization of his motive as a vendetta, he said, “constitutes an uncharitable judgment but one I understand given his close relationship with C.J. He is defending his friend and that is admirable.”
UPDATE: Mahaney rotated off the board of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in December, which is housed at Southern Seminary and promotes male authority in churches and homes. He is listed on the site as vice-chairman, as an earlier version of this post noted, but the council has not updated its Web site, said Randy Stinson, the council president and a seminary dean. Stinson said the rotation was routine and unrelated to the circumstances of Mahaney’s leave from Sovereign Grace.
The Sovereign Grace network is separate from the Southern Baptist Convention, the affiliate of Southern Seminary, but Mohler praised Mahaney’s group as “one of the most vital movements of church planting and evangelism and church development in this generation.”
Mohler added: “Any time you’re going to take on the role of leadership, you’re going to have critics.”
Mohler also supported Sovereign Grace’s highly centralized leadership structure in its churches, with “very strong pastoral direction” and internal discipline.
“It’s something clearly called for in the New Testament,” he said.
Mohler said he knew this practice has had online critics for years.
“Basically there are people who are very uncomfortable with the strong kind of spiritual direction that comes through the Sovereign Grace Ministries,” Mohler said. “It’s very hard to criticize it on biblical terms, as you’ll see on most of those Web sites. It basically comes down to the criticism, ‘I don’t like that.’”
Many of those attending the conferences led by Mohler, Mahaney and others are young pastors and others described by Hansen’s book title as “Young Restless, Reformed.” They often are marked by goatees, shaved heads and/or cargo shorts and by their earnest focus on the doctrines of the 16th century Protestant Reformer John Calvin and those influenced by him, from Puritan devotional poetry to the 19th century sermons of Charles Spurgeon.
The Sovereign Grace Ministries name, in fact, echoes Calvin’s emphasis on God’s power (sovereignty) and favor (grace) rather than human works in achieving salvation. Calvinist thought predominates at Southern Seminary, and a denominational survey found nearly 30 percent of recent graduates from all Southern Baptist seminaries who are now serving as pastors identified with Calvinism.
The movement also emphasizes church discipline and male authority.
The Together for the Gospel conference at the convention center last year drew a mostly young, mostly male crowd of several thousand from around the nation and abroad, eagerly soaking up teachings and free books. They lined up between sessions to have their pictures taken with Mahaney and other prominent speakers, such as Mohler and Minnesota pastor John Piper.
Sovereign Grace Ministries Board or Directors:
Mahaney Fit to Preach, Faced ‘Slander’
July 13, 2011
by Peter Smith
There are some new turns in the saga involving C.J. Mahaney, the leader of a Maryland-based global church network.
As noted last week, Mahaney took a leave of absence as president of the network, Sovereign Grace Ministries, pending accusations of pride, hypocrisy, deceit and other sins.
The Sovereign Grace board now says it will continue a planned investigation, but it gave a strong vote of confidence to Mahaney, saying he is “a qualified minister of the gospel and this board approves his pastoral and teaching ministry.” It plans to convene a temporary panel to give a preliminary evaluation of this assessment while also having a longer-term outside investigation. The board statement is here.
The Sovereign Grace board also said Mahaney’s main accuser, former longtime ministry colleague Brent Detwiler, engaged in “public slander” of Mahaney’s reputation by distributing his accusations broadly to all pastors in the network. It said that move denied Mahaney the chance to defend himself through due process.
Detwiler said in a statement he “worked extremely hard to only include factual information that could be substantiated by primary source material” and has repeatedly asked SGM leaders — with whom he had been corresponding for several months before this went public — to correct any factual discrepancies. “They have not done so,” he said. His full statement is here.
Mahaney has strong ties to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and was among the main speakers at a conference last year that drew 7,000 people to the Kentucky International Convention Center.
Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler — who works with Mahaney in various organizations — gave a similarly strong vote of confidence in Mahaney earlier this week.
Sovereign Grace has nearly 100 churches, mostly on the East Coast but also in other locations nationally and worldwide.
Mahaney Protégé Josh Harris Parts from Board
July 14, 2011
by Peter Smith
Things keep churning in the Sovereign Grace Ministries saga.
Joshua Harris — whose book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” — has influenced the courtship practices of many conservative evangelicals beyond that Maryland-based denomination — has now bid farewell to its board.
Harris succeeded the embattled C.J. Mahaney as pastor of the denomination’s flagship church in Maryland. He and the Sovereign Grace board issued a joint statement saying Harris’ departure from the board was a mutual decision.
This comes a day after the board issued a statement declaring Mahaney fit for preaching even while he’s on a leave of absence as president of Sovereign Grace. That statement called Mahaney’s main accuser guilty of “public slander” for widely distributing his charges against Mahaney of “pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.”
Harris’ name was conspicuously absent from that statement. Harris, who was mentored by Mahaney, has taken a far different tone, calling the crisis “as bad as it seems” and a sign of systematic troubles in the denomination.
Mahaney is a leader in the revival of Calvinism among some conservative evangelicals, a movement particularly strong at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He and seminary president Albert Mohler, who continues to support Mahaney, often speak at the same conferences and serve on the same boards. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace have each contributed at least $100,000 to the seminary, according to its publications.
Embattled Pastor C.J. Mahaney Linked to Southern Baptist Seminary
July 18, 2011
By Peter Smith
The student audience listened with rapt attention at the February chapel service at Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as their speaker slowly and emotionally enunciated his words, gesturing broadly as he warned against "the temptation to be puffed up."
Pride "is the harsh reality of remaining sin in our lives," said C.J. Mahaney, the leader of a Maryland-based network of churches called Sovereign Grace Ministries, as well as a financial backer of the seminary and a close ally of its president, Albert Mohler.
But even as Mahaney spoke, a crisis was brewing in his ministry over precisely the vice he spoke so passionately against.
For months a former ministry colleague had been writing to church leaders, accusing Mahaney himself of pride, dictatorial conduct and "spiritual abuse" by doling out harsh criticism he was unwilling to receive himself.
"C.J. you must come to grips with the lack of honesty in your life," wrote the minister, Brent Detwiler, a former North Carolina pastor who resigned from the Sovereign Grace movement in 2009.
The crisis erupted last week, when Mahaney took a leave of absence as president of Sovereign Grace.
The charges "are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn't minimize their serious nature," the Sovereign Grace board said in a July 7 statement. They include allegations of "pride, ... deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy," the board said.
Mahaney himself said in a statement he disagreed with some of the specifics of Detwiler's charges but that "God is disciplining me for my sin and leadership failures."
Sovereign Grace Ministries has nearly 100 churches worldwide, predominantly on the East Coast and none in Kentucky or Indiana.
While Sovereign Grace says it plans an independent investigation, Mohler is dismissing the charges against Mahaney.
"I always have had only the highest estimation of C.J. Mahaney as a man and a minister," he said in an interview, adding that the documents show Mahaney "is human but a deeply committed Christian."
Sovereign Grace Ministries Moves Its Headquarters Amid Controversy and Conflict
April 20th, 2012
by Peter Smith
A small, growing denomination that has faced internal conflicts in recent months is moving its headquarters from Maryland to Louisville.
Sovereign Grace Ministries announced that it plans to launch its first Kentucky church and tighten its already strong bonds with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Sovereign Grace — based in Gaithersburg, Md. — is a three-decade-old network of more than 90 churches worldwide and about 28,000 members.
Sovereign Grace officials said they are moving to take advantage of Louisville’s lower costs of living and overhead compared with suburban Washington, D.C., and so its pastor-training program could collaborate more closely with Southern Seminary.
The announcement also comes amid increased tensions between Sovereign Grace and its flagship congregation, Covenant Life Church, where its headquarters is located.
That tension has been part of wider conflicts within Sovereign Grace that emerged in public view last summer with the release of internal church documents from a former church official, accusing its president, C.J. Mahaney, of pride, dictatorial conduct and doling out harsh criticism he was unwilling to receive himself.
Mahaney took a leave of several months while the Sovereign Grace board reviewed the case. It declared him fit for ministry and restored him to the presidency earlier this year.
The relocation announcement comes just two days after an independent panel — brought in to review the conflicts — faulted the group for an overemphasis on sin and a lack of emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness.
The report also cited an often-arbitrary system of discipline that left many pastors and lay people feeling wounded, while those at the top lacked outside accountability.
While it currently has no churches in Kentucky or Indiana, Sovereign Grace and Mahaney have close ties with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace have each donated at least $100,000 to the seminary, according to the school’s publications.
Ambassadors of Reconciliation Report Calls for Reforms Within Sovereign Grace Ministries
April 20th, 2012
by Peter Smith
As noted in today’s story on the decision of Sovereign Grace Ministries to move its headquarters to Louisville from Maryland, the announcement comes in the same week as the release of a report calling for reforms, among other things, in how the denomination handles the discipline of members and leaders.
The report, following months of public conflict within Sovereign Grace, described a systemic preoccupation with sin to the neglect of a message of grace and forgiveness. It also said internal discipline was carried out in an inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary way, marginalizing some lay people and pastors while those at the top lacked outside accountability.
Church leaders pledged to follow recommendations for reforms in the report, which also credited Sovereign Grace for improvements in recent years in its teachings and practices.
The report on the Sovereign Grace Ministries — which has long had connections to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville — also faulted bloggers who for years have brought to light allegations of abusive leadership in the denomination. It called them forums for backbiters and the embittered while also saying this “in no way exonerates the leaders who failed their people.”
And the report said many people interviewed said they cherished their experience in the denomination, making it difficult to draw sweeping conclusions either positive or negative about Sovereign Grace.
The report came from Ambassadors of Reconciliation, a Lutheran group specializing in conflict mediation that was brought in as outside evaluators of denomination. It said its evaluation of Sovereign Grace over the past several months exposed a “shocking” level of fist-clenched anger among estranged and former members, with some showing deep distrust of both the church leadership and the mediators themselves.
Sovereign Grace is a three-decade-old network of more than 90 churches and about 28,000 members — small by denominational standards but growing when many are declining. Its president, C.J. Mahaney, has been popular as a preacher and author within New Calvinist circles; the church board restored him to the presidency earlier this year after a leave of several months, declaring him fit for ministry after it reviewed accusations from former colleagues of prideful and abusive leadership. Debates continue within and outside the church over its response.
The Ambassadors of Reconciliation report lauded Sovereign Grace for a culture of church planting, a commitment to prayer and thankfulness, strong small-group networks and an emphasis on humility.
However, some members showed they were “proud of their … humility,” and former members felt “hurt, anger and bitterness” when they were disciplined and shunned by the close friends they developed in their small groups, the report said.
Here are some excerpts from the report:
“Many described the extent at which small groups would hold one another accountable by scrutinizing each other’s lives according to the Doctrine of Sin. A number of people noted how this had helped them or others grow deeply in their understanding of Scripture and their personal faith.
“Some who were critical of SGM (including those still in SGM churches) described how small group leaders or pastors or SGM leaders worked to ‘drill down’ (an actual quote) to the root causes of people’s sins. Some described being examined by their leader (in various levels) for several hours. Although seen as a blessing or strength by many, others saw an abusive side of the practice of this teaching when it had the affect of beating people down or unfairly scrutinizing them.
“… This over-emphasis of the teaching about sin without the balance of God’s grace leads people to be judgmental, critical, and at times despondent.”
The Ambassadors of Reconciliation report itself made no recommendations on disciplining any individuals for these problems, saying each denomination has to conduct its own discipline based on its own theology.
The Ambassadors of Reconciliation, which interviewed or took written comments from scores of current and former members, cited at least 28 cases of pastors being ousted or resigning amid disagreements. The report said some ousters were justified but that church discipline was inconsistent and appeared arbitrary.
It said leaders were disciplined because of their children’s misbehavior and that people were afraid of publicly challenging leaders for fear of retribution — while Mahaney and the denomination board members kept affirming each other in a system that lacked outside accountability and had a built-in conflict of interest.
The report said:
“There is no doubt in our minds … that a number of people have experienced deep hurts and disappointments in SGM churches. The passage of time does not invalidate these hurts. We encourage the leaders of SGM to acknowledge these hurts and past offenses, express sorrow for them, and explain how leadership has and is responding to overcome past weaknesses.
“At the same time, we are also aware that many thousands of people have been and continue to be richly blessed by their involvement in a SGM church, and there is much evidence to indicate that there are many leaders and churches that provide loving, caring, and encouraging support and teaching. … Moreover, we … believe that SGM has made improvements over recent years.
“… If you think that the implementation of the above recommendations seems like a huge undertaking, you are right. Living for God in a sinful world, especially when serving him in ministry, is always difficult and challenging and requires sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). But your perseverance will not be in vain, even if you cannot actually see the results you personally want. God does not call us to be responsible for the results of our work for him, but he does call us to be faithful.”