Context for the post above this one: Depreciating Humility

Though I wrote this post to offer some context for the one directly above, it absolutely is not meant to serve as an objective or comprehensive summary of the events to which it refers. In fact, it is a subjective telling of both my perception of those events and the story of why I’ve written about them at all. Summarizing this very complex saga fairly and briefly seems an impossible task, so consider this my explicit acknowledgement that the words to follow do not accomplish (or seek to accomplish) that task. I defer to Google to fill in the gaps for anyone interested in doing the research to be further informed.

Over the past few years, Sovereign Grace Ministries, which describes itself as a “family of churches passionate about advancing the Great Commission through church planting” and self-identifies as “evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic,” has come under heavy scrutiny. Numerous stories of sexual abuse within SGM churches have surfaced, accompanied by descriptions of a culture in which abuse was overlooked and minimized and children were not adequately protected or cared for. The details of the allegations, both of the abuse and the way children were treated by church leaders responding to the abuse, are brutal. Some criminal charges already have been filed, and there are indications that more are forthcoming. A class action suit also has been filed against SGM, two of its churches, its school, and several pastors and leaders. Some have questioned the motives of such a suit, and I will be the first to acknowledge that litigation between Christians is always complicated and unpleasant, no matter what its motives. That said, those behind the suit insist its primary goal is to bring the truth to light and prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Intertwined in this story is the personal legacy of C.J. Mahaney, the former president of SGM and founding (again former) pastor of SGM’s original and long-time anchor church (thought it recently ceased affiliation with SGM). Mahaney is named in the suit and is accused in broad and specific ways of overseeing the cycle of negligence and shame within SGM churches (including the church he pastored). Alongside the legal issues, Mahaney faces other significant and growing criticism of his personal and pastoral dealings with members of his staff and church. His long-time right-hand-man, Brent Detwiler, left SGM in 2009 and went public with very detailed descriptions of Mahaney’s behavior, and they are complicated and, on the whole, not terribly flattering. Detwiler says he attempted to address these issues privately over a long period of time, but after being ignored and manipulated, decided a public rebuke was his only recourse. How accurate his claims are is a matter of debate. Some of Mahaney’s friends and admirers insist he has acknowledged and repented in all necessary ways and that his character is sound. Yet stories corroborating and adding to Detwiler’s continue to surface, many of them painting a very different picture. In 2011, Mahaney took temporary leaves from both his church and SGM; the former became permanent, the latter did not…and then it did after all.

About a year ago, after 30 years in Maryland and with both legal and ecclesial storms brewing, SGM and Mahaney picked up and moved to Louisville. They were welcomed publicly by Al Mohler, a friend and ministry partner of Mahaney’s and the president of Louisville-based Southern Baptist Seminary. Along with some other long-time associates, Mahaney planted Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, where he is now the senior pastor. Mahaney and Mohler are two of a number of nationally known leaders of the growing cross-denominational movement of churches who are Reformed in doctrine and whose primary public banner is a return to the centrality of the true Gospel (that sentence contains several terms that beg definition, but I am summarizing). These leaders have formed alliances — Together for the Gospel (T4G) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC), among others — and they host conferences and churn out vast resources related to their collective missions. This spring, with a lawsuit pending and many unanswered questions about the other public accusations against Mahaney, he preached at Together for the Gospel’s national conference. He was not a minor presence, functioning in both in a keynote role and as a participant in multiple panels. It’s fair to say that move raised some eyebrows, even within the camp.

On May 17, a Maryland judge dismissed the civil suit because the statute of limitations had expired for several of those filing suit. In Maryland, if you are abused as a minor, you must file suit within three years of turning 18. The dismissal was not a surprise to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as a challenge to the application of the statue of limitations is actually part of their case. They argue that the statute is unreasonable since it takes years for most victims of sexual abuse to acknowledge and address what they endure — a fact completely void of controversy among those who deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. They also argue that blocking such cases from continuing based on the statute actually rewards abusers and those who protect them, since their primary goal is to prevent the abuse from being reported until it’s too late for anything to be done about it. To be clear, the court made no ruling whatsoever on the truth of any claims in the suit; it simply declined to hear the case because of the statute of limitations (and, for two other plaintiffs, because they describe their abuse as happening in an SGM church in Virginia, not Maryland). On May 28, a Motion to Reconsider was filed. If the judge rejects it, appeals to higher courts will follow. The legal part of this is a long, long way from being over.

On May 23, six days after the initial dismissal, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan, the other three founders of Together for the Gospel (Mahaney being the fourth) released a statement in support of Mahaney. When initially posted on its Facebook page (captured here), that statement read, in part:

A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C.J. Mahaney. Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals. [bolding for emphasis is mine]

Comments — most of them apparently from within the T4G camp — came quickly, almost unanimously expressing disappointment with the statement. More than one person pointed out that the second sentence I have quoted here (“No such accusation…”) simply is not true, pointing out numerous examples to the contrary. Others noted that the third sentence (“…he was charged with founding a ministry…”) read like a serious distortion of the allegations made against Mahaney by those who claim to have been abused in his church and ministry, then manipulated into not reporting the abuse and, in a number of cases, sitting with their abuser in order to “forgive” them and move on as though nothing had happened. Apparently uncomfortable with the open discussion on the statement, T4G pulled it (and all comments) down, later reposting an edited version on its main website. The two bolded sentences above were altered or removed, though the remainder of the paragraph was left in tact:

For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.

The morning after the T4G statement was released, three leaders of The Gospel Coalition released a very similar statement.

Before I continue, I want to be very clear about something: I have not met C.J. Mahaney or the men who authored those statements. I do not know their hearts, and I do not condemn them. In fact, I love them. This does not prevent me from doing whatever small thing I can do to say out loud that I believe this has been fumbled, and not only in the form of the public statements.

I believe an ethos has crept into our churches (and movements of churches) that, despite our claims to take the Bible and its authority seriously (and usually literally), has de-literalized much of what Jesus actually said. At the top of that list is His very clear description of the movements and coalitions the Gospel creates: communities where the best and brightest among us are (literally) not assumed or portrayed to be more important to Jesus or His cause than the least and where the most feeble and vulnerable are (literally) treated with particular care and celebration, never condescension.

If the teachings of Jesus are taken literally, men and women of apparent significance will search for ways to dwell among and, yes, even behind the overlooked. Precisely because what Jesus describes here runs counter to both human nature and the flow of social darwinism (alive and well in evangelical culture), it must be embraced and modeled with clarity and enthusiasm by those who lead. This is not easy; I struggle daily to figure it out and trip over the inertia of what comes naturally as often as not. But this upside down Kingdom cannot be preached with any credibility until we choose to live into its reality, and that means turning in our exemptions. I love C.J. Mahaney and the men standing with him, and I have labored without hesitation to maintain a spirit of respect and charity toward them. I simply believe they are wrong, and I believe this matters too much to the Church to not talk about it.

Whether or not all claims in the lawsuit (or the accusations leveled by Detwiler and many others) are true, I found the tone, timing, and content of these two statements to be more than a little troubling, and I wasn’t alone. T4G pulling down their statement and erasing the public response (which was almost universally civil, just not affirming) only compounded that. As you can see the in screen capture of the original T4G statement, Boz Tchividjian was one of those who commented. This was the first time I had heard of Boz, though his name caught my attention because I know of his brother, Tullian, a Presbyterian (PCA) pastor and author in Florida. I also knew that Tullian is the grandson of a 94-year old North Carolina preacher named Billy whose name might ring a bell.

To be honest, Boz’s post piqued my curiosity because I knew Tullian had some loose affiliations with some of the other leaders of this movement. I want to be clear that he was not involved in either statement and he is not, to my knowledge, officially connected to either group. I don’t intend to even passively link Tullian to the statements. I just knew he overlapped their circles some, and it was coincidence enough to cause me to pay attention to what Boz wrote.

The next day (May 24, though somehow I did not see it for a few days), Boz authored what I believe is an important response to the T4G and TGC statements: Where are the Voices? The Continued Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism. I was moved not only by Boz’s objections to the statements, but by his call to the Church to wake up and speak up. His words poked at the part of me that already was restless over what I saw unfolding. In a weird blur of gratitude and frustration, I fired off an email to Boz intended to thank him for what he wrote. I ultimately did get around to that, but only after several rambling paragraphs of my thoughts on what is happening in the Church. Unusual for me, I didn’t even bother to reread what I sent him. In fact, I couldn’t find his email address on the GRACE site, so I guessed at it, unsure if my note would ever make it to him, and hit send.

That evening, I stood in the kitchen and whined to my wife about the way this thing was eating at me. Why can’t I just move on? There’s nothing I can do about this anyway. We talked about the ever-present pastoral dilemma of rightly dividing time and attention. I expressed frustration that something like this was invading a season of deep contentment in serving among our local community. Though my love and concern for the Church universal continues to grow, in recent months I have been less distracted than ever by discerning my role, if any, in what was happening “out there.” What was happening right here — among our people and our cities — has been calling enough for me. (I even wrote about it recently.) Suddenly being so affected by something that had no obvious immediate connection to our right here was a pain. And even if this was important, what could I do about it? “Not much” seemed to be the answer. So we ate.

Two hours later, I received a reply from Boz. He thanked me for my note, said some other nice things, and asked me if I would tweak it a bit and allow him to publish it as a guest post on GRACE’s site. Honestly, I was a little shocked. I like to write, and I confess that sometimes when I write to someone I admire or would like to impress (because I’m still trying to give Jesus that part of me that wants to impress people), I hope they like what I write. But this honestly never crossed my mind when I made my raw external processing Boz’s problem.

Perhaps no one but me will find this sequence of events terribly significant, but as I told Boz, his response sounded more or less like a, “Hey, dummy” from God to me. Yet again it appeared God was doing something unexpected that I could not orchestrate myself and I was the dummy who was surprised. Though I had no idea what impact my words might have, it seemed foolish to then side-step whatever avenue I’d been offered to address something I really believe matters. And I really believe this matters.

The result, of course, is the post that was published on GRACE’s site and that now sits above this one, here on my site. I already have heard or seen numerous folks, including various pastors and Church leaders, express the same or similar sentiments. Some are happy to do so publicly; others are less convinced that what they say or write matters or they aren’t eager to wade into the fray. I understand that. I’ve felt and acted out of both before. Yet my sincere hope is that my words will prove to be but a few among a gathering answer to Boz’s question: Where are the voices?

Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.

1 thought on “Context for the post above this one: Depreciating Humility

  1. Pingback: Depreciating humility: The importance of being the best at being right | home anywhere

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