Thoughts about the issues confronting Sovereign Grace ministries with C.J. Maheney’s stepping down

When I read C.J. and Dave Harvey’s letters both announcing/affirming C.J.’s stepping down from leadership and announcing an independent review of both C.J. and Soveriegn Grace’s leadership I was somewhat surprised but not totally surprised. I wasn’t surprised at C.J.’s humility and desire to redress whatever wrongs may have occurred, but I also wasn’t surprised that it has come to this. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a different denomination. Perhaps also because I’ve been on the inside of other Christian organizations that have had similar issues the day where things “got serious” seemed coming to me. I more than anyone don’t want to engage in “gossip”, however I believe that helpful and meaningful dialogue can occur as we think about how it came to this.

First off I want to take you back ten years or so ago. In my mind and I’m pretty sure for many this felt like a “golden time” in Sovereign Grace Ministries. The “movement” was still new, the churches small, and I know for myself it felt as if something unique and different was occurring. I remember one special thing in particular, we called them Celebrations. Each year regional churches would gather for fellowship and instruction.(and late night shenanigans but let’s not go there) Here’s the thing that Celebrations highlight about the leadership of SGM during that time- it worked. Both C.J.’s leadership and the model of church governance that SGM adopted worked well with few smaller churches that could be personally cared for by “apostles” and even C.J. himself. The inclusion of Celebrations also provided a sense of care and community within the larger Ministry. However over time the ministry grew to the point that continuing Celebrations was quite frankly impractical.
What developed throughout the “Celebration” era was a method of governance that at it’s core was relational. On the surface this actually seems both workable and preferable, that leaders with strong relational ties would be able to speak into each others lives and keep each other accountable. That a “relational” “apostle” could govern and disciple pastors under his care and himself be cared for through both the pastors under him and “apostles” beside him. Yet as the organization and churches therein grew the “relational” ideal actually developed into a hierarchical almost “catholic” system of church governance.
It is in fact ironic that an organization that describes itself as being “essentially reformed” would adopt a view of pastoral authority and church polity that mirrors the church that the reformers ultimately rebelled against and rejected. (Also telling that absolutely NO other American church that labels itself as being both “evangelical” and “reformed” subscribes to Sovereign Graces views on church polity) One only has to look at history to see the many opportunities for abuse and inefficiency in dealing with disciplinary oversight endemic in the “apostleship” model. These examples are evident and require only a quick perusing of past church abuses. However, there is another perhaps initially unseen side effect of a “relational” authority structure, namely that all issues of discipleship, discipline, theology, and even church and personnel management become “personal”. All issues are moved into one on one relationships and become needlessly “confidential”. Lets say “apostle” A is called in to counsel and mediate an issue between “Pastor” B and “Member” C. Because “A” and “B” are “personally” communicating they can feel the freedom to speak about and even make decisions about “Member” C without feeling the need to involve that individual because “A” and “B” are “relating” primarily with each other (this conversation is of course “private” and “confidential”). Then having made decisions they (“A” and “B”) then turn to “relate” to “C” providing “personal” care. This can (and does) cause an environment where practically everything becomes “confidential” (because it’s “personal”) and raises the probability of offense by making every issue a personal one and every interaction personal as well. This is glaringly evidenced by the fact that SGM has absolutely NO mechanism for impartial and impersonal internal review and is forced to look outside the ministry for these things. It simply isn’t in the organizations “DNA”.
This “relational” model also makes accountability and discipline difficult because there is no way to evaluate a leaders leadership outside of their personal character. It is a common Christian organizational fault to promote and equate those with excellent character as if they are also are gifted and able to lead. Let me be clear, those who are called to lead SHOULD have excellent character, but just because someone is a “good guy” doesn’t mean he can lead. Even more, a person who can lead in smaller areas (such as a family or small group) does not AUTOMATICALLY posses the ability to lead in larger ones. The “relational” ideal falters in evaluation and oversight as those who are raised to leadership often are “promoted” because of a sympathy of personality or character with a particular leader rather than evidenced leadership skills or potential.(This isn’t a problem with just the church. EVERY leader in ANY circumstance prefers to “clone” himself) This is compounded when that “gifting” is then affirmed by a greater centralized authority. (ie. the Pastors College) Now both the ones who initially promoted the candidate AND those who supposedly have “tested” that candidate’s “gifting” now have a vested PERSONAL interest in that candidate’s success. To disqualify a prospective pastor is to acknowledge that BOTH local pastor and pastoral teams AND the pastor’s college where in error in evaluating this individual’s gifting. Both the local and Ministerial levels have a vested interest in the success of the candidate. This can lead to evaluations that gloss over leadership decisions and instead focus on the “intent” or “heart” of the candidate. Thus to challenge the leadership of a pastoral candidate is to not only challenge HIS personal character, but the “intent” and “heart” of the pastor, pastoral team, and organization that affirmed him to office. Moreover because the new pastor owes his livelihood to both an individual (most often a local senior pastor) AND the “system” there can be a reluctance to challenge either within a new tenable position.
I could go on but my hope is that those with discernment and wisdom will “read between the lines” and see what I’m getting at. At the core of the present SGM “crises” is a failure of doctrine. SGM in my opinion simply has a flawed ideal of scriptural authority. (To read my perspective and scriptural backing read Reformers Duty pt.1 and 2) However I personally want to end this on a note of hope and challenge to my friends:
1: This is an evidence of God’s grace and mercy to both the leaders and Sovereign Grace ministries as a whole.
Rom 1 clearly teaches that a clear sign of being under the wrath of God is that He leaves you alone. I personally have been involved in a ministry that at one time could fill colosseums. Now that ministry struggles to find a church to promote it’s “conferences”. God is more than willing to let false movements “die on the vine” only to later be pruned and thrown into the fire. The one’s He cares for He prunes.
2: The “pruning” seems to only have begun: To my fellow brothers and sisters in SGM I can only say this- I believe it will get worse. Sin will be revealed and I would challenge each and every one of you to hold those who are in leadership accountable to fully expose and confess sin. For some of you it will be too much. However, you must look and grieve and forgive.(“blanket” forgiveness is vague and does not lead to reconciliation) For others it won’t be enough.You’re temptation will be to want to know every detail and be dissatisfied with any outcome. For you faith in the sovereign providence of God and His hand in both the past, present and future needs to guide you.
3. Rejoice that over the last ten years the Gospel has gone forth and is in evidenced in “clay pots” Ministry wide: Everyone is fallible. Everyone is a quick drop away from being broken. “Hero’s” are just as flawed and sinful and cracked and fragile as anyone else. What is amazing, what is glorious, is that God even uses these vessels to cause His Holy Spirit to ignite a flame in others. Mourn the fragility, praise the majesty.
4: Pray for a “teachable” spirit movement wide: I would add in pray for discernment for whatever ministry is called in to speak into this current situation. (I’m personally nominating the PCA, but the RPC or even the Southern Baptist Convention would offer great perspective, governance and instruction in this current situation) But whatever the case I believe change and reorientation is coming within SGM. Some will naturally resist believing that nothing has been wrong and nothing should be changed. Still others will look back to that “golden time” and want to somehow turn the clock back. Others will demand too much too soon and not see a process of both instruction, repentance and reconciliation. But I believe ALL will be challenged to grow in unique ways. More so as implications and theologies begin to shift and be sharpened by those who are hopefully wise and experienced outside brothers in the greater body of Christ. Humility is needed both with leaders and laity as SGM moves into a new era.
I for one look forward to seeing what God has in store for so many I hold dear and one day look forward to rejoining.

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One Response to “Thoughts about the issues confronting Sovereign Grace ministries with C.J. Maheney’s stepping down”

  1. D Doug Mallow Says:

    Well thought out… appreciate your insight into the heart of the issue…

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