The Culture of Abuse in Churches Similar to Sovereign Grace Ministries

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PHOTO

photo credit: Big Grey Mare via photopin cc

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He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.  ~Psalm 1:3

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Commenter Seth stumbled across the blog and asked a great question, a question that many of us have wondered and discussed:

Thanks for posting about this Julie Ann[sic]. I just become aware of this issue and began posting several links on my FB page. Found your site from somewhere, can’t remember exactly. I come from some reformed evangelical type churches and certainly feel the reluctance from my peer groups to say anything negative about this, although they were certainly condemning of the Roman Catholics. Let me ask you (and your readers), what do you think are the key factors leading to cover ups like this?

Ok, readers – – – what are the key factors leading to cover ups?   This is a great question.  What could justify the coverup of abuse in church? In the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) lawsuit, the cover ups refer to failing to report sex abuse, interfering with parents who were trying to notify authorities, allowing alleged pedophiles access to children, not informing congregants that there were known pedophiles at church, etc.

Before answering that question, I want to take a look at probably the best written article I have seen on the overall culture of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  This culture touches not only Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) churches, but a whole culture of churches with similar abuse issues.  If you haven’t read this article, it really is a must read:  A Church Group, a Lawsuit, and a Culture of Abuse.   The first part of the article discusses the background of SGM.  It then gets into the Sovereign Grace Ministries lawsuit and then an abuse culture.  The abuse culture is very important to understand.

It’s no accident that so many allegations of serious abuse have arisen across SGM’s churches. The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children—especially girls—are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.

Authority and obedience to authority is paramount in this culture.

The level of deference and obedience that children are expected to pay to parents, wives to husbands, and girls and women to an exclusively male leadership is so extreme that it encourages—and sometimes outright demands—submission to men who use their power to abuse.

But take a look at the last part of the article.    The SGM culture that we read about in this article is not just about Sovereign Grace Ministry churches.  This is the most important aspect I’d want to make sure people take home with them.  All of the ingredients present in SGM were present at my former church:  hyper-authoritarian pastor/church leadership, purity culture, submissive to male leadership,  unrealistic demands of first-time and complete obedience from children, etc.  If people understand this, they will understand that this is NOT just about SGM, but a church-wide problem in churches which maintain this type of culture.

Beyond Sovereign Grace

The submission theology at the root of the abuses alleged in the lawsuit is not unique to SGM. These teachings have led to similar cases of abuse in entirely unaffiliated churches, and to the proliferation of watchdog blogs like SGM Survivors for similar church groups—including Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church.

At its root, abuse is the harmful exercise of power over others. Submission theology protects the privileges of the powerful; as a result, abuse survivors in submission cultures are not able to fight effectively for support or accountability. It is possible that victim advocacy is inherently impossible in a culture like SGM’s.

Some former Sovereign Grace members hold out hope that exposing these abuses will substantially change the cultures of the church, or at least damage their reputation and influence. Judging from recent scandals in both Catholic and Protestant churches, I’m skeptical.

Indeed, SGM’s own current crisis has so far had little to do with accountability for perpetrators or justice for victims. Rather, it’s the culmination of longstanding power struggles and grudges between the influential men who have led SGM—some of the same men accused of covering up for abusers or being abusers themselves.

What is clear, though, is that the same scrutiny that has been focused on Catholic abuse scandals is needed to understand the factors that contribute to similar scandals in Protestant congregations. The less-centralized nature of many Protestant organizations and the greater difficulty in obtaining data about the scope of sexual abuse in Protestant churches makes this a challenge. But it is important to understand how the theology of such groups can engender cultures of abuse—sexual abuse compounded by religious abuse of authority—and with this understanding, work to create specialized support for victims.

The very sad thing about this whole lawsuit and SGM culture thing is that it has fallen on deaf ears.  Yesterday, this article was posted on the Sovereign Grace Ministries site.  C.J. Mahaney is stepping down as president.  The whole article is here  SGM Board:  A Note of Thanks to C.J. Mahaney:

Our family of churches owes a debt of gratitude to C.J. Mahaney for co-founding and leading Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) to establish and build gospel-centered churches for the past three decades. C.J.’s leadership and example have helped to instill so many of the values that have shaped our family of churches, and none more so than our gospel-centrality. We are grateful for the central role his preaching and personal passion have played in making the gospel more clear and more precious to all of us in SGM. His desire to transfer the gospel to the next generation has helped keep our mission central, leading directly to the founding of our Pastors College where 252 men have been trained since 1997. C.J.’s vision to see theologically rich songs written and produced for congregational singing resulted in the formation of Sovereign Grace Music which recently released its 61st album. And his influence and leadership in the larger body of Christ have enriched SGM by introducing a breadth of relationships and teaching to our churches.

Does the article make mention that scores of SGM churches have severed ties because of CJ’s mishandling of authority?  Does it mention anything about C.J. being named in a lawsuit?  No, this group only wants you to focus on their hero leader and all of the positive spin.

I want to end with this comment that I saw on Matt Redmond’s blog.  Matt is a former Reformed pastor who is wondering why there is so much silence about abuse among his Reformed pastor friends in his recent blog post:  The Silence of the Reformed.   This commenter really explains the culture so well and the heartache of having experienced that culture and the aftermath.  It is important to note that this is not someone who was involved in any of the sexual abuse, but an ordinary member.  I want you all to know that this is the kind of e-mail I get – from ordinary people who may not have had any specific or traumatic abuse, but an overall culture of abuse.

One of the hurting

I left my sgm church almost two years ago after over ten years membership. (cck Knoxville, tn) I am still reeling and trying to make sense of it and I am very much a part of it. ( I get that it is confusing) I was never sexually abused, but feel deeply for those that were. The sexual abuse is only a small part of the danger. I sincerely wanted to follow Jesus and do what the bible said. The subtle scripture twisting and culture of leadership worship creates a toxic environment. It is extremely difficult for women and the teaching to submit basically takes your identity as well as your ability to hear from The Lord yourself. This is spiritual abuse. Instead of my pastors teaching me to follow The Lord In freedom, I was taught to follow my husband as he follows The Lord. Who, by the way, was following the pastor as he followed The Lord. ( or wait, is it cj?) So many rules to follow… I fell for it.

Now, I am angry, sad, confused, bitter and yet, healing. Slowly I am learning what the voice of god is and who I am. It is bad bc it is shepherding/discipleship and it still lives on. Matt, it is helpful to hear someone speak up about this, thank you. The stories of sexual abuse point the way to understanding the spiritual abuse that is occurring in every single sgm church to every single person. The very folks defending the system who are angered by any dissension are themselves in grave danger. Why would parents listen to pastors ? Why would people not check on them when they leave? Why do current sgm ers refuse to even consider the allegations?

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FYI:  There will be a radio show on SGM Detox discussing Lifestyle Legalism at 11AM Eastern time TODAY.  It looks like today’s broadcast will be covering the issues discussed in this blog post.  I believe it will be recorded so you can listen to it at your leisure:

We’ll tackle “the family gospel”, the challenge of singleness in “family oriented” churches, the home school emphasis, formulaic parenting, and the destructive emphasis on men’s and women’s roles.

Also on tap, Dr. Crosby will call out Neo-Reformation leaders for their theological views that establish the underpinnings for abuse and control.  The result is emasculated men and women robbed of functional humanity.  We’ll also tackle “full quiver”

In addition, we’ll talk church membership, church discipline, and the idol of “the local church”.  Also, dating and courtship.  purity and modesty.

If you listen to the program, please let me know what you think.

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28 comments on “The Culture of Abuse in Churches Similar to Sovereign Grace Ministries

  1. Thanks for asking this Julie Ann. It wasn’t just the ways that the leadership justifies their actions that I was interested in, but more so the theology or social beliefs/conditions that subconsciously lead to the leaders into doing this and the rest of the church accepting it.

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  2. Those are important questions, Seth. I don’t think they are intentionally meaning to abuse, but the the no-sin and authority makes the ground fertile for abuse to occur. There is such a focus on remaining pure from sin in these churches – based on what you do/don’t do. This leads to legalism and a spiritual oppression that you can never measure up, you can never do right because you always sin. They are missing grace, so essentially, I believe these environments are teaching a false gospel. A gospel without grace is no gospel at all.

    I hit enter before my brain stopped – lol. When you talk to these guys, their vocabulary is gospel-this and gospel that. They are super focused on the gospel – the perfect gospel message/presentation. But as I said, where is the gospel without grace?

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  3. I am old enough to remember the Church before the 1970’s and I can say that, regardless of denomination, there has been a seismic shift in the last 40 years. Evil has been at work since the Beginning, but once it got into the Church it picked up steam. The Church is supposed to act as salt and light, and when we fail to do that we get the abuses we are seeing today. I would recommend looking at the Charismatic Movement, contemporary worship practices and the politicization of our churches. Kirk Koch has written extensively about the manifestations of the “spirit”. He was a Lutheran pastor who worked with demonically oppressed (not to be confused with possessed) people in post WWII Germany. I think he sheds a great deal of light on what has gone wrong in our own time.

    Whether charismatic or not, the contemporary worship style has also contributed to the problem. Anytime we have loud, rhythmic music, it acts to put those under its influence into an altered state. Think Voodoo. Once members of the congregation are in that state, whomever is in the pulpit can by-pass the part of their brains responsible for critical thinking and pour anything into their heads he chooses. Contemporary “Christian” music has contributed a great deal to accomplishing this end. Add to that those pastors and musicians who have twisted Scripture and brought in teachings that are contrary to traditional faith. Man was never meant to stand at the center of the Church, yet in so many cases that is exactly where he has placed himself. No wonder so many of them think they are God. I recommend a book by Dan Lucarii “Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement”.

    If you are not familiar with discernmentministries.org I also recommend it. While I don’t agree with everything, I have received their newsletter for over 20 years and have found them very helpful. Everything is archived. Especially interesting are the newsletters alerting the reader to gnosticism within the Church. They spotted those changes before they became mainstream and sounded the warning. They have a book called “Vengeance is Ours” by Al Dagar which discusses the Dominionist/Reconstructionist political agenda.

    One last book I would recommend is “Blood on the Altar” by Craig Heimbichner. It comes out of a traditionalist Catholic group, and is virulently anti-Semitic. But if you can deal with that and read with discernment, I think he does a good job of tracing what has happened on both the Left and the Right back to the original source.

    I have spent my entire adult life trying to figure this thing out and still don’t have all the answers. And if I did I still would not know how to fix it. God’s Blessings on you as you proceed. Maybe you will be the ones to turn things around.

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  4. So, Nancy, what would you say is acceptable ‘worship’ music? I’m sorry, but, come on, that’s just not right to say that.

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  5. Yep, I remember a day when Elvis Presley was badmouthed for his version of Gospel Music, too. Guess you can’t please everyone, huh? I think that the Church of Christ forbids musical instruments. I have been to a few baptist church’s where they say, Please turn your hymnals to hymn #_______________. Boring music. I happen to like today’s contemporary. I don’t like the old timer fuddy duddy stuff with nothing but an organ or a piano. Last I remember, Christians have a right to worship God with freedom of conscience. Conscience, not thine own, but of the other, why is my freedom judged of another Nancy’s conscience. That is a verse in the Bible, without the word Nancy, of course.

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  6. Two things that I believe lead to cover-up of abuse are one, fear of losing “good” reputation and two, fear of losing control over people. I had a spiritual abuse situation with my last pastor/church. The pastors kept it secret from congregants and tried to “sweep it under the rug” when one might ask about it…the silence thing you mention. This pastor continues with a blog that is also supposedly one that helps victims and stands for justice. She is not doing either one! So, if someone is trying to write about advocacy and justice, but they do not live that out in their own community…who do you trust? Maybe it’s like the saying in the little video you put at the end of this, Julie Anne…”trust your gut”.

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  7. Nancy – I’m not really grooving with your comment on music, sorry. It seems that I heard that hymns once were bar music. I’m not sure if that is true, but as a musician, the chord progression of some of the old hymns (and don’t get me wrong, I love the lyrics) just about drives me batty. Music in church is just not a battle worth fighting for me. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing to me when I think about spiritual abuse. My perspective on things have really changed since going through the lawsuit. Music – take it or leave it. I’m just not going to get worked up over it. Sure, I have preferences, but I just can’t picture God saying no to this music and yes to that music. He is the author of creativity and I can’t wait to jam in heaven 🙂

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  8. Please allow me to suggest that there is at least a nexus between the underlying blog article and Nancy Butler’s post. The article speaks of a church culture where authority and obedience to authority is paramount, and not just within the confines of SGM. The article makes the excellent observation that, “At its root, abuse is the harmful exercise of power over others,” and here is at least one point where I suggest that Ms. Butler’s post connects. She speaks of pastors and musicians who have twisted Scripture and brought in teachings that are contrary to traditional faith with the result being that man, who was never intended to do so, stands at the center of the Church. I submit that the twisting of Scripture, whether through speech or music or otherwise, is just one more example of church leaders manipulatively exercising power over the minds, consciences and spirits of other people, all in the pursuit of their own selfish, or at least misguided, agendas. Yes, just as Scripture can be twisted to promote agendas to the detriment of the Body, individually and corporately, so also good and holy music can be used in manipulative, controlling ways.

    Now, the concept of the Dominionist/Reconstructionist political agenda is a relatively new concept to me, but what can it be other than an attempt to impose various agendas, not just on the Body, but on society at large? How can this but drive people away from Jesus, to their great detriment? How can this be anything but an abuse of the pulpit, the political process, and the Gospel itself, in ultimately harmful ways?

    I would take issue with Ms. Butler’s seemingly black and white, all or nothing, good or evil approach to particular musical genres (well, for the most part), and I probably will not be reading a virulently anti-Semitic book. However, I suspect that Ms. Butler strongly identified with something in the underlying blog article, and that this prompted her post. She is in tune to issues relating to the abuse of ecclesiastical authority, or claimed authority, and I personally find value in her insights.

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  9. Ok, readers – – – what are the key factors leading to cover ups? This is a great question. What could justify the coverup of abuse in church?

    Besides the usual (pastor/dictator covering up to benefit himself or one of his pets), I wonder if there’s a factor of honor/shame culture involved. You see, in an honor/shame culture, sin is wrong ONLY when someone else finds out about it. “If nobody knows of my sin, I Am Not Shamed”. (And a lot of honor/shame tribal cultures tack on “…and Dead Men Tell No Tales” and go to town in Honor/Blood Feuds.)

    And a lot of these churches have an Us-vs-Them Persecution Paranoia. A cover-up means The Church Looks Good. A cover-up means No Shanda Fur Die Goyim. A cover-up means the church in question can bask in their Righteousness and avoid Persecution.

    Then there’s the Celebrity Pastor factor, where the Pastor/Founder/Head Apostle MUST appear Superhuman. Never admitting to ANY sign of weakness or imperfection. And lashing back HARD against anyone or anything which might break that appearance of Utter Spiritual Perfection. (One corollary of this is that a pastor with a problem/secret sin will try to “self-medicate” by projection onto others, forcing others to NOT tempt him, and/or rationalizing it as somehow Spiritual.)

    Does the article make mention that scores of SGM churches have severed ties because of CJ’s mishandling of authority? Does it mention anything about C.J. being named in a lawsuit? No, this group only wants you to focus on their hero leader and all of the positive spin.

    DANCE JOYFULLY WITH GREAT ENTHUSIASM BEFORE COMRADE DEAR LEADER!!!!!

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  10. I hit enter before my brain stopped – lol. When you talk to these guys, their vocabulary is gospel-this and gospel that. They are super focused on the gospel – the perfect gospel message/presentation. But as I said, where is the gospel without grace?

    Just like during the Reformation Wars, More-Catholic-than-the-Pope Spain’s vocabulary used “Holy” almost every other word.

    Check out the “People’s Republic of Tyranny” page on TV Tropes sometime. One of their RL examples is “The more adjectives about Democracy in a country’s official name, the nastier a dictatorship it is.”

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  11. I feel compelled to retract part of my original comment. It is true that some of my peers condemned the Roman Catholics for their part in the sex abuse scandals, however at the time I also did likewise. Regardless of my many disagreements with the RC church, I shouldn’t have done so.

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  12. Gary – Sorry, I’ve been away and couldn’t respond earlier. I really love your comment. I did not get the connection that you saw. Your brain is wired differently than me (that’s very clear to me) and so I’m always intrigued when someone sees something completely differently and causes me to think move deeply. Thank you. I do think you are right, that music can be used inappropriately by tyrannical leaders. I’ve never thought of that before.

    Regarding the Dominionist/Reconstructionist – – I think this movement is dangerous – very dangerous – and is responsible for the abusive patriarchal leanings in the homeschool movement.

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  13. I hope I don’t get in trouble. 🙂

    I don’t think the problem has anything to do with complementarianism or egalitarianism. As TC indicated female pastors can be guilty of the same conduct being termed abuse.

    I think there are three primary reasons that churches become tyrannical strongholds: First, unconverted people populate the pews and pulpits; Secondly, many in the pews are biblically illiterate and ignorant; and Thirdly, people are lazy and want someone to puree the milk and meat of the word of God and “feed” it to them instead of feeding themselves.

    I will elucidate later. I am a complementarian but my wife wants this ham cut so I have to go……LOL.

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  14. Re music used inappropriately to control. I understand that there are some teachings against whacko/loud/repetitive music based on tribal cultures and devil possession and the like. Some churches can really do a number on their congregants as they can work people up emotionally and they are easier to be manipulated with the biblically twisted and whacko stuff. I guess that is what Nancy is trying to highlight. Yes, music can be used inappropriately, big time!

    Unfortunately, linking that thought with ‘contemporary worship music’ does a disservice to the conversation. Again contemp. music can be great or mundane just as hymns can be triumphant, glorious, and right on theologoically or just plain old and boring. As ‘beauty is to the beholder’, so worship music is to the ears of the worshiper. 🙂

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  15. I must take the bait and beg to differ with ^ Wesley Roy. I completely disagree about the three reasons for tyranny in churches. I am speaking only from my own experience within SGM; perhaps these reasons apply elsewhere. Within SG, you will find pastors and lay people who are VERY biblically literate. The pastor of the SG church I left was definitely not lazy in applying the Word to himself and I truly believe he was sincere in his pursuit of God’s word and in his faith. As to the question of who might be unsaved among churches, you have a point there. Although, I believe this is very dangerous ground to approach. I can’t say with confidence that every leader in SG is saved but I really think that the problem is more with the devil having sneaked into the church and deceiving sincere, well meaning Christians. In SG,even though there is a lot of quoting of Scripture and Bible centered preaching, there is a HUGE imbalance of the emphasis on SIN and the CROSS and very little emphasis on the RESURRECTION and VICTORY OVER SIN. And strangely, there is almost no mention of Satan. I remember asking a pastor about that as a new believer, having already observed the absence of acknowledging the spiritual battle that I was reading about in the Word. Basically the answer I got was, yes but the focus on the Enemy Within (actually, that was also the title of the book recommended to me to solve this “problem”).

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  16. I have to agree with you, RP. I’m not convinced that Wesley really understands the culture of churches like SGM. Another aspect that we had lacking in our church was “grace,” even though Grace was in the name of the church.

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  17. As for the music topic, I am a classically trained musician who was saved in a SG church. My musical tastes are pretty eclectic, and definitely agree with Barb’s comments. In hindsight, I did experience some emotional manipulation during worship at the SG churches I was a part of. And yet my music theory knowledge prevented me from being completely sucked in, as I was always very aware of the simple chord structures, the dramatic key changes, the repetitive rhythms, and shhh…I liked most of those songs! I also appreciate hymns and find them just as worshipful.

    SG has its own unique brand of weird within the contemporary music scene. I would label it as weird rather than demonic. In fact, quite the opposite, I am confident that the Lord used the worship music to soften my heart to accept Him. Weird, yes. Both SG churches I was involved with sang almost exclusively SG songs because, so they said, that they were so rich with the gospel in their lyrics and still expressive. What else was weird was the prophetic words and even prophetic songs. I saw a bit of what Nancy is describing in the dragging out of songs that morphed into spontaneous songs or prayers, that sometimes felt very Spirit led and other times were just… weird.

    I do think that Satan sneaks in ways we can’t see, and that his influence on SG and probably churches has caused a lot of damage. And I do think it is Satan convincing people to slowly start worshiping men rather than Jesus. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say one genre is godly and another satanic. The issue is pride, not style.

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  18. Julie Anne, so true! I remember thinking of that irony when I first read your story and the name of the church. Same with SGraceM. I haven’t fully given up on Reformed theology, but I sure am tired of hearing the same ol’ thing about if only churches, leaders, etc were more about the Bible, then problems would exist. I was about to spout out a generalization about white men furthering this. Thank you Wesley Roy, for challenging my stereotype 😉 Though I still disagree with you. It’s not more of the Bible these guys need, but more Jesus.

    JA, your earlier comment got an AMEN out loud (dangit, AOL is already taken!) from me 😉
    “I don’t think they are intentionally meaning to abuse, but the the no-sin and authority makes the ground fertile for abuse to occur. There is such a focus on remaining pure from sin in these churches – based on what you do/don’t do. This leads to legalism and a spiritual oppression that you can never measure up, you can never do right because you always sin. They are missing grace, so essentially, I believe these environments are teaching a false gospel. A gospel without grace is no gospel at all.

    I hit enter before my brain stopped – lol. When you talk to these guys, their vocabulary is gospel-this and gospel that. They are super focused on the gospel – the perfect gospel message/presentation. But as I said, where is the gospel without grace?”

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  19. Do these SGM leaders recognize what Romans says about being either slaves to sin or slaves to God? Seems such a rabid focus on everyone s sin betrays a lack of belief in the fact that a Christian has been created anew, with a new spirit that wants to serve God.

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  20. My issue is not that they do not preach from the Bible, but that the em Phas is is in the wrong places. The Armstrongs taught from the OT a lot, and almost nothing from the NT. Biblical for sure, just keeping people in the OT law rather than NT grace. And there are churches who almost never get the the gospels, even some who use the word gospel as a adjective for everything they do, but focus on the epistles (So is the preaching Epistelly, and not Gospelly?).

    Good preaching involves exegesis of the entirety of the scripture and not focusing on proof-texting from isolated verses here and there. And all needs to be done from the view point of the teachings of Jesus, because he is the Messiah and the focus of our faith. To me, many so called Christian churches are really Pauline churches, emphasizing Paul over Christ, and even then very selectively.

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  21. Pingback: The C.J. Mahaney and SGM Fiasco, or Why Am I Not Surprised? | Endtime Chaverim

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