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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.
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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