Friday, July 22, 2011

Ten Things I Appreciate About Metro Life Church

Dear friends,

My husband and I were members of Metro Life Church for 8 years until we left last summer.  About two years ago, I wrote a post about what I appreciate about the pastors there.  You can see it here: Appreciating the Pastors at Metro Life Church.  Today, I would like to recount ten things I appreciate about the rest of Metro Life Church.  If you have ever been a part of Metro Life, I invite you to share your own list in the comment section!
  1. The first one, hands down, is the love and devotion of the people there.  They love God, they are serious about their faith, and they lovingly serve other people.  We are grateful for our many friends there.  I have often commented to my children over the years how much I love their friends from church, too.  It is like a family.  It is sweet to see you at the events we still attend there, and nice to know we are always welcome.
  2. Home groups are a big part of life of Metro.  We nearly always had a place to go on Wednesday evenings for more personal fellowship and discussion.  And if anyone needed a meal, or help with a household project, or someone to watch the kids for a few hours, the home groups were excellent at practical caring.
  3. The generosity among members has been another sweet thing to watch.  So many people were so kind to our large family at times, whether it was passing along extra food after events, or paying our registration to a Celebration conference or to Camp Destiny for our kids.  I know that other people in the church have been blessed by this kind of generosity, too, whether it was through the church benevolence fund or just someone noticing a need and quietly filling it.
  4. As a home school mom, I have always appreciated the support that Metro offered to families who were teaching their own kids.  I particularly wish to commend Benny Phillips, a pastor at MLC who is also the principal of the church’s home school enrollment program, The Regent Academy.  I am so thankful for the parent training sessions, the weekly tutoring and enrichment classes, the record keeping, the guidance counseling, the general supportive atmosphere, and so much more.  I am also grateful that they allow the Providence Home Educators co-op, which is an independent program not affiliated with MLC, to take over the building every Monday during the school year for a reasonable rate.  This is big for me.  :-)
  5. Folks at Metro Life have been quite active in community service and outreach projects, such as the middle school youth in the Neighbor to Neighbor program which helped the elderly with household projects and yard work, the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Fry, holiday food and gift drives for disadvantaged families, the work day to help single moms, the homeless outreaches, and so many more that I can’t think of right now.  The Conversation program for introducing newcomers to the Christian faith is noteworthy, too. These people take the initiative!
  6. On a global scale, I am thankful for Metro Life’s leadership in the Mission:X program which has taken so many of the young people to serve others away from home.   My own daughters have traveled to Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and the Florida panhandle.  The trips have been life changing.
  7. I have always loved the music at MLC, whether it is from Sovereign Grace Music or songs by Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Hillsong, Sara Groves, or others.  The talented musicians do a fantastic job every week leading the congregation in worship to God.  Dancers and actors enliven holiday programs and occasionally Sunday services.  
  8. I also admire the gifted visual artists who adorn the Sunday School room walls with colorful murals, build imaginative sets for Kid’s Night Out and dramatic productions, and decorate beautifully for other events.  Beauty reflects the heart of God.
  9. I always enjoyed attending the Mom’s brunches when I could make it.  Great food, great friends, great childcare, great presentation on motherhood or homemaking, and then a great small group discussion… Who could ask for more? Oh, and great book giveaways! Great job, Sheree and company!
  10. I know some people wouldn’t think this is important, but for our family, the sports program has been a big blessing.  One of my daughters made some of her closest friends while playing Wolverine basketball during her high school years.  The younger kids all loved the Saturday morning soccer, and I think we’re going back for that this fall!  The sports program honors the fact that our bodies are important to God, and that fun and teamwork are important components of fellowship.  I like that.
There you have it!  Now it’s your turn!  What do you most appreciate about Metro Life church?

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My Recommendations for CJ Mahaney and SGM (From the Cheap Seats!)

Dear friends,

A week ago, I wrote an article with my thoughts about CJ Mahaney and the current crisis in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  There have been nearly 4,000 page loads on this blog since then.  This is quite unusual since prior to that, my average per day was only about 30-50. 

Last night, I substantially revised, reorganized, and updated my original post.  If you just stumbled on this blog and you aren’t already really familiar with the issue, or even if you read the article when I first wrote it and want to see the new information and links, you may can read it here: My Thoughts on CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries.    

In today’s post, I would like to do offer five things:
  1. A brief background refresher
  2. My recommendations for CJ Mahaney
  3. My recommendations for the SGM board of directors
  4. My recommendations for local SGM churches
  5. My response to concerns brought up by those who read my original post 
A brief background refresher: Before I start with the recommendations, the short version of the story is that CJ Mahaney is the co-founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), formerly known as People of Destiny International (PDI).  SGM is an association (or denomination) of about 70 churches, mostly in the United States but some in other countries.   Over the past 30 years of its existence, serious complaints have been made about the organization about abuse of spiritual authority, mismanagement of members’ crises, and a pervading overemphasis on the sinful nature.  In the past few years, these concerns have been expressed by an entire on-line community of ex-members on two protest blogs, and   A former SGM insider, Brent Detwiler, also compiled hundreds of pages of careful documentation with his allegations and evidence, and circulated them among SGM pastors after trying unsuccessfully for many years to bring correction directly to Mr. Mahaney.  After Mr. Mahaney announced last week that he was stepping down temporarily from SGM for a period of evaluation and correction, these documents were uploaded to the Internet by an anonymous person.  Since then, a flurry of commentary has exploded on the Internet.  I was a member of the Metro Life Church, one of the two SGM churches in the Orlando area, for eight years.  We left the church one year ago this week, along with about 300 other people.

What should CJ Mahaney do?  I believe that he should, of his own volition, resign immediately and permanently from any kind of leadership within Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Through his mismanagement and the subsequent scandal (if I may call it that), he has permanently damaged the trust of a significant percentage of the people who were/are in these congregations, as well as in the larger world beyond SGM.  (As I noted in the update to my previous post, his personnel history alone would disqualify him from leadership in any other corporate or non-profit organization.)  He has also, perhaps unwittingly, fostered an atmosphere of hero-worship and “fear of man” which is unhealthy for a church that claims to worship God alone.  I believe that he should devote a few years to spending some time with God and his own family outside of the public limelight.  He can use this season to nurture a fresh reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit to change his life as he seeks to evaluate and correct what has gone wrong.  During this time, he should, to the best of his ability, reconcile with those who have grievances against him – not just fellow leaders, but ordinary people.  This includes making full public apology and appropriate restitution.  After that, he could return to public conference speaking and writing.  Those in the larger Christian world who still wish to hear what he has to say can do so.  I believe that his gifts and his passion for the gospel of Jesus can flourish better outside of the pastorate and organizational leadership.

What should the SGM board of directors do? If CJ Mahaney does not choose to immediately and permanently step down from any leadership in SGM, the board members should make that decision for him.  Then they should follow suit. The board members should also acknowledge their own abuses of authority, make fully public apologies, seek out those they have offended, make restitution where appropriate, and attempt reconciliation.  Then SGM should disband as an organization and let each congregation become completely autonomous. 

What should local SGM churches do?  If the CJ Mahaney and the board of directors fail to resign and disband SGM, local pastors, bolstered by the support of their members, should continue to put pressure on them to do this – and not be intimidated by fear of being fired.  Once SGM has disbanded, local pastors will be free and empowered to deal with the crises in their own congregations without having to wait for and follow what upper level SGM leaders are deciding for them.  They can seek the fresh guidance of the Holy Spirit and consult with their own members as they move forward in ministry. They can also redraft their church constitutions, as SGM’s flagship Covenant Life Church has promised to do.   The pastors in each church should renounce and repent for any authoritarian leadership.  They should seek to humble themselves and submit to their members rather than demanding respect and obedience because of their positions.  Pastors should also seek out those who have left their churches to offer reconciliation and restitution, without expecting them to return.  In addition, they should start recommending, and in some cases funding, professional (non-church) Christian counseling for those who need it.

So, dear readers, what do you think?  Leave a comment for all of us to read!

UPDATE: After I posted this, I was alerted to this note on the SGM web site: An Honest Take on a Difficult Week.  What is very encouraging is that they are allowing dissenting comments.  That's a start!  There may still be hope for SGM as an organization, but I guess we'll all have to wait and see!

May I also present…

My Response to Concerns Brought Up by Readers of the Original Blog Post

Since posting on my blog last week, I have received a lot of e-mail in my inbox.  A friend warned me that I would want my children to look at my life through a thick lens of grace if they were writing about me in public, and that I would not want a response from others of "too little, too late."  As she wrote, "According to Scripture, anyone is only one step away from God – a step of repentance.  So, please be careful what you say and send out.  You will reap what you sow."  That is all so true. It is a sobering thought.  I know my children could find a lot of unpleasant things to say about me.  I mess up a lot as a mother.  There is always time for looking at the log in your own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.  But that doesn’t mean we need to be perfect before we open our mouths.  It means we need to acknowledge our own problems, not entirely fix them, before speaking out. 

Other friends have questioned whether those who protest against SGM’s abuses are properly following the corrective procedures set forth in Matthew 18.  I think theologian D.A. Carson ably addresses that issue of bringing public correction to public figures and teachings (in his case, the Emergent Church movement) here: Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18.  Australian born blogger, Anna Blanch, who is in her final year of a PhD at the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Artsat the University of St Andrews, Scotland, also recently wrote the article Calling Out Christian Leaders in the Age of Digital Media in light of the some of the controversies surrounding popular preacher Mark Driscoll.

Another thought for those who object to publicly questioning Christian leaders and institutions, is that this is following the example of reformers like Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Door, or the Puritans, who called for reform in the Church of England. (Note that I am not a huge fan of the Puritans since my ancestor Margaret Scott was the last and oldest person that they hanged during the Salem witch trials.  She was no witch, just a cranky old lady in the wrong place in the wrong century.)  Just within the past decade, think about the people involved in the International Church of Christ - also known as the Boston Movement – who spoke out boldly to warn others about the abusive (even cultic) leadership and doctrine. It certainly made a change in their organization as the leader, Kip McKean, stepped down. (See here for a start:  Shall I go on?

Another reader asked me, “How's the view from your high seat of judgment?”, then suggested that I “seem so overly eager to jump into the fray” and asked if I felt that my blog post glorified God.   I replied to the last question, “That is always my intent in whatever I write, as you will see consistently on all of my blogs. It is very difficult for me as a mother and friend of SGM members to put myself out there like this, but what I do is with firm conviction and peace.” And, “I have prayed much about when would be the right time to speak out more publicly. On Friday night, it was time. I do not rejoice in this situation. It grieves me deeply. It would be so much easier to ignore it and wish it would go away. It will not.”

So I know that my words have hit a nerve.  A few people have asked questions like, "Why don't you just move on?" or "Why don't you just go settle your grievances with your former church?"  Please understand that while I did have some difficult experiences there, I don't write to redress or avenge them.  That is totally not the point.   My problems were actually quite minor compared to most, and they were (as necessary) resolved with those involved.  None of those people were trying to cause me harm, and I wish them the very best.  What is at stake are life-giving principles of liberty, justice, grace, and truth.  I care about others, and want them to be able to see and avoid the pitfalls that have caused so many such distress, not only with the Sovereign Grace movement but within other movements.   If you don't know what I mean yet, please take the time to read at and  Or, if you would like the perspective of individual ex-members, read the blog posts about SGM by a young college student or a former member in Canada or at Spiritual Tyranny.   Please note that I do not endorse everything you will find at these sites. They are only provided FYDI (for your discerning information).  The stories are both plentiful and painful to read.  Yes, you will find rancor and angst and harsh words.  This begs the question, “Why don't you all just move on and forget about SGM?”  Part of it is that people are still processing their pain, and it helps read the similar experiences of others, to write about their own stories, and to talk it through, back and forth, bit by bit.   And part of it is that they want to warn people of what to expect as members of Sovereign Grace affiliated churches. 

Granted, some SGM members are perfectly happy in their churches and suffering no ill effects.  They don’t see any significant problems.  I’m glad for them.  But others are hurting deeply and wondering if something is wrong with them.  In their SGM experience, they feel like they are being spiritually oppressed or that they are in a dark and dismal place.  (This was my experience, and I wrote the poem “It Became to Me a Dark Thing” the same week we left, which is, coincidentally, almost exactly one year ago.)  It was, in a way, a form of spiritual bondage to inward legalism, and I would love to spare other people from my experience with it. While I certainly don't equate SGM with the barbarity of 1800's slavery, I do think of Harriet Tubman.  She was not content with her own freedom if she could not share it with her people, so she went back over and over and over again, at great risk to herself.  How dare I compare myself to her?  How hard is it to write a blog post in the comfort of my home, as compared to facing the swamp, the whip, and the "Wanted, dead or alive" signs?  I’ve got it easy.  So, I don’t wish to compare myself, just aspire to her nobility and courage in my own little 21st century techno-mommy ways. 

In closing to this postscript, I leave you with a few recent related blog posts.

On Mommy Blogging: Image, Identity, Authenticity and Freedom – writing in late June, I hinted at the issues within SGM without naming the organization

Weekend Gratitude: Lord Have Mercy – reflections from a mellow little PCA church service post-SGM

Spiritual Warfare Prayer - for those who are praying for SGM leaders and members.

All blessings of grace, joy, and peace to you,

Virginia Knowles

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Weekend Gratitude: Lord, Have Mercy!

Dear friends,

Weekend Gratitude continues...

I am so thankful for the kind words of support that have filled my inbox and been spoken to me personally in the past two days. (See Friday night's blog post, which has had over 1,000 page loads so far.)  It's been quite the journey that past few years, learning more about the mercy and grace of God.  This morning, I definitely looked forward to being spiritually refreshed at Lake Baldwin Church. I was particularly excited that our pastor, Mike Tilley, would be preaching on Colossians 2:6-15.  (Happy birthday, Mike!)  Mike spoke about 5 things in our walk with Christ:

A Growing Walk in verses 6-7:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 
A Careful Walk in verse 8:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. 
A Christ-Centered Walk in verses 9-10: 
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. 
A Freedom Walk in verses 11-14:

The Crucifixion"
by Matthias Grunewald,
National Gallery of Art

In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 

A Victorious Walk in verse 15:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
All of these words from Colossians 2 are so relevant to me right now!  I don't need empty religion, but fullness in Christ.  Not everyone who teaches the Bible is Christ-centered.  So much of what we hear can be misleading and actually turn us astray from truth.  We need to know it for ourselves, reading Scriptures and meditating on what the verses say.  Even a paragraph or a chapter a day can make such a difference.   Nurturing our personal relationship with Christ will help us to endure the temptations brought by suffering, peer pressure, loss of spiritual emotions, the hypocrisy of other Christians, and our own failures and sense of unworthiness.  Since Christ has taken the punishment for our sins, we can be free to walk in a new life of victory as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts.

I thought you also might enjoy one of the songs from this morning.  I actually recorded the congregational singing on my iPod, but you can hear my voice and it's not exactly in tune...  (When I lamented about that to my husband, he patted my arm sweetly and said, "What's really important is singing joyfully."  I was doing that, from the heart.)  So instead, let me present a YouTube version of Michael Smith's classic "Lord, Have Mercy" as sung by Eoghan Heaslip.  The lyrics are on the screen...

I leave you with a poem I wrote several years ago about the mercy of God.

Rhapsody in M
by Virginia Knowles (Advent 2006)

Myriad mercies:
more and more
merited? no!  no merit in murky miserable me
manic malice meted on Messiah Martyr
Mighty and Meek
manic malice meted on my Mediator misses me
marvelous mercies ministered on me
Majestic Master:
master me
move massive mountains in me
make merry melodies in me
mirrors of Thee in mere me
more and more
myriad mercies  


But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared,
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness,
but according to his own mercy…  Titus 3:4-5a

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  Hebrews 4:16

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. 
Lamentations 3:22-23 

Christ's mercy on you and yours...
Virginia Knowles

Friday, July 8, 2011

My Thoughts on CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries

Welcome to my commentary about CJ Mahaney and the current crisis in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Please note that this post, originally written on July 8, has been substantially revised, reorganized, and updated as of July 16.  I have also deleted many comments (mostly my own!) because I either incorporated the information into the main blog post or I felt that they detracted from the flow of the conversation. If you have comments about this or any other post, I would be delighted to hear from you, even if I can't always respond right away.

As a followup, on July 16, I also wrote My Recommendations for CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries. This new post also includes my responses to concerns brought up by readers of the original post that you will read below.  

Note: There is an update as of October 17, 2012 and another from December 3, 2011 at the bottom of this post.
Dear friends,

On July 6, I was quite surprised to receive the news that C.J. Mahaney, the president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, had stepped down temporarily for a season of evaluation and repentance in the midst of grave allegations about his leadership.   One paragraph from Mr. Mahaney reads, “Over the last few years some former pastors and leaders in Sovereign Grace have made charges against me and informed me about offenses they have with me as well as other leaders in Sovereign Grace. These charges are serious and they have been very grieving to read. 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.”

Why should this matter to you, and why does it matter to me?  It should matter to you because Mr. Mahaney is a well known author and conference speaker who is lauded as a leader among Reformed evangelicals like John Piper, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll and others.  His young protégé Josh Harris is also a popular author and speaker.  As such, Mr. Mahaney has a lot of influence, and how he behaves reflects on the church at large.  It matters to me because for 8 years, I was a faithful member of SGM.  Most of my family and I left the local SGM church last year, but we still have an adult daughter and many dear friends who are members there. 

I would like to share with you some of the back story, starting with how it became more of a priority for me.   A little over three years ago, while corresponding with a Mormon friend about our respective faiths, I started researching not only the Latter Day Saints church, but the dynamics and doctrines of other contemporary religious movements.  I focused particularly on ones with authoritarian leadership styles and/or unusual beginnings.   (Later this study would also expand to the patriarchal segment of the Christian home schooling movement, where there is much overlap. I have written a series on Gender & Authority.) By what I would call divine coincidence, I stumbled on a pair of blogs written by ex-members of SGM, and In the posts and comments, they shared raw tales of abuse of authority, church dysfunction, and pastoral mishandling of serious situations such as child molestation, domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental illness and suicide. Other recurrent themes are the intense sin-focus, the inward and outward legalism, the lack of grace, and the quenching of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit – all of which I was already noticing more and more as the months and years rolled by. 

What about the authoritarian leadership model? Another observation was that SGM (then known as People of Destiny International or PDI) had its earliest roots in the shepherding movement, which advocated invasive scrutiny of members’ lives by pastors and home group (aka care group) leaders, while at the same time not holding these leaders themselves accountable to their own congregations.  The “shepherding movement” was founded by the Ft. Lauderdale Five: Derek Prince, Don Basham, Bob Mumford, Charles Simpson, and Ern Baxter. Most of these five men realized the danger of what they started, and later publicly disavowed the model and methods as being dangerous. A former PDI pastor named Chris wrote to me questioning details of PDI/SGM’s early associations and influences with these men and their followers, and suggesting that PDI invented their own “creative brand of control” that resulted in fostering “the amazing blogs that have flourished” (referring to Refuge and Survivors). On the other hand, I have been told by an ex-member that the shepherding movement’s New Wine magazine was often read by PDI pastors. Either way, the general consensus among ex-members is that the organization did indeed adopt an unhealthy level of control at all levels. Chris (the pastor) did join others in pointing to the influence of Bill Gothard, whose conferences and materials about family life (Institute of Basic Life Principles) and home education (Advanced Training Institute) were popular among PDI leaders. (As a side note, I have been reading countless tragic stories by people whose lives and families have been shattered by IBLP’s and ATI’s legalistic requirements and rigid emphasis on authority. There is an entire web site devoted to former members at But whatever the formative influences were, I believe that SGM never completely outgrew that paradigm, though it has softened somewhat over the years. Typically, in this kind of environment, there is a pervading atmosphere of fear among both pastors and members. 
  • fear of failure if someone in leadership isn't telling you what to do
  • fear of taking initiative on new projects because that will be seen as pridefully “putting yourself forward”
  • fear of being seen as unsubmissive (especially the wives and young adults)
  • fear of being dismissed as proud and bitter if you try to bring up something bothering you
  • fear of being publicly shamed, asked to leave the church, or shunned by the members
  • fear that you will lose your children to “the world” if you choose not to do it their way, which in SGM circles usually  means home schooling and courtship
  • fear of other evangelical Christians not in or approved by your group (as evidenced by which quotes are mentioned from the pulpit and which books are sold in the church bookstore)
  • fear of trained mental health professionals, Christian or secular
  • fear of the culture around us
Did all of this drama affect our own congregation in Orlando?  Yes, most certainly.   I am not going to detail specific incidents that were personally troubling to me.  That would be unnecessary and perhaps hurtful to those who were involved.  However, I will say that I was noticing enough “red flags” to really bother me, primarily in home groups, women’s events, congregational meetings, and church discipline situations.   In addition, while I like to think that I am normally a cheerful and easy going person, I experienced periodic depression and anxiety.  While there certainly may be other factors (like having 10 children in 18 years) I attribute the increase in symptoms to an atmosphere of neo-Puritan “worm mentality” and fear. (See my poem It Became to Me a Dark Thing".) Increasingly distressed and trying to stay objective, I was putting up with all of it the best I could for the sake of my relationships there and out of a sense of loyalty to the church.  However, there were a few trigger incidents which I could not let slide by without speaking about my concerns to the pastors, especially regarding the nature of grace in the Christian life.  They listened carefully and politely, and I respect them for that.  They also preached a wonderful series on the grace of God, which was a huge blessing to me.  I started to hope that there might be some meaningful change in the atmosphere of the church. Then in early 2010, our worship pastor resigned, citing irreconcilable differences with the other pastors over a period of years. All of the sudden, people in the pews who had been blissfully ignorant of any on-going problems got a really rude awakening. They started asking questions and demanding answers. Congregational meetings got quite heated. Other disturbing things happened as well. And for many of us, it was just too much to stay. From what I’ve been told, about 300 people, maybe more, have left the church since then. (This kind of mass exodus has happened in other SGM churches as well.)  A sizable percentage of those who left had been members for over 20 years. Many of them had been pillars of the church, serving as leaders in the home groups and other vital ministries. We were among those who transitioned into other congregations.  Our family eventually settled in a small Presbyterian (PCA) church where the pastors and elders are more accountable to the congregation. Please know that I do not bear any animosity toward the pastors or the people in our former local church.  The pastors have always been very kind to me personally, and I wrote a blog post nearly two years ago sharing what I appreciated about each of them.  You can find it here: Appreciating the Pastors at Metro Life ChurchAnd on July 22, I wrote Ten Things I Appreciate About Metro Life Church.  My primary protest is against the SGM leadership, polity, and overbearing emphasis on pastoral authority and the sin nature that is propagated from the top of the organization to the bottom.  I think it is unfortunate that local pastors have gotten stuck in that mess.  I hope that is clear from what I write.

And somehow that brings us to the July 6 announcement from Mr. Mahaney.  Many people have started congratulating him for being so very humble and honorable to come forward. I seriously don’t believe that such praise is warranted in this sobering time. Unfortunately, I think his announcement is too little, too late. He speaks as if he intends to take a short sabbatical season away from his duties so that his offenses against a group of select disaffected former pastors can be evaluated and corrected by a team of men. Then he intends to return and lead SGM into a future of fruitful ministry.  Hello?!?

In addition to the aforementioned protest blogs, hundreds of pages of careful documentation by former SGM Brent Detwiler were anonymously uploaded to the web.  I have only read excerpts and summaries, but from what I understand, the evidence is quite incriminating about severe dysfunction within the organization. Coupled with the decades of serious stories about spiritual abuse and grossly mismanaged family crises that have already been reported by ordinary former members from every single SGM congregation, we’re taking deep trouble throughout the entire organization. This is a top down systemic infection, not an isolated bump here and there. If even a fraction of what has been reported is true, I personally think Mr. Mahaney’s poor job performance has disqualified him from ever returning to a prominent position in ministry. I don’t think that his peers on the SGM board of directors are qualified to restore him to it, since by many accounts they too have been complicit in this sorry situation for a long time. 

The odd thing is, that just a week after announcing that he would step down for a season until his sins could be evaluated by an independent third party, the SGM board has now decided that he is fit for ministry and leadership. They are still going through with the outside evaluation, so this latest announcement seems to be quite a bit premature and presumptive. Ostensibly they are basing this on the grounds that Mr. Detwiler failed to follow their prescribed means of redress to their satisfaction, and therefore they are discounting the validity all of the charges presented in his exhaustive documents.  I think these are two separate issues. As a mother, I do not say that one of my children is innocent of all manner of household transgressions just because his or her sibling has tattled with an obnoxious attitude. The legitimacy of the grievances must be dealt with separately from the legitimacy of the means by which they are brought. 

I know it seems harsh for me to say all of this about disqualifying CJ Mahaney and the board of directors. This is obviously my own fallible opinion from the peanut gallery. I don’t personally know Mr. Mahaney, though I have heard him preach on numerous occasions. Nor do I have an accurate window into his heart in the past, present or future. But here is my reasoning: to extend grace and forgiveness is one thing, but restoring real trust is quite another.  The recent admission of problems by Mr. Mahaney and the SGM board of directors is also seen by many as preemptive posturing of humility in the face of increasing public exposure and impending humiliation, rather than as evidence of genuine repentance and responsibility. I think SGM’s credibility has pretty well been shot.  And I am not ready to glibly forgive-and-forget-and-restore-the-man-to-power when there are so many wounded by SGM who have been almost completely ignored in the past few decades.  I am astounded that public figures like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler are so quick to endorse Mr. Mahaney’s character and move on. Maybe this is sincere loyalty and admiration from Mr. Mohler, but detractors have been quick to point out that donations (in excess of $100,000?) to the seminary by Mahaney and SGM had something to do with that.  Oh my.  

All that aside, though, think about the logistics of the corporate world for a moment. If you had a man or woman applying to be the CEO in your business or non-profit, and candidate’s previous personnel file revealed the kind of mismanagement that Mr. Mahaney has been charged with, would you hire or promote this person?  Not likely! And if they were already “on board” you would probably fire them very quickly and very permanently.  But, you might object, Mr. Mahaney founded this organization!  It’s his ministry!  Oh no, it’s not!  The church belongs to our Sovereign God.  Leaders must be accountable, first to the Lord and then to the people. The church is the whole body of Christ: the people, not just the pastors.  If a pastor is not serving his people with integrity and skill, and is instead causing grave harm, he does not belong on the job no matter how penitent he is. That is especially true of the man at the top, who sets the pace and the protocol for everyone else. If Mr. Mahaney was the president of another church denomination such as the Baptists or Presbyterians, where leaders are accountable to and elected by members, would he be reelected with his reputation?  I don’t think so. How does the concept of grace and forgiveness automatically equate with his qualification to lead in the future?  It’s not about him. It’s about the effectiveness and health of the church.  Even if he totally changed his ways, there would be that element of distrust and disrepute hanging on to him – and to the church he continued as its top leader.

People need to hear the truth in plain words, even if it is excruciatingly painful. Do over 50,000 hits in less than 12 hours on July 9 at the web site mean anything?  Charges of “gossip and slander” against those who speak out aren’t going to cut it anymore. See here for a very insightful article by Bob Bixby called What Bitterness REALLY Is. Let’s not play the “bitterness trump card” and blame the victims, like Mahaney’s T4G conference colleague Ligon Duncan does when he calls on his ministry constituents to ignore the assaults of wounded people on attack websites and blogs, and that you discount the opinings of those who have no real knowledge of these matters or relation to SGM or authority to comment upon them…” Yes, sir, that’s quite the way to dismiss the legitimate concerns those who have been hurt by their very real firsthand knowledge of life within SGM!  NOT!  The anguished appeals for reform have already been exhausted over and over again for decades.  The leaders of SGM – not just CJ Mahaney – have chosen to be above any real accountability for too long.  Now they have to pay the piper and face the music. 

Do I want to bring others down?  No, I want to lift others up, to see the downtrodden restored to their dignity.  Will CJ Mahaney "go down" in the process?  I don't know.  I do hope that the man who wrote the book Humility: True Greatness will, through true humility, find that true greatness.  That is the greatness of really serving (in deeds, not just platitudes) and restoring the thousands of "the least of these" who have been so devastated as a result of his actions over recent decades.  I do think Jesus would be most honored and glorified if he did that.  Then "the gospel" that SGM has proclaimed truly would be the Good News of Jesus that it was intended to be. So whatever their initial motives were, I hope and pray that Mr. Mahaney and his colleagues will indeed use this opportunity for true repentance, evidenced by actual restitution and reconciliation with members and ex-members at all levels, not just pastors.  He has often preached about the local church being “the happiest place on earth” – but many who came will never darken the door of a church again because SGM broke their sacred trust. Others have fortunately found refuge in grace-filled churches that respect individual people in the pews, not just the leaders. 

What is going on with Josh Harris, senior pastor of SGM’s 3000 member flagship congregation, Covenant Life Church?  My first thought about Mr. Harris was amazement that he allowed dissenting comments on his blog announcement of Mr. Mahaney’s temporary resignation. I totally respect that! Mr. Harris is garnering the appreciation of many observers by his forthright admissions about the severity of the problems, his acknowledgement of the truths contained in the blogs and the uploaded documents, and his stated determination to see this situation through to resolution. This includes, I am told, a new CLC church constitution approved by the members of the congregation.  You can listen to his Sunday morning sermon addressing the situation at CLC here: The Father’s Discipline.   However, Mr. Harris’s approach is not necessarily shared by the SGM board members. Due to disagreements with how to proceed through this time of correction Josh Harris has resigned from the SGM board of directors, though he will continue to attend the meetings. The board issued a statement of Where We Differ and Where We Agree. This young man is certainly in my prayers!  He has made a good start, and I hope he works to keep this process moving in the direction of integrity and responsibility. 

I also need to humble myself and share the SGM blame in my own small ways.  For years I quieted my own conscience, my own God-given sense of right and wrong.  For years I was so proud (let’s make that arrogant!) that I belonged to THE church that featured what I thought were right doctrine and right living. (Ginny Jacobson, who attends our former church, addresses this tendency in her insightful blog post here: A Fallen Idol - One Man's Sin Exposed My Own.) Where else could I find that unique blend of Reformed / Baptist / Charismatic teaching, amazing worship music, and devout fellow members who took their lifestyle choices like home schooling and courtship seriously?  I advertised SGM conferences, books, and CD’s in my e-magazine and on my blogs.  I always alerted my friends whenever CJ Mahaney would be in town, so they could come hear him preach.  For years, I told friends what a wonderful place our church was to raise children, not fully aware of how many of the young people were struggling and straying because of their experiences there.  Beyond our tithe to the local church, we gave extra offerings to SGM until the last year, when I couldn’t do that in good conscience any more. We were deeply involved in all sorts of activities and ministries at church. (I do not regret this, because we have wonderful memories and dear friends from these times.) But it seemed like we were always there, taking somebody to something at the church building almost every day of the week. I was so committed that I thought I would be a member of that church until I died. Lo and behold, I did start dying, inside, little by little. And I let it happen with only a squeak or two here and there, until God mercifully poked me hard and woke me up.  

I have a few seemingly random mental images to share before I close this note.  There are others in my mind, but these should suffice.

The Berlin Wall: Ronald Reagan calling on Gorbachev to tear it down and the freedom-loving people of Germany dismantling it chunk by chunk. It’s time, folks. Call for truth and freedom. Don’t settle for anything less. Pull down the barriers until the truth is known and the arrogance, fear, and control come tumbling down.

The tale of “The Emperor Who Wore No Clothes”:  His royal tailors assured him that his finery was crafted from such a special fabric that only the wise could see it. And all the people, including the emperor himself, “saw” his beautiful clothes because they wanted to be thought wise.  Then a truly wise little boy cried out, “But he doesn’t have anything on at all!” And they all realized what fools they had been. Some of you have suspected something amiss for quite some time, but feared being labeled as foolish or non-compliant if you dared to speak up. Call it like it is, dear little flock. Be bold. Speak truth to power. You don’t need to feel naked or vulnerable yourself, because Christ himself clothes you in his very own righteousness, the garments of joy and praise instead of the spirit of heaviness. 

“With liberty and justice for all”: the last phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Sweet Jesus, under your victory banner, bring that liberty and justice to the least of these my brethren.  Bring your healing and grace. Help us to cling to our precious identity in Christ, and never let anyone snatch it from us. Help us to reclaim the transforming dignity that as believers we are (as 1 Peter 2:9 so gloriously declares) “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Help us to focus on you, the perfect life you lived, the victory you won over death through your resurrection, how you promised the Holy Spirit would indwell us so that we could be more than conquerors “through him who loved us”!

One final word to my friends who are members of Sovereign Grace Ministries, including my own former pastors. Even if you are upset at what I have said, I hope you can respect that I am trying to be true to what I believe. I love you dearly, and I miss you. I know many of you may be shocked and even offended by my words, but I write from my heart because of my concern for you. Please consider my words and pray about how this affects you. My brothers and sisters, cry out to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who truly gave his own life for you, who bids the weary to come and find rest in his gentle yoke, who leads us on the true path. Writing this reminded me of a short story that I wrote for my Mormon friend. You might enjoy it as well.  You can find it here: Parable of Grace.

As a followup to this post, I wrote My Recommendations for CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries. The new post also includes my responses to concerns brought up by readers of this original post. I also ask you to read Ten Things I Appreciate About Metro Life Church and add your own list in the comments.

Update on October 17, 2012: Three more recent developments:

  1. Sovereign Grace has moved its headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky, where they have also started a new church plant. Sovereign Grace Church brings history, controversy to new Louisville launch
  2. SGM is also being sued by three women. "The plaintiffs allege a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members. The alleged abuse happened in Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s. The lawsuit accuses church representatives of permitting suspected pedophiles to interact with children, supplying them with free legal advice to avoid prosecution and forcing victims to meet with and “forgive” the person that had molested them." Lawsuit claims evangelical church group concealed sex abuse allegations in Md., Va
  3. Local churches are starting to dis-affiliate from SGM. I believe that I have heard of four so far, three of them in Florida. Here is one link: Sovereign Grace Church of Daytona Beach Leaves Sovereign Grace Ministries

Update on December 3, 2011: After nearly five months, there does not appear to be any substantive progress at the national level.  Here are the top ten  developments, with links to articles and blog posts from various sources, including, and 
  1. The pastors of Covenant Life Church (led by Josh Harris) are seriously considering withdrawing from the SGM organization, which has been headquartered in the church building.  (See the "Family Update" letter to CLC members.)  
  2. Mr. Mahaney and much of his extended family (which includes other pastors) left Covenant Life Church and attended a non-SGM church (Capitol Hill Baptist) for a while before moving on to Solid Rock, a more sympathetic SGM congregation in Maryland.  
  3. Mr. Mahaney has retracted his confession (see transcript from November pastors' conference, with added commentary by Kris of SGMSurvivors) and continues to speak publicly in various venues, including a message at the conference.  
  4. Also at this pastors' conference, attendees were instructed to go back to their congregations and root out “divisive” members.  
  5. Brent Detwiler, the insider who released hundreds of pages of incrimination documents, has been publicly shamed and shunned by his former congregation. Members have been told to avoid talking to him, as well as encouraged to defriend him on Facebook. 
  6. Jared Mellinger, a pastor in one of the Pennsylvania churches, warned his church that it was more destructive to read anti-SGM blogs than to go to a porn site.  (That’s a real head scratcher!)
  7. Larry Tomczak, who co-founded PDI (now SGM) has issued his own statement about his departure from the organization in 1997, acknowledging the blackmail and cover up. 
  8. Todd Twining (my friend and former MLC worship pastor) wrote about his own departure from SGM.
  9. Ambassadors of Reconciliation has been doing in person and phone interviews with people who have been adversely affected by SGM and will eventually present its conclusions and recommendations.
  10. The SGM board is conducting its own review by setting up three panels of current pastors do investigate the issues.
I personally have a hard time believing that the leaders of SGM are planning to change course in any significant redemptive way.  Right now, they seem to me to be in full damage control and spin mode.  I would concur with Mr. Tomczak that they all need to step down.  Their integrity and credibility are in serious question. I am more confident than ever that I made the right choice to leave SGM last year.

February 2015:

I can't even begin to update you on all that has happened within SGM in the last few years since I wrote on this, other than to say that there were even more serious allegations of sexual abuse against children. You can read more here Sovereign Grace and Saving Face and Abuse Thrives in a Culture of Shame and Silence.

The key thing for me is that the local church of which I was a member has since disassociated itself from Sovereign Grace Ministries, as have many other congregations. Though I still attend another church, I am currently active in the homeless outreach ministry at this former SGM church in the Orlando area and maintain many dear friendships there. 

With love,
Virginia Knowles

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