Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sovereign Grace Ministries and Abuse: Time to Speak Out

For some time I've been watching with a heavy heart the progress of the lawsuit initially filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries in October 2012.  The original news articles have long since been archived, but the evangelical watchdog blog site The Wartburg Watch still has quotes from those early news reports.  In January of this year an amended lawsuit was filed.  The basic allegations were that various pastoral leaders of SGM covered up members' allegations of child abuse and sexual molestation from the 1980s on.

The current news is that due to statute of limitations issues, it has been ruled that most of the victims have brought their lawsuit too late, and the case has been dismissed.  What saddens me is that while this is not because any of the allegations have even been addressed (and some of the defendants will undoubtedly bring a new suit), supporters of SGM's leader Charles Mahaney have chosen this time to voice their support in a way that belittles the stories of the accusers and vilifies the victims. While ostensibly acknowledging that "There is no excuse, at any time or in any place or for any reason, for the use of children for sexual pleasure," the article states "we are friends with C.J [Mahaney]," and goes on to say:

He has also been the object of libel and even a Javert-like obsession by some. One of the so-called discernment blogs—often trafficking more in speculation and gossip than edifying discernment—reprinted a comment from a woman who issued this ominous wish, "I hope [this lawsuit] ruins the entire organization [of SGM] and every single perpetrator and co-conspirator financially, mentally and physically."

The problem with this quote is that it is not from some outside voice passing judgment on a "discernment blog" (which apparently means a blog set up to exercise "spiritual discernment" as to the orthodoxy of other ministries; this term is frequently used as a pejorative).  The Wartburg Watch has located the source of the original quote, and it is from a woman who was raped during an SGM home-group meeting at the age of 13.  It does not come from a discernment blog at all, but from a survivors' blog, meant to be a safe place for former SGM members to tell their stories.  For Mahaney's friends on the Gospel Coalition blog to quote this in the manner they quote it, conveys the message that they consider speaking against their friends' ministry, even if it comes out of pain, to be a more important issue than a victim's response to her rape.

However you slice it, this is outrageous.  If they didn't know where the quote came from, they shouldn't have quoted it.  If they did know-- then they have just treated a woman like garbage in order to make their powerful friend's ministry look good.

So I have to speak out too.

To the writers of the Gospel Coalition's message: look.  I recognize how hard it is to navigate the waters when someone you consider a friend has been accused of something like this.  But the fact remains that by coming out strongly on the side of the one with pastoral power at this point in the proceedings, you are contributing (whatever your protests to the contrary) to the re-victimization of the victims and the upholding of the power structures that made SGM ripe for these sorts of criminal abuses in the first place.

There are simply too many allegations by too many disparate people, for this to be merely a vindictive false attack.  And C. J. Mahaney, as the founder and leader of SGM, simply cannot hold himself aloof and claim ignorance.  The authoritarian structures that were set up and/or maintained by him directly caused an environment where abuse was aided and abetted-- and he had the power to prevent it, or at the very least stop it in its tracks.  He is the one who created the environment where leaders were given blanket endorsement and protection, while the people at the bottom were silenced.  Whether he likes it or not, by setting authority up as unassailable and himself up as the top authority, he made himself responsible for the behavior of his sub-leaders and well-being of his lowliest followers.  And you, as his friends, ought to have told him so.

As I have shared elsewhere on my blog, Sovereign Grace Ministries is one of the successors to the Shepherding Movement in which I spent my college years as part of Maranatha Campus Ministries.  I know very well the structures that uphold those in power while viewing with suspicion and disapproval anyone who dares speak against or even question them.

Virginia Knowles at Watch the Shepherd a former member of SGM, concurs.  She writes:

Unfortunately, this is not just a problem in SGM, but in a host of other religious organizations. It is the culture of shame and silence -- and women, especially young ones, are the most vulnerable to both sexual abuse and domestic violence. . . In both this lawsuit and my extensive research on abuse of authority (especially gender-based) these are some of the pastoral sentiments I've heard about...

"We're all sinners. Yes, he might have hurt you, but think of how you have sinned. You have no right to complain." (I call this phenomena "psychological socialism" and some day I will write more extensively about it.)
"He said he was sorry. You need to meet with him face to face so he can apologize. Be reconciled with your brother in Christ!"
"He has apologized to you! He's really sincere! Now you can forgive and forget! You must not gossip or slander him by telling anyone else about it. If you tarnish his reputation, he'll never be able to get on with his life, keep a job, continue his ministry, and provide for his wife and children."
"Counseling? Sure, come right into my office. Oh, you mean from professional counselors? Don't bother. They'll only give you ungodly psychobabble and lead you astray."
"Call the police? No way! Are you crazy? We don't need to bring another believer before the law. This is something the church should handle, not the worldly and godless secular government system. He just needs to see the light and repent. Jesus is enough."
"Oh, you don't want to tell anyone that anything has happened at this church! What sort of reputation will that give to our ministry -- and to God? We must protect our gospel witness!"
"You are a woman. A woman is not supposed to teach or have authority over men, but to quietly support and follow them. How dare you usurp my authority and question how I run my church [or this family]?"
[edited for brevity, but you get the point.]

Hannah at Wine and Marble lived the SGM life for 10 years.  She explains how this climate is created in this kind of organization:

You stop thinking critically, because questioning things is ever-so-subtly frowned upon. It’s welcomed, objectively, but you feel slight displeasure or get sidelined because of suddenly busy schedules (because. . . they have slowly, subtly made you dependent on their approval for your confidence in your discernment and spiritual maturity). . .

You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over them.

It’s not brainwashing, but it’s a social immersion into a culture where you lose your sense of self, your boundaries, your privacy, and your ability to reason independently in a slow fade to submissive SGM church member, fiercely loyal to the great people and genuine culture of faith there.

It’s insane.

And so, in that world, your child tells you that so-and-so at care group touched their private parts. You are furious. You confront this person, you tell your care group leader. Your care group leader tells you that he’s going to bring this up with your pastor and get back to you (because no one thinks to call the cops yet), and the pastor wants to meet with you (maybe you’ve never had any one-on-one time with your pastor before, so you feel affirmed and like he’s taking it seriously)…and then you’re angry in the meeting toward your child’s molester, and you get confronted about your anger, and, and, and…

Suddenly, the SGM sin-confrontation system has kicked into high gear, and the child abuse has take a back seat (because, it’s only on the child’s word, and children are so sinful and need to be trained to love Jesus and not walk in their flesh)…

And it never gets reported. And your child is made to hug his/her abuser. And the abuser is seen as repentant and restored, and you think, well, maybe it’ll be okay. That process of rooting out sin is really thorough. And they have so much accountability–from their accountability partner and their care group leader and from the pastor.

And nothing is done about it.

So what should have been done about it?

Ministry leaders that really cared about their congregations should have been the first to investigate the first rumor of the sexual or physical abuse of children.  SGM's leaders did not.  If a reason was found to suspect a church leader of such a crime, the police ought to have been immediately brought in.  If a church leader was found to have committed such an offense, he ought to have been permanently removed from ministry and encouraged to show repentance by serving his time as a model prisoner.  SGM did none of these things.

When a lawsuit was brought against SGM, they should have responded in open shame and horror, with the top leaders offering to step down until the investigation was complete and the perpetrators properly dealt with in the courts.   Instead, SGM instructed its lawers to assert a First Amendment "clergy-congregant confidentiality" defense.  But this was not about a minister's right to keep secrets of private sins confessed privately.  This is about the cover-up by ministers of accusations brought by victims of heinous crimes.  

And the last thing that should ever have happened was for these victims-- some as young as two and three years old-- to be forced to verbally forgive their abusers face-to-face.

Zach L. Hoag's Blog calls it "A False Gospel of Reconcilation": 

The most grotesque allegations to come out of this lawsuit have to do with the culture of “gospel-centered reconciliation” in this movement, where victims of abuse – often, children – were simply told to “forgive” and “reconcile” with their adult church member/leader abusers. I mean, it’s better than you deserve, right? So get over it. And smack dab in the center of this demonic-gospel culture were leaders who rise to levels of immense influence over their cruelly “humbled” people, all the while claiming to be humble themselves. . . 

And this false gospel of reconciliation doesn’t stop here. It is not only reserved for churches fraught with sex abuse scandals. It rears its ugly head in all kinds of conservative evangelical circles, taking the similar shape of pain-denying theologies that counsel victims to get over it and get back together with those who harmed them. [Emphasis in original.]

Hoag compares this with the true reconciliation that Jesus preached:

The goal toward which the resurrected Jesus is working in the world right now is not some imaginary peace where people “reconcile” in name only while the abuse is never stopped and the wrong never righted. No, this is instead a total bending of the violent and unjust world back toward God’s shalom, until it is completely put to rights on the final day. . . And reconciliation, rightly lived as part of God’s cosmic work to restore all things, always subverts the empire of unjust power and control. It messes with thrones and powers and rulers and authorities. It takes them to task. [Emphasis in original.]

Now, unlike Zach Hoag, I don't think this is really about whether the group is Calvinist or not.  As I have said elsewhere on my blog, I think Calvinism can sometimes lead to too great a focus on authority in the church, but not always-- nor is it always Calvinism that falls into this mentality.  Maranatha Campus Ministries was basically Arminian, and yet they created an environment where abuse (not, as far as I know, physical or sexual abuse, but definitely spiritual abuse) was nurtured and grew.  On the other hand, Pastor Wade Burleson of Istoria Ministries is Calvinist, and yet I am certain nothing like this could ever happen in his church.  Here, in Burleson's own words, is why:

Jesus said that real leaders are servants, not masters. . . Let me be clear. Those kind of pastors - pastors that advocate an authoritarianism inherent in the pulpit, that stifle any and all dissent from the members of their congregations, that humiliate and denigrate the members who for the sake of conscience ask questions - could very well be considered great expositors of the Word of God and doctrinally orthodox. Yet those pastors display a character that is the antithesis of the character of Christ, an ironhandedness that is the opposite of genuine grace, and a disposition that should cause their congregations to realize that their pastors are but one step away from falling over the precipice of moral failure in terms of their church ministries or personal lives.

I think Burleson's diagnosis is absolutely correct.  It is authoritarianism that creates distance between a church leader and a congregation, so that members who bring complaints are viewed with suspicion while those with power are held to be above reproach.  It is this that creates a climate where power can corrupt, and absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

But the Bible actually teaches this:

Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care. . . not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2-3, emphasis added.)

And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.  (Ephesians 5:11.)

So what is the right thing to do when you are a pastoral leader in a position of power and authority, and a friend who is also in a position of power and authority becomes the subject of multiple allegations of abuse by his ministry and cover-up by himself?  

Ultimately, it isn't being a good friend to close your eyes to his wrongdoings.  And no matter how close of friends two or more powerful Christian leaders are, their first responsibility as leaders must be to care for the most vulnerable members of their flocks.  The leaders of the Gospel Coalition simply cannot refuse to listen to what biblical shorthand calls "the widow and orphan" when they come pleading for justice. (Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27.)

There's still time to do the right thing.  I hope these Christian leaders decide to do it. 


Hannah Thomas said...

I honestly don't get HOW they think their response was responsible - AT ALL!

Donald Johnson said...

Really excellent article.

And I think you nailed it, it is their mistaken concepts about church authority that facilitated this. And this is a blind spot for those that believe in those mistaken concepts.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Kristen.

We have a Sovereign Grace church in our area. The pastor, ironically enough, is the one that I told you about before (the one that was afraid that God would send him to Alaska after he got saved).

One of my friends went there, and he left for two reasons: Their views on the Millenial Kingdom, and because the church seemed too clique-ish and less than friendly, which is what I noticed as well at times.

Also, his friend and his friend's wife went there for a short time, and they weren't treated very friendly there, either.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. But I do think the culture brings about a certain amount of "brainwashing" or people would not stay so long in such an invasive environment. The whole bit about setting it up so taht folks seek approval or affirmation of a leader is a sign.


Becky said...

Thank you for this wise and compassionate analysis. I appreciate your stand.

Virginia Knowles (Watch the Shepherd) said...

Kristen, thanks for posting this here and at Patheos, and including some of my quotes.

I just compiled a long list of web links related to the SGM lawsuit, and included yours at Patheos.

Virginia Knowles

Kristen said...

Thanks, Virginia! I really like your blog!

Unknown said...

Though we have mortally serious disagreements Kristen I must say 2 quick things before you throw me outta here again.

1. I don't personally have enough information to reliably reach a conclusion on this at this time, which IS NOT meant to imply dishonesty on your part. I've read about this situation other places too btw. I just know that I haven't heard the other side and things aren't always as they seem, though I'm leaning your way.

2. IF it is as you have here reported, then NO punishment could be too harsh. I would support prison at least for all culpably involved and maybe a lot worse for some.