These have been troubling days for C.J. Mahaney and everyone associated with Sovereign Grace Ministries. Once a thriving and growing group of churches, SGM has recently seen many of its key churches and leaders disassociate themselves, including the flagship Covenant Life Church under the leadership of Joshua Harris. This turbulence has followed allegations that C.J. Mahaney has proven to be unqualified as a leader, having damaged many important relationships through pride, judgmentalism and deceit. These charges forced a leave of absence, decisions about church governance, discussions about the jurisdiction of denominational leaders, and so much more. As churches have separated, friendships have been disrupted and long-time working relationships severed. In the midst of all of this, SGM’s ministry headquarters relocated from Gaithersburg, Maryland to Louisville, Kentucky, where C.J. has planted Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.
More recently, the ministry has faced allegations that many years ago there was significant sexual abuse within Covenant Life Church and its associated school. Though none of the current SGM leaders have been implicated in this abuse, a lawsuit that will soon go before the courts alleges that they responded unwisely when it was reported to them and that they failed to take sufficient action on behalf of victims. National media outlets have taken up the story. SGM has sought dismissal of the suit on the basis of the First Amendment and on the basis of unclear allegations.
Today I want to explore how we can think about all of this in what I hope is a distinctly Christian way. Some have heard bits of information through blogs or word of mouth. Some have read stories in the Christian or mainstream media. Most of us struggle to think well and wisely about it. I have no more information than you do, so will be relying on what has already been made public through media new and old.
Before I begin, it may be useful for me to explain the nature of my relationship with C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries, though there is actually very little to explain. I recall meeting Mahaney only one time and for no more than two or three minutes. To my knowledge we have never corresponded by email or any other media. He and I have never shared a speaking platform and I have never spoken at a SGM event (though I did liveblog a couple of them several years ago). All this to say that I write as an outside observer rather than as a personal friend and write this article primarily for the benefit of other outside observers.
Now, let me share how I have been thinking about it.
There Are Implications
Obviously the situation carries far-reaching implications for Mahaney and for SGM. But there are implications for you and me as well. The Bible is clear that a distinguishing characteristic of Christians is to be our love for one another. John 13:35 says it plainly: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love for other Christians is the great test of our commitment to Christ and our likeness to him. This love is put to the test in a unique way in the midst of trouble and disagreement.
This situation is unfolding before a watching world that loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace. You and I are responsible to do well here, to be above reproach in our thoughts, words and actions. We are responsible to be marked by love whether evaluating a difficult situation or taking appropriate action. We can make the gospel look great or we can make it look insignificant.
Believe and Hope All Things
The great theme of the Bible is God’s unfailing love. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul explains some of the implications of this love, saying that it “believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things” (v7). This is not a call to be naive or to deny the obvious, but an instruction to maintain a hopeful attitude toward others, even, and perhaps especially, those who have been accused. The Christian’s attitude toward others, especially in difficult times, is to be one of optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than doubt. We, of all people, should be slow to put aside hope and belief. This means that I owe it to C.J. Mahaney, to SGM and to those who have levelled allegations to believe the best about them, to hope all things for them.
As it pertains to the sexual abuse lawsuit I do not take this to mean that I necessarily presume innocence until guilt is proven (since, after all, there are professed Christians as both accusers and defenders) but rather that I am to do my best to withhold judgment until the God-ordained civil authorities have been able to do their work. It is for them to evaluate the case and to pass judgment, it is for me to withhold judgment until that time, especially so since these are, by their very nature, allegations and not yet proven facts.
As it pertains to the other charges and to the rift between SGM and the former SGM churches, I am also being deliberate to hold back judgment, believing that both the SGM leadership and those who are leaving are doing what they believe is right before the Lord. This sinful world is such that this happens, that believers, churches and associations of churches are at times driven away from one another. Even Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways for a time. Sometimes this happens when a deliberately divisive person disrupts unity; other times it happens when Christians can no longer agree. It is always sad but also a fact of life in a sinful world where we are all opposed by an enemy who is bent on our destruction. Because I am not a part of SGM I am not forced to take a side and, therefore, will not.
The One Who States His Case First
I have been careful to keep in mind Proverbs 18:17 which says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” It is so simple, but so consistently and demonstrably true. There are always two sides to a disagreement and often one side chooses to speak loudly and boldly and the other to remain silent. This is particularly true when one side is acting on the counsel of legal advisors who will almost always insist upon withholding evidence until formal legal proceedings have begun. We tend to believe that the side that is slow or hesitant to release information must be in the wrong, that their silence is an admission of guilt. Keep in mind, though, that Jesus did not protest his innocence and that people took this as a sign of his guilt, though he, of all men, was completely innocent.
If I am going to believe and hope all things, if I am going to be slow to pass judgment, then I also need to understand that neither side has publicized all of the facts. These things may be known in time and I do well to wait for that time if it comes.
Consider What I Need to Know
This is an issue of greater urgency to some than others. The way each of us thinks through it will depend on the extent to which we are stakeholders, to our relational proximity to those involved and even geographic proximity. If you are a member at a SGM church this issue is very urgent, and particularly so if your church is considering withdrawing from the association. However, the majority of us are far on the outside with very little at stake. For this reason many of us simply do not need to have an opinion.
The farther we are from being stakeholders, the less the likelihood that we are equipped to helpfully evaluate the facts and that we can do anything helpful with the information we learn. The farther we are from being close to those involved, the greater the likelihood that we are drawn more to the scandal of it all than any noble purpose. Not all knowledge builds us up; not all knowledge helps us; not all knowledge helps us love God and love one another in deeper ways. The fact that today’s media allows us to have access to facts, does not necessarily give license to avail ourselves of them.
If it is true that I am called to love other Christians, that I am called to believe and hope all things, that I am far outside this situation, then I think I do well to learn less rather than more. I need to know only enough to understand that I don’t need to know anything more! For example, when the leaders of a church call a members’ meeting knowing that there may be someone there transcribing the meeting with a view to making it public, and when that church’s pastor specifically asks outsiders not to read the meeting’s proceedings, I, as an outside observer, do well to honor that request as a show of love and respect to a brother in Christ. When thousands of pages of documentation appear on web sites, I do not benefit from reading and studying every word.
For this reason I have deliberately avoided learning too much. I have had to question my motives, especially since I have repeatedly been on the receiving end of scathing criticism for not using my platform to speak out against Mahaney. I have chosen to read the news stories, to understand the basic facts, but conscience compels me to stop there. To do more may not be spiritually beneficial, it may not reflect good time management, and it may not be loving toward those who are involved.
In a situation as difficult as this one, especially in a situation as difficult as this one, the Lord calls me, he calls each of his people, to pursue peace and love and unity. I take this as a call to consider carefully what information I learn, to keep in mind that none of us has access to all of the facts, that I am to believe and hope all things of every believer, and that there are important and wide-reaching implications for each one of us.