[Editor's note: The following is a guest by Brian Auten, a member of a Sovereign Grace Ministries affliliated church in Fairfax, Virginia.]
Yesterday, Tim Challies offered some thoughts about what I would argue—and he himself admitted—is a narrowly defined aspect of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ (SGM) current difficulties; that is, the question of whether Christians should condone internet whistleblowing. The issue arises because it was an internet leak of a 600+ page document compiled and annotated by Brent Detwiler, a former SGM pastor and a founder of the movement (formerly known as Gathering of Believers and People of Destiny International), which has precipitated the continued, public airing of the denomination’s woes. The document outlined in great detail, reproducing internal emails and communications, Brent’s grievances with SGM’s top leadership, most specifically with the denomination’s president, C.J. Mahaney. In early July, Mahaney took a leave of absence in the wake of Detwiler’s dissemination of his document to SGM pastors nationwide. The document was subsequently leaked to the public, but not by Detwiler.
Challies’ position on Christians and whistleblowing is firm: If the issues-in-question are interpersonal in character and cannot be resolved privately, a Christian is prohibited the whistleblowing route. It is Challies’ contention that the issues in the document are indeed “largely” interpersonal and therefore fit—and only fit—within the Matthew 18 or 1 Timothy 5 parameters for Scripturally mandated conflict resolution. Conceding that it was not Brent himself who leaked the information, Challies nonetheless argues that the sheer number of SGM pastors who received the document “pretty much guaranteed” its public release. Detwiler, therefore, had no Scriptural basis for his expanded distribution of the document.
Challies would undoubtedly agree that his argument rises or falls on (a) his interpretation of the document’s content and the overall conflict as almost wholly interpersonal; and (b) that Detwiler’s wider distribution was intended to result in public release. Neither Challies nor I can have any possible insight into the latter point, save what we might be told by Detwiler himself (and Detwiler has responded to Challies at his own blog). Where I think Challies’ argument falls flat is with respect to the first assertion. The document’s content is indeed chock-full of interpersonal conflict, yet Challies knows well that it’s not merely that, else he would not have pulled his punch (using adjectives like “largely”) or insist that he would not address other “blogs that seek to expose issues in SGM.” The fact is, there is a context that Challies leaves undefined. It’s much more than interpersonal, and the Mahaney/Detwiler conflict (and the leak of Detwiler’s document) is what we would label in history or political science an “immediate proximate cause” rather than an “ultimate” cause of the denomination’s implosion.
Unlike Challies, I’m a six-plus year member of a SGM church in Fairfax, Virginia. Granted, in a family of churches that originated with the Jesus People movement in the early 1970s, six years is admittedly small potatoes. I didn’t personally experience the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s in the movement, which means that my understanding of our denomination’s history is almost wholly based on what I’ve read, heard, and inferred from interactions with others. Much—though by no means all—of my information has been derived from the stories and testimonies posted to the blogs Challies obliquely references in yesterday’s post—blogs that are made up of flawed, sinful individuals, and blogs that, by analogy, I like to compare to political exile organizations, or groups of folks who, for one reason or another, have had to flee their beloved homeland to live in a “host country.” Political exiles are notoriously rowdy, unwieldy, and volatile, yet when one combines four years of reading consistent stories at the SGM “exile” blogs with personal observations and, now, what has been publicly shared by multiple SGM pastors (including my own) over the last month and a half, it becomes clear that the denomination’s problems are not individual, but systemic. Our separatist and, at times frankly elitist, church subculture and “slippery slope” skepticism of congregational forms of church government have produced, and reinforced, poor church practices that have been detrimental to both the health of SGM congregants and the shepherds who have led them. And, as an important caveat, I would assert that these are “bent versions” of otherwise admirable and good conservative evangelical practice. Some of these systemic issues include:
(a) hesitancy about the infiltration of humanistic, “therapeutic” concepts into church counseling (including skepticism over forms of “integrative” Christian counseling) coupled with an overly strict insistence, movement-wide, on the use of “Biblical” categories for describing one’s struggles led pastors to quickly focus congregants suffering from abuse and trauma on their own sin while in the midst of their own pain;
(b) the desire to apply Biblical conflict resolution models, but with the treatment and assessment of parties in identical ways regardless of individual or family circumstances, thereby leading to the misuse and misapplication of said models in cases involving victims of abuse and trauma;
(c) legitimate concerns about liberalizing doctrinal tendencies in the wider American evangelical world, when tied to SGM’s separatist subculture and non-congregational form of church government, resulted in a squelching of congregational initiative in ministry, a marginalization of laity input in church decision-making and strategizing, a tentativeness about non-pastor-led group Bible or theology study (save those focusing on what the pastors preached on Sunday mornings), apprehension over cooperation with local churches or ministries outside of SGM, and the creation of SGM versions of nihil obstat and imprimatur; and,
(d) a concern for “pure” and “sound” doctrine, coupled with a top-down governmental system led to the establishment and promulgation of single “Biblically based” authoritative practices for secondary and tertiary issues like dating and courtship, schooling choice, parenting style and child discipline, clothing, and media consumption.
Again, it is so important to note that these practices derive from solid conservative evangelical goals; however, I believe that it is the case that, over time, the combination of SGM’s separatist subculture and its authority structure mutated these practices into something much, much less healthy.
What might all of this mean for the wider conservative evangelical crowd in the near term?
First, for pastors or elder boards who are thinking of affiliating their congregations with SGM, or who are currently in the process of church adoption, may I suggest, as a SGM member, that you pause and take some additional time to think and reflect upon what you’re hearing about us as a whole? Call or email some local SGM congregations and ask pointed questions about what you’re reading and hearing in the public domain. By moving ahead full-steam into this currently divisive situation, you may be doing the congregation you shepherd a disservice, particularly if events lead to a split or dissolution as you’re just coming in. Ditto goes for young men who are presently considering the SGM Pastors College. I’m not saying you shouldn’t come; I’m saying that if you’re planning to pastor a SGM church or plant an SGM-affiliated church, the movement—and the pastoral possibilities within it—could theoretically look very different over the near-to-medium term. The wife and children you lead need you to walk with a clear-eyed assessment of the overall situation. Again, may I suggest that you call, write, and ask more than one local SGM church your questions about the movement’s state of affairs?
Second, for those who are basing their excitement about the upcoming Together for the Gospel (T4G) 2012 conference in large part on the up-front participation of SGM personalities, I would ask that you reflect upon the fact that, while no family of churches is perfect, we have over the years portrayed ourselves and our “brand” to the wider, conservative evangelical community as if our own house was in good order, or at the very least wasn’t as messy as some others out there. Our house has not been an orderly one; shiny surfaces, perhaps, but underneath some serious, grimy build-up. We’ve not been as healthy as has been generally believed over the last 5-8 years by the young, restless, and Reformed world. I actually think it would be more appropriate, irrespective of whether our leaders are determined to be ministry qualified or not, for SGM to sit on the sidelines at T4G 2012. By all means, we should go and serve our brothers and sisters, but we should do so from behind the scenes. Let our worship music be played, but let us not—this go-around—teach from the pulpit. Of course, there won’t be a pastor or speaker at T4G who has done his job flawlessly, but in this situation, the up-front presence of denominational representatives intimates to the audience a family unity that, realistically, isn’t completely there. Other T4G luminaries—some I expect with very clear, prior knowledge of SGM’s systemic problems and some who had merely a “vibe” or “sense” that something was peculiar or amiss—should carry the teaching load this coming April.
To end, I want to emphasize that I continue to love my local SGM church. I see change afoot, and I am cautiously optimistic about how this will all shake out at the local level. In all honesty, I am less enamored, at present, of what I see coming from our denominational headquarters, as well as the public pronouncements of some of the folks more closely tied to T4G. Together with Challies, though, I hope SGM eventually does recover and is strengthened from this trial. I hope there is reconciliation between Detwiler and the SGM leadership cohort this side of the crystal sea, and I really hope that, 50 or 100 years hence, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren sit and consider SGM’s impact on their own lives and the lives of their others in their generation, their assessment does not mirror that of Shelley’s traveler in “Ozymandias,”—witnesses to only half-buried ruins surrounded by the “lone and level sands stretch[ing] far away.”