On Mahaney’s Withdraw from TFG Conference and SGM Abuse Allegations
Sovereign Grace Ministries is an evangelical mega-church comprised of numerous campuses and churches throughout the United States, with branches in Australia, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Great Britain, Germany, and Mexico. Once known as “People of Destiny International,” the group began to call itself “Sovereign Grace Ministries” in 2003. Started by a “Charismatic Catholic,” Larry Tomczak, the organization began in the 1970s as it took on more of Tomczak’s charismaticism than his Catholicism. Helping to found the main church affiliated with the organization was C.J. Mahaney, who was a recently converted drug addict.
Early in the ministry, its chief theological distinctive was its ecumenism and its charismaticism. It was also known for blurring ecclesiastical lines and being unclear as to whether or not their organization was a church or a nonprofit parachurch entity or somehow both. Its ecclesiastical structure was also complicated, if not chaotic, with various branches loosely affiliated but still somehow under top-down control from Mahaney and Tomczak. Mahaney and Tomczak were heavily influenced by a British house church movement led by Bryn Jones. In the first decade, some described People of Destiny International (PDI) as similar to the “Vineyard Movement,” but serving a primarily Roman Catholic base, given Tomczak’s affiliation with the Papacy.
The ecclesiology of PDI was troublesome from the very beginning. They called their leadership an “apostolic team.” That team consisted of Mahaney, Tomczak, Bill Galbraith and Brent Detweiler. This is frightening, considering that New Apostolic Reformation leaders (NAR) were associated with the organization. The apostolic team preferred to call their congregations “ministries” rather than “churches” and viewed their churches as extensions of their own personal ministries. As they began to co-opt various parachurch organizations under the banner of PDI it took on a very Dominionist vibe in their pursuit of organizational growth. Denying congregational church government (or oversight) it was also apparent that the “apostles” were over virtually everything and exercised ultimate control.
In the mid-1990s, PDI grew increasingly Calvinistic in soteriology and became the spearhead of “New Calvinism,” which is both charismatic and Calvinist. This led to the departure of PDI co-founder, Tomczak, and led to Mahaney renaming his organization Sovereign Grace Ministries. During the “Calvinizing” of PDI, notable charismatics like the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) leaders, Lou Engle and Che’ Ahn, left the organization.
Soon, Mahaney began to receive the accolades and support of the New Calvinist movement, a resurgence in Calvinist thinking that is largely divorced from historic Reformed theology. Mahaney was welcomed into New Calvinist circles, particularly by burgeoning New Calvinism organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and leaders like Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. An Arminian-turned-Calvinist was a novelty that could not be overlooked, even if he was a charismatic and had troubling ecclesiology. Mahaney soon joined the Calvinist speaking circuit and Sovereign Grace Ministries soon began to host the biggest names in Calvinist circles including John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, and Mark Dever.
In 2009, one of the original members of the apostolic team – Brent Detweiler – released a series of documents questioning Mahaney’s heavy-handed leadership style. As PDI became Sovereign Grace Ministries and abandoned its Arminianism, it seems that the notion of apostolic authority didn’t quite leave the organization and Mahaney still had incredible control. Due to this Mahaney agreed to step aside as a team reviewed accusations of “pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.” In 2012, he was reinstated after it was determined that he had no reason to be disqualified as the “President” of Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Also in 2012, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) announced it would be moving its headquarters to Louisiville, Kentucky, citing its closeness and growing partnership with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. During this time, more churches left the organization, leaving it with about 80 different congregations worldwide. As twenty additional churches left in 2013, Mahaney agreed to step aside as leader.
In 2015, Sovereign Grace Ministries received a further “kick in the pants” when Mahaney’s successor at the flagship church, Covenant Life Church (which had since departed from SGM), resigned to attend seminary, stating that “isolation” of the organization probably led to leadership mistakes relating to sex-abuse cover up.
And this is where we get into the story regarding Rachael Denhollander. If you don’t know the story of Denhollander already, you might have been living under a rock. But for those of you who don’t watch the news, Denhollander was the courageous gymnast and an aspiring Olympian who blew the whistle on scumbag child molester, Larry Nassar, who was just sentenced to 175 years in prison for feeling up the young ladies who came to him for care while he was a United States gymnastics team doctor. Denhollander took the wind out of the lungs of evangelical Christians everywhere when she used her opportunity to testify against Nassar (sixteen years after her abuse) to share the Gospel in an amazing way. Don’t skip over this clip. Watch it.
Here’s where Sovereign Grace Ministries comes into play. SGM has been accused in a class-action lawsuit (credibly so) of covering-up sex crimes committed by church members or those within their care. You can find the entire account here. Although the statute of limitations was up, leaving the lawsuit with little chance of succeeding or teeth for the prosecution, it created a large scandal in the “survivor community” and painted a large amount of doubt concerning the integrity of Mahaney and SGM in general. With the facts considered, it probably should.
In Calvinist circles, the scandal was largely ignored. Mahaney continued to be propped up in New Calvinism circles, for little reason more than that he was a Calvinist. Again…his charismaticism was problematic, cult-like ecclesiology concerning, apostolic roots never fully repented of, and ecumenism still unaddressed. Nonetheless, he was a Calvinist, and so among Calvinists, the scandal was hardly mentioned. Tim Challies wrote an article in 2013 about this topic, calling for reservation and caution in judgment, which seems emblematic for how the Calvinist community as a whole chose to respond; they called for caution and reserve judgment, but then never made judgment. They just let it go by, time passed, and picked up where they left off.
The story with Rachael Denhollander converges with the saga from Sovereign Grace Ministries because the notoriety and cheerleading Denhollander received from the evangelical community after her incredible, Gospel-centered testimony led to a few comments about SGM, which was then met with utter silence from those same evangelicals who were cheering for her previously. She told Christianity Today:
The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Morales instead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [an SGM pastor] instead of [MSU gymnastics coach] Kathie Klages, if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of MSU under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there.
Ouch. But, it’s 100% true. Evangelicals cover up our sin (in general) instead of repenting for it. Keep in mind, Greg Locke and Clayton Jennings still have preaching tours, after all. Paige Patterson and other Southern Baptist “traditionalists” helped defend terrible sexual offenders like Darrel Gilyard. The Christian and Missionary Alliance just cleared Ravi Zacharias of cyber-adultery in spite of the very clear and indisputable evidence against him. Those cheering Denhollander for her comments about Larry Nassar have been quiet since her comments about (who is admittedly not a sexual predator) C.J. Mahaney.
Rachael Denhollander’s comment to Christianity Today is a Paul Washer “I don’t know why you’re clapping, I’m talking about you,” type moment. Denhollander set her sights on Sovereign Grace Ministries and what amounts to a “forgive and forget” attitude of evangelicals, even though confession is never made.
Denhollander suggested that SGM be independently reviewed by the organization, GRACE, which stands for “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.” GRACE is run by Boz Tchvidjian, who was a prosecutor for a Special Victims Division (which is comprised mostly of those sexually abused).
Interestingly, Denhollander’s suggestion that GRACE review the SGM organization to make sure victims would be protected was spurned yesterday in an article by Douglas Wilson at his blog. The beef for Wilson is that Tchvidjian has spoken out about alleged sexual abused at Wilson’s church, and Wilson thought he was too ill-informed to be speaking on the particulars, making hasty judgments. Sadly, I’m afraid Wilson made Denhollander’s case for her; it’s all fun and judgment until it’s fellow evangelicals who need scrutiny.
With Denhollander’s incredibly Gospel-centered credentials and her equally-as-impressive conviction about Mahaney and SGM, Mahaney has rescinded an invitation to speak at the large Calvinist conference, Together for the Gospel.
Given the recent, renewed controversy surrounding Sovereign Grace Churches and me individually, I have decided to withdraw from the 2018 T4G conference. No one should interpret my withdrawal as an acknowledgment of guilt.
Delhollander then responded on Facebook:
1. It is unnecessary if, in fact, there are answers to every credible allegation that has been raised of failing to properly handle and report sexual and domestic violence. If all those allegations and each concern raised regarding the credibility of the investigation into CJ’s former church, Covenant Life Church are false, then this should have been, and still should be, made known through an independent investigation.
2. If, in fact, those allegations are true and SGM has a significant and damaging problem regarding how they have handled sexual and domestic violence in their churches, then temporarily stepping down from a conference does not solve the problem. It seeks to avoid it.
Given our knowledge of Together for the Gospel, it is doubtful that Mahaney rescinded his invitation without being asked, but it is possible. The question, perhaps, should be this…why is a gymnast forcing evangelicals to be introspective and to self-scrutinize, when our leaders should be doing that anyway?
[Editor’s Note: HT Wartbug Watch…yes, I realize it’s weird to HT the Survivor Blog Gals, but their info is good and frankly, we should’ve been paying more attention to SGM a long time ago]