C. Matthew Recker
The popularity of various evangelical ‘stars’ flows largely from popular conferences and publications. Often, little is known of the ministries behind the men front and center on the evangelical stage. Ever cautious, fundamentalist leaders are often criticized for their caution and/or unwillingness to endorse “trending” evangelical stars. While it is possible to be over-cautious, the following article details the unraveling of Sovereign Grace Ministries and the ministry of C. J. Mahaney. It ought to serve as a cautionary tale to those who want to promote the value of evangelical ministries with little or no regard for fundamentalist discernment.
Sovereign Grace Ministries is an “organization of over 70 member churches which grew out of the charismatic renewal of the 1970s under the leadership of Catholic Charismatic Larry Tomczak“ and C. J. Mahaney. The group first was known as Take and Give (TAG) and had a very strong charismatic emphasis in its early days with healing, tongues speaking, deliverances, with many denominations attending, including Roman Catholics participating. Covenant Life Church (CLC) grew out of this, and when other churches were planted the movement was named People of Destiny International. It was renamed Sovereign Grace Ministries in 1988. C. J. Mahaney became the pastor of the flagship church, CLC.
Early concerns about SGM focused on charismatic beliefs and apostolic claims. SGM identifies itself as a network of churches that are “evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic.” They further state that “all the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in the church of the first century are available today, are vital for the mission of the church, and are to be earnestly desired and practiced.”
At one time, these gifts also included the office of “apostle,” and it is clear that Mahaney views the gift of apostle as continuing. Here’s an excerpt from the SGM website:
“The apostolic team, for those of you new to Sovereign Grace Ministries, was for many years what we called the team of pastors who help us facilitate church planting, international ministry, and church care. But over time, we discovered the name confused more people than it helped, so now we’re considering alternatives.”
Brent Detwiler, who served with Mahaney at SGM but now works against him writes, “Historically, the Sovereign Grace churches have affirmed the continuation of the office of apostle. We thought of the leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries as apostles. This justified the existence and activities of SGM.”
This view undoubtedly leads to some of the very problems SGM has experienced. Mahaney has been accused of pride, authoritarian leadership, and condoning or minimizing their scandals because of so-called prophecy. But where does Sovereign Grace Ministries receive its authority? What is its foundation? It appears their view is that they are the new apostles of this generation and so they need no ordination from a true church having received it directly from Jesus Christ. Detwiler states Mahaney’s dilemma: “If C. J. comes out in favor of apostles governing SGM, at least one third of the churches will leave. If C. J. distances himself from apostles, SGM becomes a parachurch organization with no biblical justification for their existence.”
Who were the apostles? They were personally called and sent out by Jesus Christ Himself (Mark 3:13-19; Acts 9:15). They had seen the risen Lord (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8), and they were given power to perform signs and wonders which authenticated their authority as apostles (2 Cor. 12:12). Revelation 21:14 makes clear there were twelve apostles as they form the foundation of the New Jerusalem. The true church is established upon the “apostles doctrine” (Acts 2:41), which is the New Testament that God inspired them to write. In any building, it is obvious you do not repeat a foundation. Once a foundation is laid down, you build on that. The apostles and prophets laid down the foundation in the first century, and there are no successors to the apostles (Ephesians 2:20). One of the reasons so much division and abuse occurs in the church today is when a group says that there are apostles succeeding the apostles Jesus Christ Himself chose. Mormons, Roman Catholics, many charismatic churches, but not all, have in common a belief in the succession of the Apostles. This false notion leads to carnal leadership, authoritarianism, schism, and often cults.
The problems with SGM are now much more than aberrant doctrine, bad as that is. In recent years, there have been severe child sexual abuse scandals brought against Mahaney and SGM. In May, 2014 former CLC youth group leader Nathaniel Morales was convicted on five counts of sexual abuse against three boys between 1983 and 1991. This conviction has opened new questions about how much CLC pastors knew about the allegations of abuse in their network of churches, and whether or not victims of abuse crimes were discouraged from reporting abuse to the authorities. Many believe that “victims or parents went to the CLC pastors and the pastors ‘covered up’ and ‘ignored the heinous crimes that had been done’ to these boys.” During Morales’ trial, public defender Alan Drew drilled former pastor Grant Layman, who is Mahaney’s brother in law and CLC pastor for thirty years, while on the stand.
Drew: “Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse?”
Layman: “I believe so.”
Drew: “And you didn’t?”
Many more serious unanswered questions remain relating to the godliness and integrity of Mahaney, his pastoral leadership and the SGM, but it is apparent that people extremely close to Mahaney in the leadership of SGM knew of the abuse and did not report it. Further, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently announced (July 2, 2014) a discontinuation of any formal relationship with SGM since a former leader admitted under oath that he failed to report child sex abuse to police. Time will tell whether SGM can overcome these terrible sins.
Mahaney first took a leave of absence but was then reinstated to pastoral ministry. The SGM headquarters moved to Louisville, KT because of the close relationship between Mahaney and Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. There, Mahaney established the Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, KY and became the lead pastor. The turmoil and controversy for Mahaney has continued to the present moment, however. About twenty five of the SGM churches have separated from his network of churches, including the flagship Covenant Life Church now led by Joshua Harris. Mahaney who helped to establish Together for the Gospel has resigned from its leadership because of legal troubles stemming from the sexual abuse charges.
It appears that the Sovereign Grace Ministries is built on sand. Should the work of such ministries be touted as worthy of our attention? Can men with such problems really teach us something on the subject of discipleship or worldliness?
Matt Recker is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in New York City.
- http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/about-us/what-we-believe.aspx Accessed 2014/07/06 [↩]
- http://thewartburgwatch.com/2011/01/21/sovereign-grace-ministries-%E2%80%93-who%E2%80%99s-confused-about-apostolic-ministry/ Accessed 2014/07/06 [↩]
- http://abrentdetwiler.squarespace.com/brentdetwilercom/2012/5/16/cjs-conundrum-regarding-apostles.html Accessed 2014/07/06 [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- http://www.wjla.com/articles/2014/05/nathaniel-morales-of-covenant-life-church-convicted-of-sexually-abusing-young-boys-103175.html Accessed 2014/07/06 [↩]
- http://www.abpnews.com/ministry/organizations/item/28894-seminary-cuts-ties-with-embattled-sgm Accessed 2014/07/06 [↩]