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If Speaking Out Against Church Abuse Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

A number of people have expressed concern (to put it mildly) about my response to Tim Challies’s post on Sovereign Grace Ministries and the lawsuit filed against SGM last week. These concerns fall into two main categories:

  • Should I have made strongly-worded statements specifically about CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries?
  • Should Christians speak out and confront spiritual leaders publicly? 

lawsuit: machine which you enter as a pig and come out of as a sausage.

Making Strongly-Worded Statements about SGM

I have wrestled and wrestled with the first. I have studied the situation at SGM, and I have strong opinions about the situation based on the facts available. I linked to many many of those sources. However, out of respect for those who pushed back, I have reread the original post with their concerns in mind. I decided to reword one problematic paragraph in which I described CJ Mahaney and SGM to be by all appearances hired hands who care nothing for their people. It now reads as follows (with even more links to more damning information):

While the details of these alleged cases of child sexual abuse will not be made public to protect the privacy of the alleged victims, what we do know looks terrible <—IF YOU READ NO OTHER LINKS FROM THIS POST, READ THAT ONE.

The statements made thus far by Sovereign Grace Ministries (including their attempt to hide behind the First Amendment), the departure of many churches (including their flagship, Covenant Life Church, under Josh Harris) from SGM, the many men who have left eldership because of their experience with CJ Mahaney s leadership style (their stories focus primarily on his refusal to be honest and to listen to counsel from others), are all huge red flags. They are warning signs of an organization being led by hired hands, not shepherds.

I reworded the statement (even though I believe it has been and will continue to be supported by testimony) because it distracts from the point of my post. My point was to describe characteristics of good leaders, contrast them with bad ones, and call on those who are abusing their power to stop, admit they have done wrong, and start doing the right things. Sovereign Grace Ministries is in the spotlight right now, and irrespective of their guilt or innocence, they are making terrible choices right now. They are not behaving the way God calls Christians to behave. That was my point.

A Christian Response to the Abuse of Power

This is what Tim Challies attempted to tackle in his original post. Laying aside the fact that Challies is hiding his relationship to SGM (I assume to try to avoid going down with that ship), he raises an important question about a significant challenge facing all of us who reside within any power structure. It takes on new levels of complexity when translated into a church setting. For Christians, these questions go beyond “What can a Christian do when the powerful abuse their power?” to “What ought they do?” 

May Christians come to the defense of others being taken advantage of, used, abused, manipulated, deceived, misled, swindled, wounded, crushed, or worse? Or should Christians, out of respect for those in authority, stand back and let it play out?

When are we obligated to speak out? Is it gossip to speak out against injustice? When is speaking out slander? 

When are we obligated to resist the proud and powerful and oppressive? At what point do we abandon God’s commands to protect the defenseless and let the powerful run amok?

Why Speak Out?

A man named Brent Detwiller served as a pastor in Sovereign Grace churches for many years and was a member of the inner circle there. He has spent the last two years documenting its downward spiral. He wrote the following about why he has put so much into the public domain:

These Top 50 lies were all brought up but in no case did that effort result in repentance or confession by the appropriate person(s).  I also asked for rebuttals but none were supplied.  These illustrations are presented in context and supported by evidence.  I could easily add more references if I took additional time for discovery.  Therefore, I am not slandering or sinfully judging.  Broken promises are treated as lies because they represent sacred commitments regarding crucial matters that were violated without warning or discussion.

As we begin, I am reminded of James’ exhortation, “Weep, mourn and wail” (4:9).  I still hope that happens with SGM leaders.  It is one reason for my ongoing efforts and willingness to present these charges to objective evaluators in a just setting.

Brent’s why and mine are the same: change something wrong and make it right. The goal is to bring about change, correct wrongs, and provide both justice and compassion for those being wronged.

Is It Slander?

One objection leveled against me and anyone who dares speak out about bad things perpetrated by those in authority is that we are slandering those in authority. This is beside the point, but technically, if it’s written, it’s libel.

According to WiseGeek, “Libel involves false statements knowingly presented as fact. In the United States opinion is protected as a tenant of freedom of speech, falling outside the purview of libel. Citizens retain the right to comment on public figures and entities, including government and officials. Entertainment, parody, editorials and criticisms that may arguably misrepresent facts are not libelous so long as they are presented for amusement or stated as mere opinion. Public figures must also meet a higher standard for proving libel than private citizens. Private citizens need only prove negligence, while public figures must show malice.”

Ok, fine. But you argue that’s a legal definition and you only operate within what the Bible says. What’s the biblical definition of slander?

I found an excellent analysis of the topic on the Great Commission website, which includes word studies of all the words translated “slander” in the Bible. Turns out, the Bible defines slander the same way we do in law. According to the analysis here, “the word “slander” always indicates an untrue statement or charge about a person, which, by its false nature defames or injures his reputation unjustly.” It goes on to give many examples of true but damaging discussion of others by people in the Bible. Consider this:

When Paul discussed Peter’s sin with the Galatians (Galatians 2:11-14), it did not reflect very positively on Peter. Nevertheless, we benefit by knowing what God thought of Peter’s actions, not by thinking that he was never hypocritical, or that he had never denied his Lord.

It should be noted as well, that Paul wrote these things during Peter’s life-time, and that he did not include in his letter anything about Peter’s repentance. Apparently Paul himself had fallen for Satan’s “number one tool!” (As I mentioned earlier, it does appear that Peter repented.)

We have a number of other biblical examples of speaking truthfully while reflecting poorly on another’s reputation. Among many others are included: John, of Diotrephes (III John 9,10); Paul, of Hymenaeus and Philetus (II Timothy 2:17,19); Paul, of Demes (II Timothy 4:10); Paul, of Alexander (II Timothy 4:14,15); Luke, of John Mark (Acts 15:38); etc., etc. In none of these cases is there any indication that church discipline had been administered, yet the writer freely mentions the character flaws of these men.

In addition to the many, many examples in the Word of someone revealing the unpleasant realities about someone else’s character, we also have specific instructions to do so. Take, for example, the elder who continues in sin, refusing to turn. Paul says: 

“Those (elders) who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest may be fearful of sinning.” I Timothy 5:20

In this passage we are commanded to expose the truth about someone’s character, and in this case, it could certainly destroy or seriously damage the elder’s reputation. [emphasis mine]

Let Truth and Justice Prevail

Our concern, whether we are Christian or something else, ought to be for truth and justice. We know that we ought to look out for the weak and the lonely, the poor and the disenfranchised.  It’s a moral and ethical responsibility as human being. Covering our asses doesn’t even place in the top ten on this priority list. 

SGM claims to be Christian, to follow the ideals of Jesus. And yet, the SGM statement on the lawsuit included the following:

SGM leaders provided biblical and spiritual direction to those who requested this guidance.  This care was sought confidentially, as is a right under the First Amendment.  We are saddened that lawyers are now, in essence, seeking to violate those rights by asking judges and juries, years after such pastoral assistance was sought, to dictate what sort of biblical counsel they think should have been provided.  SGM believes that allowing courts to second guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment, that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse.” (Tommy Hill, Director of Administration and Finance, Nov 14, 2012)

Brent Detwiller said it well in his response to a question about invoking the First Amendment as a defense:

This class action lawsuit is not about the First Amendment or the confidentially of pastoral counseling.  It is about criminality.  There is every reason to believe heinous crimes have been committed and perverse criminals have been protected.  The Complaint references 10 victims, 11 juvenile or adult predators, a “pedophilic ring,” and the need for a pretrial “discovery…to ascertain the size of the class.” (i.e., find out how many other children have been sexually abused).

In this regard, the Complaint alleges C.J. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and 12 other Defendants “failed to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encouraged parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and interposed themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement.”  Such negligent and illegal actions are not protected by the establishment clause in the First Amendment. 

SGM’s statement does not look like concern for the welfare of the children and adults under this organization’s care. This  does not look like contrition. This does not look like an effort to make reparations and correct things going forward. It appears to be a classic cover-your-ass maneuver, and it fits the pattern. SGM’s history of evasion, deception, twisting the truth, and manipulation via so-called church discipline (if you doubt this statement, click through the links above) does not merit our trust.

And you want to tell me that it is wrong to call for openness, for cooperation with legal authorities, and for change? That it is sin to point leaders to the commands of Scripture and ask them to admit they’ve failed and to start following those commands? Especially when they have steadfastly ignored the pleas of men of good conscience who have begged them to clean house? I defy you to defend that position. Your silence is not neutral. Your silence supports those in power. I will not stay silent. I stand with the children and their parents. I’d rather be wrong than perpetuate more spiritual abuse with my silence. 

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