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How Tim Challies Got “Thinking Biblically” Wrong (and How We Can Do Better)

Updated with more information about Tim Challies’ claim not to be part of SGM.

Much has been written recently about allegations of sexual abuse by people within Sovereign Grace Ministries and the allegations that SGM leaders have covered up instances of child sexual abuse and/or prohibited investigation and/or prosecution of those abuse cases.

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Most recently, blogger Tim Challies wrote a post that summarized what has been reported and then purported to discuss how Christians ought to approach the situation.

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. …Because I am not a part of SGM I am not forced to take a side and, therefore, will not.

…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.

…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! [emphasis mine]

Tim’s post is profoundly disturbing to me. He ultimately concluded that ignorance is next to godliness – the biblical way to approach scandal (whatever that means). Tim chooses to remain ignorant of the situation, the allegations, and the response coming from SGM. He refuses to speak out against Mahaney, though he states he has been pressured to do so. But in attempting to remain neutral and detached, Tim also fails to speak out for the hurting, the abused, and the oppressed. Tim never calls on SGM to stop resisting investigation, stop covering up, and stop hiding behind the First Amendment (which is ridiculous, since church workers are mandated reporters, required by law to report allegations of abuse revealed to them).

UPDATE: Tim’s claim to be outside the SGM circle is false. It makes his entire post disingenuous. See this post for a detailed rundown of his ongoing relationship with CJ Mahaney’s organization.

I don’t understand how this shows Christian love. I don’t see any pursuit of justice, mercy, and freedom from oppression in a “bury your head in the sand” approach to abuse.

Do we not all agree that the Roman Catholic Church failed its people for the many instances of protection of abusive priests, cover-ups, and looking the other way? How is what Tim Challies advocating any different?

As a mother of four, a woman, and the wife of a former leader in a reformed church (an umbrella term for the theology touted by this group of churches), I am appalled at this lack of concern for the people entrusted to the leadership of Sovereign Grace churches. I am horrified that the leaders have shown such blatant disregard for the responsibilities of leadership. I am shocked that these men (they are all men, which is another issue I will not address today) have turned their back on the role they took on and have trivialized the commands of God.

One analogy of leadership all through the Bible is that of a shepherd caring for a flock. It makes sense, since the Hebrew people were agrarian and would understand all the implications of sheep-herding. As someone who has spent years inside the reformed-baptist-ish realm of evangelical Christianity, I can tell you that shepherds and sheep is the language these churches use. They refer to elders and pastors as “shepherds” of the flock, which is made up of church members and attenders. This comes primarily from a passage in 1 Peter:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. 1 Peter 5:1-4

The language of shepherding has become part of the church culture (and must sound really bizarre to an outsider, given the rarity of shepherding actual sheep in our culture!). I’ve even heard one pastor demean his congregation by calling them “stupid sheep” in nearly every sermon and lesson he gave. The implication was that he, as a (self-appointed) “shepherd,” was not stupid, and thus should be followed without question.

The passage above talks about how to shepherd, but it doesn’t talk about what good shepherding looks like. This requires some knowledge of the task of sheep herding, but basically, a shepherd’s job is to protect the flock. It’s a dirty lonely dangerous job. Good shepherds go after the hurt and lost sheep, rescuing and caring and healing, keeping the flock together, guiding them to clean water and good pastureland. They defend their flock against the predators who would maim and kill those in their flock. Shepherds care more about protecting their sheep from harm than they do about protecting themselves and will risk their own lives to save the sheep. We learn all of this in the many passages comparing shepherds to leaders, including the following.

Ezekiel delivered scathing judgment against the leaders of Israel:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? Ezekiel 34:1-2

Jesus himself describes a good shepherd in John 10, and contrasts a shepherd with a hired hand:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. John 10:11-13

Anyone who dares to take a position as leader ought to consider this carefully, and all the implications for when things go badly (for they will). Are they (Am I?) more concerned about protecting the name and reputation of the organization and themselves? Or are they (am I?) willing to sacrifice their time, their energy, even their good name, to care for the people they serve?

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 held accountable 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.

To all leaders who would rather hide behind authority and secrecy, hear this:

“‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says:I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.’” Ezekiel 34:7-10

I call on the leaders of SGM to come forward, cooperate with the investigation, and show the compassion and care for the weak and oppressed that Jesus calls us to show. I call on all those who have influence and voice to put pressure on SGM and any ministry in a similar situation to be honest, open, and to be true shepherds, prioritizing the needs of their people over their reputation. Take allegations of abuse seriously. Refer the hurting to qualified trained certified counselors. Call law enforcement. Don’t create safe havens for abusers within your churches. Don’t cover up scandals. Do the right thing.


For those who need to learn more about the allegations, check out these sites for good coverage (thanks to HÄNNAH at Wine and Marble for the list):
The Tolling Bell
SGM Survivors
The Wartburg Watch

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