August 5, 2011 by
On Tuesday I posted the preliminary panel’s evaluation of C.J. Mahaney’s qualification for ministry. I’m grateful that these men would take time to help us answer that important question and honestly list their related concerns. Please read their report if you haven’t already. In sum, they agreed with the board’s initial judgment that C.J. is qualified for the ministry of the Gospel, noting that C.J. had confessed his sins and that what he confessed did not “constitute public scandal.”
I know that some readers have questions about what that means (what authority does the panel have, how does it relate to the rest of our evaluation, why was it helpful for us, and so forth), and I will explain below how we’re attempting to clarify that. I’d also like to discuss some of the panel’s critiques, which I believe were insightful and accurate, and tell you how we’re responding.
1. We need a formal process for handling allegations against leaders. Though it wasn’t their main point, the panel noted a concern that “this process was made worse…by a lack of an established disciplinary process…” Our own study of 1 Timothy 5:19-21 confirms this; Paul there affirms due process for leaders and, by implication, the right of church members to bring complaints. Referring to this text at a meeting for our pastors last year, Jeff Purswell stressed that a church’s polity should provide a clear avenue by which such allegations are evaluated. Sadly, we failed to have such a policy in place for SGM (nor have we assisted the churches associated with SGM in establishing a local policy along these lines). As a result our movement has been ill-equipped to handle allegations against leaders. C.J. is the most recent example, but not the only one. Over the years some other pastors have had to walk through an unclear and inconsistent evaluation in response to allegations, and that’s caused confusion and pain. This lack of process and the resulting lack of care for leaders is something we need to address. That’s why the board has begun to work on a formal policy for SGM and potentially our churches, the first draft of which we reviewed today in our meeting. This is a priority for us.
Another aspect of this is highlighted by the panel’s remark that “…it is highly unusual for a pastor to step aside prior to the institution and completion of a proper church judicial process.” We didn’t even have “a proper church judicial process” when this started, but nevertheless we had a responsibility to ensure that we not lead others into a rush to judgment (Proverbs 18:13) by how we evaluate allegations. Jeff, Josh, and I (the old board) all thought that C.J.’s leave would “walk the high road” because it removed his potential influence over the evaluation process and allowed him to engage more fully with the evaluation. But it seems to have delivered the exact opposite message: the leave was interpreted by many as a public rebuke of C.J., a pronouncement of “guilty until proven innocent.” There is no way to undo the effects of that decision now, and we remain supportive of C.J.’s desire to devote appropriate attention to the evaluation process, but we want to do a better job of positioning and caring for men going forward. Besides reviewing allegations, are there other meaningful ways that men, including C.J., can contribute to ministry during an evaluation process? I’m discussing that with the board, and will share our progress as we make it.
2. We need to improve communication if we want to rebuild trust. The panel listed “a lack of communication” among their concerns for SGM, and this resonates with input we’re receiving through some of our pastors as well. This is a broad concern but examples are not hard to identify. By not communicating adequately about policy changes (e.g., polity) in the past, we made room for suspicion that we’re deliberately masking or concealing our intentions. By not communicating specifics in our plans, we created room for suspicion that we don’t intend to follow through on commitments. By not communicating more openly about our mistakes, we created room for suspicion that our goal is to maintain a good image. And there are some times when we try to communicate and just fail in the attempt, getting the wrong message across in the process.
I think we have made measurable progress in this area recently, but the work isn’t done. We need to be clear and open about our commitments, the progress we’re making, and failures along the way. We can’t make that right overnight, but as a step in that direction we’re creating a webpage that lists the status of C.J.’s evaluation and other commitments we’re making as part of the process. You’ll be able to see an outline of our plans and how we’re doing on following through with them. I hope that makes this process more accessible, transparent, and (over time) trusted for the churches we serve. We will publish that page next week, and I invite you to give feedback on its clarity and thoroughness when it goes online.
Thank you for continuing to engage with us as we walk out this difficult process. I covet your prayers for our family of churches, for the integrity of our evaluation of C.J., and for the board’s ability to lead capably through the changes that we need to make. We want to come out of this knowing and conforming to the Word of God better, and we’re grateful for your partnership as we pursue that end.
August 2, 2011 by
Two weeks ago we formed a preliminary panel to help us evaluate C.J. Mahaney’s fitness for ministry. We invited several men to participate who had basic doctrinal agreement with Sovereign Grace Ministries, biblical/theological expertise, pastoral experience, and perspectives from a variety of evangelical traditions. Kevin DeYoung, Carl Trueman, and Ray Ortlund accepted.
We’re grateful for the time these men invested in sending us their perspective, counsel, and critique. Theirs is only a preliminary evaluation in this process, but they gave us many good things to consider. More on that later—for now, you can read their statement below.
July 27, 2011
To the Sovereign Grace Board,
As members of the outside panel asked to investigate the charges against C.J. Mahaney, we have worked through the documents you sent and prayerfully considered them—this includes the various documents compiled by Brent Detwiler and a number of confessions, apologies, and statements from C.J. Mahaney. We are not acting as a formal court of the church, or as the representatives of any party within Sovereign Grace Ministries. Our responsibility, as we understand it, is to offer non-binding advice on the narrow question as to whether C.J. Mahaney is presently fit for ministry based on those sins to which he has already confessed. Our remarks should be seen in that light. In short, we are not offering a full-blown assessment of the 600 pages of documents, or the history of Sovereign Grace, or what is best for C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace moving forward, or on any of the other currently disputed matters relative to C.J. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace, and her constituent churches.
Further, our judgment is not intended, and should not be read, as either an endorsement, or a criticism, of any aspect of Sovereign Grace’s church life. To varying degrees, the three of us have wondered at times whether this present controversy was made worse by well-meaning but unwise leadership structures, by the lack of an established disciplinary process, by a lack of communication, and by an over-emphasis on introspection and confession. We were not asked to render judgment on these matters, nor are we in a position to do so. But in our minds it is hard not to look at the task before us without noting the possibility that these broader factors may have played a role in this crisis.
Having said all that, here is our conclusion: We do not believe C.J. Mahaney’s confessed sins have disqualified him from Christian ministry. Or to put it positively, from all that we have seen, heard, and read, we believe C.J. Mahaney is, at this moment in time and based on those sins which he has acknowledged, still fit to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a pastor to others.
Now let us explain.
In assessing C.J. Mahaney’s fitness for ministry, we asked the following questions:
- Is there unconfessed sin? No doubt we all have unconfessed sin, but God does not ask us to find every idol buried under every layer of our subconscious. He asks us to address what we see and what others show us. No one can question that C.J. Mahaney has specifically confessed his sins, both publicly and privately. Therefore this is not a Matthew 18 situation requiring formal discipline. The brother has been won over.
- Is there scandalous sin? None of the sins to which he has confessed constitutes public scandal; nor does he confess anything that is not the everyday experience of a Christian in a fallen world. The most serious charge in the documents is that, over a decade ago, C.J. Mahaney, in an effort to do what he thought would protect Sovereign Grace, threatened to break a promise, an act which appears in context to have been an attempt at coercion. This serious sin looks to us like an unfortunate lack of judgment, rather than a protracted pattern of behavior. It was clearly wrong, but C.J. Mahaney never acted upon it and has since apologized.
- Is there a pattern of being untrustworthy? It may look that way to some, but this is a paper trail of 15 years. Few, if any, could withstand this kind of public scrutiny and emerge without blemish or without being reminded of something that they should not have done and of which they are now rightly ashamed. Of course, we want to see C.J. Mahaney take what he has confessed and show progress; but, to repeat, that to which he has confessed does not require suspension from the ministry.
- Is C.J. Mahaney “above reproach”? The term does not entail complete likeability or the absence of public accusations. If it did, Jesus could not have been a preacher; neither could Paul (or Luther or Calvin or just about anyone else). The question is whether there are disqualifying sins impeding C.J. Mahaney’s ministry of the gospel. We do not see a pattern of egregious sins which would dishonor the Lord Jesus Christ should C.J. Mahaney continue to minister. We believe his Christian walk, though flawed (as is the case with all Christians), is still a model for others to follow.
We are aware that numerous other instances of sin have been alleged against C.J. Mahaney. We have not been asked to look at the evidence for these but would comment that it is highly unusual for a pastor to step aside prior to the institution and completion of a proper church judicial process. To reiterate: nothing to which he has confessed would appear to us to require his stepping aside in advance of such a process.
While we affirm that C.J. Mahaney has not disqualified himself from ministry, we also encourage Sovereign Grace Ministries to address the broader issues to which we alluded at the start as a means of avoiding the current kind of situation in the future.
Our prayers are with Sovereign Grace Ministries, the board, the pastors, the churches, and the brothers and sisters worshiping our risen Savior all over the country and the world. We are thankful for Sovereign Grace Ministries and fully expect that they will be stronger in the long run because of these present trials. May the Father of mercies and God of all comfort be with everyone involved.
Ray Ortlund Jr.
Concluding Personal Remarks
I am the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church, an RCA congregation in East Lansing, Michigan. The public controversy surrounding C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace has been difficult for many, including myself. I have great affection for Sovereign Grace. I have spoken at various Sovereign Grace events and meet regularly with a local Sovereign Grace pastor in my area. In addition, over the past couple years I have gotten to know various leaders in Sovereign Grace. Joshua Harris is a very good friend. So is C.J. Mahaney. We have had Curtis Allen speak and rap at our church. I have also met with men like Bob Kauflin, Jeff Purswell, Dave Harvey, Grant Layman, and some of the pastors at Covenant Life when I preached there at Joshua Harris’ invitation in the fall of 2010. Honestly, I have experienced nothing but warm, gospel-centered relationships with everyone I have met from Sovereign Grace. Even those I have talked to at conferences have seemed like exemplary Christians—the kind of brothers and sisters I would love to have in my church. All that to say, as much as an outsider can, I know and love Sovereign Grace. In serving on this panel I have tried to be as objective as possible, knowing that some of my friends may see things differently. My conclusions are mine, and, as far as I know my heart, are not owing to any previous connection with anyone in Sovereign Grace. I agreed to serve on this panel in hopes that our small contribution might help provide insight and direction to a family of churches that I care for deeply.
I am Lead Pastor of Immanuel Church, an Acts 29 church in Nashville. I have had two brief conversations with C.J. Mahaney in the past, as I recall, with a few short emails along the way. I preached once at Covenant Life Church at Josh Harris’s invitation, and I will preach there in August, God willing, at the worship conference at Bob Kauflin’s request. Having read the statements written by C.J. Mahaney and the other documents sent to this panel by SGM, I have been personally helped. If C.J. Mahaney were my pastor and my family’s pastor, I expect we would be greatly blessed by the Lord. Now may He grant His peace to everyone involved in this difficulty. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
I am an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA. Neither body has a formal relationship with Sovereign Grace Ministries. While I sit with C.J. Mahaney on the Board of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I have never attended a Council meeting, nor interacted with him on Alliance business. I have met him three times, once briefly at a group breakfast at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting in 2005, once for a brief lunch in 2006 and then when teaching a course for the Pastor’s College in 2007. I have also been interviewed by him for his blog. I will be giving a seminar at T4G next year, but that was at the request of Mark Dever. Beyond that, and the fact that I have appreciated the writings of C.J. Mahaney and others in SGM, I have no personal connection with him and no vested interest in, or extensive knowledge of, the work of SGM.