C.J. Mahaney autographs an admirer's book at last year's Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville.
Seminary president Albert Mohler is forcefully defending C.J. Mahaney, a Maryland pastor and popular author who has taken a leave of absence over allegations of spiritually abusive and dictatorial practices in church network he leads.
C.J. Mahaney, longtime president of the Sovereign Grace Ministries, has acknowledged the accuracy of some of the charges against him, including failing to be held to accountable by others in his church network and using coercive tactics in a dispute with an estranged colleague with whom he has since reconciled.
"I always have had only the highest estimation of C.J. Mahaney as a man and a minister," Mohler said in an interview — his first public comments on the situation involving Mahaney, one of his fellow leaders in the Reformed, neo-Calvinist movement. "That continues absolutely unchanged. There is nothing in this current situation which would leave me to have even the slightest pause of confidence in him."
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has worked closely with Mahaney for years as leaders of a revival of teaching on Calvinist theology,male authority and church discipline among some conservative evangelicals.
Mohler said he believes Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace board are being prudent in planning an independent investigation from people outside the denomination to make sure those involved are above reproach.
But Mohler has already drawn his own conclusions.
He based that on hundreds of pages leaked to the Internet last week, detailing correspondence between Mahaney, his main accuser and former colleague, Brent Detwiler, and other Sovereign Grace leaders.
"There is nothing disqualifying in terms of anything that is disclosed in this," said Mohler, who regularly speaks on programs along with Mahaney. "It's just evidence we knew all along, that C.J. is human but a deeply committed Christian and a visionary Christian leader."
Sovereign Grace itself is taking a more cautious approach. A statement from its board called the allegations "serious."
"These charges are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn't minimize their serious nature, which include various expressions of pride, unentreatability (inability to accept correction), deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy," the board said. (One reader last week wondered how the board was defining "immorality" in light of that catalogue of sins.)
And in a Sunday sermon, Mahaney's successor as pastor of the denomination's flagship congregation, Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., refused to downplay them.
"We are walking through what is without any exaggeration the most difficult challenge that we've faced as a church," said the pastor, Joshua Harris.
Harris called his former mentor a "father in the faith to many of us" but that Mahaney had "confessed to some of these sins" while disagreeing with others.
"It is as bad as it seems, and it is the fault of your leaders, and we desperately need the help of God and the wisdom and the accountability of the people who have looked to our leadership to sort through this mess," he said.
In his own statements, Mahaney said that "God is disciplining me for my sin and leadership failures and I am very grateful for this discipline."
"I was difficult to entreat," he told the Covenant Life congregation Sunday night. "I sinfully judged their motives. I was arrogantly confident in my perception."
Mahaney has been in ministry since the 1970s, when the one-time drug enthusiast was converted to Christianity through the hippie-friendly Jesus Movement, according to the 2008 book, "Young Restless, Reformed," by Collin Hansen.
The bald-headed Mahaney captures audiences with his earnestly enunciated phrases and a broad circumference of gestures. His popular books include one titled, "Humility: True Greatness."
The Maryland-based Sovereign Grace network has a network of 97 churches in the United States and abroad, many on the East Coast, known for their unusual combination of Reformed theology and a history of Pentecostal-like spiritual gifts such as divine prophecy. None of its congregations are listed in Kentucky and Indiana, although Mahaney has spoken to enthusiastic crowds in Louisville this February at Southern Seminary and last year at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
Mahaney's leave follows years of once-secret deliberations among its leaders. The dialogue reflects a specialized vocabulary of a culture within Sovereign Grace of relentless scrutiny of one's own sins and those of other members.
Detwiler, who resigned from his positions in the Sovereign Grace movement in 2009 after years of conflict with Mahaney, had documented the conflict in more than 600 pages of emails between him, Mahaney and other movement leaders. He included hundreds of footnotes, fastidiously parsing others' words and phrases.as inaccurate or reflecting incomplete repentance.
Detwiler recently circulated them among all Sovereign Grace pastors, and someone posted them anonymously online last week under the label, "sgmwikileaks."
Harris confirmed the correspondence was authentic, that much was accurate but that some allegations remain in dispute.
Detwiler charged Mahaney with dishonesty, "spiritual abuse and manipulation," dismissing critics as embittered and failing to accept the harsh correction he doled out on others. For example, Detwiler said he failed to confess sins publicly and described general vices he was guilty of — without naming specifics or those he may have hurt through them. Detwiler said he did forgive Mahaney for areas in which he felt his repentance was genuine but felt justified in seeking vindication for things Detwiler feels falsely accused of.
For example, Detwiler said Mahaney's scathing review of his job performance were unfair and had a major role in Detwiler's ultimate departure from the North Carolina church he led and were harmful to his family. Mahaney disputes this.
Mohler said he saw no reason for Mahaney to take a leave from other leadership positions.
Mohler, Mahaney and two other ministers share leadership of the group Together for the Gospel, which has brought thousands of mostly young pastors and other attendees to conferences such as one held last year at the Kentucky International Convention Center. They are also on the board of a similar group, the Gospel Coalition, according to the group's Web site.
"I assume he would retain every position in leadership," Mohler said. "I expect he should be very quickly returned to leadership of Sovereign Grace."
Mohler contended that Detwiler has "an obvious vendetta" against Mahaney and attributed the document dump on the Internet to him.
UPDATE: Detwiler said in comments via email this morning:
"I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mohler. He is a remarkable man and done incalculable good in Southern Baptist circles and the Body of Christ at large. People everywhere should listen to his radio broadcasts and read his published materials. I am sure his friendship and support is a great source of comfort to C.J. during this challenging time."
"...Sovereign Grace Ministries has been a wonderful organization committed to planting Gospel-centered churches in the United States and parts abroad. There are many outstanding pastors and people in the denomination. But temptation and sin come with rapid growth and recognition. That was especially true for C.J. and we did not serve him well by allowing him to play by a different set of rules – a double standard. We certainly share the blame for his fall. But C.J. genuinely loves the Lord and people so I am confident he will respond to God's discipline in his life.
Detwiler also said he did not post the materials on the Internet but has become aware of the person who did. Mohler's characterization of his motive as a vendetta, he said, "constitutes an uncharitable judgment but one I understand given his close relationship with C.J. He is defending his friend and that is admirable."
UPDATE: Mahaney rotated off the board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in December, which is housed at Southern Seminary and promotes male authority in churches and homes. He is listed on the site as vice-chairman, as an earlier version of this post noted, but the council has not updated its Web site, said Randy Stinson, the council president and a seminary dean. Stinson said the rotation was routine and unrelated to the circumstances of Mahaney's leave from Sovereign Grace.
The Sovereign Grace network is separate from the Southern Baptist Convention, the affiliate of Southern Seminary, but Mohler praised Mahaney's group as "one of the most vital movements of church planting and evangelism and church development in this generation."
Mohler added: "Any time you're going to take on the role of leadership, you're going to have critics."
Mohler also supported Sovereign Grace's highly centralized leadership structure in its churches, with "very strong pastoral direction" and internal discipline.
"It 's something clearly called for in the New Testament," he said.
Mohler said he knew this practice has had online critics for years.
"Basically there are people who are very uncomfortable with the strong kind of spiritual direction that comes through the Sovereign Grace Ministries," Mohler said. "It's very hard to criticize it on biblical terms, as you'll see on most of those Web sites. It basically comes down to the criticism, ‘I don't like that.'"
Many of those attending the conferences led by Mohler, Mahaney and others are young pastors and others described by Hansen's book title as "Young Restless, Reformed." They often are marked by goatees, shaved heads and/or cargo shorts and by their earnest focus on the doctrines of the 16th century Protestant Reformer John Calvin and those influenced by him, from Puritan devotional poetry to the 19th century sermons of Charles Spurgeon.
The Sovereign Grace Ministries name, in fact, echoes Calvin's emphasis on God's power (sovereignty) and favor (grace) rather than human works in achieving salvation. Calvinist thought predominates at Southern Seminary, and a denominational survey found nearly 30 percent of recent graduates from all Southern Baptist seminaries who are now serving as pastors identified with Calvinism.
The movement also emphasizes church discipline and male authority.
The Together for the Gospel conference at the convention center last year drew a mostly young, mostly male crowd of several thousand from around the nation and abroad, eagerly soaking up teachings and free books. They lined up between sessions to have their pictures taken with Mahaney and other prominent speakers, such as Mohler and Minnesota pastor John Piper.