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While We’re Waiting: Thoughts on the SGM Controversy (weeks later)

Ah. Yes. This.

Those of you who’ve followed here for a long time know that a few years back, one of my exes was an SGM (Sovereign Grace Ministries) church member (she left there while we were dating).  There were stories she used to tell me about spiritually and emotionally hurt people (herself included) that resulted from not going along with whatever ‘plan’ or program was being promoted at her church.

In addition, my own bits and pieces of independent research (including talking to then-current members and a few former members)  turned up a lot of ‘things that didn’t add up’ (i.e. no mention of Larry Tomczak’s name as helping to start SGM in their official history – not even in the 30 year anniversary DVD with a skit of how their church and ministry started), even though it appears in scholarly works like The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements.

As an outsider, I can’t say that I’ve *always* had red flags about SGM. I haven’t. They’ve been on my recommended list of churches for years now (even on the main portion of this site) because the good there outweighs what I thought were simply a few negative criticisms (after all….no one’s perfect and spiritual hurt occurs even in the most sound of churches). I’ve heard stories of entire care groups taking off from work to help an individual move, come alongside someone who is grieving and even help with cooking, housekeeping and other things as an outworking of what the ‘oneanother’ passages in scripture point to.  So there are some very good things about SGM. God is at work in that denomination (yes, I know they don’t call themselves a denomination….but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….name it Donald or Daffy and move on with life).

I only found SGM Refuge and SGM Survivors on accident about 2-3 years ago….visited a few times, read a few dozen posts and a few hundred comments (for perspective) and then got tied up in other things.  So they weren’t an ‘influence’ so to speak, in me formulating my opinion of SGM. My general opinion was that they’re a good church movement, their teachings are relatively solid (only relatively…they are baptists… 🙂 ) and as the leadership in the movement grows more reformed in their thinking, the movement itself will grow more reformed. I do think that theologically, they still had (and this was my 2008 opinion of them) some growing to do in a few areas, but nothing to pull people away from.

I also noticed (and this is me analyzing church culture) that it seemed like all of their churches are clones of the mother church (Covenant Life). There seemed to be a certain personality type that ends up at CovLife (I didn’t notice a real ‘diversity’ of personality types like I would at other churches I’ve visited  and I’ve visited repeatedly at different points between 03 and 06 with sporadic visits between then and 08).  I don’t mean that in a negative way….it’s just an observation I noticed.

Anyway, we fast forward to the present. I may have read about 70-100 pages of the first documents that belonged to Brent D.  The rest of the smaller documents (the 26 and 30 page docs), I read in full, since they tended to summarize the earlier documents.

I’m not too surprised.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely unless your name is Jesus and you’re fully God and fully man.   This isn’t a problem unique to SGM.  Stuff like this happens in other denominations as well, albeit on a smaller scale in most cases. There’s also a certain tendency toward shepherding in some pentecostal movements that SGM’s leadership may have held onto all this time – either knowingly or unknowingly.

I’m also not surprised that a number of Christian men whom I’ve met, talked to and respect very much have jumped to his defense. They are his friends and friends do that for each other.  I personally think it might be smarter of them to belay their public defense of him (notice – I didn’t say their support….just public defense).  The reason I say that is that watching the entire thing unfold on the web as it has (not discussing whether or not it should be up there or not now….it’s there… you can’t unpop a balloon), if the independent panel evaluating Brent’s accusations does come to the conclusion that CJ is at fault, everyone who defended him (and trashed Brent at the same time…see below….) will necessarily be tainted.

That also includes the independent three-man panel (who tried to appear impartial on the issue, but actually have lots of ‘links’ to SGM and CJ in particular) who just declared CJ fit for ministry.

I say that as a caution because of the multiple discrepancies visible in the handling of the situation to date:

  • CJ acknowledges some things as sin and sees deficiencies in his leadership style as well as the style of SGM as a whole.
  • Josh says SGM is being publicly spanked. Rest of the leadership disagrees, Josh decides to leave the leadership board.
  • Others jump to CJ’s defense as if ALL the charges are completely false (in contradiction to CJ’s own released statement). In addition, they (along with SGM leadership) say whatever is necessary to discredit blogs like SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge…along with all of Brent’s documents.
  • Josh, on the other hand, at a family meeting (as well as in the Sunday morning sermon), pretty much encouraged people to go read the documents for themselves, read the blogs and acknowledged that there are some ‘true truths’ in the documents – enough to be concerned about and address as they have been doing.
  • Josh recently (this past Sunday I believe), backtracks on his previous statement (it appears..at least according to reports. I’m listening to the sermon now….) and regrets telling people to read the blogs and documents.

I’ve seen plenty of CJ and SGM defenders pop up as well as CJ and SGM bashers pop up.  Some people are straight speaking out of the pain that they experienced as SGM church members and now this is their time to ‘get even’.  A few out of genuine concern for the movement and the people involved in all of the situations.  Some speak as though CJ can and has never did any wrong and SGM is the ‘most perfect church on the face of the planet’.  A few have just shaken their heads in disbelief and said ‘move along…nothing to see here’. To also be honest, some are popping up simply because they hate reformed theology (which is what I caught a few whiffs of when reading Refuge and Survivors for the first time years ago) and this gives them a chance to ‘blame Calvinism’.

There’s been lots of ‘honest and open dialogue’ now in SGM. I keep reading from current members how their pastors are now discussing issues, failings and shortcomings, seeking out reconciliation with former and current members and much more.  SGM has even (and this is a good thing) allowed negative comments to stay up on their blogposts, with their main media guy (big ups to Andrew for doing such an awesome and gracious job) answering comments as they come in.

Maybe along the path of reforming SGM from a charismatic shepherding-movement/Jesus-people-movement spin-off to a pentecostal/charismatic church with reformational tendencies to a more solid biblical movement, some changes to the leadership structure must happen. God is sanctifying his church. There are a lot of good people in SGM and a lot of good things there.  But apparently, there’s also some things that need to change….otherwise, you wouldn’t have Survivors and Refuge and the hundreds of people who read and/or post there.

I don’t have a horse in this race.  I’m just the random presbyterian guy who has interacted favorably with a few SGM folks, know a few of them and see many “evidences of grace” in the lives of the folks I’ve dealt with (including a few of the leaders that I’ve had passing and/or extended convos with). The last person who I was ‘starstruck’ with was John MacArthur, Jr. at T4G 2006 when I got a chance to shake his hand and tell him ‘thanks’ for The Gospel According to Jesus. All men are sinners – we are saved by grace and without grace, would be nothing more than sinners. Learning that lesson has reminded me not to put people I admire on a pedestal.

Reflecting on SGM’s spiritual trajectory and looking at my own spiritual history down to this point, I see quite a few parallels. Those who know me from my interactions with folks on HCR over the years (and other places) know that I can be (and have been) a really harsh dude at times to those I’ve disagreed with.  Over the years, as the doctrines of grace sunk in deeper beyond the surface, I’ve learned to be more gracious to those I disagree with (don’t get it twisted. I will still call something moronic, stupid and idiotic if it is…and if it’s heresy, I have no beef with calling it lies from the pit of hell).  My theology got solid first and it gave me quite a ‘zeal’, so to speak….a zeal that I’ve grown to learn how to temper (not eliminate or ignore) with mercy, forgiveness, patience and kindness.

So maybe SGM’s going through some of those same growing pains, but as an entire movement and not just individuals (even though CJ is a main focus, since he leads SGM).

I don’t think it’s wise to treat it like a free-for-all-bash-all-things-SGM-related-and-pray-for-their-collapse as I’ve seen some do.  Likewise, I don’t think it’s wise to jump up in automatic defense. I don’t think it’s wise to dismiss all of the documentation that Brent D. has provided (he himself did not put it on the web, but apparently knows who did post it anonymously).  But I also don’t think it’s wise to take only one presentation of the story at face value (Prov. 18:17).

The blogsphere has a tendency to polarize folks on issues like this – thus, I’ve waited until weeks later to post and tried to be as objective on the topic as possible before releasing my thoughts to the general public. My suggestion is to pray for all involved as more things become public, and weigh them with biblical wisdom before simply ‘choosing a side’.  Pray for the men leading the movement and that they would not succumb to cronyism (CJ mentored most of the board members who are now responsible for evaluating him for ministry), favoritism and the ever so tempting tendency to ‘spin’ truth, spin presentations and only appear to be doing something without actually doing anything. Pray for CJ. It’s real easy to resort to defending yourself, ignoring comments of critics in place of your own self-evaluation which seems ‘good’ to you (trust me…been there…done that).

Pray for those hurt by SGM’s practices who’ve left the movement (and even those who have left the visible church altogether). Pray for those SGM pastors left in the movement to exercise wisdom, patience and to discharge their office in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

Pray for those still in SGM’s churches.  Pray that their faith be not shaken, but placed rightly in the Savior first and foremost and not in men.

That’s all for now.  Got a few articles to write for the main site.

-KG