Examples of What Survivor Communities
Have Actually Been Up Against.
This post serves as a “reader’s guide” to what has become a quintessential litmus-test case in the kinds of abuse, cover-up, and deflection that survivors and their communities have had to endure.
In this case of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM; more recently renamed Sovereign Grace Churches) and their celebrity leader, CJ Mahaney, that state of unresolved trauma and ongoing triggering for many victims of child abuse and reported spiritual abuse, has gone on for decades.
I chose this case study because it came into existence long before any form of the #MeToo movement got going, and it has resurfaced annually since then. A protective shell of other well-known evangelical individuals and institutions keep surrounding SGM and CJ Mahaney. This adds to the frustration of survivors, their loved ones, and their advocates who seek justice but have been met with silencing.
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With the onset of some additional Christian streams emerging with the #MeToo movement in late 2017, it seems many more abuse survivors have been on social media. They may or may not be new in their participation and advocacy, or in their knowledge of what’s gone on before in survivor communities. So, I thought some background history would be helpful for those who are new to this.
I’d been working through how to introduce the next segment about what abuse survivor communities have been up against from malignant ministers and toxic institutions, but I got stuck on what angles to use to get into the material. List the kinds of issues that continually crop up? Give short descriptions of various unresolved situations? Use a longer case study that shows the many ways that abuse people traumatize victims? Do the presentation and analysis, or give links to let readers do their own research?
Sometimes circumstances help get indecision off dead-center. An article on C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) by Benjamin Sledge was posted on Medium.com. SGM (recently renamed Sovereign Grace Churches/SGC, and it still shows up online under either term) is one of the unresolved cases I’d been considering, so the providential timing sealed the deal.
The unresolved case of SGM/SGC and its main leader, C.J. Mahaney, has been ongoing for decades. (And by “unresolved,” I mean that victims have not received justice, not all who perpetrated abuse or protected abusers have been held accountable, and there has been insufficient focus on prevention of future abuse. There seems to have been scant (if any) public acknowledgment that their leaders have done any self-critiquing their theology for elements that contribute to harming congregants. The SGC/Mahaney situation also involves many – if not most – of the legal and conciliation methods use to hold off abuse survivors and critics. has become a sort of litmus test of whether an individual or institution really cares about dealing with systemic abuse or not.
So, here is the plan: I’ll recommend you read five key articles that overview the historical situation, and provide resources and some frameworks for analysis of this case for you to use in your own additional research.
P.S. You may want to review the threefold framework (ethical, infrastructure, resolution) in Part 7B1 to refresh your memory on key points about methods for resolution of disputes. Otherwise, as you read the articles, consider:
- What was done initially that victimized people?
- What were the responses of leaders, on behalf of their institutions?
- How were these (in)actions helpful or harmful?
- What has caused this situation to drag on without resolution?
- What do you think it would take for insiders who are responsible for abuse and/or cover-up to change? What about for outsiders who are complicit for helping shield individuals and institutions that have been demonstrated to be abusive?
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CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace
as a Litmus-Test Case for Caring About Abuse
SGM probably the best case study to consider the harm done from abuse/violence, and the resounding damaging inflicted when nothing gets done to deconstruct the situation, hold accountable the malignant people responsible for the trauma, and dismantle internal and external infrastructures that maintain moral corrosion and coverup. SMG/CJ Mahaney constitutes a litmus-test situation, indicating how serious a public person or institution connected in any way with CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace is about ending systemic abuse. Here’s why I say that:
This situation was in place for decades before the emergence of #MeToo movement in September 2017.
It resurfaced after the emergence of #MeToo, with issues early in 2018 and again in early 2019.
What has happened embodies just about every victimization angle you can imagine on abuse, harassment, and trauma. (See list later in this post.)
It encompasses most of the tools and tactics talked about in early parts of this series: Part 6B (lawsuits – not necessarily by them, non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreements, membership contract/covenant, internal/partial investigation) and Part 6C (arbitration, conciliation, and mediation).
They may not have had a crisis manager or PR agent, but they did hire MinistrySafe (which we’ll look at in Part 7B3) to conduct some kind of investigation.
There has been what seems extreme protection of SGM people and platforms from multiple other leaders, institutions, academic organizations, informal networks, conferences, etc. This indicates the existence of some sort of Sovereign Grace Industrial Complex where outside commenders use the resources of their own position and organization to support and promote SGM.
It’s official evangelical theology has morphed over the decades (charismatic, Shepherding, neo-Calvinist). But it appears to have consistently weaponized doctrine elements (such as unconditional submission to leadership) to keep power in the hands of the few who overlord it over the many.
There is a very long trail of documents and evidence for those who want to track and confirm what they did, and how it traumatized and revictimized survivors.
Justice has not yet been achieved, malignant people have not been held to account, and toxic systems have not been dismantled. This means it ignores core values of abuse survivor communities, and therefore cannot legitimately claim any moral authority to speak to any issues of abuse, recovery, or reconciliation.
You don’t have to accept my conclusion, but if you don’t, I hope you’ll at least examine some of the evidence – including trial records and admissions made under oath. The case of SGM has been tracked for well over 10 years, and I’ll be linking you to articles that introduce the backstory and draw together many of the ongoing threads; interview key witnesses and whistle-blowers; and analyze organizational and ideological issues that maintain the malignancy.
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Eruptions in 2016, 2018, and 2019:
Background, Analysis, and Additional Links
I compiled this section from two series of comments I posted on Twitter – January 29, 2019 and January 31, 2019 – and on Facebook. (There is no link to the Facebook source, as that thread was on a friend’s page that is not set to be public.) I’ve edited the language for clarity, occasionally reordered the merged material, and added in other resource links.
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A Loop Beginning in 2019
Benjamin Sledge’s (@SledgeHS) well-sourced, well-documented article on “Together for the Go$pel“ (Medium dot com; January 28, 2019) draws together details from a whistle-blower, survivor blogger, people impacted by this industrial complex, independent investigator. Read his article and Twitter thread.
I responded with two tweets that suggest some of the possible significance of his article.
This will be an important article to track on Twitter, to see who is commenting (positively or critically) and who is retweeting it.
Farther Back, in Early 2016
Although much of what Benjamin Sledge wrote is not “new news” – though an important viewpoint — it seems to be the first major report on SGM/CJ Mahaney in the era of #MeToo. Here is what was probably the most extensive news report article from before that, in 2016, from The Washingtonian.
The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch: Inside the rise and fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries, by Tiffany Stanley (February 14, 2016).
This follow-up article by Elizabeth Dias in Time magazine gives extensive background information from Tiffany Stanley, who wrote the investigation report that appeared in The Washingtonian.
Inside the Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse at Sovereign Grace Ministries., by Elizabeth Diaz (February 19, 2016).
So, those who continue their association with Mr Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries/Sovereign Grace Churches now, have had another three years to do something about this, but as yet have done pretty much nothing, as best I can see.
Forward to One Year Ago, in Early 2018
In early 2018, there was a series of three news and interview articles from Christianity Today (CT) magazine, with links to articles from 2013-2014. One year ago today — on January 31, 2018 – CT (@CTmagazine) posted the interview of Morgan Lee (@Mepaynl) with Rachael Denhollander. In light of Ms. Denhollander’s prominent role in the Olympics gymnasts’ case of Larry Nassar, this article represents a significant moment for Christians in the then-surging #MeToo movement.
My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness, interview by Morgan Lee (January 31, 2018).
That interview included the topic of scandals in Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). This led to a series of additional articles, statements, and rebuttals. A follow-up article on February 6 by Kate Shellnutt (@kateshellnutt) links to those items and puts them into context.
Sovereign Grace Disputes Rachael Denhollander’s Remarks, by Kate Shellnut (February 6, 2018).
A March 22, 2018, CT article by Mark Galli (@markgalli) overviews the history of the lawsuit against SGM, filed in 2012; references core issues from as early as the 1980s; then brings it up to date. He ends with analysis of investigation issues and calls for resolution.
We Need an Independent Investigation of Sovereign Grace Ministries, by Mark Galli (March 22, 2018).
Back to Now in 2019, and Some Analysis
A year later, it seems there’s been no movement to resolve underlying issues, hold responsible individuals to account, or dismantle institutional ties protecting a platform for Sovereign Grace celebrities and ministries. @SledgeHS picks this up in his Medium dot Com article.
Roots of this situation go back decades. Survivor bloggers and news reporters have spotlighted Sovereign Grace Ministries/Churches and its main celebrity CJ Mahaney for years. Yet, the problems remain and institutional protectors stay silent about SGM, even if they decry abuse.
Sadly, this case shows the range of trauma types experienced by survivors: the abuse; the coverups through denials, deflections, church discipline; the building of a sort of Sovereign Grace Industrial Complex to protect and give undue preference to SGM-related people/projects.
Nothing has moved this case off dead center, either before the surge in the #MeToo hashtag campaign starting in September 2017, or since. But it’s become a severe stumbling block to evangelicalism claiming moral authority to address forms of abuse when they don’t deal with this.
It’s been a whole additional year since the last major eruption of SGM/SGC and CJ Mahaney on evangelicalism’s horizon. How much longer will this remain unresolved? What will it take to dissolve the protective shell they’ve been apparently granted by other evangelical celebrities?
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My Own Tracking and Talking
About SGM/SGC and Mr. Mahaney
Blogging, hashtag campaigns, articles, and more go even farther back from the eruptions of SGM issues since 2016. This section gives a sampling from my own writings. I’ll go in reverse order.
I originally posted the following article as a Twitter thread on March 10, 2018, about Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC) and its former version, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). It is a compilation of 15 tweets and related links.
Here’s an article I posted in April 2016. It has another dozen links to articles, news reports, social media hashtag campaigns, and more.
I posted this article in 2014, in light of the hashtag campaign, #IStandWithSGMVictims.
And here is a tutorial I posted in about 2012 that uses SGM as a case study …
… it links to a detailed analysis I did of a SGM church members’ meeting in 2012, the article of which was posted at BGBC Survivors blog (Julie Anne Smith’s/@DefendTheSheep blog before her Spiritual Sounding Board got going). …
… and it also relates with this how-to article from 2013 on preparing to share our accounts of spiritual abuse.
The larger point is this: I am just one of many research writers, survivor bloggers, and news reporters who’ve spotlighted this abusive system for years. Yet, men in leadership inside and outside Sovereign Grace remain silent, keep associating with SGM/SGC, laugh off toxicity as if it has not and does not exist.
They have little excuse. Many of these are leaders of institutions and networks that train next generations of leaders. What do they think they are passing along as approved DNA of leadership? What we see as endorsed are weaponized doctrinal principles and toxic practices, such as:
- Unconditional submission to disqualified leaders.
- Deflection of responsibility.
- Avoidance of accountability.
This is all DNA of corruption, and there are days when it feels pointless to keep pointing out the well-documented truth about these historic and current abuses.
But systemic abuse cannot be cracked until it is identified.
It cannot be deconstructed – and dismantled if necessary – until cracked.
Not reconstructed – if still possible – until deconstructed, so malignant agents can be removed, toxic infrastructures flushed out, healthy people and principles and practices implanted.
Deconstructing systemic abuse and oppression, and (re)constructing healthy systems, are at core spiritual endeavors. They must be based in truth and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Kyrie eleison …
If those processes of deconstruction and (re)construction are of interest, see the last section in this post on How to Deconstruct a Christian Industrial Complex.
Meanwhile, I’d suggest to Southern Baptist Convention celebrities/entities especially to take note: If you continue to show preference to, or even shield, C.J. Mahaney and SGM (now Sovereign Grace Churches) that is a barometer indicator for survivor communities to know whether your SBC spaces are safe or still in shadow.
Abuse survivor communities highly value (1) justice for victims that includes (2) righteous accountability and consequences for perpetrators of abuse/violence and (3) dismantling infrastructures that protect abusers, (4) to make places safer for all, especially for those who are vulnerable to bullying and grooming for abuse.
Patterns of failure to address systemic abuse such as represented in this litmus-person/barometer-situation in effect deny in practice any ideology of Imago Dei in people. It demonstrates only some people are valued, not all. No one deserves abuse. Every victim deserves advocacy.
If your organization wants to assess how safe and sustainable it is related to preventing forms of abuse, or deconstruct and reconstruct because you’ve identified problems, there are resources already available – for survivors, counselors, pastors, denominational developers – and survivors/advocates willing to be of help personally. No need to reinvent the wheel!
That said, I believe there will eventually be accountability and consequences for the individuals who lead institutions that have refused to engage in correctives about this toxin-spreading relationship. And their institutions may also face radical consequences for corporate (in)actions. Sovereign Grace Ministries/CJ Mahaney and his Shepherding Industrial Complex is a quintessential barometer issue to indicate these institutions’ environment for abuse/toxicity or for safety/sustainability. If people want to know whether an organization that’s previously been intertwined with SGM/Mr Mahaney is truly serious about addressing systemic abuse, Benjamin Sledge’s article gives the clarion call: Now or perhaps never.
I do hold a very small hope that there may be constructive responses. However, if they continue in silence, I expect the resistance to amplify (and so should they). And those individuals and institutions who refuse to deconstruct and reconstruct should, in the long run, expect to self-destruct. We cannot laugh off harm done by ourselves or our organizations forever … all Christians have one final accounting.
And yet, we need to remember that there is a Holy Spirit component to all this. The information and truth about spiritual abuse and abusers has been available for a long time. “Seeing” it is a spiritual discipleship and discernment issue, not a strictly political or cultural one. Any of us can willfully ignore such clearly and forcefully presented data … at least, until it happens to use or someone we care about. Sometimes it takes that kind of shock to believe the survivor accounts and start moving toward accountability. Will they wait until the shock is so great that it can’t resuscitate their body?
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Links Categories and Tags: CJ Mahaney,
SGM/SGC, Together For The Gospel
Lists of relevant articles from survivor bloggers can be found at these sites, especially at the specific category and tag links as bullet-listed:
The SGM Survivors blog was one of the main online outlet that victims of SGM-related churches and ministries found for connecting, support, and sharing their experiences. It has blog archives going back to November 2007.
Spiritual Sounding Board
The Wartburg Watch
Watchkeep does not have a category system, but does have archives going back to 2010.
Thou Art The Man
Categories from the blog of Todd Wilhelm, who has written extensively on topics and situations related to SGM/SGC and Mr Mahaney:
This tweet raises issues from the 2018 Pastors Conference where CJ Mahaney talked about disqualified leadership.
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How to Deconstruct a Christian Industrial Complex
This four-tweet thread and links addressed how to research/parse a Christian industrial complex – the people, principles, and practices involved; the platforms that maintain its privilege, power, and funding; and even how some doctrines can get weaponized.
With recent reports that call on us to “follow the money” and “stop institutions that protect perpetrators,” it just feels like these times call for reposting links to a series of how-to articles on cracking an “industrial complex.” A basic overview is here:
Then, with some repeat, but more in-depth overall, there is this series of five steps/practices for deconstructing an industrial complex, with application to a the case study the entire website focuses in on. (See pages 10, plus 11A through 11F.)
Step #1. Overviewing the Elements Step #2. My Process for Detecting the Pieces Step #3. Your Turn: Identifying and Interpreting the Pieces and the Bigger Picture.
Step #4. Main Entities in the Complex
- Associations, Networks, Philanthropic Enterprises
- Businesses, Brands, Events, Media, Marketing
- Academia, Seminaries, Training Programs
Step #5: Influential Individuals in the Complex.
The following compilation of 12 posts is the most extensive writings I have on responsibility for spiritual abuse, culpability and accountability issues, and suggestions for dealing with abusive leaders and systems
Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse. Note that the most recent version of my “Pyramid of Abuse” model is on my Systemic Abuse Researcher Notes website.