How to Respond to a Faith Crisis? Being Involved in a Church that is Feeding the Crisis or Justifying Atheism

Again reflecting back on a faith crisis, and analyzing how Christians need to be careful about where they attend church, and how that can feed atheism or someone in a faith crisis. It can happen with many aspects from the prosperity gospel, to corrupt ministries or organizations. Todays’ post deals with how an agnostic was being invited to Sovereign Grace from 2011 until 2013 as ethical issues and corruption was hemorrhaging out of SGM. This helped drag out a faith crisis as it helped feed it. And as Redeemer Arlington broke away it was hard for the agnostic to see any difference due to how corrupt SGM was as an organization.

“Now if the church was owning it’s issues, and making corrective measures that could be seen over a period of time, it would help me to consider them more, but I’d be extremely cautious. I’d need to see some incredibly strong changes involving how they prevent sexual abuses.”

May 2011 email from Scott Van Sweringen

 “Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God mere a mistake of man?”

Frederic Nietzsche

 “After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.” 

Frederic Nietzsche

    “They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”

2 Peter 2:19 NIV

There are two quick points I want to make before I dive into today’s post. One I will be discussing Redeemer Arlington. I want the reader to remember that when I am speaking about Redeemer Arlington it was a part of SGM. They have broken away from SGM and did so a couple of years back. So its with that said that I want to emphasize that what I am writing about Redeemer during my faith crisis. Also I respect the leadership of Redeemer and view them as friends. I’ve met with and talked with them about resolving the past situation with Andrew White. While I am not a Neo-Calvinist at all I do wish them well. Breaking away from SGM corporate mush not have been easy especially when your history and family are mixed into the situation. In that sense I empathize and respect their courage to separate from SGM. Second is that I will be writing a lot about Andrew today. I don’t want Andrew to think that he is being picked on or bullied. I’m just journaling about a faith crisis at the time. In the next couple of weeks I plan on journaling about my cognitive dissonance with Mormonism, and in the future I want to write about how atheism is a faith system – and make my case. I believe I had cognitive dissonance when I was walking and declared myself agnostic, and searched atheism. So in a couple of weeks time I will be analyzing myself and my cognitive dissonance. I don’t want Andrew to feel like he is being picked on because he is not.

Mindset of an Agnostic/Atheist

When I was in my faith crisis I became very combative and belligerent. As I have written about before I started out reading William Lobdell and graduated to Christopher Hitchens and other evangelistic atheists who were quite militant. Recently I wrote a post about what Christopher Hitchens meant to me in my faith crisis, and you can read that here. While I was trying to figure myself out, I was deeply convinced that I would live my life out as an agnostic. I just couldn’t see how a person could be a Christian and how so many Christians were blind to the corruption and issues within Christianity. As I watched and wrestled with the problem of evil, I was deeply disturbed by how many parts of Christianity ended up embracing it. They did so by covering up child sex abuse or engaging in rampant corruption. As such my thinking became one of where I looked at Christianity as a cancer. I looked at all the harm, damage, and problems pouring out of it and it affirmed my conclusions. Christianity is a cancer! Look at all the child sex abuse, corruption, cronyism, that is coming from the organization. The biggest doubt I had was the problem of evil, and THAT is why I often phrased the question, “Why does a loving God allow a 4 year old to be molested?” My mindset became fierce, aggressive and harsh and I descended deeper into agnosticism. While I believed at the time I was an agnostic, today in reflecting back, and after considering what others have told me I was probably more militant atheist in my thinking. Not only that but I emulated in some ways how Christopher Hitchens acted in many ways. The point of all this is that I was very much in a deep militant skeptical mindset when my life crossed paths with someone who started to invite me to Sovereign Grace. This is going to be a lesson in how one’s faith or involvement in a church actually feeds one person’s agnosticism/atheism and validates it. This is going to be a reminder to Christians that one must be careful.

Enter Redeemer Arlington

I met Andrew White who is a Captain in the Air Force through work. I had no idea that our paths would collide. I meet a lot of people from work and life and seldom do many people influence or affect me. During this time while I was in a deep faith crisis, I proclaimed myself to be agnostic when in the course of time I became more of a militant atheist. Against that I still had a longing to discuss the problem of evil and other issues with someone. Anyone who would cross my paths outside the normal evangelical Christian frame work I would be willing to interact with and talk. In this case I would be willing and engaged Andrew because of the context of how I met him. I was not going to walk into a church early in the faith crisis because I did not trust any churches. This seemed like an opportunity to talk about faith, and I took a gamble and sent an email out of the blue. I knew nothing about Sovereign Grace Ministries. In 2011 as I got to know Andrew one day we were walking down the stairwell at work and he was talking about how he and his wife were going to do the Marine Corps Marathon here in Washington, D.C. He then challenged me to walk it, and offered to train and help me. The first invitation to Sovereign Grace came during this time of exercise. To this day I can still remember him pleading with me to come. I actually froze because while I had people invite me to church, this was quite different. It was intense and with a sense of urgency. I felt sick about church at this time and said no. Shortly after that Andrew explained over lunch how a friend form New Jersey warned him about Sovereign Grace and told him it was not healthy. This was when Andrew was stationed at McGuire-Dix AFB from 2008-2011 I believe. He looked at the blog SGM Survivors and despite the content being discussed about threw himself and his wife Gillian into Sovereign Grace. Initially I thought that SGM Survivors was just a blog by 1 disgruntled person. I’ve seen those before, and they are easy to spot. They are driven I believe by spite and an agenda. While I was not going to attend Redeemer Arlington I decided to research the organization and look into it. With that I read, read and read about Sovereign Grace Ministries on the internet. When I finally got my mind around the organization I was deeply disturbed. In addition to SGM Survivors I found a number of other websites that reported on spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, child molestation cover up, and Sovereign Grace pastors who coached members not to report crimes to law enforcement. At the blog SGM Refuge (no longer online BTW…) I was stunned by the story of Esther. She was a member of Sovereign Grace Chesapeake. It was a horrific case of domestic violence in which Esther was beaten by her drug addict husband. She was allegedly ordered by the pastors to stay in her marriage. As I recall, she said she was counseled not to seek protection or help from outside the church.

I also read the story of Happymom and Noel and how their children wee sexually abused. This was allegedly covered up in Sovereign Grace Fairfax which is just down the road from where I live. I read about Taylor, whose husband molested her daughter. The pastors at this Sovereign Grace Church allegedly told her not to go to the police. They also allegedly advised her to put a lock on the inside of the daughter’s bedroom door and submit to and make herself more sexually available to her pedophile husband. As I recall she talked about how she felt having sex with her husband knowing his past of molesting her daughter. I also followed the online debate by former members as to whether or not Sovereign Grace Ministries is a cult. More and more I couldn’t believe what I was reading abut this “family of churches” by former members. On the SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge blog, I was stunned by the number of SGM churches being discussed in a negative light. These included Covenant Fellowship Church (in Pennsylvania), Covenant Life Church, SGM Fairfax, and SGM Fredericksburg, as well as churches in North Carolina and Florida. It appeared that Sovereign Grace Ministries had embraced elements of the shepherding movement which was rejected as being un-Biblical and dangerous by many orthodox Christian groups. The problems appeared to be systemwide and involved many of the 100 or so churches that make up the entire SGM network.

I was horrified with what I was finding out about Sovereign Grace and stunned that I was being asked to attend such a place for church. My faith crisis was deepening and I was starting to drink the hard core atheism Kool Aid in my own life. What perplexed me was that Andrew had a hard time seeing the problems of Sovereign Grace, and even called the blogs stupid. I want to say a few comments at the end but there is another perspective that I want to bring in. During all the times I was being invited to Redeemer Arlington I was interacting with Scott Van Swernigen. Not long ago I wrote a passionate and heart felt letter to Scott thanking him for his friendship and all he did for me in my faith crisis. Almost every person who I have written a letter to (with the exception probably of Matt Younger at The Village Church which I did yesterday) has been deeply moved by what I wrote. I’ve got some stunning feedback and its given me pause as to how many people long and ache to hear kind words and love in today’s cold hard world. Scott was an Elder in his church in Missouri, and works in a rescue mission in Kansas City, Missouri. Plus he also graduated from Moody Bible Institute and is quite knowledgeable on scripture and theology. I’m going to be writing a lot next Friday about how Scott related to me. Getting back to the topic at hand as I was being invited to Sovereign Grace, I responded by pushing back and there were growing tensions. In thinking of what to do I thought that it would be nice to run all this information on Sovereign Grace past another party. Someone who knows nothing about it, someone who is neutral who can look at it objectively. I then thought of Scott and had already been leaning on his advice as my relationship with him grew closer I listened more and more to what he said. So since Andrew White and I were clashing over Sovereign Grace I reached out to Scott Van Sweringen and asked him to review the blog SGM Survivors. I asked him to study it, and chew on it and get back in touch with me. Scott was proving himself to me and when he wrote back about what he thought about Sovereign Grace Ministries, Josh Harris, Covenant Life Church and SGM culture this church elder in Missouri wrote me the following email:

Eagle – Okay, let me preface this by saying a couple things:
1. I am not an expert or even overly familiar with SGM, Cov. Life Church, their leadership/church government style.
2. I am familiar with Josh Harris, and have read a couple of his books, one of which (Stop Dating The Church) which I have used for a book study group. I am vaguely familiar with CJ Mahaney.
3. I did not read something from each of the links due to the time I have right now. I think I read enough to at least draw some initial thoughts and hopefully start a dialogue with you.
So here goes some initial observations:
1. This is a church that has some issues, some of which they may be in denial about, specifically the sexual abuse that has happened within the church. (I think Josh Harris response to the membership is a start, and I emphasize “a start” because it only addresses a few specific areas) Based on what I read, it seems Harris is the mouthpiece, but there are others within the SGM who need to step out and make some apologies and statements.
2.) The church, through some of it’s strong teachings worked it’s way into a legalistic mindset in some areas, which rightfully offended some people, discouraged them, beat them down, and eventually drove some of them away.
3.) This is a church that appears to be taking some steps to try and right the course, but the problems may be bigger than they are ready to face or see.
4.) There are many people who have been harmed by the church leadership’s response or lack of response to issues in their lives related to the church.
5.) Not knowing all the problems that Cov Life may be facing, I would venture a guess that with a church that large that Harris, with a large leadership team may not be fully aware of the depth of the issues going on in the church.  (Not that it excuses him)
With that said, here are some of my thoughts/responses to the questions you pose:
1. Would I go to a church if it has this baggage? – Well, my church experiences have taught me every church has it’s baggage. As I’m in church leadership now, that has become even more clear. The church is very imperfect. The other thing I’ve learned is you have to tackle problems you can’t expect them to just go away. They don’t go away, they fester and grow. When you combine that with megachurch life (Cov Life is a mega church as I recall) – trouble is brewing. From what some posters said, it sounds like this has been a growing issue for many years. Knowing what I’ve read, no I wouldn’t be attending their church for several reasons.
                    1. I have no desire to attend a megachurch again.
                    2. There seems to be ongoing issues that keep repeating themselves, indicating leadership is either in denial, or is not handling it properly.
                    3. The issues of sexual abuse and how those cases were handled is especially troubling. I would be deeply concerned that more safeguards are not in place to guard against it happening again. I would not want my child in a children’s ministry where someone has already has sexual abuse issues (as in Wallace’s story) being allowed to help with said ministry. I don’t care if they are under supervision of leadership, that’s too big a risk to take.
Now if the church was owning it’s issues, and making corrective measures that could be seen over a period of time, it would help me to consider them more, but I’d be extremely cautious. I’d need to see some incredibly strong changes involving how they prevent sexual abuses.
 I would also say this, because my (relative) has been burned several times by church leadership not handling things appropriately or taking into full consideration the gravity of things that it would influence my decision to go to a church. Church leaders are human too, and prone to mistakes, but general/repeated attitudes/actions of denial or complacency to get involved would sour me quickly. These are questions I would be asking church leadership and church members/attenders before making a church my homechurch.
2. Would You be troubled? Yes, I think what I’ve written would answer that with a yes. Anytime a church is struggling that troubles me. That people who attend or formerly attended are hurting troubles me. I was encouraged by some of the posters who have not given up on God, are working through grace and forgiveness, and are starting to move forward. Certainly, that isn’t everyone though, and it troubles me when people have been done wrong by a church that it serves to drive them away from the Church, and/or God. It also concerns me because SGM is a part of many churches. So the likelyhood that some of these same issues are popping up in other congregations is likely. Again, with my limited knowledge of their setup and beliefs, I don’t believe they are a “cult” per se. I do however believe they have overemphasised some teachings and taken on a legalistic stand that is dangerous and harmful to it’s people.
It sounds to me that, they are starting to see some of their errors in the way they’ve taught some things or addressed their issues. Based only on what Harris addressed in his message I’d say that they are making corrective efforts in those areas. Which is good, it’s a starting point, but my very distant opinion as an outsider is that they have miles to go. I’d be interested to know what changes they made in connection to the sexual abuse situation though.
I hope that answers your questions. I’ll look more at some of the blogs as time allows. Interested to know your thoughts. Let me be clear, I’m not defending Cov Life or SGM. I don’t have enough knowledge for that. In the same way, I’m not railing against them, because I don’t have enough knowledge. What I see is hurting people, and that is troubling. Undoubtedly there are issues there, and more than just people finding a bone to pick, but real issues that need addressed. Hopefully, prayerfully the church and SGM will take the right steps in addressing them. 

This email helped me in assessing Sovereign Grace more clearly, plus it was a needed, objective outside view of the organization. Scott had built his trust with me and I took his word. Whereas Andrew called the blogs about Sovereign Grace stupid there was another situation that I noticed that I raised to Scott as well, as I wanted to see his reaction. Scott was involved in Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago when he attended Moody Bible. In the fall of 2012 a blog had popped up that was the equivalent of SGM Survivors except it was for Harvest Bible Chapel. The blog’s name was The Elephant’s Debt. After experiencing the issue of SGM Survivors I was curious as to how Scott would re-act to the Elephant’s Debt and decided to ask him. Scott looked it over and as I recall he was disappointed, upset, and bothered by what he read. This reaction actually encouraged me as it really showed that Scott has good discernment skills. With Andrew White the fighting intensified over Sovereign Grace. But here is something I want to state and reflect on in this journal entry. As an agnostic/atheist at the time I became convinced that Christianity is a cancer. I looked at all the corruption, abuse, manipulation and scandals that kept pouring out if it. When Andrew was inviting me to Sovereign Grace it actually fed my atheism. It validated it. Here’s why…I was looking and ranting about how Christianity was harmful and to point out all the harm, and damage it caused. Meanwhile I was being invited to a church – Redeemer Arlington – which at the time was a member of the Sovereign Grace Ministries denomination. Each time I was invited in my mindset it fed the atheism. Each time I read about more abuse or cover up of child sex abuse in the denomination or I heard Andrew describe how “healthy is is” I was confused and sometimes felt sick. In the long run being invited to Sovereign Grace had dragged out and fed my faith crisis because it fed the problem. The fighting over Sovereign Grace continued, and grew when the lawsuit kicked off. The fighting between Andrew White and Eagle grew until the friendship fractured on May 8, 2013. It sent me into the darkest season of my life. However in reflecting back there was another mistake I also made. In the time I was being invited to Redeemer Arlington it was a part of SGM proper.

Now there also was a flip side of this conflict that I want to address. Above I explained how being invited to Sovereign Grace fed my faith crisis. Nearly all of it was tied to the corruption, decadence, and abuse in SGM. In time Redeemer Arlington broke away from SGM. Breaking away from SGM was good and healthy. But I dismissed it and thought it as nothing but a desperate act. In this sense I was wrong, and I want to write about it here. I never stopped to consider how breaking away from SGM must have been difficult for certain members of Redeemer. It must have been challenging and difficult to be associated with an organization or have family, and parents deeply involved in the organization. It was probably difficult and holidays such as Thanksgiving must be difficult in some ways. I looked at the leadership of Redeemer as being “company men” and in the course of time I realized I was wrong. While I disagree with the theology I don’t believe the leadership to be company men. Actually when I realized I was wrong I met and sought forgiveness for believing that information. I do believe people can change and I do believe that we are all going to make mistakes. As I moved toward the end of this journal entry I want to end this on a positive note, saying I do respect the leadership of Redeemer Arlington, and wish them well.

What Christians Need to Realize

Christians need to step back and realize how they can and often become obstacles to atheists and those outside the faith. It happens in many ways…today’s post deals with Sovereign Grace. But this can happen in so many ways. You could be inviting someone to a church that is seeker sensitive, or promoting Joyce Meyers and prosperity gospel material of someone like Joel Olsteen. BTW…if I recall on the telephone Dee Parsons told me something to the effect that Joyce Meyer has a solid gold, or $25,000 toilet. I mean really!?! People are going to support that and not consider how that adversely effects the Christian faith?  Many people outside Christianity can see through some of that material so quickly and easily. Or you could be involved in a very conservative congregation where members are open about their political views and politics can become a stumbling block to people. In can happen with other denominations in addition to Sovereign Grace…James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel network has problems and concerns, I touched on this above. In other cases it could be 9 Marks in an Evangelical Free Church. This point may be difficult for many evangelical Christians to comprehend and see but its something that must be stated…many evangelicals through their theology, fads, movements, or criminal activity and corruption became obstacles for atheists. When I went to the Reason Rally, the largest atheist rally in United States history I didn’t hear a lot of atheists mocking and baiting the idea that a man could be crucified, buried and rose from the dead 3 days later. What I often heard instead is mocking and baiting of organizations that cover up child sex abuse, engage in criminal activity or belittle science. This is why I get so upset, when I see individuals like John Piper or Mark Dever coddle and enable CJ Mahaney in Louisville instead of calling him out and working to resolve the situation of child sex abuse in SGM and former members of SGM. CJ Mahaney should not be preaching, teaching, or doing any ministry related work or activity until he goes back and repents and owns his cover up of child sex abuse in SGM. There is no way around it…and for Mark Dever, and John Piper to continue to enable Mahaney it just illustrates how the greatest threats to Christianity are internal and not external. The greatest threat to Christianity in the United States comes from internal corruption and criminal activity that is covered up, and many Christians are enabling this by supporting such men or organizations. last week I spoke about what it was like for an agnostic to try and find answers in differing churches only to hit a brick wall. Today I wrote about being involved in a church that is feeding someone’s faith crisis or becomes an obstacle to someone’s faith. Next Friday I will write about how to build common ground with an agnostic or atheist and how to better relate to that person. I have about another 5 posts to go and I will be done dissecting my faith crisis of how to relate to someone in a faith crisis. There are so many ways Christians can relate to people outside the faith. Next week I get to find an excuse to talk about trains again! 😀 YEAH!! Also in closing I want to leave you with a Hip Hop song I stumbled across today on Youtube. Its by a rapper called NF, and the song is called “Wake Up”. While the message of this song is different from what I am writing about here I want to use it because in this area many Christians I believe need to wake up. They need to realize how their actions, and their churches and ministries are not only hurting people inside the faith…they are keeping people away from Christianity. For me church corruption was something I clung to in justifying atheism. Maybe this can help you understand how the SGM lawsuit helped me resolve the problem of evil. That will be a post in the near future.

BTW…Andrew White if you read this a few thoughts to convey. Please don’t get angry with what I wrote…I’m just journaling back and reflecting on the situation. If I could do it all over again like I told you a couple of weeks ago a couple of times here and I would have attended from time to time to affirm you Andrew. My thanks to Jordan for helping with that conversation I think that was a good step forward. In a couple of weeks I am planning on writing about how I got involved in Mormonism and my cognitive dissonance with the LDS. Part of what I have to write up deals with blowing up over a college friend telling me that Joseph Smith was a fraud. At the time I thought him to be a prophet, so I will be writing about myself in detail here as well. But know that I pray for you and do love you. Plus I also hope that we can run a race one day!

5 thoughts on “How to Respond to a Faith Crisis? Being Involved in a Church that is Feeding the Crisis or Justifying Atheism

  1. Pingback: When Other People’s Suffering Invades Your World | Wondering Eagle

  2. One thing I think I recognize you and I share in our respective journeys in and out of Christianity Eagle, is we both went through a period where our agnosticism was driven by anger at the abuse, hypocrisy or deception we saw in a belief we respected to much not to take seriously. If agnosticism was easy it wouldn’t upset those of us who went through it so much maybe. What I find interesting is that we’ve both seemed to move away from that anger, albeit in different ways.

    Dan Fincke wrote something you might find interesting and even identify a bit with.


    • Thanks Blue! I think many evangelicals need to understand that they are often supporting organizations or ministries that are corrupt. I don’t care if its the Boy Scouts or SGM you should not cover up child sex abuse. This drove me in rage. Its what helped feed it in my life. When I was being invited to Sovereign Grace I was horrified with all the corruption pouring out of the organization. There is a misnomer that I would like to write about in the future…that misnomer is that atheists can’t be moral or good. Nope, nada, zip…that is BS. Thanks for your comments Blue! 🙂


  3. Pingback: Redeemer Arlington’s Incredible Potential Against the “Legacy of Ashes” of Sovereign Grace Ministries | Wondering Eagle

  4. Pingback: Opportunities Lost when Andrew White, a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington Refused to Reconcile in the 2013 to 2014 Time Frame | Wondering Eagle

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