The review of the Washingtonian article called “The Fall of a Mega Church” by Tiffany Stanley. This explores what I liked about the article including its talk about child sex abuse, nepotism in the Mahaney family, personality cult, what is “sorry?” and even a reference to Covenant Life being viewed as a cult. What this article does poorly is does not address the money C.J. gave to Al Mohler, his alleged blackmail of Larry Tomczak and the pushback by Happymom and Wallace at The Wartburg Watch. What I appreciated in this article is it helped me understand Redeemer Arlington’s culture as I tried to defuse a problem.
“I’m an evangelical Christian but as I said on the blog: Someone needs to sue these bastards”
Mother of a Child Sex Abuse Victim
“I know of churches around the United States who are looking to Sovereign Grace Ministries as an example of the way churches ought to work.”
“A man’s pride can be his downfall, and he needs to learn when to turn to others for support and guidance.”
But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.
Jonah 1:3 NLT
***Note the Washingtonian article is not online yet, when it is I will link it to this article, if you have not read Todd Wilhelm’s article I would encourage you to check it out. ***
In 2011 I was in the depths of a prolonged faith crisis. I was already a couple of years into it and I had a few more to go. During this time I was trying to figure out who and what I was going to be in the course of time. Would I be a Christian or an Agnostic/Atheist? I honestly thought it would be the atheist or skeptic route. It was during this time that I befriended an Air Force Captain and co-worker named Andrew White. Andrew was involved in a Sovereign Grace church plant in Arlington, Virginia called Redeemer Arlington. Redeemer Arlington is led by Eric Simmons. Andrew was a Care Group Leader and his shepherding pastor was Jordan Kauflin. Andrew wanted to walk with me in my faith crisis and speak to me about God and faith. What happened was stunning as I learned more about Sovereign Grace. The corruption, child abuse, spiritual issues and the shady history of the organization stunned me. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to get involved in the organization given all the problems hemorrhaging from it? There are two specific incidents that I recall that I want to share. One was when I told Andrew in an email that C.J. Mahaney was a fraud. I read about his blackmail or Larry Tomczak. Andrew blew, and he got so upset that he couldn’t get any work done that day. I was stunned to see someone act in such a manner. The next thing was all the pressure I was under to attend Redeemer Arlington. It was incredibly intense. Andrew routinely pleaded for me to come. One Friday night when I turned him down yet again he sent me a text message. I still remember reading it while standing in my dining room. The message was this urgent, frantic plea unlike anything else I have seen by an adult person, let alone an Air Force Officer who graduated form the Air Force Academy in 2005. Andrew wrote, “Please come to my church I want you to see Jesus work!” The overwhelming despair and pressure was stunning and both sad. I was under so much pressure to attend it was a mess. In the course of time Andrew made a false accusation that threatened my name, reputation, employment and future employment. I wrote about that situation here in this post. While I picked up the pieces of my life Andrew started to recruit another co-worker to Redeemer Arlington. I have been puzzled as to why this denomination acts the way that it does, and why so many people just ignore the problems. At this blog I don’t focus on the tree I look at the forest, that is why I write about doubt and atheism along with topics like Sovereign Grace. To date I have written 51 posts about Redeemer Arlington or had mentioned them in the process. There is a lot more to write in the course of time. But for those of you who want to know why I write about this it is because of how I was unsuccessfully recruited into the organization and the false accusation I later endured. You have to remember…a military officer by the virtue of a false accusation taught me why rape and sexual assault are a serious issue in the United States military. He abused his rank as Air Force Captain to pull off the false accusation. I’m still trying to understand what happened and as more time passes I learn more pieces to the puzzle.
I would like to break this article by Tiffany Stanley down into a couple of sections. What I liked about this Washingtonian article and what I disliked about it. I want to focus on the positive first and highlight what this article did well, and there were a number of things that did occur. Also I know this is one of the only articles that Dee Parsons gave an interview for. She regularly and routinely turns down interviews as she does not want to be known and wants to stay quiet. She does what she does because she loves people, and she loves their friendship. Dee called me up after she was interviewed by Tiffany and told me about the situation . Dee spoke at length about the financial aspects and how C.J. Mahaney gave money to Al Mohler and Southern Seminary. I am going to speak about this in detail below.
For those of you outside the Washington, D.C. area the Washingtonian magazine is the premier magazine in the area. You find it in dentists offices, doctor’s offices, the hospital, law firms and other places where industry professional subscribe to the local magazine. It is not a small rag, instead it is read by over 400,000 people. This magazine writes about D.C. style politics, real estate, and local news. This magazine is known for ranking the top dentists, doctors, neighborhoods and places of dining. It has a high reputation. The Washingtonian did another article about Mark Batterson of National Community Church a couple of years back.
What the Washingtonian Article Did Well
I sat down and read the article twice, and at my computer on a sheet of paper wrote up what I liked about the article and what it communicated well. At the same time I examined what the article didn’t do well. When I was done analyzing the article I was surprised to see the observations of what I liked had strongly outweighed the negatives. That’s good, as I have no desire to be a doom and gloom guy. The points below are what I find the article brushing up against and what I think the article did well.
- Early on in the article the article touches on how Sovereign Grace was a “Mahaney family business.” Nothing could be more accurate and it highlights the problem of nepotism in the organization. How many jobs did Mahaney hand out to family members? How many people in the higher ups of the organization are pastors or in key points because they have ties to leadership by blood? Since this is a family owned business its reaction and its interest to protect itself are going to be well established. So as the article gets going the fact that this is mentioned is significant. Nepotism is going to be a problem in Sovereign Grace for the following reason…who is going to correct or stand up to family? Who is going to speak against their father or mother when they are in the wrong and its the family business? Let’s take Chad Mahaney, Chad was caught pot smoking at Covenant Life School as I read on Survivors. He was given a slap on the wrist and rotated to another institution. Those caught with Chad were basically led to the chopping block for their offense. This highlights how nepotism is going to produce a policy of favoritism to family members, and that is one of the reasons why you avoid such an organization. That alone indicates that it is not healthy.
- On page 59 of the article it references how SGM Pastors imitated and duplicated Mahaney’s cadences and even shaved their head. I love it when a professional journalism magazine validates the work I have done here at this blog. What the Washingtonian is narrowing in on is a personality cult. I wrote about this last year at this blog, and even referenced the C.J. Mahaney personality cult. If you want to read what I have wrote and go much deeper you can read this article here.
- One aspect that came out beautifully in the article is the problem of child sex abuse in the denomination. From Covenant Life Church, to Sovereign Grace Fairfax and beyond Sovereign Grace has deep intrinsic problems with child sex abuse. The denomination does not know how to deal with it properly or address it. Their behavior of covering it up is far from legal I believe. I also find it hard to believe that C.J. Mahaney as Senior Pastor of Covenant Life did not know about the problems that existed. Mahaney ruled Covenant Life in the same way that Brigham Young ruled territorial Utah: with an iron fist, and with giving permission for everything. For God’s sake in a shepherding environment you couldn’t tie your shoe without permission, so Mahaney had to know. By the very virtue of his position he had to know. This article also reveals how the denomination was obsessed with image, which I believe current and former SGM churches still are consumed. To hell with doing the right thing in the end, as long as it looks like we are that is fine.
- Here’s something that comes out well in the story…what does “sorry”, or reconciling look like in the denomination? It becomes clear that the organization struggles with the basics of the Christian faith. In the story of Noel the question that I walked away with after reading the narrative is what does being sorry or reconciling mean? After all in situations like sexual abuse and other topics what does being sorry truly mean? Just forget about it, move and accept an apology even if the pain and problems are still spiraling? At this point I have no desire to write a post detailing my negotiations with Redeemer Arlington. But as I read this article it gave me great understanding to what I engaged and tried to deal with from the last SGM Church plant in the D.C. area before the scandal. In my case Andrew made a false accusation, I was accused of a crime I didn’t commit. On May 18, 2015 Andrew White, Jordan Kauflin and myself held a conference call. Andrew said he was “sorry.” I thought it was a good step forward and wanted to see how it would play out. Shortly after that Andrew sent an email and it became clear to me (and Dee Parsons who read it for a second set of eyes) that Andrew didn’t believe I had owned my mistake. The issue that emerged with Jordan Kauflin is, “Well Andrew said he is sorry…let’s move on.” The false accusation I endured was still in place. Andrew never intervened to mitigate it, he never helped me carry the false accusation. He didn’t do a damn thing. My response to Jordan Kauflin was the following, “Sorry of what? Sorry he got caught? Sorry this is following him in life? What is he sorry of?” In my situation it became clear that being sorry is a farce and a means to get Andrew off the hook while I still deal with the burden of the false accusation. I would like to write a post one day exploring the question…what doses being sorry mean? In Sovereign Grace and former SGM churches its all about words but the actions are lacking and do not exist. Sovereign Grace doesn’t know the basics of Christianity. I think people get sucked into organizations because they often do not know fundamentals of the Christian faith.
- Another take away is that in Noel’s story the seriousness of the child sex abuse is downplayed. Its made a minor situation. It’s not serious, nor does it have any major ramifications. If I want to get really snarky I can put it like this…some high school kids experiment in the back seat of the car, others sexually molest an infant, in the end its all similar. Nothing to process here people just forget about it and move on. Its my analysis that SGM and former Sovereign Grace churches do things backward. They make mountains out of molehills, and turn mountains into molehills. For example the dress length is major issue in some SGM churches in the past, but the sexual assault of a child is minor. In my case Andrew White was consumed with sexual purity in the extreme but the false accusation that could have destroyed my life was minor. Its almost a warped way of looking at things. Reading this article helped me to realize this and again I encountered this in my discussions with Redeemer Arlington. I remember in one email I asked Jordan Kauflin if Andrew White knew that I had consulted with an attorney. Don’t get me wrong I was totally willing to forgive him and work with him had he honestly repented and did the right thing. Jordan explained that he didn’t share that information with him. I realized that I was going to have to bring that up in the conference call. Even then due to Andrew’s weird behavior I don’t think he realized that he had a defamation of character lawsuit about to pound at his door.
- Also one other point that I observed is that Sovereign Grace tried to create their own society. I would actually say their behavior in this area is far from Biblical. After all aren’t Christians called to live in the world but not be of it? Here Sovereign Grace tries to remove everyone from the world and limit their contact with the world? Is that what Jesus wanted? How can a society or people group be impacted if they limit contact from the world. You can only live in a bubble for so long, at some point it implodes. After all everyone needs to face the realities of the world one day whether it be Chad Mahaney, Andrew White or even myself. No one can avoid the world and by isolating and keeping people from the world in the end people are being crippled. Their ability to make judgments and think critically is affected. Their ability to grow and mature is handicapped. Removing people from the world is dangerous, reckless, and creates a lot of problems. I wonder if that’s why more evangelicals can struggle in ways with dating, life, decision making, etc… Some movements like Sovereign Grace cage people and they eventually go ballistic. The more legalistic you are the more you are going to go off the deep end.
- References to shepherding also came across as well. Sovereign Grace is clearly anchored in the shepherding movement. It is a part of its DNA. Those policies and procedures which are often about control have two main problems. In a pyramid structure like SGM those on the bottom have to submit to those above them. So those on the bottom of the pyramid are hammered in a legalistic control system. Those on top of the pyramid don’t have anyone they are accountable to. Who is C.J. Mahaney accountable to? What about Dave Harvey when he was with the organization? None of C.J.’s relatives are going to be accountable either due to nepotism issues. What about individual SGM pastors? What about Gene Emerson formerly of Kingsway…who was he accountable to? The problem with a pyramid structure of leadership is that no one is accountable at the top. Stop for a moment and consider how our government is structured. We have three branches of government designed for checks and balances. You have legislative, executive and judicial. Sovereign Grace has no such checks and balances.
- Here’s another thing that I appreciated seeing in print. In the article in one of the interviews with Tope Fadiran Covenant Life Church was referred to being so isolating that other evangelicals thought it to be a cult. I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005. When I was at McLean Bible I heard a couple of references to Sovereign Grace being a cult. I also heard of Covenant Life being a cult. I wrote about it in this post here. It was viewed as strange, eccentric, and legalistic as explained to me by a couple of people over the years. However, I didn’t understand it until I was being invited to Sovereign Grace in 2011. Then I put two and two together as I researched it and actively resisted. But for many orthodox and conservative evangelical Christians Sovereign Grace has been looked at like a cult. I look at it form this vantage point as well…part of my spiritual history is looking into Mormonism when I was in college. I wrote about that in these two posts which you can access here and here. For me it was stunning and disturbing to brush up against Sovereign Grace and see traits and behaviors I had not seen since I pushed back from the Latter-Day Saints community. There was the obsession of image, the personality cult, the group think, the insular culture, and the way outsiders could be perceived as a threat. There was an “us” vs. “them” mentality that was to a higher nature. I saw both of those behaviors in Mormonism when I was younger and in my brush with Sovereign Grace. Cult is a heavy word…I get that but to see that word in print was refreshing. No one wants to say it but its the 2 ton elephant in the room.
- Brent Detwiler played a crucial role in the process of documenting everything. I have to tell you in reading some of his documents and attention to detail I think Brent is in the wrong profession. He should have gone into law. He would have been a feisty attorney. I’ve thought that over the course of time and just wanted to come forward and suggest that line of thought as I re-read about him.
- The cover up of child sex abuse at Covenant Life Church comes across pretty clearly. This was a part of the culture and the culture was so insular that both fed each other. By being so insular you can feel like you are above the law and in the end accountable to no one. The cover up became a part of modus operandi because the external focus was image. Now here is what I don’t get…if SGM or CLC acted quickly and dealt with the child sex abuse swiftly that would indicate a healthy organization. I would rather be at a church where things are handled quite fast as that shows them being on top of the situation and being responsive. There is a problem, its noted, and dealt with quickly. But with what is written about Nate Morales and Grant Layman’s testimony it is clear that there is a pattern that was followed for years. This is part of the reason why in the prior post which is an open letter to Mark Mitchell I asked what he knew about Nate Morales.
- What spoke loud and volumes is the following. That Tiffany Stanley contacted SGM Pastors and even traveled to Louisville to see if C.J. Mahaney wanted to make a comment. The overwhelming amount of silence and refusal to speak with Tiffany screams to the organization’s guilt. Furthermore, they still feel like they can continue to act like its business as usual. This article is hopefully confronts Sovereign Grace to the reality that they cannot control information any more like they once could. You could say that there is a conspiracy of silence. After all…if there’s no conspiracy or no problems to hide why be afraid of speaking to the issue? For example that’s why I have written so much about the situation I was in because I know what I did and didn’t do, and the false accusation is one thing I did not do.
- One other point that was under the surface that I wish would have been drawn out more is the following issue. Sovereign Grace can also reveal how problematic fads are in evangelical Christianity. Neo-Calvinism is the latest fad right now and when Mahaney jumped on that bandwagon the denomination indicated how they are subject to fads as well. How important in the end is doctrine when that doctrine is changed or undermined? Its quite a stretch to go from free will to predestination and being one of the elect. Since doctrine is even subject to fads it shows how volatile doctrine can be and what is deemed as being “sacred” in the end is not.
What was Disappointing for me in the Washingtonian Article
There are many things that I felt like that Washingtonian article was lacking that I also want to highlight and address because I believe they should be documented and written. I don’t think any of the following issues are the result of Tiffany Stanley’s writing, I think they were probably removed or edited out because of legal guidance, or possibly editing. That is the reason why blogging is so crucial. In this format the following issues below can be raised and discussed; and quite clearly they need to be raised.
- When Dee Parsons did her interview with Tiffany Stanly one of the things that she emphasized is the money that C.J. Mahaney gave to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. C.J. personally gave $100,000 and Sovereign Grace gave $100,000 for a grand total of $200,000. Now there was also this comment on SGM Survivors about Wayne Grudem receiving money from C.J. Mahaney. Now the money from Wayne Grudem cannot be documented at this point, but the money given to Al Mohler’s school can be documented. I was disappointed that the financial links between C.J. Mahaney and Al Mohler were not written about because they are telling. Dee Parsons’s gave Tiffany Stanley the following article for her to read. It is my contention that a pattern of behavior was established in Mahaney giving money. Having said that it is well within reason to state that I believe Mark Dever probably was also the recipient of money. It is my goal to one day be able to document the financial links between Mark Dever/Capitol Hill Baptist Church and C.J. Mahaney. This blogger believes that the Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist was likely purchased at one point along the way. None of this is proven or written in stone but I coming to this conclusion based off the behavior of C.J. Mahaney.
- Tiffany Stanley is correct to label Josh Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” as an evangelical cult classic. I recall when I was a Crusade leader at Marquette University in Milwaukee and hearing about this book being published. It no doubt made a huge impact on the evangelical world. That said the courtship culture had intrinsic flaws, and its my understanding that Josh Harris never practiced it in regards to how he met his wife. The courtship culture created many issues some of which are written about on Steve’s blog. I honestly wish there would have been more attention to this topic. I don’t think this had anything to do with the Washingtonian legal department reviewing the article, I think this fell off the radar.
- In the article it is said that C.J. Mahaney sparred with Larry Tomczak. That is a kinder and more gentle way of describing what happened. In the end what allegedly happened is that C.J. Mahaney blackmailed Larry Tomczak. Larry Tomczak’s son I believe allegedly committed a crime and C.J. got him to confess it and used it against his father Larry. That transcript of the blackmailing can be read in detail here. I lifted it off Brent Detwiler’s website.
- One personal disappointment I had with the Washingtonian is how they handled a part of Happymom and Wallace’s story. C.J. Mahaney issued a statement on May 22, 2014 denying that he protected a child sex abuser and about the speculation in the process. Happymom and Wallace issued a strong rebuttal to that on The Wartburg Watch the following day. There was no mention of Happymom’s rebuttal in the Washingtonian article and that is disappointing because I believe it to be crucial. It removes a lot of doubt about what C.J. knew.
- Mark Mullery the Senior Pastor of Sovereign Grace Fairfax issued a tearful and passionate apology in July 2011. I had wished the article would have expanded upon this further. It is my understanding that the family of Wallace and Happymom were not reached out to by SGM Fairfax. They had no idea this was coming , and in fact it wasn’t for them at all. This apology was an act of publicity and nothing more. It was in all likelihood a response to what was coming out on the SGM Survivors blog. In 2011 Colin Firth won the best actor at the Oscar’s for The King’s Speech. In reality I would suggest that Mark Mullery should have won the award instead for his acting skills.
- What was also disappointing is that as I wrap up this section I feel that C.J. Mahaney was let off the hook off the hook for a lot of things. All of the above analysis in this section explains why. But I felt that he should be held to the fire and that is why I will keep writing about him.
There is one aspect about this article that I liked. In reading it and chewing on what Tiffany wrote, I have a better understanding of what I was invited to in the form of Redeemer Arlington. I see the roots of Sovereign Grace and its culture still present and alive in the organization today. I wrote this post in which I encouraged the leadership to make changes to help make the body healthy. But in reading what Noel said about the focus on image I fear that it why Redeemer may not be able to take those steps. To do so would mean they would have to admit they are wrong. I don’t know if that is possible, I have had to admit that I was wrong and the mistakes I made but then again I am not focused on image. My concern is in doing the right thing regardless. Sovereign Grace is obsessed with image. There is another aspect that came to my mind in reading this article. Andrew White loved Redeemer and I think part of the reason is because he complemented the image. Andrew has a lot going for him…good looks, good education at the Air Force Academy, and an attractive wife. In an organization driven by image they like those kinds of people as they complement each other and project the image they want the world to see. The Mormon church operates the same way. As I said up top there are a lot of similarities I see between Mormonism and Sovereign Grace. Its stunning for me, but its probably going to be hard for other Christians to see and acknowledge especially if they have a limited knowledge of other organizations. Sadly I do, and I wish that were not the case. So the reason why I appreciated this article is because it helped me understand Redeemer Arlington better and place it in the context of Sovereign Grace culture. It’s roots in Sovereign Grace are alive and well.
“…Someone Needs to Sue These Bastards…”
That quote in the article has been stuck in my brain since I read it. “Someone needs to sue these bastards.” Indeed my hope is that the bastards are sued again. They cannot be let off the hook. My hope is that the families who are torn apart and split can one day be reunited. That one day they will be one again. I hope the families in Virginia get justice and find peace. I also hope that one day C.J. Mahaney can be deposed and forced in a court of law to admit to what he knows. He is the only one who can put this whole issue to bed. I firmly believe that someone, somewhere needs to go to prison. If someone like C.J. served time that would be a message to Mark Dever, Al Mohler, John Piper and others of how wrong they were. The only way change happens is under such circumstances. For example in the Catholic child sex abuse situation the Catholic church started to change its policies when dioceses were teetering on bankruptcy and the church was being hit with settlements. The same thing needs to happen to organizations like Sovereign Grace. Only through such action will change occur. That’s why I am looking forward to the Virginia lawsuit resuming one day. C.J. Mahaney must be held accountable for covering up child sex abuse. Look at it this way…if C.J. was a Colonel in the United States Army and he did something un-ethical the organization would deal with it. Consider what would happen if C.J. were a CEO of a company like General Electric, AT & T, ManTech, or Bank of America and he ran the company into the ground the same way he did Sovereign Grace. Would the stockholders be content with what has happened? This gets to the core issue why does the world have higher standards than the church? I don’t get this… As I once wrote the original lawsuit helped me with the problem of evil. I hope that when the lawsuit continues that the world sees a shining witness in the church holding its leaders accountable. C.J. Mahaney needs to be held accountable. That is my hope and my prayer. When one suffers all suffer, and when the family of Noel or Happymom suffers the church should suffer as well. My hope is that each person who reads this will have a difficult time sleeping tonight until there is justice. That’s it guys as always I love you! 🙂