A series of texts from Andrew White who was a Care Group Leader at Redeemer Arlington creates this post. In November 2012 Andrew called Sovereign Grace Fairfax healthy and like Redeemer Arlington. This post asks the question…how healthy is Redeemer Arlington? What about other former SGM churches that have broken away? How healthy are they? Should you get involved?
“Culture drives great results.”
GE CEO Jack Welch
“Dave you should go to Sovereign Grace Fairfax, its a very healthy church”
Text I received from Andrew White in November 2012.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:10 NKJV
Jordan Kauflin preaching at Sovereign Grace Fairfax/Redeeming Grace Church
It was late November of 2012 and I was still in my faith crisis. The Newtown massacre had not yet occurred. On that Sunday morning I had over slept and missed the first service at Fairfax Community Church. So I got dressed and went to the University Mall and hung out in a McDonalds. Andrew and I were still friends. Andrew was one of the Care Group Leaders at Redeemer Arlington and being discipled by Jordan Kauflin. At the time we clashed a lot and spurred over theology. I was more of an agnostic, and in reality atheist in my thinking. However, things would start to change slowly and he was into the Sovereign Grace culture. As I sat in that McDonalds that Sunday morning I was killing time. I was down the street from Sovereign Grace Fairfax. So I sent the following text, I was joking at the time.
David Bonner to Andrew: “Andrew, I am thinking of attending Sovereign Grace Fairfax this morning.”
Andrew White to David Bonner: “Why? Since its Sovereign Grace are you going to burn it?”
I didn’t say anything and then there was a flurry of a couple of text messages from Andrew that were deeply troubling and revealed quite a bit about the culture at Redeemer Arlington. I got a similar text to this next.
Andrew White to David Bonner: “Dave you should go to Sovereign Grace Fairfax, it’s a very healthy church.”
Andrew White: “Its Gospel Centered and like Redeemer Arlington.”
After a couple of text messages I texted back to Andrew that I was just kidding and he said that he needed to work on his graduate work. Andrew was an Air Force Captain and he was working on a Masters at an online program like American Military University. I was puzzled by the texts but before I get into the culture of Redeemer Arlington, let’s briefly look at the culture of Sovereign Grace Fairfax.
What was Toxic about Sovereign Grace Fairfax?
Before I continue let’s remember that Sovereign Grace Fairfax recently changed its name. You can read about that name change here. I’ve read SGM Survivors when I was being recruited to Redeemer Arlington. There are a number of things about SGM Fairfax that I read on that blog. Plus I recall many of the comments I read on The Wartburg Watch which is written by my East Coast Mom. Plus I have also heard a couple of things here and there from people who had once been involved in Fairfax. But if I am wrong about any of this I invite correction.
One thing that Sovereign Grace Fairfax was known for is heavy shepherding techniques. I recall reading a comment on Dee Parson’s blog where a person talked about always having to report to their pastor and let the pastor make decisions for him. People could not choose their own actions as the pastors had to control everything. That often included who to marry, what job to take, and where to attend college. I recall reading on SGM Survivors that people were discouraged from attending a college if there was not a SGM Church that was close by. In this environment the pastors controlled everything.
Another factor is that people were encouraged to grow in SGM culture instead of Christianity. Could you find Christianity in a SGM church? I honestly struggle with that to be honest with you. Yes I believe there can be Christians in the organization but then I think of this organization that is so far off track. People were encouraged to grow in the culture instead of faith. The more you grew in the culture the more you moved up. SGM as an organization was a pyramid scheme with people trying to imitate their pastors. That is how people moved up in the organization or that is how the organization came down on people. Things were defined so narrowly that if you did not fit that definition you were bound for a world of hurt. SGM had its own language, culture, and people were expected to follow it. Plus here is another problem in that kind of culture…how could pastors show humility or admit that they were wrong? The culture reinforced a system where the pastor is always right. There was a lack of humility. Couple that with being able to point out other people’s sin but being blind to their own.
At Sovereign Grace Fairfax young people were encouraged to rat each other out and report “bad behavior.” In light of the later problems of child sex abuse it amazes me that small, trivial acts were hammered and child sex abuse was mitigated. Its warped in the grand scheme of the culture. I would also say that things were very much backward. But its also an insular culture and as being insular that is to be expected in some form. But the most tragic and disturbing fact about Mark Mullery’s Sovereign Grace Fairfax is this issue. When all the child sex abuse spilled out of the organization Sovereign Grace Fairfax couldn’t and wouldn’t repent of their sin. They had this incredible opportunity and they blew it. Before the world and the nation’s capitol Mark Mullery could have repented to the victims, and families and not twist the facts. And he didn’t…it’s for this reason that I consider Mark Mullery to be an epic failure of a pastor, and that he should be regarded as a wolf. Mark had this opportunity to show conflict resolution and the strength of the Gospel and in the end he failed.
What about Redeemer Arlington’s Culture? How Healthy is It?
Before I get into this section I want to point out two posts I have done on Redeemer Arlington. “The History of Eric Simmons’ Redeemer Arlington: Formerly of Sovereign Grace Ministries now of Acts 29” looks at the history of Redeemer Arlington. This second post is called, “Why Redeemer Arlington Separated from SGM Ministries; Eric Simmons View of SGM and the 9 Marks Elephant Again in the Room” and explores why Redeemer broke away from SGM. As I reflect back on those text messages from Andrew White it begs the question…how healthy is Redeemer Arlington? I find those text messages to show deep systemic and systematic problems at Redeemer Arlington. After all here is one question that begs to be asked. If a person in leadership at Redeemer Arlington (Andrew was a Care Group Leader) called an organization that was allegedly covering up child sex abuse as “healthy” what does that mean? Allegations of covering up child sex abuse are quite serious and troubling. It doesn’t matter if its a church, the Boy Scouts or a local elementary school. We’re talking about allegations of serious criminal activity. Andrew graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 2005. He had access to education that most people reading this, including me, did not have. And yet he believed that Sovereign Grace Fairfax to be healthy. So what if I were to stop and compile a list of what I observed both from Andrew White and my interactions with Redeemer Arlington? These would be some of the cultural issues I noticed:
- At SGM Survivors they often discussed how SGM pastors and individuals can change the topic and evade many issues. In other words a natural diversion. I saw this not only in Andrew White but also Jordan Kauflin. In Andrew when he was inviting me to Redeemer Arlington and Sovereign Grace I raised the issue of C.J. Mahaney’s alleged blackmail. He changed the topic. I wrote about that in “Redeemer Arlington, The Gospel Coalition and the Evasive Neo-Calvinist Culture Which I Do Not Understand.” Likewise when I met with Jordan Kaufin in trying to resolve my false accusation I raised the issue of SGM Survivors and Jordan said there is a lot of negative information on the internet and quickly changed the topic. I couldn’t get his thoughts on SGM Survivors or have a long discussion with him about it. I noticed the change but after all the fighting I had with Andrew I had no interest in fighting another person over Sovereign Grace culture. This diversion I experienced earlier in life in Mormonism so I recognized it when I saw it.
- Andrew many times sounded like a robot. The longer he was in Redeemer Arlington the more he sounded like a robot. Even today as I type this I can hear him say, “This is the healthiest church I know” and he would say it repeatedly to the point he sounded like he was programed. Do you guys know what those Chit Chatty Dolls are? The ones with the string in their back? That’s what he sounded like. He said this so much that after I endured the false accusation he still said “This is the healthiest church I know” as he focused on recruiting another person. Pam Palmer made a comment to me in a phone conversation once that jarred me because she said people in CLC also act like this.
- In SGM culture pastors were trained to imitate C.J. Mahaney its part of the personality cult that exists in Sovereign Grace. If you want to read more about a personality cult, I recommend “The Little Red Book of…John Piper?” I realized in the course of time in interacting with Jordan Kauflin that Andrew White was trying to imitate Jordan Kauflin. I realized in meeting with Jordan and reading some of his emails that this is part of what happened to Andrew White. When I met with Jordan a couple of times I heard a couple of catch phrases and realized that Andrew was imitating Jordan. It was awkward to hear at first then when I read a couple of Jordan’s emails to me, I had this feeling inside that screamed, “why do I feel like I just got an email from Andrew White?” I realized that Andrew in the course of time was impersonating Jordan’s email cadence and style. One give away in this analysis was when I got some baby cloths for Jordan. He emailed me back and said, “very kind of you.” Andrew used that phrase often with me but did so more as the relationship wore on become more involved in Redeemer and was copying Jordan Kauflin’s behavior.
- I believe Andrew was made a Care Group Leader not because he was growing in the Christian faith but because he was growing in the SGM culture. Sovereign Grace is a system that rewarded loyalty. As Andrew was imitating the leadership and following them (over God) that is why he was made a leader. It was a good fit for a military officer especially when you consider the military culture which he came from.
- Two weeks ago I met with someone from SGM Survivors in Tysons Corner. One of the many things we spoke about is that SGM was all about the right language and sayings, but that the actions that backed it up just did not exist. This is part of the reason why SGM is a system that is spiritually bankrupt in my view. I entered into negotiations to resolve my false accusation with Redeemer’s leadership. I did so nervously, with low expectations, but I also wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. I wanted the leadership to resolve this problem and I honestly wanted to be wrong. I would have loved to write a post that explained why Redeemer Arlington is different and okay from other churches and explained why. I would have loved to articulate all the reasons why I was wrong about Redeemer and told others that Redeemer is not bad at all. Dee Parsons probably would have also written a post. However that was not meant to be. What broke down the discussions between me and Jordan Kaulfin was over what did “sorry” mean. Andrew who made a false accusation which threatened my name said that he was “sorry” in a phone conversation with me and Jordan on May 18, 2015. But that is all he would do. He said the right words, but the false accusation was still in place. The attorney who advised me said that Andrew needed to contact the person he made the false accusation to and rescind it. There are many different ways that I wanted to give him a way out. Andrew broke off conversations and like Jonah…he ran! Jordan emphasized that he said he was sorry, but I pushed back hard and said, “Sorry about what Jordan? Sorry his false accusation has followed him to Colorado Springs? Sorry that he was caught? What is he sorry about it?” Jordan Kaulfin had a hard time understanding that full sorrow also needed full repentance and that Andrew’s actions needed to back it up. That never happened.
- One other aspect that is telling is that I had some of Andrew’s communications analyzed by another person why was involved in SGM Fairfax for years and she had said that they reflected the SGM culture and that he was indoctrinated.
- Now here is the million dollar question about Redeemer Arlington. When you look at how Covenant Life and Sovereign Grace Fairfax struggled with child sex abuse and how both places allegedly covered it up, what about the other former SGM churches? What about Redeemer Arlington? I honestly hope nothing has been covered up; but when you consider the culture in other SGM churches it begs the question. Was anything covered up at Redeemer Arlington?
- When I wrote this post about PJ Smyth I visited Covenant Life to listen to him preach. When I was there I was struck by how it felt like Redeemer Arlington and a couple of people later told me that it was pretty much a mini version of Covenant Life especially as it comes from that culture.
What about Covenant Life and other Former SGM Churches?
Let’s step back from Redeemer Arlington and explore Covenant Life Church and other former SGM Churches. How healthy are they? I would venture to say that they are not that healthy for many reasons. Let me go into them starting with what I believe is the biggest explanation. Former SGM churches are built upon SGM DNA. It was how they are created, trained, and that culture is still ingrained. I believe it will always be like that. When you look at the review for Redeemer Grace Church you see this comment by Fairfax member Mary O on Google reviews.
This church is no longer with Sovereign Grace Ministries and is completely different than it was 5 years ago. The worship is superb, the teaching was awesome, and it has a more congregational way of conducting business than the SGM group did. It looks like some of the other reviewers are rating it based on the past and haven’t really taken the time to see it now.
So Sovereign Grace Fairfax broke away and all is well. Its no longer a part of SGM. Praise the Lord! Forget that Mark Mullery is still leading it or that Vince Hinders is still involved. The leadership is missing Lou Gallo yet all is well. Praise God! Here is another sign as to how toxic former SGM churches can be. They often have leaders go back and forth between them. I will use Kenneth Maresco as an example. First let me state did you know that Kenneth attended college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois? He got his degree in history. Northwestern is a top ranked school in the country. So he went from Northwestern to eventually becoming a SGM pastor at Covenant Life. What a waste of a top notch education! He was trained by a great school only to go into a corrupt and decadent organization. Kenneth was deeply involved in Covenant Life and the question I have is was he also allegedly trained and allegedly participated in covering up child sex abuse? I know he was involved in Happymom and Wallace’s story from Fairfax. So in the end Kenneth went from ground zero of the church which had child sex abuse problems to going to going to Fairfax which was hemorrhaging serious child sex abuse problems. That is not much of a step up when you contemplate it. BTW…you know the parable that Jesus taught about the talents? When you think of someone getting the education Kenneth did at Northwestern and then ending up at SGM in the course of time it begs the following question. Did Kenneth Maresco squander his talent? One problem that taints many SGM and former SGM churches is that their pastors are poorly trained and often not educated. I believe C.J. Mahaney who I consider to be a sociopath, and allegedly mentally unstable created it like this so that he could control people. I think C.J. put people who lacked proper education and training in critical positions so he could control them. Where are some of these individuals supposed to go? Jordan has a degree from SBTS and Mark Mullery has a degree from Fuller, but many SGM and former SGM pastors aren’t trained or come from the SGM Pastors College. And I would venture to suggest that the American Kennel Club has more stringent regulations, certification and training than the SGM pastors college.
Now that doesn’t mean things can’t change…they can. I wrote this post called “Redeemer Arlington’s Incredible Potential Against the ‘Legacy of Ashes’ of Sovereign Grace Ministries.” I still mean it and I think Redeemer Arlington does have potential to show the way and lead in this one area. Here is why I say that….I know that Jordan Kauflin’s father is the main supporter of C.J. Mahaney – even amidst his corruption. Jordan’s family basically makes up a good component of Sovereign Grace. And yet despite that Redeemer Arlington broke away from that organization. That is a major when you stop and contemplate that issue. I mean consider…Bob Kauflin has been the face of Sovereign Grace music for years. Its his business and livelihood and the reason why I believe he probably supports Mahaney. Its also his identity. So can you imagine how that conversation probably went when Jordan said “Hey Dad…we’re breaking away from SGM.” That was probably not easy and there may have been a couple of difficult discussions. Lets be honest…you can easily stand up to your enemies and oppose them, but it takes another and stronger kind of courage to stand up to your friends or family. Its hard.
I’ve thought about how to word this post for the longest time. I also want to stress this point as well. When I write about Andrew imitating Jordan Kauflin. I don’t think that is intentional. I think its a result of a highly insular culture that is far removed from the world and other insights. Does Jordan know this happened? I honestly do not know. I still want the leadership of Redeemer to know that while we disagreed on things I do not wish them malice at all. If they still want to be friendly I would be happy to do so. Its beneficial in life to have people involved in your life who have differing persuasions. The same holds true here. It’s actually the reason why I try and befriend and maintain friendships with atheists, and a couple of people who Dee Parsons knows about but many people would be surprised. Diversity can be a strength in the end. So while I look at Covenant Life and Sovereign Grace Fairfax as troubled they could change that if they ever wanted to do so. While the culture of Redeemer Arlington is troubled that can also change as well. After all they did break away, and in the end given the relationships involved in Redeemer Arlington vs. Covenant Life or Sovereign Grace Fairfax, my hat is still off to Redeemer to breaking away. Please don’t take this post personally Jordan this is me just doing analysis. We all make mistakes, and that includes me. As I look back in my life I have drunk a lot of Kool Aid…from Joseph Smith, to John Piper to Christopher Hitchens. So please know that other people have done that also. With that stated I am going to wind this down and say that I love you guys!