How should blogs like SGM Survivors and The Elephant’s Debt be viewed? How do you respond to challenging information that confronts your world view that a ministry or organization is not what you think it is? This post is about such blogs. To discuss this topic I use The Elephant’s Debt to discuss the issues in Harvest Bible Chapel. Plus I also share what it was like to be invited to C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries and to read about the alleged criminal activity inside on a blog called SGM Survivors.
“If there was one life skill everyone on the planet needed, it was the ability to think with critical objectivity.”
“Keeping an open mind is a virtue, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
10 As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
Acts 17:10-12 NIV
The logo for SGM Survivors
Nothing to see here, please disperse!
The internet was rolled out commercially to people in 1995. In the years that followed many people began to “surf the internet.” When the internet rolled out there was a blog that popped up shortly thereafter. And to this day it remains the oldest, continually operating religion blog that has a lot of bite. It was a blog created by a former Mormon around Thanksgiving in 1995. What he wanted to do was create a secular site that would allow for people to discuss Mormonism and the issues with it. The site is called, “Recovery From Mormonism.” At this blog they have discussed personal stories and abuse, how families have been divided and destroyed, issues with Mormon history, Mormons as missionaries in Africa or South America who do not believe Mormonism and much more. I actually found this site and read it after I almost became a Mormon in college in Montana. Reading this blog helped me understand the issues especially after I pushed back and rejected Mormonism. For myself “Recovery From Mormonism” laid the foundation for comprehending other religion blogs.
How Should Blogs be Viewed?
Blogs are an interesting creation of the internet. The only factor that I think is essential is to look at the credibility of the blog. There are a lot of good blogs, and also a lot of poor ones that exist. There are some blogs and bloggers that have hidden motives and can be a covert narcissist who like the attention a situation or people can give them. Then there are some people who have double standards when it comes to abuse which is troubling. If you read through the lines and think critically you can notice the differences, and you will discover these issues. Then there are others who share their experience and run with it. With the internet people need to be able to learn how to think critically. If you can think for yourself then blogs are your friend as you will be able to spot the good ones.
For example consider the following examples when it comes to blogging. Warren Throckmorton is a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He writes a lot about religion, abuse, culture and psychology. To the blogosphere he brings a lot of ethical perspective. That is the reason why I admire and respect Warren. If you are to ask me, I think Warren is probably the blogger who has most influenced me. Another good one that has credibility is that of John Fea. Fea is an American and cultural history professor at Messiah College outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. John Fea writes about evangelicals and politics as well as culture. To blogging he brings an academic perspective that is unique and rich. Other blogs that I would consider valuable resources are those who have a background in the movement they are writing about. This is why blogs such as The Elephant’s Debt, SGM Survivors, Watchkeep and others fill a niche.
One thing to remember is that a blog is not always about the issue of scandal or problems. I will use my blog, The Wondering Eagle to make this point. The primary denomination that I like to research and write about is the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). The EFCA is a large Protestant denomination based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota that has about 1,500 churches with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago being its flagship seminary. Now this blog has written about scandals and issues inside the EFCA. For example I wrote about an EFCA church in Elverson, Pennsylvania that practiced church discipline and an excommunication on an alleged rape and domestic abuse victim. You can read that story in, “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.” Then there is another story I wrote about that looked at the counseling issues in an EFCA/Acts 29 church in Columbia, South Carolina. It is the story of Matt Boedy’s Riverside Community Church which you can read about in, “Disturbing Allegations of Spiritual Abuse at James Walden’s Acts 29 Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina.” But there are also positive stories that this blog looks for or other angles to cover. For example I wrote about how the EFCA in Texas responded to Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area and the parts of the state that were affected by the record breaking storm. You can read that in, “Hurricane Harvey Hits Houston, and How 15 Evangelical Free Churches and the National EFCA are Responding; Plus Some Guidance for the EFCA Concerning this Issue.” Then I have also highlighted or looked for positives. For example outside San Diego, California there is an EFCA pastor who wrote a raw blog about pain and suffering and the medical crisis they went through with their son. You can read that in, “Riverview’s Joe and Kim Russell’s Beautiful Transparency that is Shared in their Son’s Medical Crisis.” So the presence of a blog is not always about scandal. But its my belief that it should not be ignored when confronted with it. For example that is why I am writing about Harvest Bible Chapel currently.
SGM Survivors and Redeemer Arlington in the Washington, D.C. Area
His name is Andrew White, which is a pseudonym on this blog. He was a Captain in the United States Air Force and involved in the Navigators at the Air Force Academy. He graduated in 2005, and considers Colorado Springs his home. His Dad taught nutrition at the Air Force Academy years ago. In 2010 the Air Force rotated him to the Washington, D.C. area where our paths crossed. He was deeply committed to his evangelical faith and consumed a lot of Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler. You can read more about how Mark Driscoll also became an issue in, “How Celebrity Pastors Become Divisive: Mark Driscoll, Andrew White, Eagle and the Launch of Paul and Jonna Petry’s “Joyful Exiles.” In the midst of a faith crisis Andrew made a comment to be about how he wished his parents would go to church and seemed sincere. I wondered if this could be someone I could speak about the Christian faith with at the time. So I emailed him about my unbelief and it led to a friendship when I explained that I was done with the evangelical Christian faith.
One day in late 2010 Andrew and I were having lunch. We were eating and talking and he explained to me that he was involved in a church that was a part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). It was a church network of Neo-Calvinist churches anchored on the East Coast of the United States and led by C.J. Mahaney. Andrew had already once invited me to church and shared about his experience in SGM. I didn’t know anything about SGM at the time. Andrew explained that when he was posted up at McGuire-Dix in New Jersey and preparing to come to D.C. he mentioned that he was going to get involved in Sovereign Grace. A friend warned him, passing him the blog SGM Survivors. Andrew was sharing all this while we ate. He explained that he looked at it and after a few minutes dismissed it. When Andrew told me that I initially dismissed the blog SGM Survivors and thought it was someone that had a bad experience. After all how many websites do you see that are like that?
So later on I spent sometime reading up on SGM. I found the blog that Andrew referenced called SGM Survivors and read it. And I read, read, and read and consumed so much information on there. I was deeply shocked and realized that this was not a person that had a bad experience. It was a large community of people sharing and discussing the problems of the organization. At the blog I read about how C.J. Mahaney had allegedly practiced blackmails. I read stories of former members who called Sovereign Grace a cult and how families were divided and destroyed. The harm that Josh Harris “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” did to many men and women. And I read story after story of domestic and sexual abuse. I looked at the sexual abuse claims involving Sovereign Grace Fairfax and was horrified. One story detailed how a wife discovered that her husband was sexually abusing their daughter. When she confronted him, he fled and threatened to commit suicide as compared to going to jail. In time the SGM pastor encouraged him to move back into the family. To try and solve his sexual abuse, the wife was commanded to have more sex with him. The sexual abuse of their daughter was placed on the 10 year old and the mother. She wrote in this blog post about how she forced herself to have sex with her husband almost to the point of vomiting. I read all this and felt sick. I remember sitting at the computer reading all this and thinking to myself, “What am I being invited to?” The situation with Sovereign Grace suddenly changed.
The relationship with Andrew would take a turn for the worse. I looked at him and his wife in much lesser terms. I was baffled why someone who went to the Air Force Academy, arguably one of the best military academies in the world would get involved in Sovereign Grace? After all Andrew had education and training that 99.9% of the population of the United States did not have and yet he couldn’t apply critical thinking skills. How does a highly trained military officer dismiss blogs that deal with disturbing issues? When the blogs are warning people to stay away and you read story after story why would you get involved? Why call it healthy when you are reading posts about parents that hope to interact with children who got caught up in this cult? I was baffled. Because at the time all this happened I was in a deep and severe faith crisis. I was also reading and consuming a lot of atheist material. Being invited to a church network mired in allegations of criminal activity deeply validated Christopher Hitchens claims about Christianity being corrupt. It firmly validated atheism. Plus I also realized that SGM Survivors reminded me of Recovery From Mormonism. The friendship never recovered as I distrusted Andrew and yet struggled with what to do. Here was this nice guy proclaiming he was in the “healthiest church” he knew. He started to sound like a robot and I was just baffled. The relationship ended with a serious false accusation that was triggered. And in time I was counseled by an attorney to try and resolve the mess. I once met with Jordan Kauflin who helped lead Redeemer Arlington and I bought him lunch in Arlington, Virginia. When I raised the blogs like SGM Survivors, he ducked the question and went to the next topic. It really stood out and was awkward. But that was my experience with the SGM blogs. They helped keep me out of SGM and stood as a warning that was dark and ominous. I heeded that warning.
Dr. Dale Harris and The Elephant’s Debt
The other day this blog published a story from Dr. Dale Harris that dealt with his encounter with The Elephant’s Debt. The blog post is called, “Guest Post: Dr. Dale Harris, A Former Harvest Bible Fellowship Pastor Shares His Experience With Harvest Chicago and his Thoughts on James MacDonald.” This is what Dale wrote.
“Later that summer, as I was counting the days until my family moved to Chicago for four months of training, I Googled something about Harvest, hoping to find more sermons from James MacDonald. It had always troubled me that James was about the only pastor I knew who charged money to listen to his archived sermons, but I figured the money went toward getting Walk in the Word on more radio stations, so I let it go. Anyway, the search brought up this website called The Elephant’s Debt. I literally did not sleep that night. I stayed up until 6 a.m. reading every word of every page. I was horrified. How could this great church, with the greatest preacher I’d ever heard, be guilty of these accusations? I had a meeting with another Harvest leader, and I asked him what I thought were pointed questions about the accusations. I’ll be honest. I wanted to go to the Training Center. I wanted to believe these things weren’t true. The people speaking out weren’t the people I had known well in my time at Harvest. I’d never really had reason to question James MacDonald’s character. I knew him mostly from the pulpit ministry, of course. But nobody I knew had said anything terrible. So I chose to reject The Elephant’s Debt. I didn’t really question their facts. I just wanted desperately to believe they were exaggerating the importance of them. And I convinced myself that was the reality of the situation. I was wrong.”
That is an honest assessment by Dale Harris of The Elephant’s Debt. For Dale the blog was a red flag. In time it was one that he could no longer ignore as time passed by. he also wrestled with the information and could change his mind.
Here is how Blogs Like The Elephant’s Debt Should be Viewed
Here is the issue, James MacDonald rejects submitting to authority. He believes he is above it. For all that he teaches about submitting to leadership he does not believe it. He has spiritually abused and driven people away and many wise elders have left Harvest Bible Chapel realizing that the issues will not change. James MacDonald has no checks and balances and the elders currently there are just going to rubber stamp what he does. If you doubt me, consider what happened with the Harvest Bible Fellowship which James imploded without the advice or approval of his elders. Since James MacDonald has no accountability that it where The Elephant’s Debt steps in. The blog by Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant is the closest that James MacDonald will ever have to accountability. The Elephant’s Debt writes, reviews, and shares information. Blogs like The Elephant’s Debt pop up when ministries or organizations are toxic.
The Elephant’s Debt is a warning. Its a warning that is loud, and you can’t ignore. To ignore The Elephant’s Debt is like standing in a building in the middle of a fire. The fire alarm is screaming, smoke is pouring over the property and yet you are choosing to stay. Why would you do that? The fact of that matter is that going to Harvest Bible Chapel in the light of these issues reveals the abuse and insecurity of those who attend. Some people can’t face the issues and want to stuck their head in the sand deeper. I very much know what it is like to be encountered with a blog that challenges your world view. I wrote about Sovereign Grace, Redeemer Arlington and Andrew White up above. It was hard to deal with but I could not ignore the issues. For those who continue to stay because of friends and more, the question must be asked, are they really your friends? If they will be friends with you only if you stay at Harvest Bible Chapel, then what kind of friends are they? Some of this I wrote about in, “Why People Need to Leave Harvest Bible Chapel.”
Blogs like The Elephant’s Debt are healthy and good. Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant took risks to challenge and push back against James MacDonald. They have risked and actually endured a lawsuit by James MacDonald. Another way to look at this issue is the following. James MacDonald is the wolf, Ryan and Scott are acting like shepherds in helping get the information to the people so that they can leave. Now here is one thing I want you to ask yourself if you attend Harvest Bible Chapel. Why go to a church that you can’t invite people to attend? So here is what is going to happen, you have this church hemorrhaging spiritual abuse and problems. You will try and invite a co-worker or neighbor and they discover The Elephant’s Debt and they will get cold feet and say no. People will know there are problems and they will see blogs like The Elephant’s Debt as a warning. You are also going to take a hit. My story with Sovereign Grace and Jordan Kauflin’s Redeemer Arlington shows how that will happen. People will be baffled and ask themselves, “Why does _________ chose to go to that church that is in the news for corruption and financial misdeeds?” I hope this post helps those at Harvest Bible Chapel who are on the fence. If any want to speak or discuss leaving I am happy to help or to even put you in touch with former members who have left.