Fear of falling

Being high up tends me to make me feel nervous. Flying, tall buildings, that sort of thing. It’s not a proper phobia, just a niggling and persistent discomfort. I’ve got a standard line when I explain this to people: I’m not scared of heights; I’m scared of falling.

Somehow that seems like an appropriate caption for my life right now. Or rather, for the parts of myself that I’m trying to keep from running my life.

You see, I’m extremely risk averse. I’m reluctant to commit to tasks that I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to. And just to make things interesting, there’s a pretty loud and insistent part of me that’s convinced that there are few tasks, if any, that I can really live up to. And since I’m just going to fail anyway, maybe it would be better not to try in the first place.

There are a lot of reasons why I struggle with thinking like this. Some of it, I think, is a natural tendency towards perfectionism. I know some of it is because of personal relationships where I was told that nothing I did was ever good enough often enough that I eventually started to believe it about myself, so often that eventually I didn’t even need to be told.

And some of it is because of the messages I grew up hearing in church – about how horribly depraved I was, about how even the best and most noble thing I could ever do would be nothing but filthy rags before God. And about how God was perfectly righteous and expected the utmost holiness, even though by nature no human being could ever live up to such a high standard. About how you had to try to be as good and do everything as completely right as possible, even though you could never be good enough for God.

What a lot of people, Christians and otherwise, don’t get is how this stuff sinks into your bones. It becomes part of you, not just how you think about your spiritual life, but how you think about everything. That shouldn’t be surprising, since we were taught that what we believed about God should affect every last aspect of our lives. Well, it does, but not in the way I was told it would.

You become obsessed with doing things right, and your entire sense of self-worth is bound up in that. But you also become convinced you can never get things right. That nothing you do is right enough. You can always be more right. So you begin to equate yourself with failure.

And no one tells you that sometimes failure is the best teacher. That sometimes it can be a good thing. That sometimes people look and do and feel better for having tried to do something and “failed,” than if they always took the safest path. Or that playing it safe is actually following someone else’s script, and no way to build confidence in yourself and your ability to get things done.

And of course you get no warning that the path every one tells you is safest may not be so safe after all. No, all you’re told is that this path is safe; if you take the others you’ll fall. And falling is so terrifying a prospect that all of one’s life must be devoted to avoiding it at all costs.

So you avoid heights. You stay safe and low to the ground and avoid even the slightest deviation from the path. But again, you can never follow it closely enough, so your entire life becomes defined by never being able to quite do things right.

My fear of falling looks like this:
– I feel like I’m going to fail before I’ve ever even tried.
– I feel like all the bad or incomplete things I’ve done outweigh any good.
– I feel like I’ve never done anything really good or worthwhile.
– I feel judged long before anyone ever judges me.

Someone said to me today that if someone else said all these things to me, rather than my telling it to myself, it would be emotionally abusive. And she’s absolutely right. It is abusive.

It’s pretty straightforward, really. I heard day after day and year after year that I was a worthless, abject, utterly wretched sinner and that God loved me despite myself. And I believed it. Part of me still does.

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Doing things right

There’s a very rigid, narrow script that you have to follow if you want to “do things right” in white American evangelicalism. It’s a script that covers everything from the utterly mundane to huge, life-altering decisions. Evangelical God, you see, has a lot of very specific and strongly-held opinions about all manner of things.

What you wear. Whether you use makeup. How much makeup you use. What words you can or can’t use. What you read, watch, listen to, and what you shun. You may think God has too much to keep track of to be worried about such pesky details, but evangelicals are here to tell you how very wrong you are.

And of course, God sweats the bigger stuff, too. Who your friends are. Whether you go to college (if you’re a girl, do you really need a college degree, or are you just looking for wordly gain/approval?). What kind of job you get and where. Whom you date and how (courtship is really more godly, you know). Whether your parents approve of them or not. How long you date or court. How long between the engagement and the wedding. Whether or not you have kids. How many kids you have. Homeschool or Christian school. When you buy a house. What church you go to. Just for starters.

Small wonder Evangelical God has such a hard time keeping things running smoothly down here. God must be exhausted from all the effort it takes to micromanage every last detail of evangelicals’ lives. That whole “I’m completely sovereign over every last molecule of space and microsecond of time so no matter how terrible things may seem, I’m in control” business? Clearly all a ruse to keep us all from worrying that God’s bitten off more than God can chew.

And really, that’s a short list of the many things God wants us to do the “right” way. The “biblical” or “godly” way. There “biblical” manhood, womanhood, parenthood, childhood, relationships, marriage, fellowship, hospitality, modesty, careers, politics, even sports (the dear leader of my former church group has a book out called Don’t’ Waste Your Sports – seriously). Between all of those, there’s a lot of ink spilled and breath expended by evangelicals telling each other exactly how to live and what to think at all times.

And again, it’s an incredibly potent method of mind and behavioral control. Every moment of your life is scripted. You become so busy trying to apply a million (and growing!) different rules on how to be “godly” and have a “biblical worldview” that you eventually have no room to think or be, much less question why you’re spending all your energy trying to be more biblical than the next person. You have no time to be reflective about yourself or the world around you, no time to actually invest in people and issues outside your narrow evangelical world, because all your time is taken up with being a “good Christian” – which has little to do with being a good person.

All of this is done in the name and under the authority of “God.” But the terrifying truth is it’s just regular people telling other people what to do. People who are just as fallible as the next person, often quite ignorant, with extremely limited experience of the world and even of themselves. People who don’t even know what they want for themselves – are not allowed to indulge thoughts about what they really want, as they’re clearly selfish and  sinful – telling other people how to live.

This is the open secret no one acknowledges. All these people who parade themselves in front of churches as the experts in godliness, the ones who seem to have the key to a magically contented godly life all figured out? They don’t have any special insight or life wisdom. And who knows whether or not their lives are all so blessed as they claim. It’s not as though there’s any room to be godly and not content with one’s lot in life. It’s a virtue, perhaps the highest of all of them, to put on a happy face no matter what.

Nobody has a damn clue what they’re doing. And nobody is allowed to speak the truth about any pain or imperfection or discontentment in their lives. Of course it goes horribly wrong.


Above all things

Only day 4 of NaBloPoMo (or NaBloWriMo if you prefer), and I’m already having to write my first post that isn’t pre-scheduled or closely edited. Well, the idea was to get me to write more spontaneously and get my thoughts out quickly, so I guess it’s working! Anyone else doing Nano/nablowrimo or some other variant of it?

One of the things that does huge damage to individuals, families, and communities in evangelicalism is the idea that the most important thing is being completely “right” in what you believe and how you go about making decisions. Everything else is secondary to that, and follows from that. People and families who don’t do things the right way are all secretly falling apart and miserable and have “something missing from their lives,” no matter how much they might feel otherwise. People who live “biblically” always have “God-honoring” marriages and families and lives that are complete and blessed, no matter what kind of horror show plays out when there’s no one to perform holiness for. People who follow the rules have blessed lives.

It’s one of the things I’ve really struggled with in my adult life, as someone who mostly tried to follow the script for what I was supposed to do, and how. I didn’t follow it absolutely perfectly. And believe me, I felt plenty of guilt over the various ways I deviated from the rules. Constant guilt.

Which in retrospect seems like another unhealthy and oppressive aspect of this obsession with doing things right – the focus is always on what you’ve done wrong, what you could do better, no matter how much you might have done right the rest of the time. There’s no satisfaction in doing things well, in doing things the right way, because that’s what you were supposed to do in the first pace. You don’t get credit for good things. Only blame for the bad.

Funny enough, it turns out that being able to give oneself credit for the things one has accomplished is actually a sort of important part of maintaining emotional and mental health. Turns out that after a while of focusing on only the bad things about yourself, after years of being trained to talk and write and sing and think about how sinful you are and how even the worst things that happen to you are still better than you deserve…

It becomes really easy to only ever see the “bad” things about yourself (or to realize that the people you trust have a kind of warped sense of what’s “bad” and what’s “good”). And eventually it becomes easy to see yourself as bad. As evil. Not just someone who does bad things, but inherently and solely bad.

I think that keeping people in such a state of constant psychological self-flagellation – and in a state of constantly pointing out the faults of others in the name of “accountability – is a really powerful method of controlling people. When you get people to fundamentally distrust themselves, you make them vulnerable and pliable. Never sure of whether what they see, think, or feel is reflective in any way of reality, and as a result, reliant on others to tell them what they should see, think and feel.

This is what life was like growing up evangelical. It was made explicit that I could never trust myself or my perception of the world, not even my own feelings. Especiallynot my own feelings, actually, because feelings were fickle and rooted in the flesh, not in the spirit. Because, as we were frequently reminded, “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” [Jeremiah 17:9]

This didn’t give me a complex about myself, or anything.

I mean, it’s true, feelings are subjective and they can be fickle. On their own they’re not the most reliable indicator of what the world is really like or how we should behave. Sometimes our feelings lead us the wrong way. But what I was taught went in the opposite direction – the pastors and care group leaders and my parents not only taught me to ignore and suppress my feelings, but often implied if not outright advised that doing the exact opposite of what my feelings told me was the “godly” thing to do.

Turns out running away from one’s feelings isn’t the best way of dealing with them. Turns out growing up to be an adult whose reflex is to constantly question and distrust her feelings and instincts in every situation kind of sucks.


Re-centering

Are Women Human? is now on Facebook – you can “like” AWH using the button in the right sidebar, or on the AWH Facebook page, also linked in the sidebar.

Sorry for the long and unexplained absence from the blog! I had a number of obligations and was also on the road a bit; I thought I’d still be able to get some writing done despite all that, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

To be honest, another part of the delay in writing has also been a bit of burnout over the SGM situation, or perhaps more over the way I’d been writing about it. Put simply, I’m a bit tired of writing about privileged white men all the time. That’s not what, or who, this blog is about. There’s no shortage of writing that centers privileged white dudes, way more than there ought to be, and not nearly enough that deals with the concerns of people who are not privileged white men (which is most people, after all). I’m not sure that the way I’ve been writing about the current drama in SGM does much to balance the disproportionate focus on people with privilege and power.

On the one hand, there’s no way to write about the issues I care about without spending a significant amount of time writing about privilege and power. The abuses that this blog focuses on are a direct product of inequitable distribution of power in the church, and abuse of religious authority and influence to promote teachings that oppress and harm people. So I need to talk about power, and powerful people – and when it comes to talking about Christianity in the U.S. or American society in general, that means spending a good amount of time talking about privileged white men.

Still, spending an extended period of time writing only or primarily about powerful white dudes in the church doesn’t jibe with my vision for this blog, and what I hope it will grow into in the future. If I believe that the extremely narrow range of voices and experiences represented in most church leadership is a direct contributor to oppression in the church, then part of fighting that oppression has to be devoting more time, attention, and space to neglected voices, and pointing to alternative models of church leadership and community. It has to include making visible the diversity of people and perspectives that the evangelical church in particularly so often marginalizes and renders invisible. In general I haven’t done as much of that kind of writing on this blog as I would like, but that’s especially been the case since all the drama between SGM’s leadership become public. My blogging became all about SGM pastors.

First and foremost I want this to be a space that centers the voices and experiences of people who are survivors of abusive church cultures. Part of that will definitely be continuing to call out men who foster toxic church environments. There’s a lot of therapeutic value in talking about these men and their warped and cramped worldview. When you grow up in this kind of system, you’re taught to self-censor any kind of dissenting speech, or even thought. You’re taught to ignore any doubts or feelings that things aren’t quite right. That any feeling that something is wrong is just you – being judgmental, being angry, being unforgiving, rebelling against God. The church and the pastors can never be wrong.

So when you finally find someone who is willing to name the system for what it is – abusive, oppressive, perverse – it’s a tremendous relief. I remember when I found the SGM Survivors blog for the first time. I wept. A lot. I didn’t even know I had that kind of emotion bottled up inside of me until I found people who were at last confirming what I’d thought for so long, that there was something deeply, horribly wrong in SGM. I didn’t realize until that moment that I thought I was all alone in feeling that way. And in one unexpected moment, I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew it wasn’t just me being paranoid or oversensitive. What I saw and felt were real.

I don’t agree with much of what the folks who run SGM Survivors and Refuge believe, but I’ll always be thankful that they made it possible for me to see that I wasn’t alone. I want my blog to do the same, but to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of color, queer people, trans people, people who are no longer Christian or no longer religious, and anyone who has been harmed or marginalized by authoritarian church leadership. And I want to make more space to talk about religious and secular communities that are working towards being more inclusive and less hierarchical. I don’t want to unthinkingly accept the disparities that exist in the church and the culture at large by spending all my time talking about demographics that are already overrepresented in public discourse.

So what does that mean, in a concrete sense? There’ll still be posts about Mark Driscoll’s toxic notions of masculinity, but I’ll also write more about alternatives to patriarchal masculinity. I’ll still pay attention to the current crisis among SGM leaders, but I’ll be spending more time talking about various experiences of marginalization in the church – e.g., what it’s like growing up as a girl/woman of color in a predominantly white, patriarchal church culture, about the racist and classist assumptions that underlie white evangelical definitions of “biblical” masculinity and femininity, about abuse and recovery in Christian families and communities, about queer sexuality and non-conforming gender, etc. I’ll still write about so-called traditional Christianity, but I’ll be spending more time talking about churches committed to practical theologies of social justice and equality, about deconversion and processing one’s own beliefs and spirituality after leaving an authoritarian religious group, about negotiating relationships with loved ones who believe differently, and other issues.

This blog isn’t ultimately about C.J. Mahaney or Mark Driscoll or any other blowhard complementarian. It’s about those of us who have been and are still being affected by their teachings, and I need to re-center my writing to reflect that better. I’d love hear any ideas or thoughts you all might have about how I can do that, or suggestions about topics that would be good to discuss.


How SGM’s Covenant Life Church and Fairfax Covenant Church deal with sexual abuse

Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators. 

I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.

Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.

  • ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
  • SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993.

In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.

In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.

Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”

And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.

They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.

These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.

First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.

Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.

Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.

This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external  publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.

This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?

The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.

This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.

This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.

So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.

Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).

Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.

This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.

And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.

Read the rest of this entry »


Rachel Held Evans: Mark Driscoll is a bully. Stand up to him.

There have been lots of posts on Mark Driscoll lately (and there are a few more to come, sigh), but I had to share this post by Rachel Held Evans calling on Christians to speak out against Driscoll’s bullying. Trigger warning for bullying and homophobic language.

If this Facebook status were Pastor Mark Driscoll’s first offense, it might not warrant a strong response. But Mark has developed a pattern of immaturity and unkindness that has remained largely unchecked by his church. In evangelical circles, he’s like the kid from high school who makes crude jokes at every opportunity, uses the words “gay” and “queer” to describe the things he most detests, encourages his friends to subject the unpopular kids to ridicule, and belittles the guys who aren’t “macho” or “manly” enough to be in his club.

As blogger Tyler Clark put it, “When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack ‘effeminate anatomically male’ men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.”

What we have on our hands is a bully. 

And this bully is teaching the young men at his church and under his influence that bullying is an acceptable expression of “biblical manhood.”

This has to stop. As followers of Jesus, we are obligated to stick up for the least of these, especially when they are being publicly bullied in the name of Christ.

We are also obligated to use the proper channels to do so. Many have asked that Mark apologize, but he has refused. Many have written blog posts expressing their concern, but he remains defiant. It’s time to take some more practical steps:

Today I emailed Mars Hill Church to request that the elders take whatever measures necessary to stop Mark’s bullying once and for all. No more empty apologies. This behavior must change.

If you wish to do the same, here’s how:

Write: 
Mars Hill Church
1411 NW 50th
Seattle, WA 98107

Call:
(206) 816-3500

Email:
life@marshillchurch.org

If you know Mark personally or attend his church, approach him as a friend and request that he get the counseling he needs to deal with this destructive pattern. Bullying is as harmful to the bully as it is to the victim.

Read the whole thing: Rachel Held Evans | Mark Driscoll is a bully. Stand up to him..

ETA: The Tyler Clark post RHE quotes is also excellent, particularly in how it pinpoints that isn’t about sexuality so much as it is about gender expression. An excerpt:

Your language is not only hurtful to gay men. It is hurtful to many straight men. As a [straight] man who has always been intimidated by more traditionally masculine men, your words tell me that I am not welcome in your church or among your friends.

Over the years, I have fallen away from the church. Recently, however, I have been longing to reengage. As a look for a new church, I need one that is welcome to all men—no matter how masculine.

When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack “effeminate anatomically male” men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.


Damage control at Covenant Life Church, pt. 2

Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spousal/domestic abuse, spiritual abuse.

Part 1

The problems Josh addresses in his comments (and those he fails to acknowledge) are characteristic of SGM as a whole. A single apology to a single church is inadequate. CLC teachings are funneled to and reproduced at every other SGM church through conferences, podcasts, books, sermon recordings, visits from CLC pastors, blogs, on and on. Books by CJ and Josh and CJ’s wife and daughters are virtually required reading for SGM church members. The typical SGM church member outside CLC has heard several sermons by CJ in particular, along with other top-level SGM leaders, and has heard each of those sermons more than once. The typical SGM church member, in fact, is familiar with CJ’s catchphrases, and can and will repeat them with little prompting (“I’m doing better than I deserve!” and “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”). People across SGM read the same books, listen to the same music, make the same lifestyle and educational choices, only marry people from their own or other SGM churches, have a religious vocabulary unique to SGM, even among other evangelical reformed groups, etc., etc. But don’t worry, just because almost everyone happens to conform to a very narrow set of lifestyles and behaviors, just because everyone looks and talks the same, doesn’t mean SGM is a high control cultic group.

This raises a set of related problems with this “apology”: in various ways it’s a perfect illustration of the high control/cultic aspects of SGM’s church culture.

1) This “apology” does not at all address the established pattern of SGM leaders covering up child molestation, promoting teachings that foster, enable, and excuse domestic spousal and child abuse, and bullying women in particular into staying with abusive husbands. These are allegations that in a healthy church with responsible leadership would be addressed in a transparent and direct fashion. Instead the leaders at CLC and other SGM churches privately deny that these incidents ever took place (even though at least one of them involved a registered sex offender) and publicly pretend as though the allegations don’t exist.

A church that doesn’t tolerate or enable abusive behavior is one where the leaders don’t hesitate to say so publicly, and loudly, and to be very clear about the measures they have in place to minimize abuse, to report abusers, and to help survivors. SGM couldn’t be farther from this; they don’t deal honestly with the issue of abuse. They in fact give the impression that SGM is some sort of abuse-free nirvana: CJ calls CLC “the happiest place on earth” while Josh claims that spousal abuse is “very rare” (more lies). SGM cultivates a culture of silence and secrecy around abuse, a culture in which abuse and abusers thrive.

2) Josh doesn’t address allegations that children of pastors at Covenant Life School are have been held to a lower standard of behavior and faced much less harsh consequences for breaking school rules than children of “regular” members, who are frequently expelled for serious infractions (again, totally not culty).

3) The problems at Covenant Life LONG predate Josh’s presence there. Josh isn’t the one responsible for creating these problems, though he’s certainly had a huge hand in perpetuating them. The longtime leaders of SGM – Dave Harvey, Steve Shank, Brent Detwiler, among others, and most especially beloved leader and “apostle” CJ Mahaney – are the ones who should be giving this apology. Why leave it up to one of the youngest and least culpable members of the leadership to handle? Why isn’t CJ stepping up and taking responsibility for the toxic culture he’s micromanaged for the past 30 years? Instead Josh effusively praises CJ – who’s known for his narcissistic and controlling style of leadership and his encouragement of a cult of personality with himself and his family at the center – for showing the pastors where they went wrong with reducing holiness to a single practice. Ugh. Again, this is how cults work. CJ is being held up yet again as the paragon of perfection despite the fact that as CLC’s leader from its founding, he bears main responsibility for CLC being what it is today.

4) Throughout his comments Josh undermines in various ways the seriousness of the mistakes he’s supposedly apologizing for. He says he understands that these mistakes have caused people deep pain, but simultaneously makes light of them by cracking jokes and laughing inappropriately (this is more obvious in the audio of his comments, which isn’t 100% identical to transcript). He attributes the high level of group conformity at CLC to the fact that they care so much about being holy. He feels the need to assert that the CLC pastoral team hasn’t been wrong about “everything” – as though the pastors would have to be wrong about everything to do serious, long-term damage by abusing the trust people have in them. He uses the manipulative language of “our church isn’t perfect/no church is perfect” – as though calls for accountability are identical to expecting perfection.

5) Relatedly, Josh claims to understand that there’s been a longterm established pattern of high pressure to conform, and that the pastors themselves have perpetuated this culture. Yet he expects his audience to continue to invest complete trust in the pastors that NOW they really understand what the problem is and things will be very different in the future. If the pastors were so unable to see that these things were issues for so many years, why should they be trusted to understand them now?

6) Finally, and also relatedly, from start to finish the apology is a carefully orchestrated performance completely controlled by Josh and the pastoral team behind him. No actual victims of CLC’s abusive practices were allowed to share their stories with the church. All discussions of negative experiences have taken place behind closed doors, on turf firmly controlled by CLC: e.g., Josh’s home. We have to take it on his word that people have truly been quick to extend forgiveness for the damage done, as he claims. Further, Josh gives numerous verbal cues to the congregation about how they should interpret his admission and apology. His comments aren’t evidence of a serious, endemic problem exposed by blogs critical of SGM, but rather “realignments” and “refinements” (in other words, minor adjustments) that are God’s answer to prayer for revival. They’re “not an indictment of [CLC’s] history,” but part of an ongoing growth in the church. And on and on. The whole thing is deeply manipulative in how it attempts to direct and control the congregation’s reaction.

This is not an adequate apology. In my opinion, it’s not even an adequate first step. It’s damage control. It’s a vague, minimizing, manipulative, blame-shifting, micromanaging, incredibly dishonest attempt at damage control. People are leaving several SGM churches in droves. Enrollments at Covenant Life School have dropped significantly. Josh and the rest of the pastoral team want people to believe it’s purely coincidental they’ve just now figured out that they’ve made some serious mistakes. In a high control cult of personality like CLC, such a transparently convenient excuse just might fly.