Damage control at Covenant Life Church, pt. 1

I mistakenly scheduled this the post before I was done drafting it – so this post may change pretty dramatically in the next few days. Just FYI! :p

Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spiritual abuse.

After over two years of mostly ignoring accusations of widespread dysfunction and abuse in their churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries is finally paying attention. In recent months, Joshua Harris, current senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, the SGM motherflagship church, has been meeting with present and former members of the church to hear their grievances. This past Sunday, he led a church-wide “family meeting” in which he apologized for “where we’ve gotten things wrong” and pledged to “grow as leaders and as a church.”

Well, it sounds nice, but I’m not buying this “apology.” For a lot of reasons. Just for starters:

1) It’s framed dishonestly from the very beginning. There’s no acknowledgement that this is the result of increasing pressure and bad press from ex-members’ blogs, particularly Survivors and Refuge. They’re sticking to their policy of closely monitoring the blogs in secret while publicly pretending that they don’t exist. Instead Josh claims that “God has been showing the pastors about where we’ve gotten things wrong” and “answering our prayer that he would revive us and refine us.” Well. God works in mysterious ways, I guess, including online callouts for covering up child molestation. “His” timing in bringing correction and revival also curiously coincides with declining enrollments at Covenant Life School and loss of members in several SGM churches.

2) Josh acknowledges mistakes in a vague and unsatisfying manner. He glosses over huge issues in a matter of minutes. This would be fine if there were any indication that there will be future meetings to discuss these issues in more detail, but there isn’t. This is a church culture that hammers home to its members that when someone sins, they should make a specific confession of sin, and a specific plan to do differently (you know, repentance). There’s no specificity here, only running down a list of things people have been saying for years in a superficial, parroting fashion that doesn’t give much indication that Josh or the other pastors truly comprehend or care about the problems at hand. Once again the pastors hold themselves to a far lower standard of ‘holiness’ than they expect of their members.

For example, Josh states that in at least one case where a pastor was having “problems” with a teenage child, he (Josh) didn’t respond in a caring way. Which pastor? What was wrong about his response? Wouldn’t more transparency and specificity show he’s really serious about recognizing where things were done wrong and about changing in the future? It seems to me that the pastors want all the benefits of making an apology without having to take on all the self-sacrifice and pain that comes with making a sincere admission of wrongdoing.

3) Relatedly, he refuses to take proper responsibility for problems at CLC (which are characteristic of SGM as a whole). He uses passive language, admitting only that the pastors “allowed” a toxic culture to develop at CLC, or “could have worked harder” to prevent such a culture from developing. He repeatedly denies any pastoral responsibility for communicating narrow-minded and oppressive beliefs to the congregation, e.g.: “If you went back and listened to past messages, I don’t think you’d find us teaching, ‘There’s only one godly way to do this or that'” and “I don’t think the ‘good parents = good kids’ idea has characterized our teaching on parenting.” In effect he casts the problems at CLC as being the primary fault of the lay members (for what, being too stupid to understand what the pastors really meant?). The root problem is that members weren’t listening carefully enough.

This is utter nonsense. Whatever Joshua Harris might be, he’s neither unintelligent nor completely naive, and he would have to be to fail to recognize that SGM’s oppressive and abusive culture is a direct product of what its pastors have clearly communicated to members from its earliest years. Take an issue that I’ve been directly affected by: Josh implies that the pastors “unintentionally” gave the impression that “to practice biblical femininity, [women] shouldn’t pursue higher education or work outside the home.” This is simply not true.

Josh is probably technically correct that one is unlikely to find any recorded sermons in which an SGM pastor says that women shouldn’t go to college, or work outside the home. Like most complementarians, SGM’s leaders are very careful to avoid communicating their misogyny so explicitly. But there’s no mistaking their consistent pattern of undermining higher education or out of home employment for women, for example, in Brent Detwiler’s teaching (particularly “Thoughts on Vocation”*) on how young adults should prepare for (straight) marriage and parenthood, which he was teaching as recently as 2006 and which is still posted on his former church’s website:

YOUNG LADIES MUST PREPARE TO BE HOMEMAKERS…Prepare to Marry Young If God’s Will; Don’t accept cultural norms and practices…Don’t Assume College or Career:
1) Be aware of serving the cultural idol of education and career.
2) Be willing to lay aside the pursuit of higher education if marriage comes early.
3) Be willing to lay aside a career when married.
4) Think of a non-paying (but very rewarding and important) “career” in the home related to your husband and children.
5) If unmarried, consider a “feminine” vocation or job that will benefit family later.

Detwiler further divides reasons married women work outside the home into “necessary” reasons and “wordly” reasons. The only “necessary” reasons are a husband’s unemployment or disability, or to save up money or pay off debts. The clear implication is that any woman who works outside of the home when her husband is also employed is sinning if her work is not indispensable to family finances. Meanwhile, worldly reasons for a woman to work outside of the home include:

6) Identity and fulfillment primarily in work outside the home. Not content with obscurity of being a wife, mother and homemaker… [my emphasis] 8) Husband and wife may think she can work outside home with little or no harm to the marriage and family. 9) Realization by a woman that it may be easier to work outside the home than in the home as a wife, mother and homemaker.

There’s an obvious disdain here for women and especially mothers who have outside employment. Detwiler clearly implies that such women are lazy, self-absorbed, and unwise parents. He clearly associates a woman working outside the home with “harm” to her marriage and family. He states that there is “lack of biblical support” for women to work full-time outside of the home. This is official SGM teaching – or if it’s not current official teaching, it’s not been clearly repudiated, and it needs to be.

That’s even without the fact that the pastors send an unmistakable message by “leading” the vast majority of their wives to be homeschooling, stay at home moms and “leading” the vast majority of their daughters to live with their parents until they marry, to attend local community colleges if they go to college at all, to pursue stereotypically feminine careers as secretaries, teachers, or nurses, and to become homemakers when they marry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these lifestyles (and it’s worth keeping in mind that choice in these matters is a luxury that many, many people around the world don’t have). But when practically every immediate female relative of an SGM pastor makes the same choices, it’s not a free choice, and it sends a clear message to SGM members that truly “godly” women should, barring a few exceptions, always conform to one narrowly defined lifestyle.

Yet Joshua Harris would have us believe that any impression CLC members might have that it’s less godly for Christian women to have college degrees (or heaven forbid, post-bac degrees) or full-time careers was a complete misinterpretation on the members’ parts and never intended by the pastors.

What a load of crap. Memo to Josh: sincere apologies don’t involve lying or insulting your audience’s listening comprehension.


*Just in case this page is taken down later – I have copies of this and other outlines documenting Detwiler’s extremely sexist teachings.

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