One year blogaversary

Trigger warning – sexual abuse, spousal abuse.

Today is, more or less, my first blogoversary. I published my first real post on Are Women Human? one year ago today. That post was about John Piper’s advice on how women who are being abused by their husbands can still “submit” and affirm their husband’s leadership and should “endure” abuse “for a season.”

Comparing that post to my most recent post on child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries, there’s an obvious common denominator of Christianized patriarchy. Piper’s response to abused wives and CLC and FCC’s responses to abused children and their families share in common an assumption that the world should be ordered around the belief that  the authority of straight, gender conforming men over all other human beings should be universal and unquestioned.

Women should “endure being smacked around for a night” so as not to “disrespect” or be “unsubmissive” to to their husband – their leader. Children who have been abused should be sent away from home so that their molester fathers can “stay in the house as the head of the household.” Survivors and their families should shut up and tell no one about the abuse or the identity of the abusers so as to preserve the reputations of the men “leading” the church. Everything is set up so that men who abuse (not that only men abuse) are coddled, protected, enabled.

This is all about Christian patriarchy. It’s all about defending a worldview that God cares about straight cisgender (white) men more than anyone else, that they are worth more than everyone else no matter how disgusting or evil their behavior.

The devastating effects of these teachings on queer people, trans and gender variant people, women, gender people of color, and children are many. And As I’ve written over the past year, this kind of Christian patriarchy is incredibly toxic to men as well. It imposes a standard of perfect leadership and providing that no man can ever live up to. It teaches men that they aren’t “real” men if they don’t live up to this standard, if they are not able to dominate everyone around them (including other men) and thus turns everyone into challenges to be subdued. It primes men to lash out at any threat to their complete control over others with anger and abuse.

As I’ve blogged about these issues over the past year I’ve become even more convinced that they are entrenched, pressing issues that desperately need addressing. To a lot of people, the effects of Christian patriarchy might seem far removed from their lives. But the reality is that Christian patriarchy is just a more explicitly articulated, more extreme, spiritualized form of plain old patriarchy. Its response to rape is a theology that enshrines and sanctifies rape culture. Its response to female, queer, and trans sexuality and bodily autonomy is bigoted, paternalist, and based a belief in the supremacy of straight gender normative white men – just like our culture at large. The only difference is that in Christian patriarchy straight  cis white men are held up as spokesmen and stand-ins for God, who is presented as the ultimate possessive, angry, abusive patriarch.

As I wrote in my introduction to the blog a year ago, many feminists and progressives who haven’t had much contact with evangelical communities don’t fully understand the context for evangelical teachings on gender on sexuality:

I decided to start this blog because I noticed that, while there are a number of blogs and books out there that bring attention to issues of gender and sexuality in traditionalist Christian communities, most are written either by people who are still in these communities or very similar ones, or by people who have never been part of these communities.  Many of the blogs by evangelical Christians speaking out against patriarchy in the church still support homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity.  Meanwhile, non-evangelical feminist and progressive critics of religious patriarchy are often puzzled by evangelical beliefs, or don’t take them seriously.

As I read more about Christian patriarchy, I was frustrated by the lack of resources that balanced a feminist and progressive perspective on Christian patriarchy with understanding and empathy for people who grew up in patriarchal communities.  I wanted resources that situated Christian patriarchy in the broader context of gender and sexual discrimination, but also addressed why these beliefs can be appealing, and recognized that it’s a long and often arduous process to work to root out these beliefs from one’s life, and to learn to think about gender and sexuality in more humane and loving ways.

I hope and think what I’ve written over the past year has contributed in some small way to illuminating these issues from a feminist and theologically informed perspective, but I’m also very aware that there’s so much I haven’t touched on yet, much more to be said, much more work to be done. I’ve found writing here to be incredibly fulfilling work and am looking forward to another year of doing it.

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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 »


The double standard at work: Anthony Bradley on Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans

WORLD Magazine’s Anthony Bradley, slamming the campaign by Rachel Held Evans (RHE) against Driscoll’s bullying, perfectly exemplifies these tendencies to enable hateful behavior and attack anyone who dares to challenge it:

One sign of the declining state of Christianity in America is the way in which believers publicly slander one another, which can do violence to love and undermine the witness of the Church to nonbelievers. A recent example occurred when a Christian blogger took offensive [sic] to a comment made by a prominent pastor, and then, sadly, the blogger’s rant went viral on the internet.

Dear Anthony Bradley: let me assure you, Mark Driscoll’s repeated, public misogyny is what’s doing violence to love and undermining the witness of the Church to nonbelievers. Evangelicals who are trying to hold him accountable for his speech are doing your church a huge favor.

Also, did we read the same post by Rachel? She gave a measured recounting of Mark’s long-standing pattern of verbal abuse and called on other Christians to take responsibility to end bullying behavior and stand up for the least of these. I’m struggling to see how anything she wrote counts as a “rant.” But hey, if you want to read a rant, you can check out my post on the subject.

Just goes to show you how taking even the most measured tone when calling someone out is no protection whatsoever from someone trying to derail a discussion with a tone argument.

Bradley claims that people dislike Driscoll because he “[speaks] boldly against feminism in our society and paganism in the media. Well, guilty as charged on the first count, but paganism in the media? Is there a cabal of Wiccan newscasters I don’t know about?

He continues: “I am not here to defend Driscoll’s post and would personally challenge him over what he wrote.” He makes no attempt to elaborate why he would privately challenge Driscoll over what he wrote, and apparently he’s not so concerned about that: “My concern is how Christians handle conflict with other Christians in public.”

In sum: Bradley would handle a conflict with Driscoll in private, but feels no qualms about taking a conflict with RHE public. And his conflict with RHE is that he disagrees with her decision to make her criticism of Mark Driscoll public. That’s not confusing or contradictory at all!

And I suppose gender has nothing to do with the fact that Bradley considers Driscoll, and not RHE, worthy of the deference of a completely private correction. Now, Bradley says he emailed RHE to express his disagreement with her approach. But she never replied to him, and obviously women owe men with whom they’re not acquainted replies to their out-of-the-blue emails. Clearly Bradley had no choice but to write about her on the internets!

Funny how Bradley doesn’t say anything about privately emailing Driscoll about the post that started this in the first place, given that he claims he would privately challenge Driscoll over it. Funny how he so clearly approves of the fact that Driscoll “speaks boldly,” but has his knickers in a twist over a woman speaking out in a similarly bold fashion against Driscoll’s hate. Nah, couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that RHE is a woman voicing a strong opinion on the internet.

There is nothing loving about calling a pastor a “bully” – that is, “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.” That is a serious charge.

And Driscoll doesn’t fit that definition of a bully how, exactly…?

While it is more than reasonable to understand why someone would take issue with Driscoll’s post, Evans’ way of responding cannot and should not be encouraged. What was even more disturbing was the way in which many other believers jumped on the slander bandwagon to feed on the carnage once it went viral. [Emphasis mine]

Again, the double standard is amazing in its total shamelessness. Driscoll calling on people to make fun of effeminate men is barely worth a word, but RHE and others calling it the latest in a pattern of public bullying is not simply slander, but carnage. Good grief.

Bradley goes so far as to completely redefine slander and libel in criticizing RHE’s posts:

Jacob W. Ehrlich…explains that because of the oral culture of the world of the Bible there is no difference between slander and libel in christianity. And according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, slander in the Bible is understood as an “accusation maliciously uttered, with the purpose or effect of damaging the reputation of another. As a rule it is a false charge…but it may be a truth circulated insidiously and with a hostile purpose.”

Interestingly, some defenders of SGM have been sharing an article by Tim Keller and David Powlison that similarly redefines “slander” based on a literal translation of biblical Hebrew, taking it entirely out of its current linguistic, legal, and cultural context. These SGM apologists use this argument to claim that not only are Brent’s documents slander, simply discussing them or passing them on is also slander.

So slander now simply means to say or discuss anything that reflects negatively on another person’s reputation, no matter how true it may be, and slander is now the same thing as libel. In other news, Hebrew is now English and we live in the 4th century BCE. The more you know!

Evans’ slanderous post also represents one of the things that God finds detestable, “a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community” (Proverbs 6:19). Additionally, the Bible teachers that if someone offends us we should go to the person directly first (Matthew 18:15-20).

Christians publicly defaming the character of other Christians by name is not the way of love. But Bradley publicly calling RHE a “false witness,” accusing her of libel AND slander, and “stirring up” conflict and dissension is somehow totally different RHE calling Driscoll a bully.

Thanks to the dissension that has now been stirred up, atheist websites are applauding Evans’ response to Driscoll. What type of Christianity are we displaying before the world if slander is our response to the words of leaders we find offensive?” Evans maintains that “Mark’s bullying is unacceptable,” and I would add that so is ungodly public speech against another Christian.”

Calling someone a bully is ungodly speech, but calling people “effeminate anatomically male” is NOT ungodly public speech? And apparently in Bradley’s world, nontheists are just sitting around waiting for Christians to stir shit up with each other. Wrong again, sir. People inside and outside the church applaud RHE because she had the courage and integrity to stand up to an incredibly influential man in her community, despite the potential cost to herself, and state clearly that his harmful behavior needs to stop. We applaud her because she chose to stand up for people who are being hurt by Driscoll’s bigotry, instead of siding with those who use their power to oppress, as so many other influential Christians do, whether through silence and complicity, or by actively enabling and making excuses for abuse as Bradley does.

Anthony Bradley needs to ask himself what kind of Christianity he’s displaying before the world when he argues that Driscoll’s behavior merits only a private rebuke, while RHE’s call out of his behavior is “ungodly.” From where I stand, the kind of Christianity he’s displaying is one that shelters abusers and silences survivors and those who are in solidarity with them.


Reaction to Brent Detwiler’s documents – highlights

After skimming through Brent Detwiler’s, ahem, copious comments on his numerous issues with C.J. Mahaney, my overall impression is that they corroborate pretty much all of the issues that various blogs and individuals have raised about SGM, and shed new light on how those issues manifested in the inner circles of SGM leadership. It’s not a pretty picture. No one comes out looking very good, not even Brent himself.

Much of my reaction to the documents echoes what people have already commented on at length on the SGM Survivors and Refuge blogs. For those who don’t read there or don’t want to wade through the comments, the highlights are below. I’ll post some of my thoughts that haven’t been discussed as much on the other blogs in another post.

The main issues, in summary [Trigger warning: sexual assault]:

– A long-standing pattern of narcissistic and egotistical behavior on C.J.’s part: passive aggressive or outright aggressive responses to the slightest criticism or questioning, expectations of special treatment, unilateral decision making, intense scrutiny and interrogation of the lives and work of his fellow pastors, all the while routinely being dishonest or secretive about his work and home life.

– This was coupled with extreme enabling behavior on the part of basically everyone around C.J. Despite their numerous statements effectively damning C.J. as a poor leader (see the above), they were continually praising him for being an amazing and wonderful a leader: “CJ is an exceptional leader and this summary does not provide the opportunity to celebrate all of the ways in which he excels.” They  consistently stated that the thought of him stepping down never crossed their minds: “There is no one we would rather have leading the apostolic team than CJ”. Despite over 10 YEARS of attempting to persuade C.J. to be less difficult, despite the fact that even the most basic of tasks (e.g., keeping track of his vacation time) were made inordinately difficult by his insistence on being treated as perfect and special. The cognitive dissonance is kind of mindblowing.

– The fact that 6 men – at the very least – weren’t able over 10 years to keep C.J. from running amok makes the CLC pastors and apostolic team look very, very weak and cowardly.

– The interactions between the men leading CLC and SGM are stilted and highly scripted – and incredibly uncomfortable to read. There’s page after page of interrogation of the tiniest details of each others’ words, and motives behinds words, and motives behind questioning words or motives… Constant “loving challenges” to each other over “sin” and confession of “sin” that really amounted to unrelenting examination and policing of each others emotional, spiritual, and personal lives. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been to live like this every day, having people constantly in one’s business and constantly being in other people’s business, all while claiming to be the closest of friends…

This. is. not. friendship. It’s not. I feel sad for these men who clearly have no concept of how joyful and affirming real friendship can be.

– Worse, the correspondence reveals the leadership teams to be a big nasty circle of bickering, backbiting, backstabbing, and thinly veiled jostling for power and approval. Meanwhile, the whole time these men are presenting themselves as a totally united front and CJ as the most humble and wonderful leader ever. The man literally WROTE A BOOK on humility – and they knew the whole time that they were lying through their teeth to CLC and all of SGM.

C.J. wasn’t humble. The men who worked most closely with him unanimously observed this. They routinely presented unilateral decisions on C.J.’s part – about handing the leadership of CLC over to Joshua Harris, e.g., or changing CLC’s doctrinal stance on baptism and communion – as unified decisions the pastoral team arrived at after lots of prayer and discussion together. Bottom line, they were lying to everyone for YEARS. Years.

– Oh yea, and there’s the whole part about C.J. trying to blackmail Larry Tomczak, co-founder of what eventually became SGM, into not leaving the group. This is the most serious allegation, with potential legal ramifications for C.J. and SGM. The story is that C.J. threatened to reveal information about his teenage son’s “youthful sin” (as Larry Tomczak puts it) to the church. It seems pretty clear that this was some sort of sexual “sin.” What’s less clear is whether this was participation in a consensual act, or, as has been alleged on the Survivors blog, a case of Tomczak’s son sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the church. If the latter, then not only is C.J. guilty of blackmail, he and everyone who knew about this incident are guilty of keeping a sexual crime from the authorities.

Narcissism. Enabling. Lying in order to maintain their influence over the congregation. Power grabbing. Blackmail. Coverups. Wonderful pastors for you. Again, that’s what Jesus was all about, right? Self-aggrandizement and dirty politics for personal gain? Yep.


Gender confusion as “reparative” therapy, cont.

Image: James Franco in drag, ht Sociological Images. Text:

girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short
wear shirts and boots
because it’s okay to be a boy
but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
because you think being a girl is degrading

Continued from here. Trigger warning for cissexism.

The claim that reparative therapy enables gender variant people to lead “normal” lives or form “normal” bonds of love and friendship with “normal” people shows a similar sort of confusion. Rekers alludes to this when he defends his motives in treating Kirk Murphy as “positive”: “I only meant to help…the rationale was positive, to help the child, to help the parents who come to us in their distress.”

Here’s the thing – any distress a child or parent experiences over the child’s gender variance has nothing to do with the actual propriety of the child’s behavior and everything to do with the reactions of people and society around them. Gender variance poses no inherent obstacle to friendship or romance, speak less of basic tolerance or acceptance. No, parents worry that gender variant children can’t have a normal lives because our society treats any departure from gender norms as dysfunctional. Children experience distress because they are taught to see their natural inclinations as somehow perverted, and legitimately upsetting or infuriating to others.

Teaching children to suppress gender variance so that they will be accepted by society holds them to an arbitrary and demonstrably harmful standard of behavior, and sends the message that its their fault that they are not accepted as they are. It places the responsibility for the isolation, humiliation, and physical and psychological violence that gender variant people often endure on GV people themselves, instead of where it belongs – on people who respond to gender variance in bigoted and oppressive ways, and on the society that tolerates such responses.

This is classic victim blaming and abuse apologism. It’s justified as concern, and the concern is often sincerely felt, but that doesn’t make it less victim-blaming. From the same NPR report quoted above:

As Bradley grew older, his discomfort with things male also grew. He would shun other boys — he played exclusively with girls. Again, this concerned Carol, but she wasn’t frantic about it.

It was a single event that transformed her vague sense of worry into something more serious. One day, Bradley came home from an outing at the local playground with his baby sitter. He was covered in blood. A gash on his forehead ran deep into his hairline.

“What had happened was that two 10-year-old boys had thrown him off some playground equipment across the pavement because he’d been playing with a Barbie doll — and they called him a girl,” Carol says. “So that sort of struck me, that, you know, if he doesn’t learn to socialize with both males and females … he was going to get hurt.” [ht Transadvocate]

By placing the responsibility to “learn to socialize” on her son, this mom tacitly accepted violence as a reasonable response to gender variance. It would have made far more sense for her to expect the other two boys to learn that throwing someone to the ground is not an appropriate response to seeing them play with an unexpected toy. It would have been more sensible to expect them to learn to socialize with all different kinds of people without violence, more reasonable to expect their families to attempt to modify their behavior and outlook accordingly. Instead, her response to this incident was to try to modify her son’s behavior  – effectively blaming her son for being attacked.

The impulse to “fix” gender variant children instead of condemning violent responses to variant gender expression is another kind of gender confusion. It hurts kids, it poisons families, and it needs to end.


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.


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.