If you are not following from home, let me bring you up to speed. CJ, the former pastor of the Sovereign Grace flagship church in Gaithersburg, MD, was the head of the Sovereign Grace network. I say “was” because two weeks ago he stepped down in light of accusations against him. These accusations were made by former pastors who were on his staff. The essence of the accusations? CJ is proud and manipulative.
The main accuser, Brent Detwiler, put out over 600 pages of emails interspersed with his own commentary to make those points. I have read much of those 600 pages, and let me save you some time by telling you this: 1. Don’t waste your time. These things have been downloaded 55,000 times, and I feel sorry for anyone who has read more than 10 pages of them; 2. There is no smoking gun. Strip away all of the commentary and whining, and you are left with a picture of a pastor who is running an organization, and some associates who feel slighted.
Honestly, reading this made me ask: “Don’t these people have real sin to confront?” Some of the pastors think CJ is acting too proud, and they rate him on his pride, and they schedule meetings to talk about his pride, and CJ repents of 9 of 11 species of pride that they have identified, and they go back to the drawing board to identify examples of the other two species of pride, they email each other to ask if others have seen that pride, and then CJ thinks those fit under the first species of pride, and they chart the pride, and so on. Blah. Wouldn’t it be nice if occasionally love covered a multitude of sins?
I will give you one example, just because it illustrates the pointlessness of this whole ordeal. CJ and his wife were scheduled to speak in Phoenix around the same time. CJ emailed the executive pastor asking if he could bring his son with him, because he wanted to spend more time with him. After a few emails among the finance committee, they decided that they would rather CJ pay for it out of pocket, unless he felt like his finances were too tight, then they would give him a taxable bonus to cover the flight. CJ decided to pay for it himself, saying that the reason he wanted to bring his son is because both he and his wife were going to be there simultaneously. At this point, I felt like this was actually an exchange I had with my accounting department last week.
But then Brent (a former member of CJ’s “apostolic team” and the one who posted the emails), points out that CJ is manipulating the situation. CJ originally said he wanted his son to go with him to spend more time with him, and then changed his story and said it was really because both he and his wife would be there! AH HA!
This synoptic problem is typical of the whole lot. Maybe I am jaded. I used to attend a megachurch where the pastor got busted absconding with hundreds of thousands of dollars and the radio equipment…and he is still the pastor. CJ, meanwhile, asked permission to spend $300 on his son’s airfare—and they told him no!—but the crime is in the way he asked? Did he have too much pride in his voice?
That is not to say there is not enough blame to go around. The emails paint a stunning picture of Sovereign Grace’s approach to sanctification and church leadership. The pastors appear to have annually rated each other’s strengths and weaknesses (if that is not a recipe for disaster and disunity and six hundred pages of disgruntled emails, I don’t know what is). Sovereign Grace appears to be led by a board, and this board is different from the church, and the church is led by an apostle (or is he pastor at the church, and apostle at the board level?), and when it all shakes out, it is an ecclesiological mash-up. It is almost enough to make me want to be a fundamentalist.
In reality, this serves as an example of why churches should not be allowed to function without real elders. The NT has much to say about how to handle church leadership and sin, and this fiasco is a reminder about what happens when you deviate from that. Take out elders and replace them with an apostle, then add a board that leads a group of churches, and you officially have created something other than a New Testament church.
In the Bible, churches are led by elders. You can recognize who an apostle is, because he is the guy writing the Bible, raising dead people, and driving illnesses out of the city. Absent those guys—who have been missing for 2,000 years or so—you are left with elders running the whole thing. Also in the Bible, if an elder sins, confront him. If two or three people see a pattern of sin, they should tell it to the elders, and the elders investigate, and then they should deal with it.
It should not be that complicated. In this case, it is being mishandled and complexified for a few reasons. First, CJ is an apostle, and his co-pastors are part of an apostolic team. This is not a recipe for humility from the outset. Second: Brent apparently took the accusations to the “elders,” and did not like how they dealt with them, so he made his accusations public. This leads to the 600 pages of documents, because now rather than presenting a case to local “elders” who know everyone involved, he is obviously trying to convince anyone with an IP address that CJ is in sin. This is not the way it is supposed to work. The public is not the court of appeal for an elder decision that you don’t like. Brent is acting like a German shepherd, not a shepherd. At this point, CJ’s pride is not the issue, but rather Brent establishing a precedent that you can expose sin publically if the elders refuse to. And an attitudinal sin at that.
The latest wrinkle in the drama is that the Sovereign Grace board is taking the lead in investigating the issue. Don’t worry though, because they will also convene a board of outside experts that are not affiliated with CJ’s church. This has led Joshua Harris, who pastors the church CJ attends, to step down from the Sovereign Grace board. The very existence of a board that oversees churches is awkward, especially if they start investigating accusations of sin against a member of a church with its own leadership. But by not only taking the issue away from the local church, but by creating a second committee, they are trampling on the idea of local church autonomy. Why Sovereign Grace is doing anything publically is a little bit strange, and a basic affront to the concept of church elders acting as overseers of souls.
When you compound the layers of apostles with a rejection of the authority of elders, you still are not done, because this drama also includes charismatic chaos. The emails are filled with words of prophecy and knowledge, some of them given by unnamed people. The leaders are wondering if certain events are what was intended by various prophetic words. Not only is this whole ordeal an argument for the autonomy of the local church, but also for cessationism. Even the process of examining CJ’s attitudes gets jerked back and forth by whatever the latest prophetic word seemed to say.
I have absolutely no sympathy for Brent. He wants to show the world that CJ has pride and that he is surrounded by board members that will cover for him. Here is my advice: don’t go to a church led by an apostle, then be shocked and appalled about accountability in his life. Don’t go to a church where prophetic words from church members influence how the leadership approaches issues. This is a whacked ecclesiology (aided and abetted by abhorrent pneumatology), that Brent helped propagate, and now he wants to publically rail against it.
Brent needs to repent for putting up these emails, not because they were confidential correspondence, but because they are dumb and divisive. Brent needs to repent for leading a church that is outside the biblical model of leadership, and for going outside the authority of elders in dealing with this sin. And he should recognize that the continuationist approach to the gifts is burning his house down.
Pride is not the issue, but church leadership is.
UPDATE: I got some gracious feedback from people in SGM movement who asked me to point out that some of the issues about church structure I point out may have been true when the 600+ pages of emails were written, but they have changed. Recently SGM has tried to stress the elder-led nature of their churches. How that jives with the board looking into this issue is a matter that I don’t know about. Let’s keep the comments away from “if this change really happened” and on the point of the post.