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C.J. Mahaney and Difficult Days

These have been difficult days for C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). On July 7, in the midst of what has become an increasingly public controversy, Mahaney announced that he would take a leave of absence from SGM. He did this so the ministry’s board can evaluate charges that have been brought against him and so he can examine his own heart and seek reconciliation with people he has wronged. Joshua Harris has since resigned from the SGM board due to disagreements with the board’s handling of the situation; C.J. Mahaney’s two sons-in-law have resigned as pastors at Covenant Life Church (CLC) due to disagreements with CLC’s handling of it.

This leave of absence, and all that followed it, came just as a series of documents were made public via the Internet. These documents, which were compiled by a former SGM pastor and board member named Brent Detwiler, have been styled a “Sovereign Grace wikileak.” In exhaustive detail amounting to some 600 pages, they describe Detwiler’s long list of grievances against Mahaney, sharing correspondence between SGM board members, emails, minutes from meetings, and summaries of conversation. [Note: though Detwiler did not post these documents publicly, he did send them to a very long list of people which essentially guaranteed that they would become public] Many other issues have been made public by a handful of blogs dedicated to exposing what they consider systemic issues within SGM.

It was almost 6 weeks ago that this information came to light. Beyond a brief mention in an interview, this is the first I’ve written about it, despite being rebuked by a handful of bloggers and receiving many email requests for comment. I guess this is the kind of situation I typically comment on since, in some ways, that’s what I do on this blog: I try to write about what is of interest to Christians in this little slice of the Christian world. Yet I have hesitated, not because I am in any way formally connected to SGM or CLC and not because I have anything to lose. Rather, my hesitation has largely centered around the way all of this information came to light. I have wanted to be very careful to avoid gossip or speculation and I’ve wanted to avoid drawing attention to information that was never meant to be made public.

However, the controversy has recently received such publicity from SGM and CLC, that I now feel like I can comment without drawing attention that they have not already drawn. It’s important that you know that I have not corresponded with any SGM pastors or board members and I have not received any inside information. This means that you won’t learn anything new or shocking here. All I want to do is do what I do—to think this through and to try to consider how we, the majority of us who are outside of the churches and ministry involved—can think about this in a biblical way. 

A couple of things I want to note from the outset. First, I will focus rather narrowly on Brent Detwiler’s “wikileaks” which means that at this point I will not discuss blogs that seek to expose issues within SGM. Second, Detwiler has never accused Mahaney of a crime. His documents are not meant to protect people from an abuser or cult leader but to expose personal hypocrisy. Third, I hope that what I say here is true regardless of whether what Detwiler says about Mahaney is substantially true or false. I am not seeking to say, “Detwiler is a liar” or “Mahaney deserves all of this” but am trying to think through the situation from a macro perspective.

Here are the kinds of questions I have been asking myself: What are we to think about a wikileaks-style revelation in the Christian world? When a document like this one surfaces, how are you and I to react? Is it public—something we can and perhaps ought to read? Is it private—something we should  deliberately avoid? What does the Bible say about wikileaks?

It’s a Wikileaks World

My initial observation is this: This is a uniquely twenty-first century situation. Frankly, it is one that would have made a fascinating case study for The Next Story. The eternality of information has made it possible and painless to archive and search documents that are years old; digitization has given us the ability to compile 600 pages of documents without spending a penny on printing costs; the Internet allows simple, immediate and widespread distribution; a tabloid culture has made us voyeuristic so that we want to look into other people’s lives; society has declared that document leaks are a legitimate form of protest or a legitimate means of exposing those who have wronged us. All of which is to say, this may be the first wikileaks-style revelation most of us have encountered within the Christian world, but it will certainly not be the last.

This means we should immediately ask a few questions and try to understand whether such a revelation honors God or whether it dishonors him. Even though Wikileaks is something new, whistleblowing is not. In fact, whistleblowing is something we often celebrate; it has been used to expose governments and corporations and in many nations is protected by law. We tend to praise whistleblowers who advance our agendas and ridicule those who combat them.

Does the Bible condone or condemn whistleblowing? We know that Scripture lays out clear guidelines for conflict resolution against other Christians (Matthew 18) and against pastors (1 Timothy 5). These passages ought to be able to resolve any conflict. Of course we are sinners living in a sinful world so it is not always that easy. When even those passages cannot bring about reconciliation there are several organizations dedicated to helping mediate and bring about peaceful resolution. All of this can be done privately, discreetly and biblically.

I believe the Bible makes it clear that we should not be whisteblowers when it comes to interpersonal conflict of the kind that exists between Mahaney and Detwiler, which in turn means that it was wrong for Detwiler to make these documents public. Though interpersonal conflict is a sad reality in a sinful world, it is one that God calls us to resolve biblically or to be willing to leave in his hands. If we genuinely trust in God’s sovereignty, we ought to trust him enough to leave certain things in his care—even and especially personally painful things. 1 Corinthians calls us to bear all things, believe all things and hope all things about one another. And of course we have the example of Jesus in 1 Peter:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

When a Christian offends us and we are unable to find reconciliation, we can entrust that person and the situation to the Lord and have faith that he will work it out for his glory, even at personal cost to ourselves. We need to be willing to accept that cost, just as Jesus did! He accepted the cost, he suffered without reviling, and in doing so brought honor and glory to the Lord.

Detwiler’s grievances were largely interpersonal in nature and he did not pursue and accept all avenues for reconciliation. Several emails from him and to him make this clear. He pursued it to a point, but also turned down many invitations and opportunities to pursue it further with Mahaney, with the board, and with mediators. Instead he chose to go public. This is not how the Lord calls us to deal with conflict. Let’s be sure that we do not begin to celebrate Christian whistleblowers.

There Is an Agenda

A second observation is this: any leak comes with an agenda. That agenda may be obscure or it may be clear. Usually it will be clear. A person who makes documents like these public is always trying to accomplish something and to influence the reader in one way or another. Almost every document will have certain components redacted or edited and, of course, there are not too many people who will leak a document that damages them as much as it damages the other person.

Even in the documents about Mahaney it is quite clear where the bias lies and where information is missing or where motives are assumed. This is simply the way it will always work. We can see this in Detwiler’s documents where at certain points he goes far beyond the facts and begins to pass judgment on Mahaney’s motives and character. He does this despite his regular declarations that he is doing nothing more than presenting the facts and letting them stand on their own. The very purpose of these documents is to influence us to think about C.J. Mahaney in a certain way. Are we willing to allow this man to tell us who C.J. Mahaney, one of our brothers in Christ, really is?

Guard Your Heart

And now I get to a question I’ve been asking since the day someone saw fit to send me the documents. Should we read them? Do we need to read them? What is right, what is wrong and what is wise?

I guess it has already been clear that I’ve looked over the documents. I haven’t read every word, but I’ve spent quite a while reading them. At first I resisted, feeling that I had no business doing so and realizing that most of my desire to read them was obviously sinful. But then, as I saw more and more discussion about these documents, I felt it would be wise for me to look through them. The Lord has given me a unique platform at the blog and if there was a serious, systemic issue within the ministry, I might be able to use the blog to inform people. Was this legitimate or mere justification? I don’t know that I can discern the motives of my own heart enough to say with certainty. 

As we consider future leaks and future documents exposing other Christian leaders—perhaps men I know and love—how will the Bible direct us? I believe that in almost every case the Bible would tell us not to read leaked documents like these ones. As soon as we read words that may well be gossip, we have allowed tasty little morsels to sink into our hearts—morsels that may well change our understanding of a brother or sister in Christ. We will inevitably begin to pass judgment based on an incomplete understanding of a situation that is far removed from us. A couple of proverbs seem to offer valuable guidelines: Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends. Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.

Once we read or hear these things, we cannot unread or unhear them. Our love for a brother or sister should cause us to refuse to listen to their interpersonal conflict. There will be occasional exceptions for those who are in positions of leadership over the people involved (If someone leaked documents about me, I would expect my fellow elders to read them). The situation may well be different where there someone has broken the law and remained unrepentant and is putting other people in danger. But at least as it pertains to conflict, I believe we need to avoid involvement.

If I had to do it all again, if I looked at the documents at all, I hope that I would look at them only long enough to see that they dealt with interpersonal conflict rather than issues of law. When I saw that this was the case, I would back away.

Conclusion

I suppose the big lesson I am taking from this is that we need to know that a leak like this can happen to any of us and, in time, may well happen to the least-suspecting of us. Anyone with a public ministry, whether a pastor or a national leader, is vulnerable. Anyone who generates correspondence is making himself vulnerable to those he corresponds with. Those who are his allies or dearest friends may prove to be the ones who one day see fit to leak information. This, in turn, ought to drive us to search Scripture regularly to see what the Bible says about our words, whether spoken or typed out. Read Proverbs, read James, and be aware of the power of your words to build up or destroy another. All the while be aware that your words also have the power to destroy you. And, of course, keep your accounts short with God and man.

Through it all, let this point you to the greater reality that while a man may record and expose some of our thoughts and guess at some of our motives, the Lord knows them all. He knows all that we have done and he knows why we have done it; he knows our motives far better than we know them ourselves. The gospel is what offers us hope and confidence that our evil motives and our evil deeds have already been made right by Jesus. The grace and forgiveness he extends to us is what we are now called to extend to one another. Are we willing to do this, even at great personal cost?