I’m grateful for this week’s post from a guest blogger who blogs under the handle – Ozymandias. With this thoughtful post, Ozymandias raises interesting questions about the motivational forces that drive the SGM leadership and offers provocative ideas on how to initiate change in SGM. Hope you appreciate this post as much as I do.
It is common wisdom that human conflicts can break out when immediate proximate causes (“sparks”) ignite long-standing, underlying causes (“highly flammable material”). As a conflict goes on, however, one can also identify what might be called a perpetuating driver, or what Carl Von Clausewitz’s 19th century treatise On War calls the “center of gravity.” For Clausewitz, the center of gravity is the opponent’s “hub of all power and movement” – often defined as the opposing military, capital city or alliance structure. Michael Shaara’s fictionalized history of the final years of the Civil War, The Last Full Measure, highlights the concept through a conversation between Ulysses Grant and Elihu Washburne. Debating the relative merits of focusing Union efforts on Robert E. Lee and his military versus Jefferson Davis and the seat of government in Richmond, Washburne insists that “[t]he Confederacy, the rebellion, starts with Jefferson Davis.” “No sir,” replies Grant, “Those men over there…they are not dying for a government in Richmond. They do not charge into our guns screaming the name of Jefferson Davis. They are fighting for Lee. Lee is the rebellion. If he is defeated, if his army surrenders, then make no mistake, this war is over.” In short, the immediate proximate cause – Lincoln’s election in 1860 – set ablaze the long-divided American political landscape, but as the Civil War progressed, the conflict’s center of gravity became the continuing viability of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and what the man and his military (psychologically) represented to the Confederacy as a whole.
So, what does the center of gravity concept have to do with the state of our denomination? The conflict erupted publicly in June/July 2011 when an immediate proximate cause – the conflict between C.J. Mahaney and Brent Detwiler and the subsequent information leak – ignited existing, systemic problems of SGM polity, authority, and church subculture. However, as the conflict has continued, I would argue that one discerns a distinct center of gravity. Akin to Clausewitz’s comments about alliances, the center of gravity is the denomination’s relationship to the wider Young, Restless and Reformed (YRR) community. It isn’t first and foremost about who is at the denomination’s helm, or how a new Partnership Agreement will define HQ-to-field operations, but about how public discussion affects the denomination’s reputation in conservative evangelical circles. As has been referenced here and there on “the blogs,” the center of gravity revolves around the (psychological) fear of what the public airing of SGM’s systemic problems would mean for its reputation in the YRR world, or in social science and business terms, the public diminution of the denomination’s overall brand among co-religionists.
For the sake of a working hypothesis, let’s see how this particular way of defining center of gravity might explain just a few of the decisions since last July:
— It can explain why the interim board’s first order of business was the establishment of the fitness panel, involving three well-known conservative evangelical personalities: Kevin DeYoung, Carl Trueman and Ray Ortland. It also helps to explain the rapid turnaround and public release of the report’s findings.
— It can explain the overarching theme of SGMHQ’s November 2011 denominational letter, written in the wake of Covenant Life Church’s internet release of its 30 October 2011 Family Meeting. Note the sheer number of times the letter repeats the words “public” vs. “private,” as well as the highlighting of Josh Harris’ influence and CLC’s public example [emphasis added]:
“we have taken the approach of privately engaging with CLC…”
“It has been our hope from the beginning that these disagreements could get worked out privately…”
“we would not engage in critiquing each other beyond the private realm”
“Our goal has been to interact privately and through conversation, withholding public critique.”
“…the CLC pastors have chosen to broadcast their differences and disagreements in public meetings and through the internet”
“CLC has always functioned as something of a model of SGM belief and practice. Pastors throughout our churches could assume CLC and SGM are on the same page, and look to CLC to observe the direction and positions of SGM.”
“…public statements continue to be made from CLC pastors that seem to us to significantly misrepresent SGM and have the potential to implicate and cast suspicion upon you and the churches you serve.”
“CLC pastors have publicly voiced their concerns and criticisms for SGM broadly..”
“In their most recent family meeting, made public through Josh’s Facebook and on their website, CLC openly shared their negative assessment of SGM leadership.”
“…the sweeping and pejorative assessments he is making of SGM…”
“…because of the public nature of Josh’s comments and our concerns for how SGM is being portrayed.” “Our disagreement lies with aspects of their assessment, their presentation of these issues, and the impression their public statements can have.”
“We have communicated to Josh that his broad critique of Sovereign Grace in public forums, while identifying certain weaknesses with which we all agree, is having the effect of raising suspicions in local churches against local church pastoral teams”
“Our request to them at this point is to confine their public pronouncements concerning reform to issues CLC is facing, although we have urged them to please continue to share concerns for SGM privately with the board, just as we have sought to share our concerns for them privately.”
— It can help to explain, following CJ’s reinstatement, the discernible move away from regular posts about the denomination’s issues on SGM’s Plant and Build blog. Related to this, it can also explain why, recently, all of the previous comments to older posts at the Plant and Build blog have been deleted and are no longer available for public review. It can also help to explain why earlier statements by denominational leaders have also been removed, and why, in the new board’s first public statement, it made itself clear that, among other things, it would not involve itself in “day-to-day communication.”
— It may explain why there has been no specific response to Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax’s 7 March 2012 letter to the interim board – a letter signed by multiple SGM churches and subsequently made public.
— It may help to explain the rush to affirm and seat a new board, as SGM’s 13 March 2012 letter describes, “[in the] small window of time before the release of the [Ambassadors of Reconciliation] report.” If – and I emphasize if – the goal is to lessen the impact of the report’s findings among the conservative evangelical crowd by releasing it simultaneously with some statement about “how the denomination has already addressed AoR’s more salient points,” then it is understandable how, as the 13 March letter continues, “it was important to get a new board in place in order to respond promptly to [AoR’s] report.”
— It could also explain the decision to hold off any public release of the AoR report until after this week’s Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference in Louisville, rather than release it in the run-up to the event.
So, if such a working hypothesis is accurate, what might it mean for denominational reform? How might one address the conflict’s center of gravity?
First, at this point, I would argue that significant reform is just not possible without public YRR discussion of the denomination’s historical, systemic problems. And unfortunately, there has been a noticeable unwillingness on the part of YRR outlets to engage in any such discussion. If you regularly read conservative evangelical bloggers or personally interact with conservative evangelical publishers, you may wish to bring this up with them. Shying away completely from the conflict’s immediate proximate cause (i.e. the Mahaney/Detwiler conflict) I might recommend a polite letter, especially to those who have historically highlighted SGM, its books and its music to their audiences, asking if they are aware of how the denomination is currently facing division, and if they have any concerns that they have – either through commission or omission – perpetuated the conflict rather than helped to ameliorate it.
Second, for those who are going to T4G, please don’t hesitate to ask SGMers – perhaps even craft a relevant and polite question that can be asked during a seminar Q&A, or during Band of Bloggers – about the denomination’s systemic issues, and about how reform might be possible.
Third, if during conversations you are questioned about gossip and slander on “the blogs,” (and it is very likely that it could come up), I would highlight the fact that the 7 March 2012 Fairfax letter and the problems of reforming denominational authority have nothing to do with either of those categories.