What Motivates the Actions of SGM Leadership?

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.


9 thoughts on “What Motivates the Actions of SGM Leadership?

  1. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about SGM or any other entity, governmental or non-governmental, when mechanisms for internal change fail or are non-existent, often the only way to bring about change is public exposure.

    Private appeals are a first resort, and should be. But public “light” can be necessary when institutional culture resists correction or punishes those who attempt to bring “observations” about the problems with “business as usual.”

    Those in the DC metro area may be interested in reflecting on the series of Washington Times investigative reports that exposed a culture of complacency and corruption at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Perhaps WMATA leaders feel personally attacked, like all the problems should have been dealt with internally. They have certainly resisted attempts by Virginia and Congress to make them become more transparent and accountable in their dealings. But the bottom line is that they’ve proven they won’t change unless they have to and so there must be increasingly intense light on the way they operate.

    • emSDG – you are absolutely correct – I would add that Matt 18 is not about confronting institutional ills – it’s about interpersonal conflicts.

      That is why SGM’s perspective of marginalizing public critics is ill founded – both logically and biblically. I find it sad that their desire to obscure the problems have been aided and abetted by the likes of Ray Ortlund, Ligon Duncan, etc… who are (probably unwittingly) perpetuating SGM problems by reducing critique to slander & gossip. Ortlund’s blog post defending CJ, casting him as a victim of slander from few months ago is an example of this.

      Ozymandias postulates that what SGM is most concerned about is their reputation in the reformed communnity. It is certainly a plausible explanation for their defensive posture and unwillingness to admit faults openly

  2. There are interactions I’m aware of and have experienced that would tend to lend support to this hypotheses – in my mind, at least. I don’t want to name names and relay stories in this venue but, yes, I’ve heard things from multiple direct and indirect sources that tend to confirm that at least some current leaders in SGM are more concerned that all of the post July exposure looks bad than that it is bad, and are more concerned with what the conference circuit thinks than with how undershepherds have sinned against the people of God. To be more concerned with reputation than character is a fearful thing. As has been noted, God will not be mocked.

    • The spiral effect is in SGM’s attempt to “save face” they expose more of their desire for reputation instead of a desire to please God and walk in the light. I am frankly astounded at the silence of YRRs and “Reformed Big Dogs”. It would seem obvious to the majority of the Church (capital C) that fear of man is the driving force (aka love of reputation) behind the decisions of the SGM leadership. In the name of Christ, how do the leaders outside SGM let this go, and in fact attend conferences with these leaders actively engaged in sin as if everything is pleasing to God? Is the eventual church split pleasing to God? Is the massive divide created by a few leader’s decisions pleasing to God? How does this affect the Gospel message to the world? And lastly, are they protecting the Gospel as Paul did in Gal 2:11-14 “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
      (Galatians 2:11-14 ESV)

      Where’s the call to be “in step with the truth of the gospel”????

      • Tom – like most organizations, the immediate inclination is to deflect, obfuscate and minimize issues. More enlightened organizations realize that bad publicity, while painful, can be redemptive and fruitful. Unfortunately, SGM has not seen the light on that point. I think Ozymandias’ post is specifically calling out what the “idol” for SGM might be – love of reputation and respect among the YRR. It overshadows the service and interests of the local churches. It leads to a control paradigm of leadership that makes limited progress and starts a downward spiral.

        I’m disappointed that the YRR/T4G group hasn’t been more helpful but I take that in stride. It’s a lot to ask someone to criticize a fellow minister of the gospel, especially in the reformed ranks. It’s an even higher bar to ask them to “break fellowship” by refusing to participate in a conference where one speaker is having problems w his own denomination. Unless it’s a morally observable fault/failure, it’s unlikely that other leaders will break fellowship w CJ over SGM related issues…nor am I suggesting that they should.

        I honestly think that the YRR group watches on with puzzlement – like “what’s the big deal?” – while many of the SGM church members are up in arms. It’s not coherent to them because they see someone who is publicly charming, gospel confessing and a gifted speaker – what’s not to like and overlook?
        Those in the movement are frustrated because this could all have been over back in July with the following statement by CJ –

        “I’m sorry – I’ve failed at X, Y, Z in my ministry – it’s best that I step down – I would love to return to serve you but it’s best that the timing and role be determined by those whom I’m serving [the churches] and not by me. Until then, please pray for me – ….” [and actually follow through with sincerity and without insider favoritism, outsiders defending his reputation and being open to critique]

        It could have been over by Sept of last year.

  3. This blog links to websites whose writers are admired by YRR folk as if they were living bibles themselves. That community and its idolatrous dynamics is as much to blame as is SGM itself.

    • famagusta – not sure I understand the point you’re making, so I’m going to have to take a guess on your intent… If you’re asking me why I have the links of Gospel Coalition, Desiring God it’s no more complicated than I’ve indicated – these are blogs that I read on regular basis.

      If you’re wondering why I read them – it’s because I like them – I find it has encouraging and gospel centered content.

      If you’re wondering why I don’t stop reading them because others who read them (YRR crowd) may at times elevate the writers to hero status – then my reply would be simply that I have no intention of letting the misguided views of others stop me from getting gospel benefit from those sources.

  4. Thanks for this website and blog.

    As a long term SGM’er, I appreciate your tone. It is different from the other blogs. I too want to see real change. I have received so much good from God in these churches. I do not think that is because our leaders or methods are so special. I think God is good and uses even folks like us.

    I think this recent post makes a lot of sense, though I am not sure who the intended audience is. The YRR reformed crowd is not a big deal, since the SGM leaders have always edited their image, long before they were more widely known.

    I think they really believe that leaders must be careful with what they tell the “dumb sheep” because we “dumb sheep” will not be able to handle bad news. One of our elders once told me that it was the job of leaders to tell people only what information was necessary for their being able to follow their elders, and that interpreting the information was part of good leadership. He has since changed his thinking.

    God’s people have God’s Spirit and can be trusted with difficult news. God’s people also respect leaders who take responsibility, name their sin, and ask forgiveness. I respect men more for doing that, not less.

    • sgmunity – thanks for encouragement. To be honest, I don’t have any problem w “the other blogs” – I find some posts more helpful than others but ultimately, I think God has used them to affect change in SGM. I also appreciate the work involved for someone like Jim, who has done this for many years and at personal cost to himself.

      You’re right that SGM leaders have long “edited their image” – focusing more on perception of others. Ozymandias’ point in this post is to bring this to light – pointing out that SGM leaders are particularly motivated by gaining favor among the YRR influencers – arguably this is their hidden idol. The reason this is important is this – if YRR influencers begin to challenge SGM to get their house in order, from a polity and cultural perspective – SGM leadership will more likely listen to them than to local church pastors who are reasonably calling for repentance and reform.

      It’s sad but probably true – following that logic, Ozymandias might argue that we should direct effort to getting the YRR influencers to ask the right questions and exert pressure on SGM

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