The Reform We Need in SGM – Ethics and Culture

A few weeks back, I wrote about the need for polity reform in SGM.   However, there is another dimension of reform in SGM that is more difficult to describe, much less define.    It has to do with ethics and culture of SGM.   I am loathe to write this because as I mentioned in my last post, I am no longer optimistic about reform in SGM, save for the churches that are radically calling for change.  So this may very well be the last constructive critique of SGM from this blog other than to comment on other happenings as they occur.

Before I launch into the substance of areas in need of reform, let me say that there are many good things that I’ve received as a longtime member of an SGM church.   In fact, I plan to do a blog post on these benefits in the future.   However, in my mind, the good that we have received does not discount the present issues uncovered in the SGM culture.   I believe that both an appreciation for the good and a critique of the bad can co-exist.   And, SGM leaders should hear this – this doesn’t make for a disloyal or disgruntled member or church.  Often constructive loving critique is actually a sign of an engaged and caring membership.

I should also add that I offer this critique with a view that I play a part in this culture because of my long time participation.  To some degree, I reflect this ethical and cultural dilemma.  Also, let me say that this is not a comprehensive list but just my view into a few critical issues related to SGM ethics and culture.  I offer these humbly to any in SGM leadership who might listen.  With that said, here are the following  key ethical and cultural areas in SGM that have need for reform.

Love of Reputation  – This is a fundamental problem within SGM and has been for a long time, perhaps almost from inception.   I guess when you start (or join) a movement based on a belief that you’re going to do church better than others (i.e. restoration of the NT church), it shouldn’t be surprising that you end up in a less than desirable state.   In my humble opinion (and it is just an opinion), it seems to be a craving beneath the surface of the public face to be viewed as super-sound in principle, super-competent in practice and super-humble in disposition.  Unfortunately, all this adds up to a subtle kind of pride.

There can be pride in reading the right books and knowing the right doctrine. There can be pride in our ability to apply teaching. There can even be pride in being humble.  I believe that some of the over-the-top displays of faux humility is compensation for the underlying pride we know we carry around.   Outward displays of humility are easier to come by than true humility.  True humility is dependence on God.  True humility is forsaking everything for the treasure of Christ, even if it’s your stellar reputation.

Resistance to Acknowledging Corporate Faults and Mistakes.   Linked to the first point is a distinct inability to acknowledge mistakes and faults.   It’s why we never got a “we got it wrong” note that we changed our views on “apostles” or moved toward Reformed theology or when the understanding on sacraments were “clarified”.   These may seem more benign but in the past 15 months, we’ve come to see how the inability to say – “we messed up – we were wrong – we need to change” can be more insidious and damaging to the broader association of churches.   Some like John Loftness think the release of Brent’s documents led to suspicion of SGM and CJ.  That’s giving Brent and the blogs way too much credit.  Brent’s accusations would have been immediately neutered if what followed was a humble mea culpa.  Instead, we got excuses, defensiveness and a railing against critics.  It was the unveiling of this aspect SGM corporate culture that has given many of us concern and stolen our trust.

This is also evidenced in the way SGM corporate communicates .  In a style best described as old school PR, SGM is often too focused around positioning statements and talking points that offer the escape hatch of plausible deniability. (re: Louisville move).  Why not more straight talk and less spin?   It’s the only thing that works in this new social media world but more importantly, that’s how Christians ought to communicate with fellow partners in the gospel.

 Pastoral Exceptionalism – it’s a phrase goes to the heart of how many SGM pastors have related to their members.  It’s rooted in the idea that pastors are a special class – above the sheep – more wise, more attuned to God, more humble, etc…   It’s led to a culture in SGM churches that is distinctly pastor centric.   A ministry isn’t legit until a pastor is leading it or endorsing it.   This idea of pastoral exceptionliosm also rears its ugly head by the exercise of heavy handed oversight that is a carry over from the “shepherding movement”.   I do want to add that from what I’ve been told and have observed,, this is has changed and continues to change in many of the churches that are calling for reform – CLC, SGC Fairfax, Grace Church, San Diego, just to name a few.   But to deny that this exists in the movement overall…well, all I have to say is – read points #1 and #2 again.

Lack of respect for the priesthood of the individual believer.   I think this goes hand in hand with the prior point.  There is a low view of the individual believer that pervades the church culture.  It’s subtle so it can be difficult to spot.  It’s also not true of every church or every pastor.   But there is a lack of respect that God can powerfully work directly in the hearts and conscience of individual believers to understand and apply his word.   I’ve heard of pastors concerned that members may be having unsupervised bible studies, presumably because they have no control over what might be taught.  In most churches, members getting together to teach each other about God’s word would be celebrated, not feared.  Unfortunately, that’s what happens if you think of yourself as exceptional, your pastoral leadership as indispensable and the individual believer as incompetent to hear God’s word directly.   Sadly, this points to not only a low view of the believer as priest before God but also, a low view of Scripture.

Teaching Moralism vs Gospel Principles – I think this is something that exists in lots of churches so I’m not suggesting this is unique to SGM.   Interestingly, despite much emphasis on the gospel and the cross, there is still a lack of gospel practice exhibited in a willing acceptance of others who do not conform to certain traits – homeschooling, modesty checklists, personality quirks, etc…   I think it takes its biggest toll on our young people and perhaps on those for whom SGM is their first or primary church experience.

Being a gospel inspired church means being clear on what is gospel truth and what is subjective judgments on how to apply God’s word.   The first we must hold firmly to – live and die for.  The second is not worthy of such commitment and we must afford our fellow members liberty to apply God’s word as they see fit.    We need to permit celebrate the freedom for individuals to express themselves in the many and varied ways that are not inconsistent with biblical truth but instead reflect the image of God in them.

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Commentary on Sovereign Grace Church Daytona Leaving SGM

Some of you have wondered why I’ve been silent in the last couple of months .   Here’s what I don’t like to admit but have had to come to terms with – formal reform within SGM is not coming and probably won’t ever come.   Marginal changes may occur but until this current batch of insiders (Mahaney, Loftness, Connelly, etc…) retire to an assisted senior living facility, it probably won’t happen.   Friends – there is no reform coming. The pastors that haven’t voiced their concern and disapproval of SGM corporate practices probably never will – they will lack courage borne of conviction.  They will prefer the easier road paved with the good graces of SGM corporate leadership, rather than the difficult path of leading their churches to a better place while experiencing rejection from their peers.   These are the corporate faithful, the company men who tow the company line – you find them in every large organization…and honestly there is nothing wrong with that – every company needs them.  It’s just not the kind of leader I want to follow.

On a separate note – it’s probably old news to most of you but Sovereign Grace Church, Daytona has “left the building” that is SGM.    You can find the entire letter posted on here on the SGM Refuge site.  What follows are excerpts from the letter and my commentary (in italics).

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[Excerpt] Our primary reasons for dissolving our partnership are:

1.  A loss of trust created by vague, one-sided and sometimes contradictory* communication, decisions that do not reflect stated priorities and goals, and also the failure to understand and take adequate responsibility for the patterns and problems that developed under the Leadership Team’s (primarily CJ’s) direction and example. (*without immediate explanation)

2.  A poorly defined but clearly perceived belief and practice of spiritual authoritythat has created a leadership culture characterized by excessive authority and insufficient accountability.

I will expand on both categories and make a connection between them

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[sgmNation Commentary] – The exercise of spiritual authority is an issue but I ‘ll focus on Jarvis’ first point – trust.  Without question, there has been a steady erosion of trust.   As I’ve stated before on this blog – trust and respect is earned through behavior and it is not kept by virtue of entitlement.   You may been afforded trust out of goodwill but you will sustain it by your actions.  SGM had the trust of the local church pastors but they assumed it was their God given right – they didn’t “handle with care” and they became offended when some godly, faithful pastors questioned their actions.   Instead, they should have asked – “why are these good men tempted to lose trust in us?”   Humble leadership – it’s what we’ve been taught – it’s what we believed – it just wasn’t exemplified by our SGM leaders when it counted.   False humility and catchy phrases like “better then I deserve” is a poor substitute for the real thing when it matters.    

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[Excerpt] The Loss of Trust

This has been a slow and difficult process for us that began with Dave Harvey’s email regarding Brent’s then forthcoming Documents.  We were indeed surprised by the content of the Documents and the way the Leadership team at the time responded to Brent’s concerns, appeals and charges.  Some of the problems he claimed to be systemic we had experienced, both locally and extra-locally, and we were eager to see changes take place within our family of churches.  We felt that God was moving to bring repentance, reform and revival to our church and the churches we love and have walked with for nearly three decades.  We had significant hope for what might lie ahead.  Our disposition toward the Leadership Team, while jolted by the awareness of what had transpired secretly between our chief leaders, was still primarily characterized by trust and a willingness to follow.  Over the course of the next 12 months however, that trust was steadily eroded by the responses of the team and the board(s).  Our initial eagerness to help build a culture of loyal dissent was reduced to a lack of confidence, and now ultimately to a lack of trust in the current board and leadership team.

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[sgmNation commentary] – I think Jarvis has captured well the disposition of most of the pastors.   Brent’s documents were concerning for what they revealed about the inner workings between the corporate leaders of SGM.   But at that point, I think most pastors still related to CJ, SGM corporate leadership in a trusting way.   This is what CJ, SGM Board didn’t get – they still had the trust of local pastors and members at that point.  We wanted an honest view of the issues – we wanted repentance – we wanted reform.   Sadly, what we received was shunning, public rebukes and insincere apologies.

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[Excerpt] In the recent response to the AoR report, John Loftness communicated the following on behalf of the board:

“C.J. was the object of an enormous amount of gossip and slander during this past year, and that has damaged his reputation, undermined his ability to lead, and created an atmosphere of suspicion in some quarters of our family of churches.”

While CJ assuredly was the object of gossip, we disagree that gossip was the primary source of what is deemed “an atmosphere of suspicion.”  The decisions made by the board(s) and leadership team over the past 14 months (which I won’t recount here) and accompanying communications are what created a fracture in the trust that the leadership team has enjoyed from us historically.

And more recently, as the frequency and detail of communication has improved (which we were encouraged by and grateful for), the perspective that the board communicated shows us the lack of understanding regarding these most critical issues of trust and authority.  The recent six-point letter from the board and follow-up phone conference with John and Ian reiterated this perspective that is foreign to our experience.  Additionally, withholding this perspective until now also reveals a lack of trust from the leadership team and board toward the pastors and people of SGM and an unwillingness to be influenced by our perspective and concerns.

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[sgmNation commentary] – Well said, Mr Jarvis.  I have no doubt that CJ has been slandered in some quarters… but actually so has Brent, so has Joshua Harris, so has anyone that SGM Corporate leadership deemed as disloyal.   Also, Loftness’ perspective sheds light on how the insiders think – CJ is a victim.   As a result, there is no need for him to own his primary contribution to the problems,  no need to genuinely confess remorse, no need to turn away from current practices.   SGM corporate leaders don’t realize that it was their response to the issues that ended up eroding trust, not the presenting issues captured in Brent’s documents.

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The final loss of trust for us comes as a result of a failure to:

  1. Understand and take adequate responsibility for the wrongs that have occurred,
  2. Restore and rebuild trust through listening, seeking to understand and being influenced by other perspectives,
  3. Provide open and clear communication and
  4. Act decisively with responses that reflect a heart of humility and compassion toward those you lead.

On the contrary, the board has made further appeals for trust and patience without sufficient effort to show trustworthiness.  This mutual vacuum of trust is a climate we cannot continue to follow in.

 [sgmNation commentary] – Amen

Authority

Although I have been unable to find a clear definition of the spiritual authority that has existed in our family of churches, it is not hard to perceive. As the AoR report notes:

“Leaders at every level in SGM have significant authority over others in submission to them.  While this in itself is not a problem, the misuse of authority…is a temptation common to man.” 

We agree with the report that SGM leaders have “significant authority” but we disagree that this is “not a problem.”  It is a problem; a very serious problem that slight adjustment and refinement will not address.  In the SGM response to the AoR report, the board commented,

“We…will continue to teach and counsel pastors in the appropriate use of the authority God gives them in the conduct of their ministry.”

It is our understanding from God’s Word that God does not give authority to men as we have seen it practiced, but rather that Jesus exercises his own authority through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His followers and pastors are called to administer God’s Word for and to God’s people.  Any additional authority or influence we have comes from our congregation’s affirmation, their trust and their willingness to follow our leadership, and it is not binding.  The level of authority exercised by SGM leaders (including our own pastors until recently) is unbiblical to us, and the current accountability of checks and balances is not only insufficient, but in our opinion incapable of providing the required balance.

One’s understanding of the nature and limitations of spiritual authority will necessarily shape one’s approach to developing and applying polity.  As a result, it is our opinion that polity changes, however drastic, will be ineffective in bringing real change to this dilemma unless there is first a fundamental change in the understanding of spiritual authority.  This is a main factor in our decision to end our partnership before the polity committee makes their final recommendation/decision.

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[sgmNation commentary] – much truth to what Mr Jarvis is saying.   The exercise of spiritual authority in some SGM churches is a holdover from the roots of shepherding movement borne in the 80s.   It also feeds off a low view of Scripture and dismisses the work of the Holy Spirit in the conscience of the individual believer.   And yes, getting the approach to spiritual leadership right is vitally important and perhaps even more so than polity.  But as we’ve come to understand, polity is the “seat belt” that keep us safe when fallen men crash and burn.

Well done and God speed, Jesse Jarvis and SGC Daytona – we will pray for you.  May your tribe grow.

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