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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23 thoughts on “The Reform We Need in SGM – Ethics and Culture

    • Thanks. I don’t know that it’ll make a difference but I think people should think critically about their SGM church experience. I’m not hopeful about reform but I hope that those who are part of churches that are towing company line should feel free to openly call their church to change. This post may offer a few points worthy of a discussion with their pastor.

      • I think you are right and realistic in your expectations. I think most pastors who will be willing to leave have already indicated so to their congregations. I think there is a large group “caught in the middle” who do not feel that what has occurred has been right but lack the guts to leave. Then there are those who are perfectly happy with the current conditions.

      • I would add that there seem to be some in the caught in the middle camp who aren’t happy with SGM, but aren’t sure how to present this to their congregations. Because saying “hey, we’re unhappy with how SGM doesn’t involve their churches in their decision making, so we’re going to make a decision without consulting our congregation about leaving SGM” is a tough position to hold. How does a pastoral team uncomfortable with having all the power in a church structure where they have all the power go about this? It’s a bit of a pickle that I’m not sure how to solve. I don’t have any knowledge that this is behind any hesitation, but I can’t help but wonder if this contributes to some of the caught in the middle-ness of some churches. I also suspect that this discomfort is what prompted Fairfax to explore changing polity before all this broke: they didn’t see THIS coming, but they were probably aware that the longer they put off polity discussions, the worse off they’d be in a crisis situation.

      • jb – thanks for bringing up that interesting angle. It’s only been in the last few weeks that I’ve come to understand that a few church leadership teams may find themselves in this interesting predicament whereby they may be more disaffected by SGM than their congregations are. Apparently some churches may be dominated with vocal CJ loyalists. Pastors may be trying to figure out how to navigate this,how to move their churches away from SGM company line while not wielding heavy handed authority. I’m no expert but here’s how I would do this –

        – Extend the leadership team, even informally by including a handful of trusted, humble, elder qualified men who can help lead.
        – Be open about sharing the leadership’s view on SGM – speak lovingly, humbly but most importantly truthfully about recent events, SGM culture and communication. The essence of leadership is initiative – take initiative to help your church interpret the SGM crisis If some CJ loyalists are offended, by all means, speak kindly to them but help rid them of unbiblical hero worship.
        – I would start to engage and convene with other churches who are calling for reform. There are times when strength in numbers help solidify convictions.

  1. What has been lacking in this debate is a position statement that clearly outlines the issues with SGM – a ’95 theses’, if you will. This post comes about as close as anything I’ve seen. Would you consider 1) reformatting the post and circulating it to others to gain a consensus and 2)creating a respectable online petition – separate from the blogs – that would give individuals the ability to advocate these concerns? I believe hundreds or thousands signing on to a single statement about the issues in SGM would achieve much more than millions of random blog entties.

    • @aremsie – thanks for the positive comments but I’m not likely to pursue circulating this for a couple of reasons. It’s already out here and in this social media saturated world we live in, we can get a lot of momentum just from people reposting this on FB,or retweeting. The fact is that very few do – so your kind comments notwithstanding, I don’t think many people wish to be identified w the positioning here. Which is ok because I wrote to express my point of view, not necessarily seeking endorsement.

      The second reason is simpler to explain – I don’t think it makes a difference. There may be polity reform but the culture that currently permeates the association will continue to persist.

    • aremsie, SGM leaders have successfully resisted the blogs and Brent Detwiler’s huge cache of damning documents. An online petition will mean nothing to them. Fear not, however, for their attention – like the Eye of Sauron – has just been focused by a long-anticipated, yet surprising, event being reported in national news media.

  2. All this becomes more important, doesn’t it, now that there’s an actual lawsuit filed against SGM, Mahaney and several other pastors. Now the whole world will see whether SGM admits culpability (i.e., being broken by falling on the Rock of Christ) or circles the wagons (and are crushed completely as the Rock falls on them).

    Will Mahaney try to float above it all with “plausible deniability”, and blame the others? I guess the emails and documents of the fastidious SGM pastors will play a huge role in this case.

    • Keepinstep – welcome. We should not assume guilt simply because accusations are made. We do not the facts – we only know the charges and for my part, I pray that truth will prevail and God’s will be done

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have shared here in summary of the problems of SGM. I am soon on my way out (after over 20 years in). But I would also love to read a post like you mentioned on the good things that we have received from SGM.

    I don’t want to look back over the past 20 years and only see the bad fruit in my life that was borne as a result of these problems. I would also love to celebrate all of the good fruit in my life that is a result of my membership in SGM. I can feel a battle with bitterness on the horizon, and being able to thank God for the good – while learning from the bad – could be a powerful weapon in that war as I move forward.

    Thank you for this summary and the time you put into it. I am grateful!

  4. Very well said. Thanks for a gracious and accurate summary. We’ve been in a SGM church for almost 25 years and I’m glad to say that our church culture has significantly changed in the last five years. We seem to be on divergent paths from SGM and it is my expectation that we will join the exodus in the near future.
    While I have chafed at the delay in leaving SGM, I am proud of the way our pastors have openly and behind the scenes challenged SGM leadership and given them every opportunity to change. It reminds me of the American Revolution: our founding fathers gave England every opportunity to change and conciliate. The list of grievances against the crown that forms part of our declaration is compelling. The parallels obviously break down here, but many of us have felt that this parting will be painful to many and should therefore not be done lightly.
    I am also glad that you and a few others have (it seems) deliberately avoided taking cheap shots at SGM leaders, although they are certainly deserving of sarcasm. The damage done to the body of Christ by both SGM leaders AND bitter and vindictive ex-SGMers is so sad.
    Again, thanks for a great summary done in a Christlike tone!

  5. I wonder, how does one determine that ex-SGMers are vindictive and bitter? Might those in England have called those “rebellious” Americans bitter and vindictive when they broke from the crown? And I wonder, how many current SGMers have taken the iniative, the opportunity and the time to sit down, have a cup of coffee and discuss the issues with ex-SGMERS? Just wondering….. It’s quite easy to sit back and judge bitterness and vindictiveness I do believe when one is not on the frontlines. All it takes is for good men to do nothing….

    • Hi Fred. I wonder if RW meant that some who are ex_SGMers are bitter, just as some who are in any group might be. IDK, I am just wondering if he was unclear. I can see how it might seem that all ex_SGMers were being spoken of in that way, which would of course be a ridiculous statement.
      It is a sad part of modern life that we lose track of old friends so easily. I guess the world of Chirstmas cards every year and phone numbers that stay the same for decades are long gone! But I still have good memories of muffins with pineapple and card games and fun times from long ago, even if I cannot find my old friends for a sit-down over coffee very easily.
      Blessings to you!

  6. Thanks Deb. Judgementalism has been a major part of the culture within SGM as many know. In fact, members were encouraged to look for sin in others and then confront them with the sin that was observed. This form of “sin-sniffing” totally leaves out the Holy Spirit who is the one that convicts us of sin and it encourages arrogance, pride and a spirit of judging others that is very detrimental to the body of Christ. Again, it is very easy to judge bitterness in others from afar but maybe a little more difficult to pick up the phone and talk….just saying. RW’s statement reminded me of the culture that I was previously a part of and that I also participated in. You see, I became part of the judging culture and did the same thing. I have repented of my pride and judgementalism and try to be very careful that I no longer participate in that type of ungodly behavior. The Scripture is very clear in that we will be judged in the same way that we have judged others. The Lord has revealed to me over and over since I left that loving my brothers and sisters is what He is calling me to – not looking for sin in them. Often times the sin confrontation was not done in love by my brothers and sisters at SGM but was done with a very critical and harsh spirit. This is not/was not of God but is straight from the enemy!

    • Fred – glad that you’re taking aim at judgmental attitudes both in your own walk and in others as you observe them. Honestly, I do think RW is right in some measure -there are in fact former sgm’ers that are bitter but there are also people within sgm churches that remain self righteous and resistant to change. It’s an unfortunate result of this sgm mess now closing on 18 mos… And to think – it was avoidable w a willingness toward the path of humility.

  7. Hey Fred,
    I’m very sorry you feel the way you do and have interpreted my comments in the way you have. I have had issues for many years with SGM leadership, but (at least in our church) I have always felt, and continue to feel, that the good far outweighed the bad. We’ve gone through some rough waters and deep soul-searching and I and many others have changed in many ways, particularly in the arrogant attitude many of us had toward other churches. There has been much good and real change in our lives. The DNA of our church has been changing over the last 5 years.
    Part of the change for me has been that I felt it was my duty before the Lord to read most everything that has been published relating to the SGM mess since Brent’s docs first hit the Internet and the blogs sprung up. I’ve read almost all that Brent has written. I’ve also read a lot (not all!) that has been written on the blogs. I’ve also talked personally with folks who have left our church. This journey has helped me see that there has indeed been an arrogance in my heart toward others, and I’ve seen how my attitude has been judgmental.
    But, the bitterness and poison of unforgiveness is very real in the ex-SGM crowd. In the same way that many of them have very rightly judged SGM leadership openly, many of them have also done so with words and attitudes that can only be characterized as sinful and destructive-to themselves first of all, and to others. Jesus’ warnings in Matt 18:21-35 are scary and real. As bad as the sins of many SGM leaders have been, it’s an open question for me how much good has come from the blogs. In the early days of the exodus from SGM, I think the blogs (even with their flaws) performed a necessary function by giving ex-SGMers a place to vent their frustration, pain, and confusion. Especially since their church leaders were often ostracizing them and heaping guilt upon them. In a very real way, SGM brought the blogs upon themselves. And for the record, I think there are quite a few folks who have posted on the blogs who seem grieved by the pain of others and who really want to see healing all around. But these seem, to me at least, outnumbered by sarcastic, bitter people who are simply giving vent to their bitterness. Over time, my opinion of the blogs is that they have become a forum for many people who seem incapable of letting go of the hurts from the past. This is a tragedy on so many levels. I feel afraid for the leaders who have abused the sheep and remain unrepentant, but it also saddens me to see the Church tear itself up like this in public. Since repenting (and re-repenting many times) about my self-righteousness, I have been reminded by the Lord just how precious is His body. I grew up as a missionary kid overseas and have been in and around many different expressions of the body of Christ. For all our flaws, we are His bride, and what we have in common is far more important than what divides us. And what I see happening with this SGM mess is analogous to a messy divorce.
    So it may very well be right that you are not engaging at all in this debate. But many of us are trying to honor the Lord through this process, pray for our church and our leaders, keep our eyes opened to our past sin tendencies while remaining hope-filled for the future…all while keeping an eye on the ongoing debate about SGM and our future within or without it.
    Thankfully, this era in our church history will soon be passed. Peace to you wherever you are; I trust the Lord will cause you to thrive and grow. Pray for us still going through this difficult transitional time.

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