"They longed for something more than an assembly of loosely connected Christians and wanted to build a local church like those they saw modeled in the New Testament."
Covenant Life Church website
In recent months we have expanded our range of topics here at TWW and have attracted a good number of new readers. There has been a growing interest in our extensive coverage of a church planting network known as Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) as well as Covenant Life Church (CLC), which was once SGM’s flagship church. Dee and I have been researching SGM and CLC for nearly seven years, and we have tried to condense our knowledge into what we hope will be an informational post.
Some Background Information
For the first time since its inception, Covenant Life Church (CLC) is without a shepherd. The church began back in 1977 in a suburban Maryland home under the leadership of Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney. According to the Wiki article, the church
had its roots in a city-wide charismatic prayer meeting called Take and Give (TAG) which ran from 1970 to 1979. TAG began as a small bible study led by Lydia Little, a Washington, DC area resident who had experienced the Jesus People revival in California and wanted to see similar renewal brought to local young people. TAG continued to grow in numbers with the Tuesday night meetings moving from the Blair High School auditorium to a larger auditorium space at Christ Church of Washington. Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney became the main teachers with Jim Orban leading worship and a number of other young people taking on other leadership responsibilities as the group grew.
As many as 2,000 would attend these weekly meetings. Once these faithful attendees became invested in the group, they wanted more. According to the CLC website,
They longed for something more than an assembly of loosely connected Christians and wanted to build a local church like those they saw modeled in the New Testament.
The initial group of 30 or so called itself the Gathering of Believers. Two years after the church launch, the TAG gatherings came to an end. As the church began to grow, it met at various schools and facilities in Montgomery County, Maryland. Around 1980 the congregation settled on the name Covenant Life Church (CLC).
Then in the early 1990s, the church secured 40 acres upon which it would build its permanent home. C.J. Mahaney became CLC's pastor, and Larry Tomczak spearheaded the church planting arm known as People of Destiny. It would later become known as PDI International and then Sovereign Grace Ministries — the name that was adopted in 2002.
As CLC's pastor, Mahaney slowly began to shift the theology of the church toward Calvinism (reformed theology). It was such a gradual change that almost no one took notice — except for the group's co-founder Larry Tomczak. By 1998 Tomczak appears to have had a problem with this theological change, and he and Mahaney parted ways. Since that time, it has become fairly common knowledge that what had actually occurred between the two was that Mahaney blackmailed Tomczak into resigning due to "teenage rebellion" exhibited by the Tomczaks' son. That tactic of manipulating Sovereign Grace pastors into resigning due to their children's unacceptable behavior (even after becoming adults) would play out again and again.
The year before Larry Tomczak resigned, Joshua Harris moved from his native state of Oregon to Gaithersburg, Maryland to be mentored by C.J. Mahaney. Interestingly, Harris lived with the Mahaney family as he was being groomed for a key position at CLC. Unbeknownst to the Covenant Life congregation and members of the SGM church plants, Brent Detwiler was privately calling his colleague C.J. Mahaney to account for pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy in the years leading up to the passing of the baton at CLC. Then in 2004 Joshua Harris was installed as Mahaney's successor, allowing C.J. to focus solely on his responsibilities as president of Sovereign Grace Ministries.
As SGM president, Mahaney became quite popular on the conference circuit. The Reformed movement was gaining momentum, and C.J. was becoming more widely known. Some of his first appearances beyond the realm of CLC were at the Together on a Mission conference in Great Britain and the Resolved Conference — both in 2005. Thanks to his faithful friend Mark Dever, Mahaney was introduced to Ligon Duncan and Al Mohler, who had known Dever for decades. The following year (2006) these four friends (Dever, Duncan, Mohler and Mahaney ) launched a bi-annual conference called Together for the Gospel. Mahaney continued to speak at the Resolved conference, which was held annually for eight years in a row, at SGM conferences, at Gospel Coalition conferences, at the 2010 SBC Pastors Conference, at Southern Baptist seminaries, and the list goes on… He also wrote two books which have been and continue to be heavily promoted by the Neo-Cal crowd, namely Humility: True Greatness and The Cross Centered Life.
TWW Begins Its Investigation
It was the summer of 2008 that Dee and I discovered something amiss in the conservative corner of Christendom. Our families were members of different Southern Baptist churches, and some unusual circumstances occurred that prompted us to begin conducting internet research. It didn't take long for us to discover two blogs that were critical of a 'family of churches' known as Sovereign Grace Ministries. They were SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge. (SGM Survivors still exists, while SGM Refuge has since been taken down). We began reading about SGM's leader C.J. Mahaney, and we happened to remember that he and Joshua Harris had been lauded in a September 2006 Christianity Today article cleverly called Young, Restless, Reformed. Here is a pertinent excerpt:
For Harris, things started changing when he read Piper describe God's glory and breathtaking sovereignty. Later, C. J. Mahaney, a charismatic Calvinist and founding pastor of Covenant Life, took Harris under his wing and groomed him to take over the church.
The more we read the heartbreaking testimonies published on the SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge websites, the more we began to realize that something was terribly amiss in the SGM 'family of churches'. Then in March 2009 we launched The Wartburg Watch. From the get go, our focus has primarily been on spiritual abuse. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that Sovereign Grace Ministries has been researched and discussed fairly extensively here at TWW. A perusal of our archives under the "Categories" heading reveals our many posts on SGM and related topics.
The Mahaney Money Machine
Dee and I had only been blogging for a couple of months, and then in June 2009 I was sitting at my computer and felt what has come to be known as The Wartburg Tingle. Suddenly, I was compelled to investigate whether C.J. Mahaney had made contributions to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. Perhaps it was the seminary president's fierce loyalty to Mahaney that prompted this investigation. After hours of digging, the picture became crystal clear. To my utter shock, C.J. Mahaney (individually) and Sovereign Grace Ministries had EACH given Southern Seminary A MIMIMUM of $100,000 over a relatively short number of years. This was a cumulative amount. That went a long way in explaining Al Mohler's fierce loyalty to C.J. Mahaney.
Upon making this discovery, I was deeply concerned that a portion of the contributions being made by members of Sovereign Grace churches were being funneled to a Southern Baptist seminary. (And I'm Southern Baptist!) SGM was essentially a denomination in itself, and it seemed strange that these vast sums were not being used to expand the SGM church-planting network.
The Mahaney Money Machine post was published that June, and it caused quite an uproar within the ranks of SGM. SGMers were incensed that money was being donated to a Southern Baptist seminary WITHOUT THEIR KNOWLEDGE. TWW re-published the original post in 2010 with some additional information, and it can be accessed here. Our blogging skills have improved considerably since then, and we have learned the wonderful technique of taking screen shots. Here is the pertinent information from the 2007 SBTS Roll Call (page 43).
Businesses, Denominations and Foundations
We are still perplexed about these contributions. It causes us to wonder whether SGM donations were being given to other organizations, ministries, and/or individuals. As we understand it, financial details were closely guarded by the upper brass, and we may never know the extent to which Mahaney and SGM made contributions to those outside Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Mahaney Steps Down and Is Quickly Deemed "Fit For Ministry"
The outcry against C.J. Mahaney continued to escalate, and in July 2011 he stepped down from the presidency of SGM for a time. Justin Taylor published Mahaney's statement, which begins as follows:
Over the last few years some former pastors and leaders in Sovereign Grace have made charges against me and informed me about offenses they have with me as well as other leaders in Sovereign Grace. These charges are serious and they have been very grieving to read. These charges are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn’t minimize their serious nature, which include various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.
I believe God is kindly disciplining me through this. I believe I have by the grace of God perceived a degree of my sin, and I have been grieved by my sin and its effects on others. I have had the opportunity to confess my sin to some of those affected in various ways by my sin. And I am so very grateful for their forgiveness. But I want to perceive and confess any and all sin I have committed. Although my experience of conviction has already started—and this is an evidence of God’s mercy—I’m sure there is more for me to perceive and acknowledge. Even with the charges I disagree with it has been beneficial to examine my soul and ask for the observation of others. And I am resolved to take responsibility for my sin and every way my leadership has been deficient, and this would include making any appropriate confessions, public or private. Most importantly I want to please God during this season of examination and evaluation.
So here is what I am going to do. I’ve asked to take a leave of absence in order to give time to considering these charges, examine my heart, and receive the appropriate help from others.
Mahaney's statement first appeared on the SGM website, and Dave Harvey, who was serving as interim president, subsequently removed the entire statement. This is why we have linked to Justin Taylor's post over at The Gospel Coalition.
The following month C.J. Mahaney was declared 'fit for ministry' by what we now know was a hand-picked panel. The identities of the panel members were kept confidential until the findings were released. They were Kevin DeYoung, Ray Ortlund, and Carl Trueman. Here is how we reported on their findings. Trueman may finally be waking up to the truth, but only time will tell…
The following January (2012) Mahaney was reinstated as president of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Many who spoke out against him and the SGM 'family of churches' were terribly disappointed with what had transpired. Mahaney was back in charge, and nothing seemed like it was going to change.
SGM Hires Ambassadors of Reconciliation
Not long after SGM hired the Ambassadors of Reconciliation to resolve serious problems within SGM. These matters had been discussed on SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge, and now some pastors were complaining about how they had been treated. The research took 9 long months, with many current and former members being interviewed. When the Ambassadors of Reconciliation finally released its report in April 2012, the organization was met with much criticism which we believe was fully warranted. It appeared that SGM had once again sidestepped mounting criticism.
Sovereign Grace Ministries Announces Its Move to Kentucky
Nine days after the Ambassadors of Reconciliation released its report, an announcement was made on the SGM website that the Board had decided to move SGM headquarters and the Pastors College to Kentucky. You can read their
reasons excuses here. Christianity Today reported the news as follows:
Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), which has weathered controversy over its leadership and discipline practices, will relocate its offices and pastor-training program to Louisville, Kentucky.
Currently based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, SGM cited the economy as the main factor in its decision. It also hopes to expand its Pastors College and collaborate with Louisville-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS).
Once again, it appeared that SGM leaders had found a way to dodge the mounting problems they were facing. Like the wagon trains of old, SGM was going West in search of a new start.
In our upcoming post (which we hope to publish later tomorrow), we will continue the SGM saga. Since SGM's move to Louisville three years ago, things have only gotten worse for the ministry. As we continue their story, we will focus on some serious accusations that were made in a lawsuit against SGM and others as well as the Nate Morales trial and the terrible cover-up of child sex abuse that was revealed. We will also take a look at an SGM church that in recent years handled a pedophile situation poorly.
In the meantime, Jen Grover has put together an excellent timeline that highlights much of the information we are sharing here.
We welcome any questions or commentary you may have.