After leaving Pensacola Christian College, I set out on my own journey of healing and vocation.  Friends of mine were eager to shed the PCC-life and find something more grace-filled and free.  Many found the open and welcoming arms of Sovereign Grace Ministries, The Gospel Coalition, Grace Community churches, and others in their networks that boasted the promised land. The attitudes within this new networks felt familiar to them, which is why they felt at home. It claimed to be free.  But was it?  I had my concerns, even 15 years ago, but paid little attention until I began to feel the fingers of that movement begin to draw in friends and claw at me through its followers. Fundamentalism wasn’t a dying breed of an archaic society. It had a new face that was slick, rhetorically powerful, and culturally relevant…

Buckle your seatbelts folks, because this will be a wild ride into the wilderness of a certain side of Evangelicalism. This will be a post about the web of connections among Christian leaders.  This may shock you when you see a beloved or popular pastor’s name appear. Ultimately, this is a post is about ending our permission (and sometimes celebration) of the spiritual abuse that operates today. Our loyalty to Jesus ought to trump all others.



C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries

Last week, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) leaders admitted under oath of covering up Nathaniel Morales’ sexual abuse of minors.  This is stunning, especially after two years of ongoing denial through public statements of innocence.

Current president and founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries, C. J. Mahaney, is no stranger to moral critique.

Pastors and leaders within SGM, like former leader, Brent Detwiler, have confronted Mahaney for character issues, claiming his hypocrisy is not “above reproach.”  For over six  years, the forums at SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge have been whistle-blowing ongoing spiritual abuse.

In summer of 2011, Mahaney acknowledged his need for time off and temporarily resigned. Six months later SGM reinstated Mahaney as President of SGM. As the SGM board claimed “we find nothing… that would disqualify C.J. from his role as president.”

Interestingly, without consensus, without reconciling with his accusers, Mahaney packed his bags for Louisville, Kentucky. His plans were not for some R&R. Instead, Mahaney relocated SGM headquarters, planted a new church, and formed a strategic partnership between SGM’s “Pastor’s College” and the Southern Baptist flagship seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Have you heard of either of these colleges?

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) is the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant denomination in the USA. The seminary president, Al Mohler is one of evangelicalism’s most powerful men today and long-time friend of C. J. Mahaney.  Mohler praises Mahaney for his character and influence in his own life and defends coverup allegations hereIf Mahaney has a long-record of spiritual abuse, hypocrisy, and sexual abuse cover-up among his own peers and followers, why is he finding shelter and occupational protection from Southern Baptists and one of their leaders, Al Mohler?

Why indeed.

In protest to Sovereign Grace Ministries’s board decision to re-instate Mahaney as president, 20 churches left the SGM association. The most significant departure being Covenant Life Church (the church investigated in the Morales case) which was SGM’s flagship, a church Mahaney pastored before handing over the keys to Joshua Harris, known best for his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

[My thought: Bravo to so many leaders within SGM for the courage to part ways when leaders shy away from accountability!]

In the middle of 2012, with Mahaney at the helm of the dwindling SGM denomination, new sexual abuse lawsuit allegations seemed likely to demote Mahaney’s power and SGM’s reputation. When churches were hoping for more transparency, the rock-star of neo-Reformed evangelicalism, John Piper of DesiringGod Ministries chose to unquestioningly publicly endorse Mahaney.

[My thought: Was this an hour to prop up Mahaney’s power or provide a safe way for Mahaney to step down, take account of SGM’s culture of cover-up, and seek healing for himself and victims? Two of the most prominent voices in this web, Mohler and Piper, support Mahaney. I want to ask followers of Mahaney, Mohler and Piper to consider why these men are endorsing one another so unequivocally.]

Mahaney is known as an organizer of conferences, his most popular being Together for the Gospel (T4G). These last two years, under growing pressure from SGM and the public, Mahaney finally resigned from his involvement in his popular T4G conference.  T4G hosts speakers aligned with Mahaney’s vision, some of whom I once read and appreciated such as John MacArthur (Grace Community Church), John Piper, Matt Chandler (The Village Church), Mark Dever (9Marks), RC Sproul (Ligonier Ministries), Russell Moore (Mohler protege and president of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), Al Mohler, and others.

As you can see from the few paragraphs above, a web of networking undergirds the powers behind Sovereign Grace Ministries. And if I can simply talk dollar signs with you, the huge financial resources these groups pull in and their insistence on protecting Mahaney concerns me (more on money in a moment).

I have watched this storm unfold and am baffled that so many in the church choose to ignore it. I know it’s easy to follow a leader, to support their ministry, to choose to back them financially even when bad press hits the fan. I once read and listened to some of these men as I was going through PCC.

But, shortly after my departure from PCC, I had to set them aside. I have no personal malice against these men, but I am concerned when any voices are given power who seem to lack the kind of life and transparency Jesus calls us to.  These theologians slowed my spiritual growth. I began to recognize in their writing, their followers, their public speaking signs of something false. For all the grace and freedom they said they offered, I saw similarities to the theologians at PCC.

  • Authoritarian control
  • Disdain for vulnerability and transparency
  • Behavior modification
  • Masculine priority
  • Shaming language to motivate followers
  • Straw-manning of opponents
  • Rigidly redefined “gospel”
  • Proof-texting to bully rather than reveal
  • Intolerance for the fruit of the Spirit as a better measure than church attendance, books sold, or souls saved
  • Group-think produced in followers

These earmarks of spiritual abuse were part of Pensacola Christian College, and they remain powerful tactics in Christianity’s evangelical churches today.

The recent T4G conference. Recognize them?

The recent T4G conference. Recognize them?  Al Mohler, John MacArthur, John Piper, C.J. Mahaney and others.

Connecting the dots to The Gospel Coalition

There is a name for the web of organizations that propagate this brand of evangelicalism: Neo-Reformed. Scot McKnight, a leading evangelical scholar, wrote an article  in early 2009, detailing some of the Neo-Reformed culture (Neo-Reformed advocates firmly rebutted McKnight here).

So if I just steer clear of Sovereign Grace Ministries and Mahaney, I should be okay, right?

The web threads wider.

Have you head of The Gospel Coalition (TGC)? At first blush, such a coalition for the gospel sounds like good news. How could they be tied up with Mahaney, Mohler, SGM, and Together for the Gospel?

If you peruse the full list at the “About” page for TGC, you’ll notice a pattern, all the same men: C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, Al Mohler, and John Piper (This public list may surprise you with how many names you recognize).  This week, after the Morales conviction, Mahaney and Harris, in order to not taint TGC, stepped down from their leadership with TGC. More on that in a moment.

TGC remains mighty in influence, particularly within the Southern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. Accusations of sexual abuse and the ensuing cover-up at SGM have come to light since 2012. Several cases were thrown out of court due to the statute of limitations, too much time had past since the incidences. This made me curious, how did The Gospel Coalition help victims from SGM, an organization their own member (Mahaney) ran?

The Southern Baptist Convention immediately went on the offensive (Bravo!). During the 2013 Southern Baptist Conventions’ annual meeting, leaders passed a resolution that Southern Baptist churches protect children and cooperate with law enforcement. In addition, they added this courageous and much needed sentence,

“That we encourage all denominational leaders and employees of the Southern Baptist Convention to utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliating with groups and or individuals that possess questionable policies and practices in protecting our children from criminal abuse.”   

Their boldness indicated concern about their own leaders, particularly their own Al Mohler harboring C.J. Mahaney.  The TGC had to contend with the Southern Baptist resolution since it has so much influence in that denomination. They offered a post for churches to handle sexual abuse written by a counselor at Dever’s church while Mahaney himself remained on the counsel.

A similar grass-roots effort drafted a resolution to combat sexual abuse within Presbyterian Churches of America (PCA), a denomination led by renown voices such as Tim Keller, but failed in the committee due to technicalities. Why would PCA lack the courage to make a similar public statement standing against sexual abuse and protecting victims? Many saw the failure to pass such a simple resolution as an act of cowardice. Take a look at the resolution that failed to pass.

Some I know well would claim that The Gospel Coalition is full of intelligent, godly, Bible-believing, culturally-savvy leaders, names we are all familiar with: Tim Keller (Redeemer Pres in NYC), Al Mohler (President of SBTS), Don Carson (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Mark Dever (9Marks) John Piper, and others.

These popular leaders of TGC have become household names in the evangelical world.

[My thought: It is no surprise that in our spiritual abuse recovery group, TGC and its affiliates are brought up regularly, as we read their articles and find consistent shaming practices. Should you be interested in examples, please ask me in the comments.]

Keller, Carson, Dever and Mohler (as well as other leaders I’ve listed above) are readily published through Crossway books. These men have been influential in popularizing the ESV Bible (English Standard Version) to usurp the popular NIV to become THE evangelical translation of choice.

But, it’s just a translation! you might say.

The best way I know to show the problem of ESV is to compare two passages that reveals a masculine bias NOT in the Hebrew, but present in the ESV (bold mine).

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. (NIV)

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.(ESV)

Do you see the key difference? Consider how the subtle word “man” without “kind” sounds in the ears of modern men and women today.

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The Gospel Coalition is also the loudest “evangelical” voice advocating for men’s spiritual priority over women, softly called “complementarianism” (Christians for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is housed by STBS, Mohler’s school). See both the ESV bias and Crossway publications pointing in the complementarian direction.

Here’s how the ESV makes females universally silent in the church (bold mine, 1 Cor 14:33-34):

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. (NIV)

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. (ESV)

Notice how the NIV (and KJV) make orderliness the universal call.  The ESV sneaks that phrase over (I underlined it) to make women’s silence, not situational but universal. Then, note the reemphasizing by capitalizing the word “Law.” (There is no such Law in Torah and scholars today believe it was a cultural law in view… hence the lowercase.)

Having studied complementarianism extensively, the push for ESV appears to be a sly manipulation of Scripture to fit a powerful organization’s agenda. The Hebrew and Greek allow room for the way the NIV interprets these passages.

Take a look at the Bible you own.  [Added note: for more on gender bias in the ESV, this article by Philip Payne outlines many more issues.].

Yes, The Gospel Coalition has that kind of promotional power.  These groups have so emphasized the core message of evangelicalism –The Gospel–that their rhetoric easily strikes to the core value of what most evangelicals want.

How can you be evangelical and not welcome any organization with the word “gospel” in its name?

The Gospel Coalition has redefined the gospel to mean a male-centered, proposition based, get your butt in church, give your money to your local church, silence women, and be under the absolute authority of your leaders so you can experience God’s love, joy and wonderful grace in your life.

Doubt me on that?

Talk to people who have tried to leave Neo-Reformed circles. The stories sound too similar to mine leaving PCC.

Let me repeat my list of concerns again. Mahaney and The Gospel Coalition are the same network, with the same theological stream, promoting a similar culture. Let me remind you of the earmarks:

  • Authoritarian control
  • Disdain for vulnerability and transparency
  • Behavior modification
  • Masculine priority
  • Shaming language to motivate followers
  • Straw-manning of opponents
  • Rigidly redefined “gospel”
  • Proof-texting to bully rather than reveal
  • Intolerance for the fruit of the Spirit as a better measure than church attendance, books sold, or souls saved
  • Group-think produced in followers

I’m thinking of making a badge with these earmarks. Want one?

Twitter Threats

This week, with the conviction of the sex offender, Nathaniel Morales, social media erupted. The spiritual abuse watchdog, The Wartburg Watch, engaged in a conversation looking for a statement from The Gospel Coalition. TGC had an opportunity to come clean on their associations and front-run a needed conversation of transparency and humility. Based on what you’ve read above, how would you expect them to respond?

TGC responded to The Wartburg Watch’s attempts through their editor, Joe Carter, threatened lawsuit in his twitter feed. Read how it happened.

image credit: twitter via

image credit: twitter via

In addition, The Gospel Coalition blocked all followers who tweeted the hashtag #IstandWithSGMvictims, which was trending support for Sovereign Grace Ministry victims nationwide on Twitter.

The current pastor of Mahaney’s previous congregation, Joshua Harris suddenly resigns from TGC. Why? In his words, “I resigned the @TGC Council because I don’t want the present challenges at my church to distract from this terrific ministry.”

At the same moment of Harris’ distancing, Tullian Tchividjian (grandson of Billy Graham, whose brother, Boz, runs G.R.A.C.E.) was forced to leave TGC’s blog space.  Tullian was planning on leaving for awhile, but he writes that he wanted to slowly transition out. Suddenly, “I was simply told that the transition needed to happen now.” Tchividjian admitted TGC had “morphed” over the years, no longer a place of unity for all denominations around the gospel.  Tchividjian swiftly informed the Christian Post, he was “‘pretty disturbed’ when Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and Justin Taylor published a statement on TGC website in May 2013 which defended Mahaney, saying that it looked ‘like the good-old boys club covering their own’…. ‘They want to say that they’re very multi-denominational and all, but they’re really not,’ said Tchividjian. ‘It’s Baptist and Presbyterians, but it’s a particular flavor of Baptist and Presbyterians, it’s not even all inclusive of all Baptists and Presbyterians.'”

kissed dating

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TGC using the pen and voice of two of its most loveable members, Tim Keller and Don Carson, offered this response. For those concerned about The Gospel Coalition, I urge you to read their words.

Please notice that Tim Keller and Don Carson give no mention or empathy to victims. How does that last paragraph read to you?

[My thought: the last paragraph is a moral gag to critics.]

Mahaney continues to deny any part in abuse of any kind, though parents of sexual abuse victims have documented evidence to the contrary.

Why Name Names?

But why am I writing, why point out personalities? Aren’t I harming the cause of the gospel?

And I care deeply about the good news of Jesus. I also know that one of my calls to the church in this age is my refusal to read scandals on the surface, knowing that deeper causes remain tangled beneath.

This post was a way to compile publicly accessible information. I’ve outed no one from hiding, I’ve shared no secrets with you, no behind the scene information. These networks and articles are public domain. You can access the way Evangelical Christianity is slowly turning Neo-Reformed.

So I name these people to inform you. If you believe in the fruit of this network, its message and followers’ lives, then continue to support it. If you do not, then be intentional and aware.  Ignorance empowers no one. Current victims need our support. Future victims need to be prevented. On my view, the attitudes of PCC-style fundamentalism is alive and well, whistling on a fresh perch.

I also name these people because I don’t want us to fall prey to thinking sexual abuse of minors within the Neo-reformed, SGM or TGC communities was a fluke because one sick man abused the system. The sexual abuse convictions from this week are not an isolated event, but the results of a well-crafted web of power and coverup.

Whenever I see a similar culture to what I endured at Pensacola Christian college, I take note. Whenever I see a culture of shame, a powerful community where strict, mindless obedience, church-bullying, and hierarchy between the genders is both protected and dog-eared as a mark of godliness, I pause.  When I see people hijacking the Jesus I love to conform him to their movement, I’m deeply concerned. When I see the casualties from authoritarian networks harming the people who love Jesus, I take up my pen and I write, Living with QuestionsCoffee Shop Conversations, Unmuted: The Welcome Colors of a Woman’s Voice,, I empower my wife to write about the ways her soul has been twisted and broken and re-built at I travel and speak nationally, I run and record e-courses, I take radio interviews.

I weep and I pray because many of the followers of Christ have left PCC, but are unaware how they are being spiritually abused, AGAIN. Blind following cannot rescue anyone from abuse. Think. Read. Expose yourself to outside sources. Find a healthy community that loves people as well as they love sound doctrine.

The Best Atheists

I’ve personally corresponded and talked to hundreds of victims recovering from Neo-Reformed culture, people whose faith has been wrecked.  I’ve come to see that what we call “evangelical” is quickly becoming the new face of fundamentalism with a dollop of Calvinism. This is Neo-Reformed. The spirit of modern fundamentalism has crept into evangelical churches and is subtly using relevant language to draw the protestant church back into a snare.

And nothing creates atheists so systematically as religion twisted to abuse the eager souls of the faithful.

Many, many PCC-type fundamentalists renounce long skirts and coat and ties but find they move no farther than Neo-Reformed circles.  I was drawn that direction even while I was at PCC looking for some theological escape hatches. I introduced MacArthur and Piper to people who continue to follow them. I deeply regret my influence and wish I had more sensitive moral judgment in those days.

But you can add drums to your music, beer to your meals, and beards to your faces, but the shame-based culture, the biblicism, lines in the sand to prove your faith, cult of personality, priority of church attendance, emphasis on authority, male rulership over women, and exclusivism remains. I know many who left PCC who believe they are liberated, yet they still live with the shackles of PCC culture.

Why is it that organizations affiliated within SGM and TGC networks refuse to speak up with empathy to victims?

Where are T4G, Grace Community, Ligoniers, 9Marks, The Village Church? Where is John Piper? Why is everyone on the defensive, hiding, threatening lawsuits and nitpicking particulars? Why is there so much talk about getting back into churches and under authority?

Where is the confession of covering abuse and work toward change? I want to work with those people.

Why did the explanation letter by Keller and Carson dismiss the timing of all of these issues? Why do Keller and Carson conclude by attacking the victim, even citing John Newton to prove that whistleblowers are selfish (when any history buff knows that Newton was a man who spoke up to the abusers!)? The calm intellectual-speak is trying to deflect criticism while calming constituents who want the victims’ claims to be false and know their leaders are taking care of it (i.e. confirmation bias).  This should raise serious alarms for those who claim to follow Jesus.

Serious alarms, dear followers of Jesus.

These issues are not hands-off neutral issues. These are get-your-hands-dirty issues that have been building for years. Must we wait for sexual abuse before we recognize the warning signs that the people of God have become a safe place for abusers?

Spiritual abuse opens wide doors for many other abuses. That’s the way it works.

What You Can Do

We must be vigilant to prevent sexual abuse of children! These are issues that give every good Samaritan an opportunity to shine. We do not want to support self-righteous religious leaders who inspire on Sunday but turn up noses at victims as they quietly pass by on the other side.

Note the names associated within this network. 

All have defended Mahaney either overtly or through silent associations. All refuse to pause to consider that their theology and approach may need to change.  Their influence over thousands and thousands of pastors across our land who use their books and repeat their sermons (that represent millions and millions of Christians) is broad and deep and will propagate the open doors of abuse, especially to the unaware, because we have been told their leadership is Biblical!

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If Reformed theology has created a haven for abuse where supposedly godly leaders cover it up and refuse for years to hear its critics and victims, we need to doubt the words of these leaders a little more. Words like John MacArthur who recently said at his opening talk at Strange Fire conference:

Reformed theology, sound doctrine, is not a haven for false teachers. It’s not where false teachers reside. Reformed theology, sound doctrine, faithful, biblical exposition among the long line of godly men is not a place for false teachers. It’s not where frauds go. It’s not where greedy deceivers end up. It’s not where you find liars and those who misrepresent the truth.

It is time to look in the mirror. Claiming innocence from the pulpit is not sufficient. False teachers offer this tell-tale sign: they profess a theology that allows abuse and defend others who practice it (see the end of Romans 1).

That should be a red flag to those of us spiritual abuse survivors, freedom builders, and advocates.

For the rest of the fundamentalist / evangelical church to ponder:

  • Why do we wait for the American courts to find the heinous crime of sexual child abuse before we care to pay attention?
  • Why isn’t the emotional abuse, shame-based doctrine, spiritual abuse reported by thousands of people sufficient to remove a leader?
  • Why do we ignore symptoms of a small tumor until it is too late? Why do we think “This is not my problem”?
  • Why do we think that the issues are only about a few bad people and not about the posture of the teaching itself?

When I began writing a book on my story of spiritual abuse at Pensacola Christian College, I workshopped a portion at a writing conference. The other students had already read it on their own. Before I explained my piece, I added this disclaimer, “PCC has good theology, but bad practice.”

One of the attendees, a woman in her 70s immediately interrupted. “If you have bad practice, that means you have bad theology.”

I now agree with her. With creeds written on paper we can appear orthodox while we are very unorthodox in our beliefs and actions. Dear Church, please consider. We need to stop empowering abusive organizations.

What can you do about it? Stay tuned at FreeAtLast for a plan to fight for freedom among the people of God.

What Feeds The Abuse?

What is the bigger picture feeding this problem? My belief is that spiritually abusive ideas have been festering in TGC power circle for years, successfully seeking to take over evangelicalism and invite the larger culture into its web.

The culture of spiritual abuse is rooted deep. That we celebrate Neo-Reformed organizations, despite protests, and continue to buy ESV Bibles and Crossway books tells us that spiritual abuse often looks like normal Christian living to a large swath of evangelicals.

People are voting by leaving churches in droves, in part, because they are voting with their presence. What we see is an influential power struggle forming a coup to take over the protestant church. The evangelical church is reverting back to its former fundamentalism. Is it beyond recovery?

I do not know. I do know that the fallout will be in the millions.

Soulation will play its part to help guide burned out and disillusioned Christians toward recovery in the life of Jesus.

Join me this fall as we begin a new initiative at Soulation and FreeAtLast: the FreedomBuilders.