I’ve never been terribly fond of Brent Detwiler.
If by some chance he reads this post, then I have to confess to him: when I was roughly 20-years-old, I considered him to be one of the banes of my existence. He was the “Regional Leader” of Sovereign Grace Ministries churches in the South when I was an aspiring young intern in a SGM church in Florida, and I found his preaching and theological opinions to be exasperating and heavy-handed in the extreme. I’ve only walked out on two sermons in my entire life, and one of them was a doozy he gave circa ’05-’06 on the dating vs. “courtship” debate that undid about 2 years of progress on that issue in my church in one fell swoop. From then on, I did my best to avoid having to sit through the man’s teaching at all costs: once, when I was in charge of child care at a conference that featured him preaching twice, I scheduled myself to teach elementary kids during both of his sessions. To me, he represented a prime example of the harshness and unrelenting critical spirit that has earned the new Calvinism such a bad reputation within American Christianity more broadly.
I find it fascinating, then, that he has gone on to become a prophetic voice and an essential part of the undoing of Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Detwiler is, as SGM’s leaders have come to find out, a meticulous keeper of records. Some time after his own relationship with CJ Mahaney soured, Detwiler sent an enormous compilation of damning evidence of Mahaney’s behavior to all of the pastors in SGM. One of them leaked the documents, and they went viral.
Since then, Detwiler emerged as a very vocal and public critic of SGM. His blog posts have consistently called out Mahaney and the SGM Board of Directors for their spiritual abuse, deceit, and hypocritical behavior. He has provided a blow-by-blow analysis of the unraveling of the movement.
This weekend, Brent’s website has reported two major developments in the growing schism within SGM: first, the SGM church in Daytona, FL has decided to leave after a three-decade affiliation with the organization. Second, and perhaps more significant, it seems that Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax, VA–respectively the first and third biggest churches in the movement– are contemplating breaking off from SGM and forming their own new “affiliation.”
To put the latter story in perspective for readers who may not be familiar with SGM: Covenant Life in MD was the very first SGM church, and has been the epic center of life in SGM throughout the movement’s history, housing both the main offices for the organization and its Pastors College. The Fairfax church, also an early member, is a powerful SGM presence in one of the wealthiest and most influential counties in America. For these two to break off while Mahaney has run away to start a new church in Louisville, KY, is somewhat like it would have been for the Catholic Church if it had lost Rome and the Archdiocese of Milan while the Pope was in Avignon.
The leaders of both of these two large churches have consistently brought the issue of church polity and governance to the forefront of the debate. It seems they would both prefer a congregational or Presbyterian-style structure, as opposed to the hierarchical and “apostolic” form of polity that SGM has traditionally employed.
And, remarkably, I agree with Brent Detwiler’s take on this issue: the focus on polity is entirely misplaced.
When I first left SGM, I, too, like these men in Maryland and Virginia, thought that polity was the problem with the movement. I thought that a more democratic approach to church leadership would have provided sorely-needed accountability to pastors and regional leaders that were spiritually abusing their members. But in the years that followed, I found that the more I experienced churches and denominations with democratic polity, the more I realized that it solved nothing. Congregational and Presbyterian churches still have all of the spiritual abuse, power-hungry pastors, financial mismanagement, and ugly church splits.
That’s not to say that SGM’s polity is great. They have long had a very ill-defined hierarchy that has given enormous power to unethical and unqualified men and taken it away just as quickly, all at Mahaney’s whim. Leaders have an authority over both spiritual and temporal matters that rivals anything you see in a Catholic bishop, but without the guidance of Canon Law or the counter-weight of such things as parish finance committees or diocesan pastoral councils.
But Detwiler is right: a change in polity could not now save SGM. Corrupt and unethical men will find a way to serve their own ends in any form of governance structure.
From my perspective, the reality is this: Protestantism has been experimenting with different forms of church polity for 500 years now. They have had the Presbyterian model, the Congregational model, the Episcopal model, the Moses model, the corporate model, and too many hybrids, derivatives, and odd sui generis groups to list here. None of them have been able to prevent the type of situation we are now witnessing with SGM. As I argued a couple of weeks ago, schism is now a part of “Protestant DNA”; it is an inevitable occurrence in the life-cycle of evangelical denominations.
I have no doubt that the Daytona church and the folks in the greater D.C. area will find that they enjoy a time of great grace and blessing as they emerge from a very oppressive organization. But, like every group of evangelicals that have left a Protestant denomination before them, they have left a pressing question unanswered: what’s going to make this time different?