The Elephant in Our Own Backyard

This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.   Joe Paterno

A lawsuit was filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries in October, 2012 with three plaintiffs. Last week, an amendment was made to the lawsuit raising the number of plaintiffs to eleven. The allegations, particularly those in the latest amendment, are deeply disturbing. Yet, at this point they remain allegations, which is distinctly different than legally established fact. In the last few days, a judge dismissed most of the suit over the statute of limitations. In such suits, victims must file within three years of reaching the age 18, and only two of the plaintiffs meet that criteria. This is a big issue in conservative evangelicalism, especially the reformed community. The way reformed leaders address it reflects on our belief system. God help us do a better job of stewarding the forum we are given with these issues.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7 ESV)

Many have argued (correctly) that all brands of religion and even life in general are sullied by child abuse. There are lots of sin bombs in life we could address, but it’s the one in your own backyard that has the greatest likelihood of wounding you or those to whom you are most obligated to advocate for. This is a bomb, planted firmly in the backyard of the house that is the young, restless, and reformed movement of which I am a part. It has already torn apart much of the reputation that was built over the last few years. There are precious doctrines attached to the groups under accusation right now. We have lost much when we chose silence over transparency in addressing these things. And we stand to lose much more if things don’t change in how our community addresses these things.

I have first hand experience with ministries recently accused of abuse. Some of those ministries provided much needed structure at a time when I lacked self worth, self confidence, or any kind of personal security. Yet, a ministry/person can do both – help one person while destroying another. What disturbs me deeply now is that I knew people who were abused (I was actually very good friends with a few), but both they and I somehow felt that whatever they got at the hands of the conservative religious authorities in their life, no matter how unreasonable or harsh it seemed to us, must be OK. Why? Because the authorities around us who weren’t the abusers seemed OK with the ones who were. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I don’t really care to speak to abusers in this post. Instead, it is the SILENCE by others that I want to address.

In particular, while working at a respected Christian camp, I had a camper share with me (in repentance, trying to repair her reputation with me), that she didn’t mean to have sex with the guy with whom she got caught. She hadn’t dressed provocatively. In fact, she had had holes in her undergarments when their sexual encounter took place. Obviously, luring him into sex wasn’t on her mind when she got dressed that day. And she had even protested and said no. But at some point, because of her moral weakness, she gave in. At least, we both kind of accepted that view of it, which was the view projected onto her by her church authority structure. She was brought up for church discipline with the guy. She “repented” and was left with a reputation she worked hard to repair. Another friend was cornered by a youth pastor in a room with no one else around, who then proceeded to masturbate in front of her. She told a female adult authority in the church, who told her she must have been dressed inappropriately and that it was her fault. She never mentioned it again until she told me decades later.

Now, with the maturity of an adult living in the real world, I think of my camper’s story with a cold knot in my stomach. She was caught by surprise and embarrassed by the poor condition of her dress that day. She said NO. She was underage. This wasn’t sexual immorality. It was rape. But her sexual abuse from her past and the acceptance of it all as her fault by the authorities in her life (her parents, her Christian school, her pastor, camp counselors, and so forth) led her to truly believe it was her fault, as did I. She was CHURCH DISCIPLINED for it.

Conservative churches, especially during the 80’s and 90’s seemed to have this as their general M.O. When children who were physically and sexually abused by parents or leaders in a conservative church came forward with allegations, they were often told it was their fault. They were often the ones held accountable while the authorities in their lives who either did the abuse or allowed others to do it were not. Rarely was law enforcement involved.

As I’ve written in other posts, authorities are ALWAYS the one held to the higher standard, the greater accountability. They are called to restrain their authority and use their power as a force for the abused and oppressed. Many leaders in conservative evangelicalism have not held authorities to the higher standard. In fact, the exact opposite seems the norm (and I deliberately chose the word “seems” because I do not know what conversations among leaders are going on in the background, and I am hopeful that genuine change on this issue is taking root privately).

I pray for leaders who will teach the value of authentic REPENTANCE by other leaders who dropped the ball and made the wrong choice when confronted with these situations in their congregations. Just REPENT. Just say, “Yes, under my watch, this specific thing did happen. It was wrong. And I did not protect the widow and orphan. I participated in injustice. And I am very sorry.” Then CHANGE. Do things differently. Repair what you can. You know what?! That very gospel we talk about so much empowers us to face our sin head on, to admit it, to lay it at the foot of the cross, and to walk away changed. It equips you and I to get up and go in a new direction without shame. It equips us to ADDRESS THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR ACTIONS. Christ’s death frees us from the chains of our own sins. And His life applied to our account lets us walk forward in the truest righteousness of all–HIS!

Christian leader, if you happen to be reading this, take up the call in Isaiah 1 that is echoed in James. Right wrongs. Correct injustice. Protect widows and orphans. Defuse the bomb in your own backyard before it blows up in your face. The true gospel really does equip us to do this!

37 Responses to The Elephant in Our Own Backyard

  1. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing on this! I am a member of an SGM church, and have grown up in their churches. My pastor is on the board of SGM. I am also a mother of young girls. I have been so affected by what has transpired, and yet the leadership (despite my pleas) remains silent or defensive. While reformed doctrine seems right on paper, what I have experienced in real life as a result of reformed doctrine has caused me to dismiss it altogether. I no longer desire to be in a reformed church or to have anything to do with the mission of SGM. It seems like they care more about doctrine than they do about people. The verse that comes to mind is Matthew 23:23.

  2. JennGrover May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Thanks so much for addressing the silence. SGM uses their reformed friends to validate their words and actions so it is right to call on these men to speak out.

  3. Anonymous,

    Please do not dismiss Reformed doctrine because of SGM and the young, restless and reformed (YRR)leaders. I am a member of a Reformed church and what is called Reformed in SGM circles and what I have experienced are two completely different things.

    I am a member of a Christian Reformed (CRC) church and it is the most free church I have ever been in (and I've been in numerous denominations since growing up Baptist). Grace is real there and there is no legalism or manipulation. The pastor is the most laid back pastor I've sat under. It's not his church. He's just there to serve like everyone else. It's so refreshing.

    There is much that is beautiful about the Reformed view. What is happening in the SGM and YRR circles sincerely grieves me because I know it is driving people away from Reformed doctrines. When I see people discussing Reformed thinking and Calvinism on some blogs it is NOTHING like what I have experienced.

    I'm so sorry for the pain you are experiencing. But I am thankful you are speaking up and thinking for yourself even if the leadership around you will not listen. May God bless you and strengthen you in the days to come.

  4. Chris Hubbs May 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    Thanks for the reasoned perspective on this topic. While I don't think we can lay all the blame for this attitude on Calvinism (as another blogger tried to do yesterday), the leadership silence from the YRR folks on this topic is deafening, and that is a problem.

  5. Lauren May 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

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  6. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Thank you for your kind encouragement. I looked at your blog, and you are right. What I found there was so different than the “reformed doctrine” that I have experienced. I am subscribing to your blog as well as this one, as I am sorely in need of encouragement these days. I know that as I speak up about these things and dare to question the leadership in public, I will be branded as unsubmissive, and my husband will face pressure to “lead” (ie. control) me better. I have seen it happen before to others. But my conscience will no longer allow me to be quiet about this. My trust is in my Savior.

  7. carole May 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    Thank you for speaking out, Wendy.

    One of the truly odd things about the pattern I have observed is the complete contrast in the treatment of sin. Too often I have seen forced 'reconciliation' and 'repentance' in front of the entire congregation. I remember one young woman whose father had long since left the picture, who was being raised by a single mother, and who got pregnant with her boyfriend. Even though she barely attended the church (her mother attended regularly), she was made to stand up front and confess her sin and repent and ask the forgiveness of the whole congregation.

    That seemed to be the typical formula for the church leaders when dealing with sexual sin that resulted in a baby. (No porn addicts were requested to stand up front and confess.)

    However, when in that same church, one of the elders was addicted to child pornography and raping his daughters, the pastor chose to “cover his sin.” When all came to light, that was the exact phrase he used. “This is the business that we're in here in the church: covering sin.” What?! I thought their business was mostly shaming people, and in this case, the people who ended up shamed and forced to reconcile to their abuser were the victims.

    I am curious as to the root of such strange dichotomies in American evangelical churches. Where did so many leaders learn these strange approaches?

  8. Lauren May 22, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    completely agree that abuse must be handled differently. My husband was a police officer and is now in seminary, and he will definitely go to great lengths to ensure that abuse is handled properly. However, don't you think some of the reformed leaders are “silent” right now because they are waiting on the verdict? I think using restraint during this in between time can be wise. Surely there is a way to at least talk about it before the verdict in a way that isn't jumping the gun, but I think I will wait to jump on these leaders after the verdict comes out. My husband has been involved in numerous cases of abuse that didn't actually pan out as truth- which is why we tend to restrain our mouths until the courts go through their processes.

  9. Wendy May 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    Lauren, I strongly disagree with the “wait and see” attitude. It obviously isn't wise, since you can see even in the comments of this post that hurting people are being influenced away from true doctrine by the silence. That is a horrible but understandable result of the silence by leaders who have spoken up on Paterno, Sandusky, Gosnell, and another abortion doctor well before they were convicted. In fact, Paterno wasn't convicted.

    No one is asking them to validate charges that are still considered allegations. But there are many responsible ways to address it that acknowledge the charges. I can't comprehend why, just out of respect for the judicial process, leaders don't encourage Mahaney to willingly stop speaking at public things until things are settled.

  10. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I have a question about what you mean here:

    “Yet, at this point they remain allegations, which is distinctly different than legally established fact.”

    What are you referring to when you write “they?” The entire civil suit?

    It was my understanding that the suit included established fact.
    Some defendants have been tried and found guilty of sex abuse crimes. Thanks.

  11. Lauren May 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Hi Wendy,

    That is fair- you bring up a good point. Like I said, there has to be a way to talk about it that addresses the issue without “jumping the gun”. It is a difficult situation and needs to be handled with both straightforwardness and discretion. Thank you for initiating the conversation.

  12. Wendy May 22, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Anonymous, the allegations in this law suit are conspiracy to cover up. Legally, the convictions of actual perpetrators are in the works (are there already some convictions?). And those either are established fact or soon will be in a court of law. But the allegations of widespread conspiracy to conceal abuse from authorities is still alleged, in legal terms. There seems enough evidence if you use Jesus' and Paul's standard of 2 or 3 witnesses for the church to address it, at least in terms of pastoral obligation that was horribly mishandled.

  13. Hannah Anderson May 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

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  14. Hannah Anderson May 22, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    Was reading Keller's Every Good Endeavor today and came across this quote that reminded me of your post:

    “Unless you use your clout, your credentials, and your money in service to the people outside the palace, the palace is a prison; it has already given you your name… if you are unwilling to risk your place in the palace for your neighbors, the palace owns you.”

    And later, this: “Esther saved her people through identification and mediation… because she identified [with them] she could mediate before the throne of power as no one else could, and because she received favor there, that favor was transferred to her people. Saving people through identification and mediation–does that remind you of anyone? Jesus Christ.”

    Praying that those in “the palace” will use their positions of privilege and power to care for those outside it.

  15. J Kanz May 22, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    I found my way here from the Boar's Head Tavern where Chris Hubbs posted something (I see he has commented already). I think this is a wise, gentle response. Situations like what is happening at SGM create a huge “ick” feeling for me in part because I don't know the specifics of what went on. It seems to me that on the one hand, there has been a full frontal assault on the ministry of SGM by a group of dedicated folks. On the other hand, it seems that there has been a deafening silence from some of the folks from SGM, but as you have pointed out, the larger reformed community. If nothing else, I would like to see more general awareness of abuse within the church. I don't know if men like Piper, Mohler, etc. have pulled CJ aside privately and said “hey, if you have responsibility here, man up and take responsibility” but I would like to hope they would.

    I think what I find as frustrating as anything else is that it seems that everyone is more than happy to point out a controversy when it happened to someone else's group. This is true not just for those in the reformed camp, but outside as well. On the internet, we sure seem to like to attack often without providing real solutions.

    Again, thank you for your post and for allowing my completely directionless ramblings.

  16. Wendy May 22, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    J, you are welcome to ramble here anytime.

    I think leaders did SGM a horrible disservice by not pointing them to an important Bible principle early on.

    Luke 12:58-59

    58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

  17. J Kanz May 22, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    What is the principle in Luke 12? Is it to deal with stuff before court or is it to avoid court altogether if possible? As I read it, it seems that the desire is for a person to settle an issue even before they get to a public court of law with the optimal being that they avoid court. I think this is particularly true in light of 1 Corinthians 6:1 (and following), “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”

    How many churches interpret these verses as “let's just handle this in house rather than involving the unrighteous authorities” and, in so doing, muck up the process?

  18. Wendy May 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    We could debate how to practically play it out, and perhaps SGM took that other view of it early on. Whatever the principle “make an effort to settle with him” means, it means some type of ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of the seriousness of your accusers' concerns, in this case particularly conspiracy to keep law enforcement out of these issues. If you settle with them, you hear their concerns and address them in such a way that they feel reparation has been made and the same mistakes won't be made again in the future.

    There are 11 accusers who feel strongly that their concerns weren't heard, that reparation hasn't been made, and that the same mistakes are likely to occur again.

  19. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    Wendy, there are actual convictions from the 80s or 90s in the suit. a man was convicted of abusing his daughter. Another person named was I believe convicted recently in Marylandand there was a minor convicted of abuse as well in the 80's or 90's. the lawsuit was originally about whether or notabuse was covered up. There are new allegations not proven in court in the amended lawsuit.. But at the core of the case there are cases of abuse that ended in convictions. the question there was whether or not church leaders interfered with that process and whether or not they handled it correctly in the church.

  20. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    Thanks for your reply. You wrote:

    “Anonymous, the allegations in this law suit are conspiracy to cover up.”

    “Conspiracy to cover up” was the basis for asking for an extension of the SOL, which was dismissed. The allegations in this civil suit are alleged sexual abuse against children.

    “Legally, the convictions of actual perpetrators are in the works (are there already some convictions?)”

    I am not sure what you mean by onvictions are in the works. Bill O'Niel, one of the attnys for the plaintiffs, stated in his recent interview with Janet Mefferd that there are investigations into possible criminal activity that are taking place, but even he has very little information about that. I'm not aware of convictions being in the works.

    Also, you asked- are there already some convictions? Do you mean in the entire civil suit? Yes. Some of the defendants named in the suit have been convicted of child sexual abuse in a court of law, as stated in the other anonymous' comment above. Thanks.

  21. Wendy May 22, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Anonymous, I was thinking particularly of the Morales arrest in the last few months. I'm pretty sure he has been indicted but his case has not yet gone to trial.

    You are correct that the 2nd amendment particularly included direct allegations of abuse by a SGM pastor. But I am also thinking of the number of other defendants named that were not accused of abuse themselves but of a conspiracy to cover up abuse by others.

  22. Wendy May 22, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    And to the first anonymous commenter, I have thought about your words all day. My great grief on this subject is that the mistakes made on women and children are getting attributed to reformed doctrine. But it is not the points of the historic reformed faith that has fed this situation, and I hope that you are able one day to find reformed believers who show you the distinct differences in the aspects of reformed belief and the low view of women and children you have experienced.

  23. Paula May 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm #


  24. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Thank you.

    “I was thinking particularly of the Morales arrest in the last few months.”

    I see. Am aware of this. I was confused because you wrote in your comment to me “the convictions of actual perpetrators” (plural), so I thought you were referring to more than one person.

    “You are correct that the 2nd amendment particularly included direct allegations of abuse by a SGM pastor. But I am also thinking of the number of other defendants named that were not accused of abuse themselves but of a conspiracy to cover up abuse by others.”

    I understand. All I meant to add was that not all the allegations in the entire civil suit are allegations. You wrote-“Yet, at this point they remain allegations, which is distinctly different than legally established fact.”

    I was just wondering what specifically the “they” was that you are referring to- but never mind. Now that you realize there are actual perpetrators in this civil suit who have been convicted in the past- that is all I wished to point out. Thanks.

  25. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Wendy, you are right about Morales. I hesitated to use his name and googled and yes, there is no conviction. However, there are at least 2 convictions, one name which you can find on the SGM survivors site and one who was a minor at the time and therefore name is unknown.

    I get that the coverup is alleged, but the absolute lack of empathy and concern for the fact that the abuse is unquestioned in some cases is appalling, I think.

    To my understanding, there is little question about the basic fact of the earlier abuse cases and the reaction of the church officials in them. The question is, are they guilty of some crime or do they have legal culpability in their response – is it a coverup, or just poor judgment at the time. I think this is why SGMs first response was to claim the first amendment.

    I am the second Anonymous.

  26. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    anonymous 2 again.

    wendy, i just saw your tweet. i speak only for myself, but you're exactly right – if others had commented with concern, rather than 1.) silence then 2.) happiness over dismissal…i wouldn't be angry.

    I have a lot of trouble supporting complementarian view espoused by these men when they don't seem all that interested in standing up for the women in their midst. their witness is atrocious – to me, anyways. I get I'm just one person.

    I wish they would see the effect this all has on those they wish to lead.

  27. Sallie @ A Woman's Freedom in Christ May 22, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    I've been thinking about this all day too as well as discussing it with my husband while we were out and about.

    The reality is abusive and authoritarian men are not confined to the Reformed camp. The disaster that just came out of First Baptist of Hammond, Indiana, is another example of a man lording over his congregation and doing ungodly things. Just a bit of brief searching online will bring up all kinds of terrible abuses within the Fundamentalist Baptist circles.

    Part of the unhealthiness of churches today is the near worship of the men/pastors in leadership. It's one of the problems I personally have with multi-campus churches that show videos or holographic images of the celebrity pastor. It isn't necessary and, ultimately, I don't think it is the best way to “do” church. I stop short of saying it is unbiblical, but I think a strong argument can be made that it hinders healthy congregational development including the ability of many people to use their gifts in meaningful ways.

    Anyway, even if everyone who is connected with SGM is exonerated of the charges, SGM is still an unhealthy organization with many of the characteristics of a cult. I just thank God (literally and truly) that women such as Anonymous are finally seeing the organization for what it is.

  28. hannah singer May 23, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    amen. xo

  29. Tango Whiskey May 23, 2013 at 6:06 am #

    Kudos to you Wendy for speaking out on this matter, and speaking with great wisdom. I linked to your blog on FB and said this: “The first person from “The Gospel Coalition” man enough to speak out on the sexual abuse scandal of CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace churches is a WOMAN.”

    The silence of the “leaders” in T4G, 9Marks, and TGC is utterly reprehensible. I am highly disillusioned with these groups and have quit my church because of their refusal to quit promoting Mahaney's books and continuing to speak at the same conferences as Mahaney. All my views are undergoing a thorough review, including my view on women pastors. Your courageous stand should shame all these male pastors.

  30. Kara Chupp May 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    I so appreciate this Wendy…

    I wrote a post about the silence last weekend and had to question why I was so hesitant to hit “publish”.

    In part, because the silence makes me doubt my own concerns…when I hear nothing from so many I respect, self-doubt about my own concerns creeps in…am I the only one thinking that more should be said? Am I missing something that makes this not-an-issue worth addressing?

    At most…my post was a mild call to at least break the silence and call for truth to be exposed, brought into the light.

    And to give a promise that as a reformed community of Christ-followers (yes, I consider myself in that “camp” and really am thankful for TGC), care more-most about seeing evil exposed…that we will stand in the gap for those who could not (and can not) protect themselves.

    I am really thankful for your previous post about the biblical guidelines for confrontations, which I linked to and for today's post as well.

    I'm fairly new to your site, but appreciate your willingness to engage and discuss, even when it's not easy or comfortable.

  31. Teresa May 24, 2013 at 3:27 am #

    Thankful for your boldness, Wendy! I too am terribly disturbed by the reaction (or lack thereof) to this whole sordid mess from men whom I had previously esteemed. I believe that this is more evidence of Jesus sifting His church, and trust that He will ultimately use it for His glory and to expose what is false.

  32. Virginia Knowles (Watch the Shepherd) May 24, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    Wendy, as a former longtime SGM member, here is what I wrote when the lawsuit was first amended in January.

    I also linked to your blog here:

    Thanks for all you do!

    Virginia Knowles

  33. Wendy,

    Thank you for speaking out. I truly believe your blog post was instrumental in provoking the statements that were released (and redacted in one case) today.

    I shared my appreciation for your post here:

  34. Wendy May 24, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    Just to clear up one idea, this was not the first time I've written on stuff at SGM. I also wrote these two articles.

    And I wrote multiple times in 2010 and 2011 about a child rape that was covered up at a church in New Hampshire.

  35. Virginia Knowles (Watch the Shepherd) May 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    Wendy, I just compiled a long list of links related to this lawsuit, and yours is one of them. You can find it here:

  36. Chimae Goncalves June 3, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    I am speechless….praying that somehow God will work this out!

  37. Anne Vyn @ June 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    Wendy, thank you so much for giving obedient voice to this serious issue. I've raised a similar challenge to the Gospel Coalition as well as SGM in my recent post seen here: