Sovereign Clashes and the Obstruction of Justice

Sovereign Clashes and the Obstruction of Justice May 27, 2013

Trigger warning: abuse, sexual abuse, Sovereign Grace; obscenely verbose and lengthy post

The blogosphere has recently erupted with some big news about a neo-Calvinist non-denomination called Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM).

Here’s what happened. SGM has been under fire for quite some time as a matter of fact. First, there was a leadership crisis that precipitated a split between its flagship church Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, and its institutional headquarters. Then, a class action lawsuit was filed about alleged sexual abuse perpetrated in its small-group system in the late 1980s and early 1990s that was allegedly covered up by SGM’s leadership. Since January, an appeal named the defendants, including one of SGM’s co-founders, C.J. Mahaney. The proverbial feces thus hit the fan.

Now, of course, it’s no light matter to name C.J. Mahaney as one of the defendants, as Mahaney is a big reason why SGM has considerable influence outside of its own non-denomination in the rest of the American evangelical orbit (an influence that, I might point out, has been largely ignored by the secular press until now).  Mahaney describes himself theologically as a charismatic (in every sense of the word) preacher whose Calvinist leanings lead him to emphasize atonement theology as the way by which humble Christian lives are formed (see his books Living the Cross-Centered Life and Humility).  His most popular protegé is Josh Harris, the one-time darling of evangelical youth groups because he called on evangelical young people to ‘kiss dating good-bye’ and to ‘say hello to courtship,’ a purposeful (if also mechanistic) approach to pre-marriage that would ideally culminate in marriage. Because Sovereign Grace’s influence has resonances with broader evangelical circles in terms of their preaching, worship music, and courtship/marriage advice, the news necessarily came as a shock, prompting a variety of blog posts and a great deal of silence from most of Sovereign Grace’s friends at fellow neo-Calvinist organizations like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

The big scoop now is that as the lawsuit has been dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations for bringing the suit to court has expired (the sex abuse victims are now too old to sue, apparently), everybody’s talking again. Josh Harris has come out himself as a victim of sex abuse. In the wake of the Oklahoma tornado, evangelical feminist blogger Rachel Held Evans raked up the SGM lawsuit as an example of how ‘abusive’ theologies like the one that SGM promotes can be. In turn, the silent leaders of the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel (along with individual statements from Ligon Duncan and John Piper) have come out in support of Mahaney, saying that he got lumped into the lawsuit simply because he was SGM’s titular head, not because he’d actually touched anyone. Former prosecutor, child protection advocate, and Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian, disagreed with this assessment, arguing that Mahaney is responsible for crimes that happen under his institutional watch, a statement that has now garnered the support of progressive evangelical scholars like Scot McKnight.

Now, mind you, Religion Ethnicity Wired’s twitter feed has been on the story since it broke last October. We might have even shared the big document dump by ex-Sovereign Grace pastor, Brent Detwiler, and we definitely shared some of the press releases and court documents (the link here is to the Detwiler site); in fact, I’d say that our Twitter feed is somewhat obsessed with court documents, be they regarding intra-church scandals or the marriage cases before the United States Supreme Court. But with the help of the maddeningly objective and fantastically comprehensive God-beat journalism of Sarah Pulliam Bailey for the Religion News Service, the story has since gone to the Huffington Post, where it looks like it’s going viral.

Now it’s big news.

Following the mandate of Religion Ethnicity Wired not to take sides in inflammatory conversations in religion, ethnicity, and coffee bean circles, but rather to further intensify these conversations by throwing incendiary new angles on the story, I am not going to enter my judgment as to whether this is a legitimate lawsuit, whether it is a cover-up, whether C.J. Mahaney should resign, whether Larry Tomczak (Mahaney’s SGM co-founder, once estranged, now apparently reconciled) has anything to do with this (despite being named in the suit), whether Sovereign Grace’s polity can be involved in a conspiracy, or whether all religions encourage sexual abuse (as if secular institutions don’t…winking, of course, at the American military’s recent debacles…). Indeed, as Bailey’s piece has adequately shown, there are plenty of people on Sovereign Grace’s side, and plenty more on the abuse victims’ side, so really, there’s no need for Religion Ethnicity Wired to take a side, per se.

Instead, I’d like to comment on what a fascinating study this is in church-state relations. This is no mere theoretical discussion, I’d like to assure you; it has plenty of implications for our notion of what ‘justice’ might end up looking like, if you read to the end while suspending your disgust for whichever side you are putatively positioned against.

Let me begin with the obvious: Sovereign Grace Ministries, along with all of its supporters, are neo-Calvinists, or at least that’s what they became when they re-branded themselves from the Catholic charismatic movement People of Destiny International to Sovereign Grace Ministries (yes, the world is strange…SGM started out Catholic…bring in the Boston Globe, if you wish). As neo-Calvinists, much of their teaching and preaching has orbited around the concept of sovereignty. Mind you, in Calvinist (or as it’s also known, Reformed) theology, the one who is often described as sovereign is God. It is God, for example, who not only foreknows the future, but in his sovereignty, he foreordains future events. In its popular iterations, Calvinists are known to believe in God’s predestination, that is, pre-determining from before the foundations of the world who will be part of the ‘elect,’ those God chooses to be saved from his divine anger to go to heaven in the afterlife. In some harder versions of Calvinism, God exercises double predestination, choosing some who will be saved and who will go to hell. With this sort of view of divine sovereignty theology, you might expect that these guys would argue that because God is sovereign to this extent over all things, it would make no sense to posit a division between the sovereignty that happens inside the church and the state’s sovereignty over the secular world.

However, this boundary-drawing is exactly what the SGM lawsuit reveals.

Let’s start with the allegations. Everyone seems appalled at the central accusation not only that sexual abuse occurred in SGM’s small group system (some at Covenant Life Church), but that SGM leaders allegedly conspired to cover up the abuse by making the victims meet with perpetrators and forgive them, in turn keeping the police and civil authorities at bay. Again, suspending disgust for the moment, this is a very interesting illustration of how divine sovereignty might be translated into ecclesial sovereignty, that is, the exercise of the church’s political sovereignty over its own affairs. While it’s alleged that this can be framed as a conspiracy to cover up (one can expect this is where the victims’ attorneys will move in the appeal), this exercise in sovereignty–that is, the exercise of leadership power to get the victims and perpetrators to meet together–might also be interpreted in a Calvinist framework to exercise sovereignty to get sin mortified. In case you’re saying that I’m denying the possibility that there was a conspiracy to keep justice from being served, I’m not. I’m advocating a both-and here, not a ‘let’s read this in light of Sovereign Grace’s theology’ versus ‘conspiracy theory.’ It’s complicated, and both explanations can co-exist!

But following the one thread on Sovereign Grace’s ecclesiology, here’s how that might work. Totally depraved as everyone at SGM and their neo-Calvinist friends believe that everybody really is, they also follow Augustine, Calvin, and the Puritans in forming what you might term ‘cities of God,’ that is, alternate polities in which the elect grows in holiness over against the depravity of the world. They draw from a Puritan theology that focuses on ‘indwelling sin,’ that is, residual inclinations toward depravity after one joins the elect, by God’s sovereignty alone, of course. Indwelling sin must be systematically mortified (i.e. put to death). In turn, if you’ve done any reading in SGM systematic methods to mortify sin (see, for example, the checklists in the appendices of Mahaney’s Humility and Harris’s Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is) for their systematic, step-by-step approaches for how to overcome sin, often with the help of a small group that also interrogates you to keep you honest), you get the sense that they envision growth in holiness by exercising individual sovereignty over their own lives to mortify their sin. This individual sovereignty becomes corporate when you help fellow Christians within the church discover their residual depravity so that everyone can push each other toward the mortification of sin and the greater realization of holiness.  In other words, the purpose of the city of God is for all of these individuals to keep on pushing each other toward individual holiness. Because it would be inappropriate for a secular government that isn’t interested in the mortification of sin to interfere with this growth in holiness, you could say that these cities of God are sovereign in their own way.  In many ways, they have to be autonomous, self-governing entities independent of the state.

Let’s go back to the allegations, then. Because the church is a space where all members begin from a zero sum total depravity, sin has to be confronted in-house and brought to reconciliation in-house (never mind that the sin in question here is ‘sexual abuse,’ of course). The state doesn’t have provenance here (in this theological framework) because the state will exercise prosecutorial power for its own interests, and those interests are inimical to growth in holiness (as it’s imagined). After all, the state’s interest does not lie in the mortification of sin, but in punishing perpetrators because a minor citizen has been psychologically damaged, perhaps incapacitated or severely handicapped for their potential contributions to civil society, democratic public life, and the flow of the economy. This, as SGM leaders might have reasoned, is not the work of the church, especially not one of grace toward all of us who have perpetrated the greatest evil anyway (i.e. denying God to the point of killing him).  Because this happened in the space of the church, then, one could interpret the ‘cover-up’ as the church’s political exercise of sovereignty in distinguishing its space from the legal provenance of the state. While Rachel Held Evans alleges that this sort of theological practice is ‘abusive,’ I’m willing to suspend judgment for the sake of a larger public conversation, especially about the contradictions to the logics I’ve outlined above in what follows.

Given this light, however, the lawsuit takes on fascinating proportions because it shows that when these cases leave the space of the church and enter into the secular space of the secular judicial system, the logics change.  The main defences of Mahaney revolve around respecting due legal process, defending not only Mahaney’s innocence but the silence of his neo-Calvinist friends in the face of sex abuse charges against SGM. Here’s Together for the Gospel:

Claims presented in a civil lawsuit seeking financial compensation are beyond the ability of the public to render judgment. Often, such claims are even beyond the ability of a court to deliberate. To comment on such claims is irresponsible, since no one apart from the court and the parties directly involved has any ability to evaluate the claims presented. If the filing of civil litigation against a Christian ministry or leader is in itself reason for separation and a rush to judgment, no ministry or minister is safe from destruction at any time. Furthermore, the effort to try such a case in the court of public opinion prior to any decision rendered by an authorized court is likewise irresponsible.

Let’s pick this apart. You might note in the longer document that the defence of Mahaney is framed around showing him grace as a brother-in-Christ. But this paragraph shows us how precisely to show grace: by respecting a concept that these neo-Calvinists might appropriate from their old Calvinist theologians, that is, sphere sovereignty. In this secular sovereignty framework, a few things stand out. First (and as Boz Tchividjian also points out), the out-of-hand dismissal of public opinion is tantamount to an outright dismissal of democratic polity, in which the debates over the pressing issues of the day in the public forum of citizens translates into public policy (or at least, so the godfather of public sphere theory Jürgen Habermas thinks). Incidentally, as Tchividjian also points out, one of the Together for the Gospel friends, Al Mohler, has an entire blog that intervenes in these public issues, which in turn might make the dismissal of the democratic public sphere sound ridiculous, as that would mean that Mohler is speaking out of two sides of his mouth.

Ludicrous as that dismissal may be, though–and again, suspending judgment for the moment–a second point might be to track with that sovereignty train of thought and look at how the secular judiciary is being conceptualized in this paragraph: it is sovereign. Now this, of course, feeds right back into a long-standing discourse on the Christian right party of the putative ‘culture wars,’ i.e. courts are sovereign and they’ve become dominated by activist liberal judges, so we have to take over the courts with conservative judges. While many have decried this approach as theocratic (in many ways, it is), few have had the patience to probe the possibility that there is some secular translation going on there too, i.e. that respect for a secular judiciary plays into the ongoing division between church sovereignty and secular political sovereignty. Here in this paragraph, it’s all on display: while even the courts themselves (which are headed by totally depraved, fallible human beings) might not be able to render a definitive judgment, the sphere of the court is sovereign, and no one else, much less the public, has any ability to render judgment. The sex abuse case has moved from the sovereign space of the church to the sovereign space of the secular judiciary, which operates according to logics that democratic public opinion would corrupt.

From here, we move to the ‘conspiracy theory,’ which alleges that SGM leaders systematically deployed their institutional power to obstruct the victims from seeking secular, civil justice. Here’s the Gospel Coalition picking apart the idea of the ‘conspiracy theory’:

The plaintiffs’ counsel in the Sovereign Grace case knew that it could not proceed solely based on the allegations of abuse, given the statute of limitations. (Some of the alleged abuses occurred 25-30 years ago.) The statute of limitations is not a “legal technicality” but rather an important feature of our judicial system. The plaintiffs’ counsel therefore alleged a wide-ranging “conspiracy theory,” hoping that this would overcome the legal requirements regarding the time between when the alleged crimes took place and the filing of the civil lawsuit. This is apparently what the judge dismissed, determining that it would not even proceed to a trial. If you listen carefully to the attorneys’ explanations of the case on radio programs and other venues, they essentially acknowledged that they had no proof of a conspiracy. As the motion to dismiss points out, although C. J. Mahaney is named as an individual defendant, “the sole allegation against him in the Complaint is that he founded Sovereign Grace Ministries (“SGM”) and is currently its President. . . . He is not specifically identified or alleged to have performed any other act or omission throughout the 143-paragraph Complaint.”

So the entire legal strategy was dependent on a theory of conspiracy that was more hearsay than anything like reasonable demonstration of culpability. As to the specific matter of C. J. participating in some massive cover-up, the legal evidence was so paltry (more like non-existent) that the judge did not think a trial was even warranted.

Would it have served anyone to take to the blogosphere to express our legal opinion about the conspiracy allegations before the case was decided, much less before it even went to trial? Would it have changed anyone’s mind? Would it have helped the case itself in any way? We deemed it wiser to let an impartial judge rule on whether the case should be considered, making a determination based on all the facts available.
Again, with the technical speak referring to ‘plaintiffs’ counsel,’ the dismissal of the ‘legal technicality’ of the statute of limitations, ‘theory of conspiracy,’ ‘reasonable demonstration of culpability,’ and the possibility that these blog writers for the Gospel Coalition actually have a ‘legal opinion about the conspiracy allegations’ (if we were to respect sphere sovereignty, really, how much weight do the opinions of non-attorneys Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and Justin Taylor actually have?), suddenly, those who would be advocating the sovereignty of grace within the space of the church are playing legal hardball with a case in the secular judiciary.  Again, it’s not my place to comment on where their legal logics are sound. I’m simply noting that this strict spatial division is fascinating: now that a lawsuit has been filed, this means that these cases are out of the sovereign provenance of the church and its logics of confrontation, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation and into the secular realm of the state.  This means, in turn, that all of these guys now have permission to play secular hardball.
Now we return to Boz Tchividjian. Now that Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition are playing secular legal hardball, Tchividjian jumps into the ring with his own secular assessment of things. As he does so, his skewering of the defences and the silences of the evangelical leadership is both on point and slightly off kilter.  On the one hand, he is absolutely correct to point out that this defence against a ‘conspiracy theory’ is a misreading of the legal strategy: the ‘conspiracy’ in the technical sense of the word is that Mahaney’s institutional leadership of SGM makes him culpable for the sorts of things that happen under his own watch, even as in the Catholic parallel cases, Roger Cardinal Mahony, Bernard Cardinal Law, Msgr. William Lynn, and Bishop William Finn were responsible for what happened in child abuse cases in their respective archdioceses.

However, fuming as well he should, his anger causes him to miss the larger point about church-state relations: the defences of Mahaney are hardly theological ones, but are instead premised on a version of secular legal logics that gives sovereignty to the judicial system.  Sure, he draws-and-quarters them for not taking a ‘Gospel-centered approach’ that would confront the horrific sin of sexual abuse dead in its face, and he points out the hypocrisy of people who contribute to the public debate and then turn around and say that they don’t believe in the democratic public sphere. But Tchividjian has to draw out the natural implication here: this means that the central accusation against Sovereign Grace and its defenders is that they are all, in a word, secular.

In this light, Tchividjian’s rant makes complete sense. He actually does not provide very much of a substantive rebuttal to the actual charges. Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition say that there isn’t any proof that Mahaney was involved in a conspiracy; Tchividjian only points to the fact that they omitted Mahaney’s institutional leadership as the real problem in their defence; in turn, he then points to circumstantial speculation that there must have been a conspiracy if the statute of limitations expired (i.e. the institution obstructed the victims from seeking justice in a timely fashion) and if it happened on Mahaney’s watch, it’s reasonable to assume that Mahaney was part of the conspiracy.

But again, our job is not to debate the merits of this spat; our job is to highlight that the nugget of value in Tchividjian’s comments is that he unmasks the language of grace and friendship around the defences of Mahaney as undergird by secular logics. The secularism, after all, is that now that the case has left the sphere of the church and gone to the sphere of the court, the church is silent. This is not a theologically Christian response, Tchividjian points out, noting that a reading of the Gospel in its most natural sense would have the church stand in solidarity with the victims at all costs. The implication of Tchividjian’s rant, then, is that this is instead a theologically secular response, one that works by reinforcing the secular boundary between church and state, one premised on sphere sovereignty and the exercise of power that is cloaked in the language of Christian charity.

The real question, then, is: to what extent do all of these modes of theological reasoning flying around these evangelical defences of SGM in fact reinforce the secularization thesis? On the face of things, it might seem from the initial allegations that the church, in Sovereign Grace’s ecclesiology, wants to remain separate from the provenance of the state in order to be the church, a long-standing theme in a variety of political theologies that dispute the colonizing power of the secular state. However, that everyone began playing secular legal hardball after the suit was filed, one wonders what that boundary line between the church and the state is actually for.

In fact, if the real issue is sovereignty, then the current conversation around radically orthodox theologies and critical studies of secularization (most notably on the Social Science Research Council’s Immanent Frame) is extremely relevant. After all, it might hold that SGM’s conception of church-state relations was secular to begin with. This is because the ‘secular’ is not about the presence or absence of theological logics in a conversation; it’s about turning the saeculum from the time between Christ’s ascension and second coming (the original meaning of the ‘secular’ in the Latin Vulgate and the Catholic liturgy) into a conception of this-worldly space over which spatial claims to power can be made. As theologians like John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and William Cavanaugh as well as theorists like Charles Taylor, José Casanova, Talal Asad, and Saba Mahmood have each shown, the consolidation of the church’s sovereignty over secular space was the first step in constructing a secular political sphere distinct from religious spaces. Secularization isn’t about whether religion exists in the modern world or not; it’s about the differentiation of spaces–in this space, we do church; in that space, we do politics. If you ask me, that sounds remarkably close to what we have in this lawsuit, a battle of sovereignties over Sovereign Grace Ministries.
By asking these questions, I’m proposing that we lower the temperature of disgust that we have toward the SGM lawsuit and the defenders of SGM and engage them on their own terms, theological contradictions intact. While the blogosphere is rife with angry solidarity with the victims who have been denied justice and equally enraged defences of SGM over against the cruel bloggers who won’t allow due legal process to run its course, we at Religion Ethnicity Wired are proposing that a cooler analysis of the fascinating spatial logics at work in the SGM case might lead to a more creatively just outcome.  After all, with this unfolding of the complicated sovereign spatial logics at work in this lawsuit, the key question is not whether the victims will eventually find justice in civil court, as much necessary closure as that might provide and as much as the consensus in both Catholic and Protestant leadership has developed that civil authorities must always be notified whenever sexual abuse against a minor happens in religious circles. It’s not that that question isn’t important; it’s that we already have consensus there. The real question is here is, then: given the complicated spatial issues here, what would justice really look like, and further to the point, can the logics of spatial sovereignty ever actually mete out true justice?

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