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“Circling the Wagons” by David Dunbar, President of Biblical Seminary

Circling the Wagons
June 12, 2013
By David Dunbar

I am not a movement kind of guy, whether we are talking about religious movements, or political movements, or . . . whatever.  I have numerous reasons.  

1.  I find that most movements attract a certain number of followers with wacky ideas.  These wacky ideas quickly get associated with the major tenets of the movement and subsequently attributed to all the followers.  Count me out.

2.  Zealotry also becomes a problem.  The cause advocated by the group tends to become all-important and all-consuming in a way that leads to excess.  Part of a healthy life (including a healthyspiritual life) is balance, and joining a movement is a strong encouragement to imbalance . . . not always, but you get my drift.

3.  One particular manifestation of this excess is the move toward certainty. Movements frequently develop cultures that drift increasingly from dialogue to dogmatism.  The opinions of the group are no longer debatable—they are affirmations of absolute truth which no right-thinking person would question. Those outside the movement frequently perceive this dogmatic stance as arrogance; however, for those inside, it is merely a deep commitment to that which self-evidently the TRUTH.

4.  Certainty leads easily to the assumption that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who know the TRUTH of the movement and those who don’t; those who are right and those who are wrong; those who care and those who don’t; etc.  In other words, there is frequently a lack of nuance.

5.  The previous characteristics contribute to a further dynamic which is the reason for this blog.  I would call it “circling the wagons.”  This is a defensive maneuver frequently deployed anytime a representative of the movement comes under criticism, even if the criticism is one not directly related to the tenets of the group.  The psychology of this response seems to be something like this:  Any member of our group is obviously on the side of the angels—they surely see and adhere to the TRUTH as do we.  Therefore, it is highly unlikely--not impossible perhaps--but HIGHLY unlikely that any criticism of our ideas, character, or behavior has any merit.  It may in fact be just an effort by the opposition to destroy the credibility of our movement.

This brings me to the recent response of some high profile Neo-Reformed leaders to the civil case filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries and a number of its leaders, particularly C.J. Mahaney a founder and until recently president of the denomination.  The civil suit alleges a pattern of abuse, including some cases of child sexual abuse, endemic to SGM churches.  Much of the abuse is alleged to have occurred in connection with Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Mahaney served as senior pastor for 27 years.  Key SGM leaders, including Mahaney, have been charged with covering up the problems.  The civil case was recently dismissed on the grounds that under Maryland’s statute of limitations nine of the eleven plaintiffs waited too long to report the alleged abuse; the remaining two cases were dismissed because they centered in another state.  The court’s decision is under appeal.  It may also be followed by a criminal suit. 

Now for those of you who haven’t been following the story and don’t know the players, C.J. Mahaney is a passionate preacher and a council member of the Neo-Reformed group called “The Gospel Coalition.”  He is also one of the four founding members of “Together for the Gospel”—another arm of the Reformed movement.   Over the last year pressure has mounted on both organizations to offer some comment on the SGM suit and the alleged involvement of Mahaney.  Both groups released statements following the dismissal of the civil suit. (You can read them here and here.) 

The statements expressed support for Mahaney and generally read the dismissal of the civil suit as a vindication of SGM and their friend.  This prompted a storm of protest in the blog world where both statements were seen as attempts to whitewash a deeply dysfunctional church culture.  Boz Tchvidjian, the founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) has written powerfully about the silence of evangelical leaders regarding the case and the lack of concern evidenced in these statements for those who have been victimized for years.  

My concern in this blog is to explore the way in which “movement thinking” may have negatively impacted the statements of T4G and The Gospel Coalition.  I should first say that both responses build off the authors’ deep friendship with C.J. Mahaney.  It is appropriate that friends should stand by one another, especially in times of distress, loss, and opposition.  What sort of friend would not do this?  On the other hand, those we love can make mistakes--sometimes appalling mistakes, and if they do, even friends need to ask hard questions.  

Did Mahaney’s friends ask the hard questions?  I don’t know.  They did remain silent publicly until the lawsuit was dismissed.  And unfortunately, now that they have spoken, the statements come off as highly biased and even misleading.  Consider this statement from “Together for the Gospel”:  

A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry.  No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C. J. Mahaney. Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals.[1]  For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way.  

This is a strange interpretation, since Mahaney has been accused in the lawsuit of failure to report child sexual abuse and conspiracy to cover up the crimes.  He was not charged with “founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals.”  This awkward statement suggests that Mahaney is being persecuted for simply doing what good Christian leaders do—plant churches and teach the truth.  Is the point that because he has done these good things, he cannot have done what the plaintiffs allege?  I am confused.  

The statement from The Gospel Coalition is more nuanced, but still tendentious.  The authors point out that the suit was a civil rather than a criminal case.  They leave us with the impression that the plaintiffs may be concerned more with money than with justice:  “And note that this was a civil suit, not a criminal complaint.  While they [the plaintiffs] certainly believe crimes were committed, this lawsuit itself was only seeking monetary damages.”  It is difficult not to read this as a variation of a “blame-the-victim” argument, although I don’t think that was the intention.  

The authors express the opinion that “the entire legal strategy was dependent on a theory of conspiracy that was more hearsay than anything like reasonable demonstration of culpability.”  Of course “hearsay” comes close to suggesting that most of this disturbing case is just mean-spirited gossip by disaffected church members.  

But perhaps most troubling is the default to the secular courts to decide whether this case merited further consideration:  “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.” The authors believe that discerning the truth is ultimately impossible:  “Can anyone say with certainty who is innocent and who is guilty in these multiple allegations spanning several decades?”  Well, no, not with certainty, but how about with probability?  Are there not highly competent Christians trained to recognize and deal with various types of abuse who could and would give help to SGM to sort out this mess?  And wouldn’t it be good for the friends of C.J. Mahaney to advocate for a transparent audit of SGM by an independent Christian agency?  

At this point, none of his friends have asked for such an audit.  This seems more than a case of friends supporting friends. The movement is speaking.  The wagons have circled. 


Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary. He has been married to Sharon for (almost) 44 years. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

[1] Some time after the initial posting, this paragraph was changed.  The two sentences I have italicized were replaced by the sentence:  “We believe this lawsuit failed that test.”


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