Sovereign Grace Church brings history, controversy to new Louisville launch
New Calvinist church moves headquarters from Maryland to Louisville
Written by Peter Smith
October 2, 2012
Greeters beamed with smiles, children handed out visitor cards and parents lined up to register for child care. After more than 20 minutes of opening worship led by a band with electric guitar and keyboards, the pastor took to the podium.
“And so Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville begins,” said C.J. Mahaney, 59. “… We are just a group of primarily old guys attempting to church-plant one more time before we die in order to serve the next generation with the gospel.”
As understated as that sounds, rarely does a new congregation bring as much history — and controversy — as Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, which began worshiping Sunday at Christian Academy’s English Station campus in eastern Jefferson County.
The launch represents not just another new church but the exodus of leaders of an entire denomination, Sovereign Grace Ministries, to Louisville.
The denomination — which includes more than 90 churches with about 28,000 members worldwide — has already seen two congregations split off amid controversies. And by all accounts, more churches may leave if leaders decide to assert more central authority after an ongoing review of the denomination’s form of government.
Former members have told of pastors and small-group leaders probing into members’ personal lives and shaming them for real or perceived sins — sometimes ostracizing members who were deemed unrepentant, wounding them spiritually and cutting off close friendships.
Mahaney himself, a co-founder and longtime president of Sovereign Grace, has been accused of pride, dictatorial conduct and a lack of accountability. He took leave from his post last year amid one controversy, but internal church reviews found him fit for ministry and returned him to the presidency.
In Mahaney’s inaugural sermon in Louisville, he alluded to the tumult, saying he wanted the church to have a quiet launch. But “if God allows opposition in some form, criticism in some form, slander in some form,” it would be worth it if “there are lives transformed by the gospel.
“Satan isn’t elated about this church,” he said.
Move to Louisville
Sovereign Grace leaders, including Mahaney, moved their headquarters to Louisville amid a growing estrangement from the denomination’s mother church in Gaithersburg, Md., the site of its offices since its inception in 1982.
Until now, it had no church in Kentucky or Indiana, but Louisville is now home to its new flagship church, which will double as a training ground for new pastors.
It is part of a multi-denominational movement known as New Calvinism — which emphasizes God’s grace over human free will in saving sinners, as well as church discipline, strong pastoral authority and male leadership in homes and churches.
In moving to Louisville, Sovereign Grace also is deepening its cooperation with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, an epicenter of the New Calvinist movement. Seminary President Albert Mohler, with whom Mahaney regularly headlines conference programs, has lauded Sovereign Grace “as a demonstration of the revitalization of Christianity in the early 21st century.”
Mahaney is a member of the seminary-hosted Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which promotes male authority in churches and homes.
His ministry began in the early 1970s, when the converted former drug user began preaching at hippie-friendly Christian festivals and eventually helped found Covenant Life Church, now a mega church in Gaithersburg, and later the Sovereign Grace network.
He has become a regular at Calvinist conferences such as Together for the Gospel in Louisville, where admirers have lined up to get book autographs and pose for photos with him.
But controversies arose after some former Sovereign Grace members and leaders — including some who worked closely with Mahaney for years — described a pattern of spiritual abuse and cult-like behavior within Sovereign Grace and its churches. The controversies simmered for years on blogs with such names as SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge.
Then, in the summer of 2011, a founding member of the Sovereign Grace board, Brent Detwiler of North Carolina, distributed documents to pastors detailing years of confrontations over what Detwiler termed Mahaney’s abusive, manipulative and dishonest behavior.
Internal church reviews found Mahaney had some culpability, but disputed Detwiler’s sweeping claims.
A separate report by an independent conflict-resolution group, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, did not weigh charges against individuals but confirmed “a number of people have experienced deep hurts and disappointments in SGM churches.”
An “over-emphasis of the teaching about sin without the balance of God’s grace leads people to be judgmental, critical, and at times despondent,” the report said. “At the same time … many thousands of people have been and continue to be richly blessed by their involvement in a SGM church.”
Mahaney apologized in a written statement that “deficiencies in my leadership have contributed to the ministry failures cataloged” in the Ambassadors report.
And in an interview, he denied systemic problems in the denomination.
“All pastors, to differing degrees, make mistakes,” he said. “All pastors also come with their own set of limitations, weaknesses, patterns of sin. … That’s not to minimize in any way where offense has occurred, and scripture is clear about the continuing influence of sin in all of our lives and how we are to humbly pursue reconciliation where offense has occurred.”
Of Detwiler, Mahaney said: “He was a friend, and I pray God has mercy on him.”
Mahaney’s critics contend the denomination never gave their charges a fair hearing or adequately reconciled with those hurt by the church.
“It’s just been a continuing downplay of what’s been happening,” Detwiler said.
Bob Dixon of suburban Richmond, Va., who belonged to Sovereign Grace congregations for 30 years and was a former care-group leader, said those interested in participating with Sovereign Grace Ministries should heed Jesus’ counsel about the biblical Pharisees — to consider actions as well as words.
People should not only “consider what they say and write but consider what they’ve done, in particular to their ex-pastors, and then the members of their churches,” he said.
Joshua Harris — pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg and a best-selling author promoting traditional courtship, rather than dating — acknowledged strains in his relationship with Mahaney, his one-time mentor, when he resigned last year.
Of Harris and other pastors whose churches have left the denomination, Mahaney said the most important thing is that “we love the same savior, we preach the same gospel.”
One of Sovereign Grace’s the most high-profile splits involved Larry Tomczak, who pioneered the movement with Mahaney, in 1997.
Accounts vary on the details, but according to a Sovereign Grace report, Mahaney and other board members held out a threat of exposing wrongdoing by Tomczak’s teenage son, which the boy had confessed in confidence to church leaders. “The threat was … wrong. It was coercive. It was sinful,” the report said.
And while the two men had a public reconciliation in 2011, Tomczak said Mahaney and board leaders still hadn’t acknowledged “a pattern that has devastated our immediate and extended families, plus scores of God’s people across the country.”
Bob Kauflin, director of Sovereign Grace Music and a longtime leader in the ministry, said: “We’re thankful for Larry and his ongoing ministry, but have no further comment on the subject.”
None of those controversies were evident at the opening of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.
About 45 adults from Gaithersburg and other Sovereign Grace churches participated in the launch, and about 230 people attended in all, including local visitors, out-of-town well-wishers and numerous children.
“We love marriage and all things related to family and children,” Mahaney said.
Jake Simmons, 26, said he became a Christian in a Sovereign Grace church in Knoxville, Tenn., before coming to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He said his pastors there helped him mature and prepare for ministry, and when the controversies erupted, they “cleared their schedule for whoever wanted to talk.”
Kathy Spiro, who was involved in the Gaithersburg church about 30 years, moved to Prospect to help plant the congregation.
She said that, during her husband’s recent fatal illness, “the care the church provided was amazing,” and that, whenever she turned to pastors for counsel, they would advise but never dictate.
Spiro, 59, a sign-language interpreter now living in Prospect, said the previous year’s controversy should not “define the movement.”
“I feel like the leaders are men of integrity, all of them, and they’ll sort it out,” she said.
Several Baptist and other churches have welcomed the church’s arrival, seeing it as an ally rather than a competitor.
“I anticipate the church plant will grow quickly since they proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ and have a godly and gifted team of ministers,” said Tom Schreiner, a professor at Southern Seminary and pastor of preaching at Clifton Baptist, where Mahaney preached recently.
Mahaney said he told Clifton Baptist members he appreciated their support and added, “None of you are welcome at our church plant” — because he wants to reach people who don’t have a church, not take members from churches.
Worship leader Bob Kauflin added that church members “don’t want to reinvent the wheel” and have begun volunteering at other churches’ events, such as a recent community-service project at Sojourn Community Church’s midtown campus. “If you’re doing something effective in your community that you just need bodies and resources for, we want to join you,” he said.
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.
Through the years
Mid-1970s: C.J. (Charles Joseph) Mahaney and Larry Tomczak lead worship gatherings in Washington, D.C., called “Take and Give,” influenced by the hippie-friendly Jesus movement and the charismatic movement, marked by beliefs in miraculous gifts.
1977: Mahaney, Tomczak and small group form what becomes Covenant Life Church in suburban Maryland.
1982: People of Destiny International network of churches launches.
Early 1990s: Covenant Life, denominational offices move into Gaithersburg building.
1997: People of Destiny International board adopts Calvinist (Reformed) theology. Tomczak resigns under acrimonious circumstances. Best-selling author Joshua Harris becomes Covenant Life pastor, succeeding Mahaney, who remains president of denomination.
2003: Denomination changes name to Sovereign Grace Ministries.
2006: Mahaney, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler and others launch biennial, Calvinist-oriented Together for the Gospel convention in Louisville.
2011: Former Sovereign Grace board member Brent Detwiler releases documentation of internal church deliberations accusing Mahaney of prideful and abusive leadership. Mahaney goes on leave for several months. Harris resigns from Sovereign Grace board.
2012: Sovereign Grace board restores Mahaney to presidency, concluding his actions did not disqualify him. Independent mediation group Ambassadors of Reconciliation reports on Sovereign Grace churches’ emphasis on sin and often-arbitrary system of discipline. Denomination relocates to Louisville, opens Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.
Sources: Sovereign Grace Ministries, Covenant Life Church
The New Calvinist movement is a growing popularity of certain doctrines and practices associated with the Protestant reformer John Calvin.
Supporters generally promote:
• Sovereignty of God rather than human free will in determining salvation and earthly events. • Male authority in churches and homes. • Strong pastoral authority and discipline of church members.
Modern proponents include:
• Sovereign Grace Ministries
• Some Southern Baptists, including many at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Albert Mohler.
• The Acts 29 church-planting network.
• Such preachers as Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Ligon Duncan and John MacArthur.
See a video from the first service at Christian Academy school and a photo gallery in the online version of this story at www.courier-journal.com/localnews. Read Peter Smith’s Faith and Works blog at www.courier-journal.com/faithblog.