Sovereign Grace is not the first church to face cover-up allegations — and it probably won’t be the last.
I was not surprised when Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), the church group I grew up in as a teen and young adult, was served with a lawsuit this past October, alleging clergy cover-ups of sexual abuse.
Sadly, I was even less surprised when the suit was amended in January to include Covenant Life Church (CLC), the congregation I had attended for nine years, and to add new charges of physical and sexual abuse by pastors, as well as allegations of abuse on church property. From what I’d seen inside Sovereign Grace and Covenant Life from 1996–2005, the alleged abuse seemed almost predictable—the result of the group’s toxic teachings on parenting, gender, and sexuality.
Sovereign Grace is a U.S.-based church-planting network (they say “family”) of predominantly white, suburban, reformed evangelical congregations. C.J. Mahaney, the current president, and Larry Tomczak—today a pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Brentwood, Tennessee—co-founded the Gaithersburg, Maryland church that would become Covenant Life in 1977. It was the first in what would become a network of 91 churches across 25 states and 17 countries. And it would launch the careers of several conservative Christian activists, including Lou Engle, whose ministry The Call has played a significant role in exporting American religious homophobia to Uganda, as well as Che Ahn, president of the charismatic Harvest International Ministries. Both men were among Covenant Life’s early leaders.
Five years after its founding, in 1982, the church launched what would become its overarching ministry, Sovereign Grace, originally called “People of Destiny International.” The grandiose name reflected the group’s aspirations to greater influence as a ministry, a vision that would only begin to be realized as the group shifted away from its charismatic beginnings toward reformed evangelicalism.
By 1997, Mahaney had found a new protégé in Joshua Harris, a young evangelical beloved in the conservative homeschooling community for his speaking tours and magazine for religious homeschoolers. Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which promoted parent-supervised “courtships” instead of “secular” dating, was published in the same year. Its popularity—the book was a Christian bestseller—and Harris’ name recognition helped bring SGM to greater prominence among evangelicals. Mahaney eventually appointed Harris as his successor as senior pastor of CLC in 2004.
The two men now boast ties with some of the biggest names in reformed evangelicalism, including Albert Mohler, president of the country’s largest Southern Baptist seminary, and Seattle’s “cussing pastor,” Mark Driscoll. Harris and Mahaney are also board members of influential, staunchly conservative organizations like The Gospel Coalition and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Alongside these powerful partnerships has come strife. In its short history, SGM has been shaken by several high-profile departures and church splits. Co-founder Tomczak left in 1997 over theological disagreements with Mahaney’s increasingly Calvinist-inspired preaching, and his objection to how the church “disciplined” him after one of his sons fell into unspecified “teenage rebellion.”
In July 2011, another former church leader, Brent Detwiler, released documents criticizing his own ouster, recording perceived slights and internal conflicts in painstaking detail, portraying CLC and SGM’s leadership as fractious and dysfunctional and Mahaney as a narcissistic, passive-aggressive bully. It also charged that in 1997, Mahaney had attempted to blackmail Tomczak out of voicing doctrinal disagreements by threatening to reveal his son’s unspecified “sins.”
After Mahaney publicly confessed to this attempted blackmail, and to “deficiencies” in his leadership that seemed to confirm Detwiler’s unflattering account, he was forced to take a leave of absence as president of SGM. But his absence was short-lived; SGM’s board quickly restored him, over the objections of Harris and others, and SGM moved its headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky in April 2012. Since then, several churches have voted to leave SGM, including CLC and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax, the other church named in the lawsuit.