A few weeks ago Karen linked to information about the implosion within Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). On the forefront of the situation is C.J. Mahaney, the well-known leader of the group of churches. As I commented on Karen’s blog at the time, I was both surprised and not surprised. My lack of surprise was not due to knowing or suspecting bad things about Mahaney. I really knew very little about him. I knew enough about SGM’s core beliefs to know that David and I would not fit in and they were therefore not much on my radar.
My lack of surprise had more to do with the fact that it is almost sadly predictable that those in positions of leadership within churches and the Church so often are revealed to be less than what people thought. We’ve grown so accustomed to failings among Christian leaders that it barely causes one to stop for more than a minute and reflect on it before thinking about what to make for dinner.
Now before anyone accuses me of being callous and uncaring in the extreme, I’m not. In fact, last night a part of my life came full circle because of this C.J. Mahaney thing.
I was reading on SGMSurvivors the various stories of those who have been greatly damaged by their time in SGM churches. And while reading the stories, I put something together I had not before.
When David and I met, he was attending a church that was both reformed and charismatic in its teachings. Being a Baptist with reformed leanings, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it, but that’s what it was. David had been there quite a few years and was mostly happy there. When I moved to Grand Rapids while we were dating, I agreed to visit his church although I had reservations about it. (We were not officially engaged, but were in agreement we would be shortly.)
I visited the first Sunday after I moved (fifteen years ago this week) and was very uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the worship style that made me uncomfortable. There was something palpable in that church that made my spirit simply recoil. When David introduced me to the pastor, my spirit immediately withdrew. I rarely take an instant dislike to anyone, but every fiber of my being backed off when I met him.
I don’t remember anything of the following week, but I agreed to visit David’s church again the next Sunday. I did not even make it through the service. My spirit was so disturbed by things going on and the way the pastor addressed the congregation (forcefully scolding them for an extended period of time because they were not worshipping “correctly”) that I had to get out of there. I felt an overwhelming sense that I had to flee and I could not even wait for the service to end before I left. I whispered something to David about having to leave and seeing him back at my apartment after the service. And I got up and walked out.
That was a very long drive across town to get home. But while sitting in that service I knew that even if it meant losing David there was no way I would EV.ER. darken the door of that church again.
When I told David that I could not attend his church again, he agreed to visit other churches with me so we could chose one together. We decided to visit a Baptist church a friend had recommended. David, being the loyal and honest man that he is, called his pastor and told him that I was uncomfortable at his church and that we were going to visit some other churches together.
And then the abuse began. And it completely blindsided both David and me.
The guilt, manipulation and control tactics were unleashed on David in a way that we were totally unprepared for. He received threatening calls at work. He was told that if he married me he would be unequally yoked. He was told he was stupid to throw away everything he had at his church to take up with some Baptist woman he had just met on the internet. He was told he needed to wash me in the Word and assert his leadership and demand that I return to his church. They asked him how he could possibly leave a church where he had learned the Truth and turn his back on that and go to a Baptist church. He was told he would have psychological problems if he left and that he would face certain personal failure in leaving. The ultimate was when he was told he was barred from the communion table because he was in rebellion.
When David did not succumb to the pressure that went on for a few weeks, he was ostracized and his character and faith were defamed at the church. People were told he had fallen away. He had left the true church and taken up with a woman that would bring about his destruction. They were told to have nothing to do with him because he had “problems.”
I cannot even begin to express how this experience overwhelmed our lives for months and, really, years. Our time of engagement was overshadowed by an intense numbness over what had happened. David lost almost his entire church family that he had known for ten years. Only a few people dared speak to him and only a few were at our wedding. It was heartbreaking to see how he was treated over simply choosing to go to another church and having the ability to walk away from something.
So what does this have to do with Sovereign Grace Ministries?
While reading those stories of abuse and suffering last night, it was like reading our own story. Change a few details and it sounded exactly like what happened to us. And then I realized why.
David’s church was “descended” from the same group as SGM. They all go back to the same group of people. Different branches, but the same kinds of authoritarian leadership, manipulation and thinking that they are the church with all the answers.
When I realized this, it all made sense to me. The same beliefs and practices are driving those churches that drove the church that spiritually abused us.
David and I were discussing this tonight and I shared with him how my heart grieves for those people in SGM. I know what spiritual abuse does to you. I know how it completely disrupts every aspect of your life for months and years. There is no way around it. You have to walk through the process and come out on the other side.
Fifteen years later I can read those stories and have no personal emotional response other than to grieve for those people who have been abused. This was not always the case. For years afterwards we lived in fear of running into someone from David’s former church. Any time the topic came up, my stress level would skyrocket. Praise God that we have moved past that. We see the abuse for what it was. And we thank God it was only as bad as it was. It could have been much worse.
But I understand why people post their stories anonymously over there. The fear of retaliation is real. It has taken me fifteen years to publicly write our story and even then I have left out many details. But I no longer fear those people. I grieve that we allowed them to impact us as much as they did. While we were happy to be engaged and enjoyed our wedding, it was not what it could have been. Emotional numbness from spiritual abuse doesn’t just go away because you are getting married. I believe God is sovereign and for whatever reason He allowed things to happen the way they did. But to this day it grieves me that those people robbed us of a full measure of joy during our engagement.
David and I were also discussing how neither of us have ever returned to the same place spiritually we were before the abuse happened. I fully realize that we can’t go back. But at the same time, the spiritual abuse took something away from both of us that we can’t ever get back and we both grieve that. At the same time, it also gave us things we would not have had before. We look at the suffering of others very differently because of what we went through. We look at theology differently. We look at church leadership differently. So many things that are good and healthy. But don’t ever doubt the impact that spiritual abuse has on those around you. It changes your life. Permanently.