No sexual misconduct. No financial impropriety. No problem, right?
Not so fast.
For the second time in the last year and a half, a prominent evangelical leader has taken a highly publicized leave of absence while confessing to the sin of pride and character flaws.
C. J. Mahaney, president of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), a national network of nearly 100 church plants, cited "various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy" in a July 6 statement explaining his indefinite leave.
In March 2010, Bethlehem Baptist Church pastor John Piper embarked on an eight-month leave, saying his soul, marriage, family, and ministry pattern needed "a reality check from the Holy Spirit."
"My sense is that many of the celebrity religious leaders are well aware of and intentionally attempt to guard themselves against sexual and financial temptations," said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist who studies megachurches. "But they forget that pride comes before a fall."
In the case of a pastor such as Mahaney, a leader in a neo-Reformed movement, such a downfall might be even more probable, Thumma said.
"I could imagine neo-Reformed preachers and theologians emphasizing a theology that stresses election and predestination and implies a 'seriousness' about rigorous theological contemplation, leading to an attitude of religious superiority that would suppress abuse of sex and money but compound a sense of pride and elitism," Thumma said. "However, it is to the credit of C. J., John Piper, and others to recognize this and remove themselves—or be willing to be removed—for a time of reflection and spiritual introspection."
Sovereign Grace has appointed Dave Harvey, a pastor at Covenant Fellowship Church in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, as interim president and is seeking outside help to conduct an independent review of the accusations against Mahaney.
Brent Detwiler, a former SGM pastor, has accused Mahaney of resisting correction and accountability at times, dealing unfairly with other leaders who disagreed with him, and being heavy-handed in his leadership, Harvey said.
"[SGM] has been a wonderful organization committed to planting Gospel-centered churches in the United States and parts abroad," Detwiler wrote in an e-mail to Christianity Today. "There are many outstanding pastors and people in the denomination. But temptation and sin come with rapid growth and recognition.
"That was especially true for C. J., and we did not serve him well by allowing him to play by a different set of rules—a double standard. We certainly share the blame for his fall. But C. J. genuinely loves the Lord and people, so I am confident he will respond to God's discipline in his life."
More than 600 pages of e-mails between Detwiler and Mahaney and related documents were posted anonymously online at Scribd.com under the name SGMwikileaks. Detwiler said he shared the documents with SGM pastors but only later found out who made them public.
"Confidential documents being published online, the surprising sway that anonymous bloggers can have over thousands of readers, and just the whole dynamic of public trial for church leaders is, I think, probably the meta-trend for the church being highlighted by all this," Harvey said.
Harvey said the SGM board supports Mahaney and believes he has responded well to its direction. "C. J. is not hiding anything," Harvey said. "He is eagerly pursuing any aggrieved parties and diligently applying himself under the direction of the board."
In the latest development, Joshua Harris, who succeeded Mahaney as Covenant Life Church's senior pastor in 2004, resigned from SGM's board on July 14. A statement from Harvey cited differences over whether God is disciplining all of SGM and how to move forward and evaluate the claims against Mahaney. But Harvey said Harris had agreed to keep attending board meetings when requested and give counsel.
Blogs reported that Harris stated in his previous Sunday sermon that "our denomination is being publicly spanked, we are being humiliated and being brought low."
Before the recent furor, Larry Tomczak, a pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Nashville, Tennessee, reconciled with Mahaney after 13 years of estrangement.
For a long time, Tomczak and Mahaney were ministry partners and "yokefellows," as they liked to refer to each other, Tomczak said.
In the late 1970s, they worked together to start Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which grew into a megachurch with more than 3,000 members. They helped plant new churches across the nation through the network that became known as Sovereign Grace Ministries.
But in the 1990s, as Tomczak found himself "going on a different doctrinal path" than some of his dear friends, friction emerged between Tomczak and Mahaney.
"As time went by, I felt I was experiencing abuses of spiritual authority and methodologies that were harmful and inconsistent with Scripture," Tomczak wrote in a testimonial provided to CT. "Other leaders in SGM shared similar experiences with me."
Tomczak's tension with Mahaney turned into an impasse that lasted more than a decade until the two men got together, at Tomczak's request, and worked out their differences last fall.
"In my leaving, I experienced some things that were unfortunate and have led to reconciliation now 13 years later," Tomczak told CT. "My experience, I think, mirrors that of dozens of leaders and hundreds of people in churches that are identified with SGM. My prayer is that they're being corrected. I think this issue with C. J. is bringing everything to the surface."
Like Harvey, Tomczak stressed that no one has leveled charges of sexual misconduct or financial impropriety against Mahaney.
"I think we're focusing on the third area—power—and failures in biblical leadership. Character flaws that have been brought to C. J. that he's admitting," Tomczak said.
As Tomczak sees it, Hebrews 12 makes clear that God demonstrates love of his children through discipline.
In the Nashville pastor's view, Mahaney is experiencing that love—tough love—now.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to note the resignation of Josh Harris from SGM's board.
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Previous coverage of church life and pastors taking a leave include:
The Most Risky Profession |Why you need to pray desperately for your pastor. (July 14, 2011)
Jim Belcher, Francis Chan, N.T. Wright, and Others Leave the Pastorate to Write and Speak | Why church planters often quit their congregations. (May 6, 2010)
The Toll of Our Toiling | John Piper takes an eight-month leave of absence. (March 30, 2010)