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."