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Church Cultures That Crush the Weak

By May 27, 201311 Comments

In the last several months, Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of Reformed churches, has been in the news as the result of a sexual abuse scandal and allegations of a cover up. Although there is much we don’t know for sure, some of the adults accused of abusing children at two different SGM churches are now serving time in prison.

What makes the crimes especially disturbing is that pastors allegedly required the victims to meet with their abusers and forgive them, rather than report the crime to the police. The victims also allege that their abuse was part of a large, church-wide cover up to protect church leaders and the SGM institution.

This past week, a class action lawsuit against SGM was dismissed by a judge due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. It remains to be seen whether the victims will file criminal charges against church leaders.

The SGM legal battle is still unfolding, which makes it difficult to state much with certainty. Even so, it recalls similar cases of serial abuse–such as the Catholic Church and Penn State abuse scandals–and presses us to ask what we can learn from them. How do we prevent this from happening in our own churches?

Now, the sad reality is that churches (and any institution on earth) can only do so much to prevent abuse. Churches can put into place every rule imaginable, but predators will still find a way to abuse children. It is a tragic fact of sin. The only thing churches can do is to minimize the opportunities for abusers to prey on victims, and usually they are able to.

However those protections sometimes fail and abuse does occur. In those situations, what speaks to the integrity of the church is not always the abuse itself (though it can certainly be a sign of a larger community dysfunction), but how the church responds to the abuse. Do the leaders call the police? Do they ensure the vulnerable are safe? Do they prevent the accused from accessing more victims? Do they stamp out it immediately?

If the answer is no, then there is more going on than the acts of abuse themselves. There is also a cultural sickness in the church or institution.

This is what we have seen in the Catholic Church, with the Penn State scandals, and in the lesser publicized Independent Fundamental Baptist tradition. In each case, the abuse was not random or isolated, but facilitated by a cultural dysfunction, and when the problem is cultural the repentance must be cultural too.

I will not speculate about what SGM did right or wrong because I am in no place to do so. I have no idea which claims are true, or who might have been complicit in any wrongdoing, and I would never be so reckless as to guess. Instead, I will simply offer two lessons that we all can learn from cases of serial abuse.

1. Unhealthy church cultures are the fertile soil out of which serial abuse can spring: We can all agree that abuse is evil and condemn it in the strongest terms. But such statements ring hollow in the abstract; they must be accompanied by ownership. Put another way: just because you are not abusing someone does not mean you are contributing to an environment that is safe for the vulnerable.

How can you contribute to a culture that is safe? First, be sure that your church has stiff regulations for child-adult interactions, and abide by them. If your church does not have these, it is a MAJOR red flag!

Also, church communities are ripe for abuse when the members engage in a hero-worship of their pastor, the pastor has king-like power, or the community is committed to protecting the church’s reputation at all costs. These cultural  characteristics may seem relatively harmless, but when mixed with abuse they can produce sinister results.

2. Accountability is complicated by relationships: The SGM scandal hits close to home, so it has reminded me of the complicating factor of friendship. Though we look upon the Catholic Church and Penn State scandals and wonder from afar, “How on earth could people allow this to continue?” I suspect there was more to the story than blind allegiance to an institution. Institutions are also composed of relationships–even friendships–which complicate our reactions all the more.

As Christians we believe in redemption. We hope that abusers can be healed and restored, and we pray for that. So when an abuser (or one connected to an abuse) is a friend or a revered leader, I suspect there is a desire to respond with grace. Or at the very least, to wait. You want to have all the facts, or give them a chance to change. Maybe it’s not what it seems, you hope.

But this inclination toward grace is misguided in its timing. It delays justice and subjects the victims to more abuse. So as important as it is to find out the truth, we must–MUST– make sure the victims are safe, and that the accused is in no position to abuse others.

According to Scripture, sin has a corporate component to it. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul rebukes the entire church on account of one man’s sexual sin. Rather than single out the offender, Paul states that the entire church is complicit in the man’s sin. Likewise, any time that abuse occurs in our ranks we must humbly search ourselves and examine our communities for corruption. How did we fail the victims? How did we contribute to a culture in which leaders became too powerful, too invincible, or the church’s reputation became too important? And how can we, as a community, support the victims of this evil? How can we ensure that the weakest and most vulnerable among us are never marginalized?

When serial abuse occurs within an institution, it implicates more than the abuser. Sometimes, we can participate in a culture that enables abuses to continue. The combination of bad theology with the most basic sin of idolatry can produce communities that crush and marginalize the weak. So I urge you, brothers and sisters, to do more than condemn the abuse that is “out there,” belonging to somebody else. Instead, examine your hearts and examine your church community for “any offensive way” in you (Psalm 139:24). In this simple act before the Lord, there is so much at stake.


  • Tim says:

    Your call for institutional reflection and action is excellent. Sharon. Too often believers think that all we need to do is forgive and the problem is solved. Our lives, including all spiritual and physical aspects of them, are much more complicated than that. A perpetrator who tells the victim, “I asked for your forgiveness, so now you have to give it to me and move on”, is someone who doesn’t get the true meaning of repentance.

    And as for criminal actions, they require legal responses. In my courtroom, I’ve actually had a person convicted of a crime tell me at sentencing that because we are both Christians then I was forbidden form sentencing him to prison and that I had no choice but to dismiss the charges against him. I declined to follow his faulty doctrine.

    Churches who deal with these types of problems should make caring for the victim the priority, and then find a way to minister to the perpetrator. At least, that’s how I’d advise it if I were in that church’s leadership.


  • First, thank you for this–I especially appreciate your emphasis on corporate repentance. Even though I am not affiliated with SGM or the perpetrators, as members of Christ’s body, we should all be walking with hearts humbled in repentance.

    Secondly, since you are addressing the issue of “culture,” I’d like to take note of how you describe SGM. You call them a “network of Reformed churches” but they should probably be more accurately described as a network of churches that embraces neo-calvinism. This distinction is import because truly Reformed churches–those with traditions reaching back to the actual Reformation–have leadership structures that are historically-developed and time-tested including multiple elder boards, presbyteries and synods. The problem with SGM is precisely the opposite–their leadership paradigm is more the result of their roots in the charismatic Shepherding Movement than Reformed theology. Without a strong understanding of the Reformation doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and congregational input, neo-calvinism’s emphasis on authority and leadership quickly runs amok, creating precisely the type of culture that you are writing about here.

    • Tim says:

      Excellent distinction on the ecclesiastical differences between traditional reformed churches and the neo-calvinist SGM. As a Calvinist, I really appreciate it, s-a-l!

      • Mae Lynn Ziglar says:

        SGM is undergoing many changes in their leadership structures. They are in the process of adopting standards to ensure multiple elder boards and more accountability within the church. Please research this before judging whether SGM is reformed or neo-calvinist.

        • I respect the fact that SGM is changing–I’ve been very encouraged by those individual churches who are moving toward a stronger understanding of congregational involvement and greater accountability. But in some cases, this has also been the very thing that has caused them to leave SGM entirely (e.g Covenant Life). The very need for the changes underscores the fact that as an organization, SGM is not traditionally reformed.

          I’m speaking in strict, historical terms here–“reformed” should not be applied to anyone who simply embraces a calvinistic view of soteriology. It includes specific understandings about baptism, church government, and eschatology. SGM may be calvinistic baptists but historically speaking, they are not reformed.

  • Julie Anne says:

    I appreciate you drawing attention to this tragic situation. I have been following it for years. There are many lessons to be learned. I have been very saddened to see a recent public showing of support for the former head of SGM, C.J. Mahaney, among church leaders who have disregarded a multitude of witnesses. When scores and scores of people are saying the same thing, something is amiss.

  • monax says:

    “The combination of bad theology with the most basic sin of idolatry can produce communities that crush and marginalize the weak.” to say the least. .

    thank you. . i appreciated reading this

  • Sharon, as a former long-time SGM member, I wanted to thank you for taking the time and effort to write this. I just added your link to my long list related to the case. You can find it here:

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