Written by Peter Smith
April 20, 2012
A small, growing denomination that has faced internal conflicts in recent months is moving its headquarters from Maryland to Louisville.
Sovereign Grace Ministries announced that it plans to launch its first Kentucky church and tighten its already strong bonds with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Sovereign Grace — based in Gaithersburg, Md. — is a three-decade-old network of more than 90 churches worldwide and about 28,000 members.
Sovereign Grace officials said they are moving to take advantage of Louisville’s lower costs of living and overhead compared with suburban Washington, D.C., and so its pastor-training program could collaborate more closely with Southern Seminary.
The announcement also comes amid increased tensions between Sovereign Grace and its flagship congregation, Covenant Life Church, where its headquarters is located.
That tension has been part of wider conflicts within Sovereign Grace that emerged in public view last summer with the release of internal church documents from a former church official, accusing its president, C.J. Mahaney, of pride, dictatorial conduct and doling out harsh criticism he was unwilling to receive himself.
Mahaney took a leave of several months while the Sovereign Grace board reviewed the case. It declared him fit for ministry and restored him to the presidency earlier this year.
The relocation announcement comes just two days after an independent panel — brought in to review the conflicts — faulted the group for an overemphasis on sin and a lack of emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness.
The report also cited an often-arbitrary system of discipline that left many pastors and lay people feeling wounded, while those at the top lacked outside accountability.
While it currently has no churches in Kentucky or Indiana, Sovereign Grace and Mahaney have close ties with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace have each donated at least $100,000 to the seminary, according to the school’s publications
Mahaney formerly served as vice chairman of the seminary-based Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which promotes male authority in churches and families.
Sovereign Grace and Mahaney have been prominent in New Calvinist circles in recent years, as has Southern Seminary and its president, Albert Mohler. The multi-denominational Calvinist movement emphasizes God’s power, rather than human free will, in matters of salvation and earthly events and promotes male authority and tightly disciplined churches.
Mahaney and Mohler are among the organizers of biennial Together for the Gospel conferences in Louisville, such as one held last week at the KFC Yum! Center, which draw thousands to hear talks by top names in the New Calvinist movement.
Mohler on Thursday reaffirmed his longstanding support for Mahaney, which he voiced last summer when the allegations first went public. He said he believed Mahaney faced “ambiguous” charges and that the church board handled them correctly.
“C.J. Mahaney, like any strong Christian leader, is able to lead precisely because of who he is and how God uses him,” Mohler said. “That doesn’t mean that he can lead all people any more than any other leader can lead all people.”
He welcomed the start of a Sovereign Grace congregation in Louisville, which Mahaney plans to lead at an as-yet undetermined location.
“I think the Sovereign Grace churches are a demonstration of the revitalization of Christianity in the early 21st century,” Mohler said. He described them as “a group of deeply committed Christians who are doctrinally conservative, who are spiritually healthy, wonderfully happy and demonstrate both the truth of Christianity and the joy of Christ.”
Brent Detwiler, a former high-ranking church official who released the internal documents last summer, said he brought “detailed and specific” charges against Mahaney and faulted the church board for failing adequately to review them.
“The thing that is disingenuous is that the real reason Sovereign Grace is leaving Gaithersburg for Louisville is not cost of living,” Detwiler said. “It’s the fractured relationships” with Covenant Life, which has cited concerns over Sovereign Grace’s governing structure and response to the conflicts, Detwiler said.
The report on Sovereign Grace came from Ambassadors of Reconciliation, a Lutheran group specializing in conflict mediation that was brought in as outside evaluators of denomination. It did not call for any leaders to be removed or disciplined for allowing problems to develop in the church.
The report on Sovereign Grace Ministries said many people it interviewed valued their experience in the denomination.
The Ambassadors of Reconciliation lauded the movement’s emphasis on church planting, commitment to prayer and strong small-group networks.
But despite the group’s having the word “grace” in its title, leaders from the top down showed a heavy preoccupation with the sins of members.
Some described the process as spiritually helpful, while others saw it as “beating people down or unfairly scrutinizing them.”
An “over-emphasis of the teaching about sin without the balance of God’s grace leads people to be judgmental, critical, and at times despondent,” the report said.
In a written reply to the report, the board committed “by God’s grace to correct the failures identified in this report” and adopt its recommendations, which include developing more formal procedures for ordination and for members to appeal disciplinary actions.