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The Cardinal Sins of Joshua Harris

In Roman Catholic theology, there are three gradations of sin: venial, cardinal and mortal.  I’m happy to report Joshua Harris has not committed any mortal or “killer” sins.  Those destroy your acceptance by God and cause eternal separation in hell.  But neither are his sins against C.J. and Sovereign Grace venial or minor.  No, Joshua’s sins are cardinal and that means they are major.  They haven’t destroyed his relationships but they have resulted in separation from each other.  C.J., Mike, and Brian are gone from Covenant Life Church.  That is “cardinal” because Joshua’s errors (and all the CLC pastors) are major!  That is, in the eyes of the Mahaney’s, Bradshaw’s and Chesmore’s.  We are not talking about “venial” disagreements.

What are these cardinal sins according to the evidence?

  1. The handling of “The Documents”
  2. Critical comments about C.J.
  3. Compassionate comments about me
  4. God is disciplining Sovereign Grace
  5. A different vision and direction for Covenant Life Church
  6. A lack of support for Sovereign Grace 

The Handling of “The Documents”

At the Covenant Life Members Meeting on July 10, Joshua said the following. 

“Can I just ask you a question?  How many of you have read the [Brent’s] documents?  I am grateful if you’ve read the documents.  I just want to see how many people know what I am talking about.  That’s great.  If some of you are asking the question, “Should I read the documents?”  This is another complicated thing.  I would say, I think you should, in the sense that, not you have to.  I won’t tell you, you shouldn’t, and I won’t tell you, you should.  But I understand that as, in particular heads of households, you need to know what is going on to decide whether or not you want to be a part of this church and SGM and so I think you need to be informed of these things and grapple with these things [applause].  That being said I would just encourage you to read them with same discernment if you picked up any book…. These documents are not this authoritative statement of all that has taken place.  They are one person’s interpretation of the events.  There are a lot of facts in them.  There are a lot of emails.  Brent is a man of integrity.  I want to state that.  He has not doctored emails.  He is not lying about these things but he is interpreting these things.”  (Joshua Harris, Member’s Meeting, July 10)

Joshua commends the church for reading the documents.  That is cardinal sin number one.  According to SGM practice, people should have been warned not to read them.  Why?  Because C.J., Mike, Brian and the entire Board have determined for you that they are slander.  Trust them!  But here Joshua is telling the church they “need to be informed” and “grapple with these things” (which drew considerable applause).  He actually encourages people to read but with discernment and not view the documents as an “authoritative statement” because it is “one’s person interpretation.”  But these qualifications are not enough to appease Mike and Brian.  The documents must be condemned by the CLC pastors because they are dangerous.  People should remain uninformed and uninvolved in the process.  It is a private matter.  In these kinds of situations, ignorance and indifference are considered virtues in SGM.  People don’t need to know about these critical issues, the leaders will discern truth for you and tell you what to think later.  The less you know the better off you are.    

But Joshua understands the seriousness of the issues at hand.  He can’t dismiss the content of the documents.  In fact, people need to know what has gone on because it may have a bearing on their involvement in CLC and SGM.  That is true.  Joshua is willing to let people know what is in the garbage can.  Sovereign Grace on the other hand, is trying to keep the lid on things.  They don’t want people to see and smell what is inside because it is unsightly and stinks.

Here is what Brian said last Tuesday night. 

“I believe the pastors neglected to biblically define Brents documents as accusations against an elder and as slanderous (1 Tim. 5:19-21).  Instead, Josh expressed sympathy for the documents and encouraged heads of households to read Brent’s accusations to see if they would want to be a part of Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries…. Our team’s failure to demonstrate adequate impartiality and to bring clear and specific biblical guidelines gave credibility to Brent’s accusations and this has resulted in speculation, gossip, and even slander of C.J.’s character…. The pastors of our church failed to lead at a critical time.  I believe this has had a detrimental effect on our local church, and that our example has had a detrimental effect on churches beyond Covenant Life.  I love these men dearly, but for the sake of the gospel, I cannot continue to serve where I have a growing concern about our direction and our adherence to God’s Word when leaders receive accusation.” (Brian Chesemore, Big Meeting, August 9)

I don’t have a problem if someone defines my documents as formal charges or accusations according to 1 Timothy 5:19; though I view my original writings as the pleadings and appeals of a friend who loves Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J.  

But Brian wants much more.  According to him, there is no room to assign any credibility, or express any appreciation, for my slanderous documents.  To do so is to be impartial.  In other words, Joshua and the pastors sided with me when they should have sided with C.J.  Moreover, the actions of Joshua and the pastors were due to a lack of adherence to God’s Word.  Brian believes they have transgressed Scripture and sinned against the Savior.

Mike feels the same way. 

My primary reasons for resigning are as follows…the encouragement to read Brent’s documents and the blogs void of guidance and evaluation from the Scriptures; Josh’s specific encouragement for heads of households to read Brent’s documents to examine their desire to be a part of Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries – a statement that brought credibility to these slanderous documents.” (Mike Bradshaw, BIG Meeting, August 9)

Of course, Joshua gave some guidance on July 10 but that eludes Mike and Brian.  They may feel it was inadequate but it was not lacking.  For Mike also, the documents have no credibility and are slanderous by definition.  Given his perspective, he expected Joshua to discredited the documents and warn people not to read them.  Instead, Joshua did the opposite.  He encouraged people to read them.  Big trouble for Josh!  For Mike and Brian anything short of labeling my writings as libelous was to miss the mark and disobey Scripture. 

Critical Comments about C.J. 

No one criticizes C.J. in public.  That is a cardinal rule so this was a cardinal sin.  At the Members Meeting on July 10, Joshua said the following about C.J. 

“There are so many emotions that are crashing and conflicting feelings as I talk about these things.  And I am sure that is going to come out because a part of me wants to defend C.J. and to argue with Brent about the way that he presents things or the things other people say about him.  Part of me is mad at C.J.  Part of me is frustrated with how this thing has unfolded.  We have a real relationship just like any other real relationship you have with any other person.  He is a father in the faith but if you ever wanted to strangle your father.  Okay? [laughter] There is a reality behind that and so all of that can be at work.” (Joshua Harris, Member’s Meeting, July 10) 

This came very close to mortal sin.  People have earned a pauper’s grave in the Sovereign Grace graveyard for less serious statements.  Joshua is mad at C.J.?  Joshua wants to strangle C.J.?  And all of this is a reality and not an exaggeration.  I am grateful for Joshua’s transparency wrapped in some humor.  It is very hard to correct or challenge C.J.  “You have to approach him like a teenager” (see Part 2: A Final Appeal, p. 92).  Dave Harvey summarized well the difficulties in working with C.J. 

“To correct CJ, or to challenge his own self-perception, was to experience a reaction through e-mails, consistent disagreement (without seeking to sufficiently understand), a lack of sufficient follow-up and occasionally, relational withdrawal.  Along with this, CJ was poor in volunteering areas of sin, temptation or weakness in himself.” (Part 2: A Final Appeal, p. 91)

These kinds of honest statements by Joshua forced Mike to resign.  In his way of thinking, the accusations against C.J. and Sovereign Grace should have been concealed and/or rebutted.  No one should know about this stuff.  That’s why both C.J. and Dave told Joshua it was a mistake to even have the Members Meetings on July 10, 17, and 24.

“My reason is simple: I can no longer, in good conscience, support the leadership of the pastoral team on key issues, in particular how they have led our church in addressing the accusations brought against C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries…. I believed my voice, along with others, would be represented and honored at the member’s meetings.  However, on the evening of July 10th it became clear that the questions I raised and perspective I brought had little impact on the direction Josh was taking in addressing these matters.  When my subsequent appeals were ineffective in altering the course of the following members’ meetings, it became only more evident that I could not support the leadership of the pastoral team on these critical issues and therefore, must resign.” (Mike Bradshaw, BIG Meeting, August 9)

One of Mike’s primary reasons for resigning was “the misrepresentation of C.J. Mahaney’s character and growth in sanctification at the Members’ Meetings.”  I agree with Mike.  Joshua was far too easy on C.J.  Did I miss his point?   

Brian agrees with Mike.

“Our [pastoral] team’s failure to demonstrate adequate impartiality and to bring clear and specific biblical guidelines gave credibility to Brent’s accusations and this has resulted in speculation, gossip, and even slander of C.J.’s character.”

And of course, C.J. agrees with Mike and Brian.  Or maybe that’s backwards.  Mike and Brian agree with C.J.  I think the old adage is true with a twist.  Like father, like son (in-laws).

Joshua wrote on Wednesday, “C.J. has also expressed concerns and points of disagreement with how we have been leading during this season”  I am sure he does.

Compassionate Comments about Me

Sympathy for Brent.  Cardinal sin number three.  Here’s Joshua.

You are going to hear me sometimes answering with one feeling and sometimes answering with another.  And it’s confusing.  I can be angry at Brent for bringing so many people into these issues and just sharing his perspective and yet at the same time I can understand why he’s done what he’s done.  And I can sympathize with him and I feel bad for him and I feel bad for the things he has experienced.  I wish these relationships were restored.  There is a jumbo of emotions and feelings as we talk about these things.” (Joshua Harris, Members Meeting, July 10)

Joshua feels for me and understands my actions.  I appreciate these sentiments but he (and the rest of the world) only knows a small portion of what Jenny and I have been through.  “Part 4: The Untold Story” is far from complete.  What remains is a story of extraordinary pain and abuse that no one would believe if you told them.  Someday I’ll try. 

Well, the last thing on Mike and Brian’s minds is concern for what I’ve gone through at the hands of C.J., Dave, Bob Kauflin, Gene Emerson and Mickey Connolly.  Their sole focus is C.J.  Joshua should be feeling bad for C.J. not me.  He’s the one getting a raw deal.  And expressing understanding for why I sent out the documents to the SGM pastors?  You’ve got to be kidding.  That was an act of supreme treason.  I make Benedict Arnold look like an American loyalist.

God Is Disciplining Sovereign Grace Ministries

Cardinal sin number four.  Joshua carrying on like a prophet.  I mean is Joshua “also among the prophets” (cf. 1 Sam 10:11f.)?  How dare he interpret Providence for Sovereign Grace!  The Board of Directors can do that with any help from Joshua.  Just give them a millennium to figure out the obvious. 

“I believe God would have your leaders humbly acknowledge that it is our sin and our failure and our faulty structures that have brought this trouble.  I don’t believe that these events are an accident.  I believe they are the loving discipline of our heavenly Father.  And no matter whose fault this is, this is what we cannot get around.  This is what is unavoidable.  We cannot get around the fact that our church and our entire denomination is being publicly spanked.  We are being humiliated.  We are being brought low.  God is getting our attention.” (Joshua Harris, The Father’s Discipline, July 10)

Tone it down Joshua.  Follow Harvey’s lead and his shiny, brand spanking new, hand-picked Board.

“But we disagree [with Joshua] on some important matters too.  For example, we disagree in our interpretation of this current season of ministry.  Is God disciplining all of Sovereign Grace Ministries right now?  Josh says yes, and we’re open to that conclusion.  But before arriving at that conclusion we would want to walk through a process of evaluating all of SGM, which we have not done yet.  (Dave Harvey, “Where We Differ and Where We Disagree,” July 14)

They express disagreement with Joshua’s interpretation, then slightly change course and express some openness to the possibility God might be disciplining Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Folks, I am afraid a blind guide (Matthew 5:14) is leading the movement.  Look out for the pit ahead.  It doesn’t take a study from Ambassadors of Reconciliation to realize God is dealing with all of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Joshua goes on to describe how God is disciplining Sovereign Grace Ministries.

“And so I just want to ask you a question.  How could God discipline a whole church?  How could God discipline a whole denomination?  What possible set of circumstances could he create that would force entire family of churches to recognize, to acknowledge, to turn away from deeply entrenched and flawed patterns of leadership and practice and church government?  What could God possibly do to get an entire movement to do that?  Well let me just propose a scenario for you.  He could allow a chorus of critics on the internet to point out the most glaring failures and inconsistencies of that movement in an unrelenting way.  He could allow the issues that they didn’t want to deal with, or have the nerve to change, to be aired in public.  He could allow a breakdown in a relationship and the stubbornness of leaders to culminate in a set of circumstances so that all the mistakes and all the relational sins at the top levels of leadership would be written down and posted on the internet for the entire world to read.  Do you think that would work?  God, and God alone, has brought this unthinkable sequence of events about. (Joshua Harris, The Father’s Discipline, July 10)

I wish Dave Harvey had half the wisdom (not pragmatism) of Joshua Harris.  God is pointing out the obvious.  Why can’t Sovereign Grace see it?  

“In the midst of a crisis like this one, the temptation for a leader like me is to stand before the people that I’ve been called to lead and say two things.  It is not as bad as it seems.  And it’s not your leaders’ fault.  But I can’t say that because it wouldn’t be true.  It is as bad as it seems.  And it is the fault of your leaders.  And we desperately need the help of God and the wisdom and the accountability of the people who have looked to our leadership to sort through this mess.” (Joshua Harris, The Father’s Discipline, July 10)  

Joshua is right.  It is bad!  And it is primarily C.J. and Dave’s fault.  I don’t say that to hopelessly condemn them.  It is simply true.  And until these two men fully acknowledge their pride, hypocrisy, deceit, love of reputation and authoritarianism, there is no hope for true reformation.  It must come from within their hearts.

And notice Joshua’s last comment.  “We desperately need…the accountability of the people.”  Is Joshua crazed?  You mean C.J. and Dave need to be held accountable by the laity in order to do what is right?  C.J. wasn’t accountable to the apostolic team.  C.J. wasn’t accountable to the CLC pastors.  You expect him to be accountable to ordinary people?  He won’t even come back to Covenant Life Church to answer questions by the members at the request of the members.  Only Joshua has the humility to say such a thing. 

Joshua and the Covenant Life pastors understand what is at stake.  It is a big deal and to deny that reality is to resist and take lightly the discipline of the Lord.

“So the first potential way that we can resist or wrongly respond to the discipline of the Lord is to regard it lightly.  To not take it seriously.  To not see it for what it is.  To kind of blow it off and say, “Oh well, you know this is just happening, it’s not that big of deal.  We’ll just get through this and we’ll just kind of go on with business as usual.  We’ll just kind of keep on doing our thing and this will pass.  There is no lesson for us in this.  We just need to tweak a few things.  Everything will be fine.  That is taking the discipline of the Lord lightly.”  (Joshua Harris, The Father’s Discipline, July 10)

I am for Sovereign Grace but it needs an internal overhaul and I don’t see that happening.  I have studied every message, blog and announcement.  They are tweaking polity but there is no deep work of the Spirit in their hearts that results in public repentance, profuse confession and the restitution of wrong doing.  On the other hand, this has begun to happen at Covenant Life Church.  Thank God!

A Different Vision and Direction for CLC

Mike and Bryan are also leaving because they cannot support the vision and direction of Covenant Life Church with a clear conscience under Joshua’s leadership.  It is so errant it is a cardinal sin to remain.  That’s a mouth full.  I need help digesting this portion of liver and onions (which I hated as a kid). 

What are the “areas of disagreement” that violate their consciences?  That puts these differences in a moral category.  That makes them a matter of right and wrong.  We’re not talking about how to solve a complicated math problem using different methods but arriving at same answer.  We are talking about not being able to work together because the disagreements are so vast.   What does this entail?  I have some ideas but I suspect Joshua will reveal them on Wednesday night at the CLC Member’s Meeting. 

These “areas of disagreement” have existed for at least a year according to Brian.  He speaks on behalf of Mike also.  So as not to confuse you, the comments included in brackets [ ] below are statements made by Brian at the BIG Meeting that were not in his written notes.  

“Kristin and I have considered a transition [in conversation as we have thought about these different disagreements and differences] for at least a year because we were becoming [more and more] increasingly convinced that [there is a difference in] the vision of the church in certain areas.  [The differences was not one I could enthusiastically support and I tried to process that prayerfully and over time…. But we have these areas of disagreement.  And it became clear [to me and it became clear to Mike] that I [we] cannot adhere to my [our] convictions and continue to pastor people with enthusiastic support for Josh and the team’s vision.  It would hinder my conscience, and this would not honor God, no matter the length of time.  So “why leave?” began to morph into “How can I stay [with a clear conscience]?”  It became foremost an issue of principle.  That’s hard when you have the relationships we have in the church.  But in order to serve this church Mike and I believe we need to move out of the way so that the dear people who attend Covenant Life Church can be pastored by godly men who enthusiastically affirm and support the leadership and direction of Covenant Life

A Lack of Support for Sovereign Grace

In his statement, Brian spends far more time on this reason for leaving than any other reason.  Recent developments with me only solidified his decision to separate from Covenant Life which he contemplated for a year.

“I have made my decision prayerfully and soberly over the last yearMy reasons for resigning are twofold.  First, I have observed over the last two years an undeniably diminishing enthusiasm amongst members of our pastoral team for the partnership we share with Sovereign Grace Ministries.” (Brian Chesemore, BIG Meeting, August 9 )

This charge must really hurt, not only Joshua and the pastors, but the entire church.  No one has served the movement more than the people of Covenant Life Church.  There isn’t a close second.  But Brian maintains his two year assessment is undeniable. 

He continues and broadens his criticism of the pastors.  Not only are the pastors unsupportive, they are unteachable and independent.

“Many discussions have led me to believe that the majority of our pastoral team seems to think there is little to learn from Sovereign Grace.  Under our board’s leadership, we have spent far more time criticizing in matters of polity and mission than building up and partnering with SGM even though SGM has been in the laborious process of leading us in polity refinements for almost two years…. And our trajectory has been a steady move away from Sovereign Grace, which deeply disappoints me.  Im not suggesting that Covenant Life wont remain a SGM church.  I pray and have a strong hope that it will.  But I believe our church has minimized and neglected the privilege of our long-standing partnership with our friends in Sovereign Grace.” (Brian Chesemore, BIG Meeting, August 9)

My friends at Covenant Life tell me they are pleased with the changes Joshua and the pastors have implemented over the last couple of years.  These friends were ready to leave but have remained because of these changes.  They love the new openness and freedom to express their perspective without fear.  They appreciate the pastors’ willingness to confess sin and answer hard questions.  They see the pastors owning the sins of the past and correcting bad practices and refining some doctrine.  The pastors are not covering up. (Well, for the most part – there are still serious things they need to acknowledge but I hope it is only a matter of time.)  They are involving the congregation.

Behind the scenes the Covenant Life pastors are challenging the Sovereign Grace Board.  The Board must act upon, rather than resists, the input they are receiving.  All of this needs to come out in the open.  The CLC pastors are keenly aware of the deep, deep problems in Sovereign Grace.  They are privy to at least some of the accusations being brought against C.J., Dave and Steve Shank from around the country.  These have not been made public by the Board and are just the tip of the iceberg.  Numerous men who were once pastors in the movement remain unwilling to speak up because of fear, exasperation, or the pain of reliving their experiences.

But Brian has a fundamentally different point of view.  Covenant Life needs Sovereign Grace.  Not the other way around.   

“I would disagree with this direction and believe our partnership has been historically beneficial and should still be vital…. We don’t exist in this partnership solely to reform it.  It is meant to be mutually beneficial, and I believe we impoverish ourselves when we neglect or minimize the wisdom, experience, and relationships that reside in Sovereign Grace.  To go further, I believe Covenant Life’s recent history reveals that we need more help from Sovereign Grace, not less…. For twenty years I have had a passion to serve Sovereign Grace, our weaknesses notwithstanding, but I don’t believe I can sufficiently fulfill that desire here at Covenant Life.  My decision to resign is rooted in this reality.

Mike feels similarly.  

“The concern that Josh’s statements regarding Sovereign Grace Ministries were imbalanced, unnecessarily critical, and illegitimately applied to all of Sovereign Grace.  Additionally, there has been the absence of appropriate appreciation for the vast fruitfulness of this ministry and our thirty year partnership in gospel advancing work both here and abroad.” (Mike Bradshaw, BIG Meeting, August 9)

Mike and Brian don’t see how serious the problems are in C.J.’s life or the ministry of Sovereign Grace.  For them the pastors have a far greater need for the Board, not less of a need!  But believe me, if the CLC pastors followed the SGM Board, my documents would have been exclusively condemned, nothing critical would have been whispered about C.J., no agreement with my actions or compassionate comments would have been expressed, Joshua would do what C.J. wants at CLC, and the CLC pastors would not be holding the Board accountable for change.  Those are Joshua’s cardinal sins.

One further point.  When Brian says, “I believe we impoverish ourselves when we neglect or minimize the wisdom, experience, and relationships that reside in Sovereign Grace,” who do you think he has primarily in mind?  That’s right, C.J.!  His role in Covenant Life has been neglected and minimized.  Result.  Poverty.  Translation.  Joshua and the pastors have differed with C.J. and not followed his advice, agreed with his counsel, or benefited from his superior wisdom on too many occasions.  That is a big deal to Brian and one worth leaving CLC over. 

Will Covenant Life Leave Sovereign Grace?

C.J., Mike and Brian have left Covenant Life Church over differences.  Will the Covenant Life pastors leave Sovereign Grace Ministry over differences?   I hope so unless the Sovereign Grace Board of Directors change their ways.  What we have before us is largely a study in contrasts.  Humility versus pride.  Openness versus concealment.  Repentance versus resistance.  Sovereign Grace posts are morally neutral press releases, not statements of contrition and sorrow for sin that have harmed a lot of people.  Instead they use the blog to defend C.J. and protect their self-interests.     

Step one for Joshua was resigning from the Board of Directors.  Remember from the documents, C.J. talked about turning the movement over to him next year at age 60.  C.J. turns 59 on September 21.

Step two for Joshua.  Start a new family of churches characterize by authentic humility.  I’d like to join that movement but I probably don’t qualify and wouldn’t meet admittance requirements.  If it happens, however, go with Joshua and the men that go with him.

Consider these statements.  How refreshing.  One day soon I hope to hear similar comments from C.J. and Dave and the other Directors. 

“I just want to share with you some of the issues that God is beginning to reveal in my own heart.  I am not seeking to speak for any other person but myself.  In this season of shaking, these are the things I believe God wants us to let go of.  I am seeing in my own life a spiritual pride and self-righteousness.  You know for too long I had the attitude that we were the best church and the best family of churches, the best network of churches in the world.  That we had a corner on sound doctrine.  That we were both charismatic and Reformed.  That we were the best at applying truth and living out our faith and I had a condescending attitude toward other churches.  I remember having a condescending attitude toward my own parents and their church.  And that is just pride.  God is shaking that out of my hands.  May God shake that out of all of our hands.  I understand why people in our community have viewed CLC as elitist and exclusive because I think that has been in some of our hearts.  I am not accusing all of you of this, but I think it is there.  I think we need to cry out to God to help us, to reveal it if it is there.” (Joshua Harris, The Father’s Discipline, July 10)

“I am seeing overconfidence in leaders.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I believe we need leaders.  God’s word clearly states that leadership and pastors are his idea.  But I also believe in light of the doctrine of sin that we need appropriate checks and balances from the congregation.  Our church government as a movement is broken and it is confused.  And we have not moved quickly enough or decisively enough to fix it.  And for too long we have assumed, as pastors, that we could handle everything on our own.  And we have not recognized enough the gifts and the wisdom and the work of the Holy Spirit in the congregation to help us do the work and the leadership that God has called us to do.  And that must change.  That will change. (Joshua Harris, The Father’s Discipline, July 10)