Together for the Go$pel
Amid backlash, evangelical leaders are finally acknowledging sexual abuse — but not a high-profile preacher allegedly facilitating it. Why?
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
— Unknown, frequently attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One afternoon in late 2014, a friend told me that he’d been blocked on Twitter by The Gospel Coalition.
The sheer power and influence that The Gospel Coalition (TGC) holds is mind-boggling. The group is an online evangelical juggernaut that was co-founded by Tim Keller, a popular New York City pastor, respected by liberal and conservative Christians alike.
TGC’s online articles — which cover anything from Christian living to Bible and theology — generated 74.8 million page views in 2016. The group’s 2017 conference drew 10,000 attendees, paying roughly $200 a ticket.The TGC council boasts some of the most influential leaders in modern evangelicalism, including Al Mohler, Russell Moore, David Platt, and John Piper. We’re not talking about small fish. We’re talking about an organization with the financial means and influence to do whatever the hell it pleases.
So, if you’re Goliath, why block the ant on Twitter?
Intrigued, I asked my friend what he’d done to incur the wrath of TGC. “I asked them why they’ve been silent about the Sovereign Grace Ministries sexual abuse case. I told them we should listen to the victims.” Shrugging, he continued, “They seem to protect their buddies involved in the case and blocked me for asking. Blocked a ton of other people, too.”
Curious, I opened Twitter and found a number of users who had used the hashtag #IStandWithSGMVictims and then reported being blocked by TGC’s account. Over the next few years, this would become a common response from the organization whenever it was faced with questions about its practices, or criticized for posting articles like this one: “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband.”
“What happened at Sovereign Grace?” I mumble as I continue to scroll through tweets.
My friend waits until I look up from my phone. His face shows genuine concern. “How deep down the rabbit hole do you want to go?”
Down the Rabbit Hole
The Gospel Coalition was once home to a charismatic preacher named C.J. Mahaney and his protégé, Joshua Harris. These two men served on TGC’s council while simultaneously leading a sprawling association of churches named Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), now renamed Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC).
Sovereign Grace’s origin story begins in the early 1970s when Mahaney, then a twentysomething, long-haired hippie, wandered into an evangelical prayer meeting led by evangelist Larry Tomczak. Mahaney became a born-again Christian, and soon he and Tomczak began attracting large crowds. By 1982, the two men had opened several churches that eventually became SGM. Tomczak left the church in the late 1990s after a falling out with Mahaney, but his departure didn't slow SGM’s momentum. Instead, Mahaney rose to prominence in evangelical circles and became close friends with several influential council members of both TGC and the famed Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a fellowship of over 47,500 Baptist churches in the United States and its territories.
While I had never heard of SGM churches before my friend named them in a sexual abuse scandal, I knew of C.J. Mahaney. When I became a Christian in 2008, I looked to TGC as a source of information, discovering all kinds of up-and-coming “celebrity” pastors. Their neo-Calvinist views and machismo were alluring to an impressionable young combat veteran like myself, and I often listened to sermons by Mahaney, though without knowing the name of his association of churches (SGM). Over time, I became disillusioned by the callous nature of some of the pastors at TGC — Mahaney included — so I distanced myself. Several of their sermons involved yelling at men, patronizing women as sexual vixens, and allowed little to no dissent or discussion around minor biblical issues. Now, I found myself once more in their grips — this time, as a shocked observer.
My curiosity drove me to read report after report, online. I found a few websites that compiled allegations of sexual abuse like SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge (the latter has since shut down). On the sites, allegations from former parishioners described rampant sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups by church officials. The stories allege that church officials told victims not to report their abuse to law enforcement. Officials allegedly made the abusers and victims (often a child, sometimes as young as three years old) reconcile, and reminded the parent’s victims of the Bible passage telling them, “Do not take believers to court.”
The biggest blow to SGM came in 2012, when a former youth group leader named Nathaniel Morales was arrested and tried in Maryland for child sexual abuse. During Morales’s time volunteering and singing at Covenant Life Church — SGM’s main campus — he sexually assaulted three teenage boys and, later, allegedly assaulted two of his stepsons, according to his ex-wife, with whom I spoke. He would target the boys during church sleepovers in which they would wake up to Morales fondling or orally raping them. During Morales’s trial, the defense attorney questioned Grant Layman, a pastor on staff and Mahaney’s brother-in-law. Here’s a segment of the cross-examination:
Defense Counsel Alan Drew: “Did you have a responsibility as a pastor, when you become aware of sexual child abuse, did you have a responsibility to report that to the police department? That is a yes or no.”
Grant Layman: “I believe so.”
Drew: “And you didn’t do it.”
Layman: “No, sir.”
Each time Layman was questioned regarding the church’s knowledge of the sexual abuse and whether they reported the incidents — ranging as far back as the 1980s — to the police, his answer remained the same: No, they did not. In 2014, Morales was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, the civil suit that family members brought against Mahaney and SGM was thrown out due to Maryland’s statute of limitations. No official proceedings ever took place to determine whether there had been a cover-up, despite Grant Layman’s court testimony.
Once the backlash against Mahaney and SGM reached a crescendo — two years after the events were made public — Mahaney denied the allegations, stating:
“I have never conspired to protect a child predator, and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit.”
Mahaney and his protégé, Joshua Harris, resigned from the Gospel Coalition’s Council. The Gospel Coalition, in turn, continued to block the men and women now demanding answers on social media.
“How’d you find out about me?”
Brent Detwiler’s voice is whimsical and calm when we connect over the phone. According to some, he’s a bitter, self-serving board member who was ousted from C.J. Mahaney’s church. According to others, he’s a whistleblower who bravely challenged a system of abuse. I wasn’t sure what to think of Detwiler, but the evidence he compiled over the years regarding SGM, subsequent cover-ups, and fraudulent activity was extensive.
Detwiler’s knowledge of Sovereign Grace goes back several years, as he was one of its original leaders. He served as a pastor and on their board of elders, remaining a close friend to Mahaney from 1974 until 2009. Over time, he says he noticed patterns in Mahaney’s behavior that disturbed him, which included: deceit, the illegal use of funds, fraud, and, after he left SGM, the cover-up of sexual abuse.
Following Matthew 18, which describes the steps Christians take toward reconciliation, he first approached Mahaney privately. (C.J. Mahaney didn’t respond to two requests for comment.) When it became clear nothing was changing, Detwiler involved other church leaders. As more time passed, Detwiler compiled 600 pages of emails and ministry documents that he sent to the board and fellow pastors. After he was ousted from the church, Detwiler posted, online, what became known as “The Documents.” Tens of thousands of people have now read this paper trail. A representative from Sovereign Grace said the following of the documents: “We cannot verify the precise nature of all the information Brent Detwiler has provided SGC. He has publicly disseminated large volumes of documents, accusations, slander, and misinformation.”
I tell Detwiler how my friend’s Twitter blocking led me to him. Then I ask him whether C.J. Mahaney was lying.
“Absolutely… and I can back up that claim up with documentation. In an affidavit I filled out, there were 14 exhibits that included emails between C.J. and the victims,” Detwiler tells me. “He was extensively involved in counseling at least some victims and was completely aware of the situation.”
Detwiler isn’t the only one claiming Mahaney was involved with church victims of sexual abuse — several victims have also spoken out. I took the following screen capture from the Wartburg Watch, a Christian watchdog organization. The organization has been working with SGM victims for several years, in addition to helping other sexual abuse victims from churches across the U.S.
I spoke with Dee Parsons, one of the founders of the Wartburg Watch. Like Detwiler, Parsons stated there’s “no way” Mahaney is telling the truth.
“The way Mahaney handled a friend of mine whose child had been a victim at his church was downright bizarre,” Parsons told me. Mahaney and the church leaders urged her friend not to go to the police, but the couple reported the incident anyway. Once Mahaney learned the family was pursuing legal action, he called them into his church office.
“The entire time they were in the office the whole situation was weird. When Mahaney asked what would happen next, they reported there would probably be a subpoena. They told me he kept saying ‘SUB-PEEN-AH? What is a SUB-PEEN-AH?’ They think he was trying to get more information regarding the case, but then once their meeting concluded he [Mahaney] gave them a gift certificate to a steakhouse for like $100.”
“Was he trying to buy them off with a gift card?” I asked, perplexed.
Parsons laughed. “Oh honey, he has a history of buying off his buddies. Just follow the money. That’s why [other prominent pastors] absolutely refuse to say anything or investigate the claims.”
Together for the Go$pel
When the SGM scandal broke, and those supporting the victims took to Twitter, influential leaders among the Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention came out in overwhelming support for C.J. Mahaney. Evangelical leaders Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and Justin Taylor penned an article on TGC’s website entitled, “Why We Have Been Silent About the SGM Lawsuit.”
The article calls the claims against Mahaney and SGM a “conspiracy theory,” and states that the victims’ claims are “object of libel and even a Javert-like obsession by some.” Never once do the evangelical leaders address the actual evidence.
Other leaders also stepped forward to support Mahaney. Influential evangelical pastor and author of Desiring God, John Piper, backed him, as did key leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention. That list also includes:
- Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler has been described as “one of America’s most influential evangelicals.”
- Mark Dever, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the president of 9Marks.
- Ligon Duncan, Chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary.
- Denny Burk, President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood/Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (which is part of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).
Medium reached out to the above individuals to confirm whether they still support Mahaney and received no response.
During my time in the military and intelligence communities, friends and analysts would remark that “there’s no such thing as classified information anymore. It’s all available online or through someone. You just have to piece the puzzle together.” Taking that approach, I followed the money trail connecting Mahaney to his supporters.
Following a money trail at a church like SGC is difficult because, unlike other 501(c)(3) organizations, churches, synagogues, and mosques are not required to file 990 reports. A form 990 provides the public with financial information about a nonprofit organization, which prevents the nonprofit from abusing their tax-exempt status. While nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations — even those with religious affiliations — are required to disclose this information, many churches keep their books “closed.”
Detwiler confirmed what Parsons told me: Mahaney made a habit of “buying off his friends.” When I asked why powerful men like Al Mohler and John Piper continued to support Mahaney, Detwiler laughed, “Well, that’s because they’re all in Mahaney’s back pocket.” Detwiler told me that Mahaney made a habit of doubling his friends’ honoraria (speaking fees) while also providing them with lavish hotels, flight arrangements, new computers, and other gifts. He also claimed Mahaney’s salary was close to $200,000 in 2006, when Detwiler was still a voting member of the board, and that this salary was paid in addition to a housing parsonage. A housing parsonage allows ministers, rabbis, and imams to claim tax exemption on certain aspects of their home, like their mortgage, utilities, and homeowners association (HOA) dues. Most use it so they can take lower salaries or survive in high cost-of-living environments, but some abuse the exemption and build mansions. Several evangelical leaders — like Mahaney — also receive royalties from book deals and speaking fees that can land them on Christian bestseller lists. There’s no telling where the ceiling is when a church refuses to release financial information to the public. Sovereign Grace executives confirmed, in a phone call, that Mahaney received a housing parsonage, but could not confirm nor deny his salary.
When I asked if Detwiler could corroborate the claim that Mahaney gave money to his friends, he pointed me to a post on the Wartburg Watch that linked Mahaney and Sovereign Grace with charitable contributions of $200,000 or more to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. What’s the big deal about Mahaney giving money to a seminary? Al Mohler is its president, and one of Mahaney’s most adamant supporters.
According to archives of the seminary’s annual magazine from 2005 to 2007, Mahaney is listed as giving gifts of $10,000 or more and quickly jumps to the President’s Council — the highest giving level — for contributing cumulative gifts of $100,000 or more (2005 — see page 36 and 45; 2006 — see page 43; 2007 — see page 36 and 43). Sovereign Grace is also recorded as giving the same amount to the seminary, joining the President’s Council by 2007. After 2007, the magazine stopped reporting giving levels altogether. Sovereign Grace confirmed giving a total of $120,000 to Mohler’s seminary up until 2013, but stated that due to a software accounting error, some of their gifts were wrongly attributed to Mahaney. They also confirmed Mahaney was on the Board of Directors that voted to donate to Mohler’s seminary.
I traveled further down the money trail to see who else Mahaney gave significant sums to. There were two other public records I uncovered:
- In a 2003 audio clip recording, Mahaney gave pastor Mark Dever’s church a gift of $10,000 while calling Dever “O Captain, My Captain.” Dever has repeatedly defended Mahaney.
- In a 2016 Twitter exchange between Dee Parsons of the Wartburg Watch and Gospel Coalition member Thabiti Anyabwile, Anyabwile says that Mahaney gave his church $5,000. He’s also defended Mahaney.
Detwiler and The Wartburg Watch have been repeatedly dismissed by leaders among the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition. As a result, prominent Christians have also written off the evidence, siding with the vocal supporters of Mahaney.
Ignoring the whistleblowers is one thing. Ignoring the voices of victims is quite another.
Denhollander Makes her Stand
In September 2016, Rachael Denhollander became the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar — the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor — of sexual abuse. Once her story broke in the Indianapolis Star, over 250 other women stepped forward with their own tales of abuse at the hands of Nassar. Her testimony at Nassar’s sentencing in January 2018 went viral and, along with the other survivors, ESPN awarded her the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
A prominent Christian figure and victim-turned-lawyer, Denhollander became an outspoken critic of Sovereign Grace. In a 2018 interview with Christianity Today, she stated that SGM and Mahaney’s involvement were “one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse” and “one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen.”
The backlash was immediate. Sovereign Grace called her “misinformed,” and Denhollander’s church sided with them. However, after a Washington Post article about rampant sexual abuse within the church, Denhollander’s church responded and apologized for not listening to her or the victims. Never one to back down, Denhollander responded en force to SGM on March 1, 2018, posting on Facebook a 7,800-word rebuttal, clinically documenting the systemic abuse and cover-up within SGM, of which Mahaney was the clear ringleader. Following Denhollander’s remarks, Mark Galli, the editor in chief of Christianity Today, called for an independent investigation.
Once Denhollander’s statement gained national attention, C.J. Mahaney withdrew from a large conference entitled Together For the Gospel (T4G). Mahaney stated that he withdrew because of “the recent, renewed controversy surrounding Sovereign Grace Churches and me.” He went on to state that, “I categorically reject the suggestion that I have ever conspired to cover up sexual abuse or other wrongdoing.”
The Good Ol’ Boys
In every interview I conducted, victims, whistleblowers, and other sources repeated one phrase to explain why abuse goes unreported and victims are dismissed: “the good ol’ boy network.”
The Harvey Weinstein scandal showed how readily some men in the film industry remained silent despite the allegations rocking Hollywood. The connection, of course, was film. So how are the men and organizations that have backed Mahaney — or remained silent — all connected? Most are part of the aforementioned Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Founded in 1845, the SBC began its slow walk toward implosion in June of 2017. A resolution to condemn the alt-right and white supremacy took an embarrassingly long time to pass at their annual convention. Leaders within the SBC initially refused to even review the proposal before an uproar changed their minds. Ever since, the SBC remains on fire as misconduct plagues the institution. (A representative from the SBC couldn’t “speak to a direct cause/effect relationship” between the backlash and their subsequent review of the proposal.)
By the time the 2018 convention took place, rampant reports of misogyny and sexism had become the highlight of the event, especially after a renowned SBC leader, Beth Moore, penned a viral article about her treatment by men within the fellowship. Amid calls for resolution, two other scandals broke out: Paige Patterson, one of the most prominent leaders within the SBC, was ousted from his seminary after it came to light that he lied to his board of directors about a rape allegation cover-up; and, not more than a few days after Patterson’s dismissal, a young woman named Anne Marie Miller stepped forward with evidence detailing a cover-up within the Southern Baptist’s most influential arm — the International Missions Board.
Affiliated with the SBC, the International Missions Board is an organization that sends missionaries around the world to help humanitarian efforts and spread the Christian faith. The scandal began when Miller claimed that officials in the organization knew of sexual abuse allegations 11 years before the man she accused was finally arrested. After the Star Telegram verified her claims, the newspaper provided documents showing a history of negligence and efforts to silence Miller by the International Missions Board. The debacle was so embarrassing that Al Mohler — one of Mahaney’s most vocal proponents — even penned an article entitled “The Wrath of God Poured Out — The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
While the SBC has tried to backtrack and publicly support victims, its leaders remain silent on Mahaney. David Platt (featured in an earlier photo next to Mahaney) is the President of the International Missions Board. Platt personally contacted Miller after her story gained national attention, and issued a public apology along with a call for a third-party investigation. J.D. Greear, the newly elected President of the SBC, also contacted Miller to apologize, as did Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Yet, all three men remain silent on Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Churches.
When I spoke with Brent Detwiler — the former pastor inside Sovereign Grace — I asked if men like J.D. Greear and Russell Moore were aware of the allegations against Mahaney. He confirmed that he’d sent both Greear and Moore the evidence he’d collected regarding Mahaney’s cover-ups.
I asked Detwiler why they remain silent when so much evidence remains unanswered for.
“If C.J. goes down, they all go down. They would have to admit they were entirely wrong… and refused to listen to anyone. Instead, what’s happened is that they’ve slowly and progressively backed away from him, especially given Rachael’s (Denhollander) recent remarks.”
I spoke with Basyle ‘Boz’ Tchividjian to ask why — despite constant reforms and resolutions by evangelicals — sexual abuse cover-ups remain rampant in the evangelical community. Boz is best known as the grandson of the late evangelist, Billy Graham, and is the founder of GRACE — Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. A former assistant state attorney, Boz created the first “Crimes Against Children” division at the Office of the State Attorney in the 7th Judicial Circuit of Florida and works with churches to train and equip them regarding sexual abuse.
Boz asserted that the major problem with sexual abuse stems from the power dynamics within evangelical institutions, where men are held in the highest esteem.
“For them to do what needs to be done, there will have to be a lot of personnel changes and new life breathed into the organization (given the events of the annual convention)… that’s difficult because of relationships and power brokers inside the SBC,” he says. “There has to be individual and institutional responsibility. It can’t be one or the other. There has to be a two-pronged approach because, whether we like it or not, the culture of the church follows the leader. We need people involved in institutional change.”
Those like Mahaney and his cohorts have a level of power, influence, and money that’s unparalleled and, when threatened, can use those means to silence their opponents or victims. They can use large sums of money for cover-ups or hush funds while using taxpayer dollars to subsidize their homes. They can easily dismiss victims and whistleblowers by appealing to their hordes of faithful followers. They can even distort their sacred literature to shame those who would dare speak for the victims.
What a stark distinction of character from that of the man they claim to follow. A homeless man who challenged systems of injustice at the hands of the Pharisees — an elite religious ruling class at which Jesus directed his harshest words. A man who spent his time with those marginalized or oppressed, who spoke against the powerful to remind us of an essential truth when it comes to justice: silence is not spiritual.
Update(s): An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Sovereign Grace Ministries. It is an association of churches.
Al Mohler has now publicly apologized for supporting CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries while JD Greear has called for the potential removal of CJ Mahaney’s church from the Southern Baptist Convention.
Benjamin Sledge is a licensed pastor in Austin, Texas and the executive director of a religious 501(c)(3).