Thoughts on the sex abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries

alone man person sadness

The news of Joshua Harris apostasy has centered mostly around the book he was famous for writing. While I think there is a connection between the interpretive methodology that was the basis of his book and how the scandal came about, I don’t think the book itself isn’t the actual reason Joshua Harris left the faith.

I wrote about my thoughts on his book and purity culture which you can find HERE. This post will be talking about the false teachings that I think are the root cause of the sex abuse scandal.

You can read the full article of what I’m quoting below HERE.

“Pastors Joshua Harris and C.J. Mahaney left the leadership council of The Gospel Coalition, a central hub for the Reformed evangelical movement, after a trial involving child abuse at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which both men have overseen.

A criminal trial that concluded last week raised questions about what pastors at Covenant Life knew about the abuse and why steps weren’t taken to stop it.

Nathaniel Morales, 56, was convicted Thursday (May 15 2014) of sexually abusing three underage boys between 1983 and 1991 when he was a youth leader at Covenant Life.”…..

…..Mahaney founded Covenant Life in 1977 and now leads Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Ky., which is also the home of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a national association of 80 Reformed evangelical churches.”

Wikipedia seems to offer more details on the lawsuits regarding an alleged cover-up conspiracy. I’d caution that we be skeptical with wikipedia as anyone can write for it. Still worth a look though.

“In late 2012, a lawsuit in Montgomery County, Maryland was brought against Sovereign Grace Ministries for a conspiracy to cover-up child sex abuse. The plaintiffs claimed that church leaders, including Mahaney, did not report accusations of misconduct to the police.” – Wikipedia

Something that should be made clear, Joshua Harris wasn’t accused of the sex abuse. What does seem to be the case is that people accused the leadership of his Church network of covering up a crime, and by his own admission, he was central to facilitating the fallout of the whole mess. I can’t speak to the facts of this case and won’t bother to speculate. The question I want to ask and answer is this…

Can a fundamentalist approach to scripture push a leader to cover up sex abuse in the church?

If so, is it reasonable to believe that’s what may have happened here?

Before I interact with these questions I need to define my terms. What do I mean by fundamentalist? I touched on it in an older post which you can find HERE but I’m going to make it clear once again. When I say fundamentalist, I mean someone who is willing to abrogate one passage of clear scripture with another.

Doing so places the fundamentalist as the authority over interpretation of scripture. It’s better than liberalism in the sense that a fundamentalist is still curbed by the passages they believe in, but it can result in harmful false teachings depending on which passages they choose to abrogate.

When some say fundamentalist they simply mean someone who still believes the Bible is the Word of God. My usage of the term is not that broad.

Let me give a practical example of what I’m talking about. Read this passage carefully,

“When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 ESV

Paul is teaching above that we need to keep our grievances in house. I think a good passage to read this alongside is Matt 18.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. ‘ Matthew 18:15-17 ESV

The idea is we should try to work things out in house as much as we can. This teaching needs to be balanced with others in scripture though. In another place Paul is clear that we should submit to governing authorities. Take a look….

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:1-4 ESV

The government is given to be a curb against sin in society, it’s a good thing for us to have that. Even in the church this applies at one point or another. The curb against sin applies to one degree or another anywhere actual sin exists.

Where do we draw the line between when to keep something ‘in house’ and when we are to invoke the institutions of civil government? There’s room for interpretation there and reasonable people can disagree to a certain extent. I think it depends on the context, nature, and severity of the issue. But if the issue has reached the category of an actual crime then it’s time to call the police.

That said when it comes to rape, especially involving a child, getting the police involved as soon as possible should be obvious. The thing that really concerns me when I read the stories coming out of sovereign grace ministries is that when the parents learn their kids are being raped their first thought is to call the pastor. I understand the need for pastoral care, but that can wait until after you’ve called the police. Even the pagan know that raping is bad enough to deserve the sword of government.

In the stories I’ve read the parents and authority figures all seem to believe that even if allegations of child molestation arise one has to keep that in house. The pastor is the one handling that situation and you’re sinning if you call the police because that’s not a forgiving thing to do.


You can find more details on these stories HERE along with more context on the spiderweb of beliefs involved. I am going to link to two specifically though and quote a tiny bit that I want to zero in on.

“I was praised up and down for not calling the police but for contacting them first, for being a “Godly example” of a Christian wife, etc. When we went to church the first Sunday after the crisis, I was with two of my close woman friends, and they asked me what was going on, and I told them what had happened, feeling the need for support and help.” – Taylor’s Story

“We were told that there were not other incidents and that our child had been completely unaware. We were encouraged with scripture that no Christian should bring his brother to court but rather the church should mediate” – Noel’s Story

To summarize from there, we see the pastors trying to mediate both the victims forgiveness of the perpetrator and the perpetrators repentance. The idea was that only those things were necessary and the whole matter would be resolved. Of course that’s not enough, sex offender registries exist for a reason and should be used. Jail time certainly couldn’t hurt either because civil justice is a thing. There are three uses of the law in scripture, not just one.

The mother in Noel’s story in particular was under the belief that her church had to mediate this allegation and that the police and professional psychological help weren’t really an option. Joshua Harris seems to have the same concerns with these teachings now.

Sandi Villarreal, Sojourners: What was the initial turning point that led to some of the questions you had about the tenets of the book?

Joshua Harris: I think some of the earliest moments for me happened about six to seven years ago when I was still a pastor and I began to see ways in which the culture of our church was unhealthy. … It was a time in which I think our pastoral team was just starting to recognize a lot of legalism and really unhealthy patterns. And we invited into our home different groups of members of the church and asked them to share some of their stories, and that was the first time that I started having that thought, [that] my book ties into this sense of pressure that there’s one way to do relationships.

… And then we left our denomination and right at that time, our church and the movement was hit with a lawsuit related to sex abuse and it was just total chaos. I was in crisis mode for about five years — which, I think it was all tied together, even the issues of how sex abuse was reported with regards to pastors feeling like they had all the answers and that they could handle things when really we didn’t know what we were doing….

….I think there were also theological problems related to our view of the role of pastors and our view of the role of the faith and ways that were, in our case, unique to our movement: the low view of psychiatry or therapists and those types of things, and the idea that pastors should be able to help you with any kind of life issue that you’re facing.

When it comes to something like sex abuse, we just did not have the training. We needed to be calling in other people, we needed to be, obviously, making sure that — and we did report many cases of sexual abuse, but in some cases obviously we made huge mistakes.” – Sojourners Interview

He goes on to blame other teachings from when he was a pastor in the interview. He blames the patriarchy, complementarianism, and a lack of female leadership in his church. I would want to know what he means in saying that before digging in as his definitions and mine probably differ as greatly as our understanding of church government does. That said, I don’t think his conclusions were the root cause, I think it was the methodology. I do however respect that he admits he was wrong and is doing something to to acknowledge peoples pain and work through it.

To answer the original question I started this blog post with, I do think that a fundamentalist approach to scripture can compel a leader to cover up sex abuse. For whatever reason, the sovereign grace ministry leaders seem to have consistently taught an interpretation of 1 Cor 6 that abrogates any reasonable application of Romans 13.

That is an exercise of the fundamentalist methodology I defined in this post and I think it is the root cause of the mismanagement and cover up conspiracy. You take that out and none of these stories work out the way they read. Instead you would have seen parents going to the police much sooner and a percentage of the pain the victims and families endured would be severely mitigated. The pastors would be handling the absolution or binding end of things privately, and the legal end of things would be entirely separate. The only thing church government would have to get involved in is ensuring safety for the victim on Sunday mornings.

Would not have prevented the sex abuse from happening in the first place, but I think the root causes there go much deeper and we need Jesus to return to ultimately eliminate that.

Final Thoughts

There are actual consequences for poorly dividing the Word of God. Doing so leads to very harmful interpretations than ruin lives. I know that it’s popular in evangelicalism to overlook our differences and write things off when they don’t appear to be a “salvation issue” at first glance.

The reason I think this is the case is we want to be kind and agreeable, especially to other people that we consider to be Christian. The thing is, kindness and agreement are not mutually exclusive. You can kindly disagree with people, it’s not that hard. Sometimes the kindest thing one can do is disagree. If the false teachings in this community on church government had been called out a long time before the lawsuits how much pain could have been spared? Pain that may even be the weed patch that ultimately drove Joshua Harris into leaving word and sacrament and subsequently confessing unbelief.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg too, take a look at their understanding of the role of small groups and pastors in individual sanctification, it puts the treadmill of the Roman Catholic sacramental system to shame. Luther would have had a field day with these folks. That will be my next blog post on this.

About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
This entry was posted in Armchair Lounge, Heresy & Heterodoxy, Joshua Harris, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thoughts on the sex abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries

  1. Salvageable says:

    Very well stated. J.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The weird sacramentarian sacramental system in Joshua Harris former Church | Armchair Theologian

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