(Photo: Flickr/James Thompson)
Citing a desire to keep his peers from any "unfair and unwarranted criticism" stemming from a lawsuit filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries, C.J. Mahaney has announced his departure from the biennial Together for the Gospel (T4G) pastors conference he co-founded in 2006 with fellow evangelical Christian leaders Mark Dever, Albert Mohler and Ligon Duncan.
In a letter dated July 1, 2013, and published on the T4G website, Mahaney writes:
After much prayer, reflection and counsel I have decided to withdraw from participation in the 2014 Together for the Gospel conference. My reason for doing so is simple: I love these men and this conference and I desire to do all I possibly can to serve the ongoing fruitfulness of T4G.
Unfortunately, the civil lawsuit filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries, two former SGM churches and pastors (including myself), continues to generate the type of attention that could subject my friends to unfair and unwarranted criticism. Though dismissed in May (and now on appeal), the lawsuit could prove a distraction from the purpose of this important conference. My withdrawal is not intended to communicate anything about the merits of the suit. My decision simply reflects the reality that my participation could create a hindrance to this conference and its distinct purpose of serving so many pastors. My strong desire is to make sure this doesn't happen. I believe the most effective way I can serve my friends who have supported me, and continue to support me, is by not participating in the 2014 conference.
My enthusiasm for this conference is undiminished and I believe it will continue to be a powerful context for encouraging and equipping pastors in their efforts to serve their churches and proclaim the gospel. I am immensely grateful for the undeserved privilege to have been involved in previous conferences, and, most importantly, my ongoing friendship with these men I love and respect.
Mahaney, currently leading Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville (Kentucky), had been overseeing the Sovereign Grace Ministries church-planting organization since its founding 30 years ago, but stepped down as president from the evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic network in April as it prepared to undergo a new executive organizational structure. Sovereign Grace Ministries also moved last year its headquarters from Gaithersburg, Md., to Louisville, where it shares affiliations with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The network had been fighting a lawsuit brought in October 2012 by former Sovereign Grace Ministries church members who claimed there had been a cover-up of child physical and sexual abuse and protection of accused abusers, allegedly at the hand of some leaders. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace Ministries co-founder Larry Tomczak and John Loftness, who resigned as chairman of the SGM board in February, were named among the defendants in the civil lawsuit. In May, a Maryland judge dismissed most of the suit due to plaintiffs having failed to file before the statute of limitations expired, among other issues. As Mahaney, 59, noted in his statement, the 11 plaintiffs have appealed the court's decision. In addition, the pastors and churches named in the lawsuit could face criminal charges since felonies, such as sexual abuse of a child, are exempt from the statute of limitations.
Although Sovereign Grace Ministries has experienced the departure of several member churches from its estimated 80-member network due to handling of the controversy and lawsuit, several Christian ministers, such as Kevin DeYoung and Don Carson, stepped forward once the lawsuit was dismissed to express their confidence in and support of Mahaney. Speaking in a joint Gospel Coalition statement issued May 24, Carson, DeYoung and Justin Taylor insisted: "We are not ashamed to call C. J. a friend. Our relationship with C. J. is like that with any good friend — full of laughter and sober reflection, encouragement and mutual correction. He has regularly invited — even pursued — correction, and we have given him our perspective when it is warranted.
"While the admission of friendship may render this entire statement tainted in the eyes of some, we hope most Christians will understand that while friends should never cover for each others' sins, neither do friends quickly accept the accusations of others when they run counter to everything they have come to see and know about their friend. We are grateful for C. J.'s friendship and his fruitful ministry of the gospel over many decades."
T4G trio Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan and Albert Mohler also issued a similar statement at the time, but it has since been removed from the conference website and Facebook page.
Other prominent Christians, such as the Rev. Billy Graham's grandson and Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment co-founder, Boz Tchividjian, criticized both The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel statements made in defense of Mahaney.
"Why no mention that CJ Mahaney was actually the Senior Pastor at one of these churches where all of this horrific abuse allegedly occurred AND that [he] discouraged these families from bringing this matter to the God ordained civil authorities?" Tchividjian reportedly wrote on Facebook. "Omitting such a fundamentally important fact from this statement is a fundamental error."
He added, "This lawsuit is less about the abuse and more about an institution that took steps to protect itself and its reputation over the victimized souls (and bodies) of little ones."
Mahaney, who pastored Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., for about as long as he led the Sovereign Grace Ministries network as president, stepped down from the church-planting network for about six months in 2011 amid accusations of "pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy." He was reinstated as president the following year after a board review cleared him of the accusations.
The next Together for the Gospel conference, meant to help encourage local churches and pastors to reaffirm the central doctrine of the Christian faith, is scheduled for April 8-10, 2014, in Louisville, with featured speakers including Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, David Platt, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Thabiti Anyabwile and Matt Chandler, among others.