When a pastor resigns after his 77-church network is implicated in “the largest evangelical sex abuse scandal to date,” how long does it take for him to regain the trust of his colleagues?
The answer, apparently, is 7 months. CJ Mahaney, the founding pastor of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), recently spoke at a conference called “Conviction to Lead 2013” at an SGM megachurch in Knoxville after a long absence from the public eye.
The lawsuit against SGM, which fizzled out in the late spring due to statutes of limitations, alleged that church leaders, including Mahaney, had actively worked to protect multiple abuse perpetrators while harassing and intimidating victims into silence. As T.F. Charlton wrote here on RD back in March:
The suit has been filed not only on behalf of the individual plaintiffs [8 at this point], but also on behalf of a much larger class of people allegedly abused as minors in SGM, who do not wish to come forward with their stories. The suit alleges that the potential additional victims are too many to be included as individual plaintiffs in the suit because SGM’s leaders have cultivated an “environment conducive to and protective of physical and sexual abuse of children.”
(Note: The lawsuit itself can be read here, though I cannot emphasize enough how triggering and generally upsetting it is.)
Mahaney offered no apology, only the vague self-deprecation and false-humility that are typical of his patter, and the sort of rhetorical back-slapping that one would expect in the boys club of evangelical Christianity.
Mahaney called Cornerstone Church, where the conference was held, “one of my favorite churches on the planet,” predicting that “there will be massive fruit from last night’s [conference] till the end of time. And you will only know on the last day what a difference this conference made.” But he saved his greatest praise for Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, architect of the “conservative revolution” in the Southern Baptist Convention, and the top-billed speaker at the conference. Comparing Mohler to legendary American pastor Jonathan Edwards, Mahaney rhapsodized about how smart Mohler is by gushing over his “stack of books”:
I’ve seen his stack of books. If you have a stack of books, I’m saying there’s quite a difference, pretty obvious difference, between your stack and his stack of books. So if you are comforting yourself, ‘I have a stack,’ well you might have a stack, but if we consider the nature and content of your stack as opposed to his stack, well, your stack looks pretty sorry and pathetic.
The nature and content of Mohler’s stack was apparently so moving Mahaney devoting 190 words to it and to Mohler’s “world-class gifts.”
This public display of affection is just the latest in a long-running and highly public friendship. Not only has Mahaney praised Mohler, he donatedover $100,000 to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mahaney’s former “flagship” church, Covenant Life, gave an additional $15,000 to SBTS.
And Mohler has been just as steadfast a friend to Mahaney, using his influence to help promote Mahaney’s work in the past with no signs that the lawsuite caused Mohler’s faith in Mahaney to waver on iota. After the lawsuit against SGM was dropped, in fact, Mohler and two fellow evangelicals published a statement of support for Mahaney, calling him “our friend” and a “vast influence for good.” The statement claimed that Mahaney was not charged with any “credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing.” Thus, they wrote, “we, along with many others, refused to step away from C.J. in any way.” The statement was withdrawn after it drew widespread criticism.
After this false start at rehabilitating Mahaney’s image, Mohler’s appearance alongside Mahaney at a small leadership conference feels like an attempt to test the waters for Mahaney’s return. Given the lack of critical response to the appearance, Mahaney will likely feel more comfortable returning to the broader evangelical conference circuit. Although he will likely never be as popular as he once was, with the help of friends like Mohler, he can continue to speak and earn a four-digit speaker fee.
A comment from subversive Christian blogger Julie Anne Smith whom I spoke to about a month ago was sadly prescient: “As long as a pastor has the right theology, their behavior, no matter how bad it is, can be covered up.”