Damage control at Covenant Life Church, pt. 1

I mistakenly scheduled this the post before I was done drafting it – so this post may change pretty dramatically in the next few days. Just FYI! :p

Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spiritual abuse.

After over two years of mostly ignoring accusations of widespread dysfunction and abuse in their churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries is finally paying attention. In recent months, Joshua Harris, current senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, the SGM motherflagship church, has been meeting with present and former members of the church to hear their grievances. This past Sunday, he led a church-wide “family meeting” in which he apologized for “where we’ve gotten things wrong” and pledged to “grow as leaders and as a church.”

Well, it sounds nice, but I’m not buying this “apology.” For a lot of reasons. Just for starters:

1) It’s framed dishonestly from the very beginning. There’s no acknowledgement that this is the result of increasing pressure and bad press from ex-members’ blogs, particularly Survivors and Refuge. They’re sticking to their policy of closely monitoring the blogs in secret while publicly pretending that they don’t exist. Instead Josh claims that “God has been showing the pastors about where we’ve gotten things wrong” and “answering our prayer that he would revive us and refine us.” Well. God works in mysterious ways, I guess, including online callouts for covering up child molestation. “His” timing in bringing correction and revival also curiously coincides with declining enrollments at Covenant Life School and loss of members in several SGM churches.

2) Josh acknowledges mistakes in a vague and unsatisfying manner. He glosses over huge issues in a matter of minutes. This would be fine if there were any indication that there will be future meetings to discuss these issues in more detail, but there isn’t. This is a church culture that hammers home to its members that when someone sins, they should make a specific confession of sin, and a specific plan to do differently (you know, repentance). There’s no specificity here, only running down a list of things people have been saying for years in a superficial, parroting fashion that doesn’t give much indication that Josh or the other pastors truly comprehend or care about the problems at hand. Once again the pastors hold themselves to a far lower standard of ‘holiness’ than they expect of their members.

For example, Josh states that in at least one case where a pastor was having “problems” with a teenage child, he (Josh) didn’t respond in a caring way. Which pastor? What was wrong about his response? Wouldn’t more transparency and specificity show he’s really serious about recognizing where things were done wrong and about changing in the future? It seems to me that the pastors want all the benefits of making an apology without having to take on all the self-sacrifice and pain that comes with making a sincere admission of wrongdoing.

3) Relatedly, he refuses to take proper responsibility for problems at CLC (which are characteristic of SGM as a whole). He uses passive language, admitting only that the pastors “allowed” a toxic culture to develop at CLC, or “could have worked harder” to prevent such a culture from developing. He repeatedly denies any pastoral responsibility for communicating narrow-minded and oppressive beliefs to the congregation, e.g.: “If you went back and listened to past messages, I don’t think you’d find us teaching, ‘There’s only one godly way to do this or that'” and “I don’t think the ‘good parents = good kids’ idea has characterized our teaching on parenting.” In effect he casts the problems at CLC as being the primary fault of the lay members (for what, being too stupid to understand what the pastors really meant?). The root problem is that members weren’t listening carefully enough.

This is utter nonsense. Whatever Joshua Harris might be, he’s neither unintelligent nor completely naive, and he would have to be to fail to recognize that SGM’s oppressive and abusive culture is a direct product of what its pastors have clearly communicated to members from its earliest years. Take an issue that I’ve been directly affected by: Josh implies that the pastors “unintentionally” gave the impression that “to practice biblical femininity, [women] shouldn’t pursue higher education or work outside the home.” This is simply not true.

Josh is probably technically correct that one is unlikely to find any recorded sermons in which an SGM pastor says that women shouldn’t go to college, or work outside the home. Like most complementarians, SGM’s leaders are very careful to avoid communicating their misogyny so explicitly. But there’s no mistaking their consistent pattern of undermining higher education or out of home employment for women, for example, in Brent Detwiler’s teaching (particularly “Thoughts on Vocation”*) on how young adults should prepare for (straight) marriage and parenthood, which he was teaching as recently as 2006 and which is still posted on his former church’s website:

YOUNG LADIES MUST PREPARE TO BE HOMEMAKERS…Prepare to Marry Young If God’s Will; Don’t accept cultural norms and practices…Don’t Assume College or Career:
1) Be aware of serving the cultural idol of education and career.
2) Be willing to lay aside the pursuit of higher education if marriage comes early.
3) Be willing to lay aside a career when married.
4) Think of a non-paying (but very rewarding and important) “career” in the home related to your husband and children.
5) If unmarried, consider a “feminine” vocation or job that will benefit family later.

Detwiler further divides reasons married women work outside the home into “necessary” reasons and “wordly” reasons. The only “necessary” reasons are a husband’s unemployment or disability, or to save up money or pay off debts. The clear implication is that any woman who works outside of the home when her husband is also employed is sinning if her work is not indispensable to family finances. Meanwhile, worldly reasons for a woman to work outside of the home include:

6) Identity and fulfillment primarily in work outside the home. Not content with obscurity of being a wife, mother and homemaker… [my emphasis] 8) Husband and wife may think she can work outside home with little or no harm to the marriage and family. 9) Realization by a woman that it may be easier to work outside the home than in the home as a wife, mother and homemaker.

There’s an obvious disdain here for women and especially mothers who have outside employment. Detwiler clearly implies that such women are lazy, self-absorbed, and unwise parents. He clearly associates a woman working outside the home with “harm” to her marriage and family. He states that there is “lack of biblical support” for women to work full-time outside of the home. This is official SGM teaching – or if it’s not current official teaching, it’s not been clearly repudiated, and it needs to be.

That’s even without the fact that the pastors send an unmistakable message by “leading” the vast majority of their wives to be homeschooling, stay at home moms and “leading” the vast majority of their daughters to live with their parents until they marry, to attend local community colleges if they go to college at all, to pursue stereotypically feminine careers as secretaries, teachers, or nurses, and to become homemakers when they marry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these lifestyles (and it’s worth keeping in mind that choice in these matters is a luxury that many, many people around the world don’t have). But when practically every immediate female relative of an SGM pastor makes the same choices, it’s not a free choice, and it sends a clear message to SGM members that truly “godly” women should, barring a few exceptions, always conform to one narrowly defined lifestyle.

Yet Joshua Harris would have us believe that any impression CLC members might have that it’s less godly for Christian women to have college degrees (or heaven forbid, post-bac degrees) or full-time careers was a complete misinterpretation on the members’ parts and never intended by the pastors.

What a load of crap. Memo to Josh: sincere apologies don’t involve lying or insulting your audience’s listening comprehension.


*Just in case this page is taken down later – I have copies of this and other outlines documenting Detwiler’s extremely sexist teachings.

17 Comments

  1. And another reason to do what I do. Not only was it not biblical for women to work outside of the home; it wasn’t biblical for men to work outside of the home either. Both parents worked at home, normally self-sufficient farms where EVERYONE worked at home. Merchants lived above or next door to their shops. Only traders and soldiers worked outside the home. The biblical model of work was broken when men went to work in the Industrial Age leaving their wives and children home. That’s when the biblical model for work was broken, not when women started working outside of the home.

    Women’s work DROVE ancient economy: they made textiles. Their spinning and weaving is why there was an ancient economy in the first place. Women working has always made the world go round and always been biblical. So glad I finally got the E-book out to combat these lies.

    And a good reminder for finding an agent for Career Women of the Bible. Thanks for keeping me on track Grace.

    • Shawna, I tried making this very point at CLC care group meetings — and of course was completely ignored. I explained that in my family both of my grandmothers taught school (and one also worked during WW2 in a factory, conducted the census, and as needed worked at Sears). My mom’s folks theme song during their 60+ marriage was “Side by Side” and they studied, worked, served, and lived that way — not as a hierarchy, but as partners.

      A care group leader actually told me in front of the whole group that I was in sin for teaching part-time (even though his wife also took shifts as a nurse), even though we were living in apartment, scraping by. Then, just to make things complicated, another care group member said I was in sin for wanting to stay home with my kids, because my job was to support my husband as he pursued his dreams of succeeding as an artist/illustrator/drummer/whatever.

    • Great points, Shawna! Ignorance of history is a huge issue in evangelicalism. Well, that, and the substitution of fraudulent, manipulative historical fabrications for proper history. These false narratives prop up not only misogyny in the evangelical church but also racism and nationalism…

      I didn’t know you were working on a book on this topic! That’s great.

      • Ignorance of history isn’t just a problem in evangelicism. It is a problem in our society’s treatment of women, racial minorities, non-heteronormative people, the poor, workers, the disabled, and really just about everyone that isn’t controlling the message.

        • Very true! Though I do think the ahistoricalism of treating white American 1950s suburban gender roles as timeless and universal is particularly extreme in evangelicalism and other patriarchal church communities.

  2. I am absolutely stunned at how much of a high-control religious cult this is.

    I’m a survivor of the Watch Tower Society, and the stuff I’ve been reading about SGM has made me shudder at how close their ideologies come to the teachings Jehovah’s Witnesses must live by.

    Ugh.

    • It is a high control cult, absolutely. It’s striking to me how similar such groups are, when you get down to the nub of it.

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  8. Preston Thomas says:

    What’s the big deal? People are people aren’t they? I don’t understand why such a big deal has been made of this or whatever it is you people are making a big deal out of. I don’t know what you are talking about and I don’t want to know. It’s all just stupid unproductive gossip if you ask me.

    I am a new Christian and it reminds me of when I was a kid and how we viewed “adults.” We thought they were NUTS. There was always a problem the “adults” wanted to argue about. It made becoming an adult very undesirable. We would say when we grew up, we would not be like that. Then we grew up and we found that we were right as kid’s. Adult’s quiblle over so many things. They do it in the world and yes, they even do it church. People don’t change from being human to being above-human just because they go to church.

    Why is it that people never seem to learn to deal with difference of opinion? What would Jesus say about difference of opinion? He’d probably say, “Oh Grow Up.”

    I lived a worldy life for so many years and then I started to go to church a very short time ago. It was there I found salvation. I accepted Jesus and and am so happy to have been accepted by Him. I am bowed and bent before the cross and that is where I choose to be and that is where I will choose to stay. I found safety there and it is the only place I feel safe. I am like that little kid again. Every once in awhile, I lift my head to look around and I see wonderful things but when people start behaving as “adult’s” instead of behaving as grown-ups, I know exactly where to go to find safety ~ the foot of the cross.

    I will learn to grow with Jesus even if it is just me and HIm. I think people that grow and then find fault in others muddy the waters. It could aptly named, “Jesus plus opinion.” Drop the opinion and what do you have?

    • Thanks for sharing your opinion, Preston.

      If you really want to know more about why this is a big deal and not just a quibble, you can keep reading the blog.

    • Preston..I’ll simply say..you’ve kind of defeated yourself…as you just gave an opinion yourself..on a matter that you’ve stated, “you nothing about.” In love brother, I urge you to become informed about the issue…and as far as what Jesus would say read John 13:34-35 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Part of coming to the cross is understanding that it’s not simply inward and concerned for only you, your safety, your opinion, but also about our brother or sister and their needs and concerns…and in this issue…Our sisters need our ears to listen and for Christ to rule our hearts..

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