Chris Oswald, pastor at CrossHaven Church in Belleville, IL (a city located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis) has great news for his congregation, they have joined the Sovereign Grace denomination! I find this news deeply troubling. The Sovereign Grace denomination has been devastated by what some have called the biggest sexual abuse scandal to hit American Evangelicalism. To date, 40 churches have left the denomination including Covenant Life Church, the former flagship church of the denomination and also the former location of denominational headquarters. A class action lawsuit detailing the many cases of abuse that have taken place in several Sovereign Grace Churches was dismissed due to the statute of limitations issues in the state of Maryland. A new lawsuit will soon be filed in the state of Virginia against Sovereign Grace and some of the leaders on behalf of two of the victims of abuse.
C.J. Mahaney, the embattled former senior pastor of Covenant Life Church and former leader of the denomination, has fled the church he once deemed “the happiest place on earth” to plant a new church in Louisville, KY.
Carl Truman speaks to the issue of credibility plaguing many Christian celebrities and their loyal followers below. Although Truman does not mention C.J. Mahaney, surely his behavior warrants inclusion with the men mentioned.
For a brief critique of the current status of the Sovereign Grace denomination see my blog article “Prater’s Spin Symptomatic of Unhealthy SGM Leadership.” For a more thorough handling of the history of the sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Sovereign Grace denomination please read Brent Detwiler’s “Everything You Need to Know about “American Evangelicalism’s Biggest Sex Scandal to Date”
Mark Prater, Executive Director for Sovereign Grace Ministries, had this to say about CrossHaven Church joining the beleaguered Sovereign Grace denomination:
“I am excited to inform you that CrossHaven Church in Belleville, IL has been adopted into the Sovereign Grace family of churches!
Last month the Midwest-Northwest Regional Assembly of Elders unanimously voted to adopt CrossHaven and in doing so receive their elders, Chris Oswald, Rodney Fickas, and Victor Chininin Buele into Sovereign Grace.”
Chris Oswald, pastor at CrossHaven Church said this on the Sovereign Grace Ministries website:
“We came to believe that Jesus’s vision for His bride includes extra-local connectivity and cooperation between local churches. We also came to believe that we were called to give to and not just take from this network of churches. About 18 months after the initial launch of CrossHaven, we contacted Sovereign Grace to explore adoption.
Shortly thereafter, a pastor from all the way up in Minnesota called me. I vividly remember sitting in my car on my lunch break sensing the Spirit at work in Rick Gamache. He and Jon Hansel served us from the very beginning. I cannot express how much I respect these men. When, in the midst of the adoption process, CrossHaven observed the difficulties Sovereign Grace was experiencing, I was able to assure the plurality of leaders and the congregation that I was absolutely resolute. I was going to walk with Rick Gamache in gospel partnership no matter what.
…CrossHaven is under four hours away from Louisville, so I hope to take advantage of our proximity by attending as many classes at the Pastors College as possible. I can’t tell you how excited I am at the prospect of receiving fresh encouragement through theological education.”
Back in September 2014, Oswald preached at the Sovereign Grace Church in Bloomington, MN. It seems likely the transition into the Sovereign Grace denomination will be an easy one as Oswald displayed a surprising mastery of SGM-speak, telling the Bloomington congregation that “I thank you for serving me through him.”
Chris Oswald’s roots are from the Southern Baptist tradition, so on the surface, it might seem odd that he has now hitched his wagon to the Sovereign Grace denomination. But if you know the history of Sovereign Grace you will realize that they have become more Baptist-like in their views over the years. Beginning as a strongly charismatic group, complete with modern day apostles, SGM has had a few name changes and over the years lost most of their charismatic characteristics. They are now at the point of mirroring a reformed Southern Baptist church, much like Mark Dever’s Capitol Hill Baptist Church. (Notwithstanding SGM’s confusing mess of a church polity document.) And if you scroll down the page you will see that Chris Oswald “likes” 9Marks and Reformed theology. As a matter of fact, when C.J. Mahaney fled Covenant Life Church he initially attended Mark Dever’s Capitol Hill Baptist Church (making a complete mockery of both men’s policies of church discipline.)
So, according to Oswald, CrossHaven Church began to pursue “adoption” in the Sovereign Grace denomination 18 months after the initial launch of the church. We can see from Oswald’s Linked-in profile that he started at the CrossHaven church in September, 2007. That would mean he approached Sovereign Grace leadership in March, 2009. The Sovereign Grace sexual abuse scandal became widely known in 2011. One wonders just how much the average CrossHaven member knows about, in the words of Chris Oswald, “the difficulties Sovereign Grace was experiencing?” Here is a quick refresher for those who may not be familiar with “the difficulties.”
In spite of the information above Oswald states that: “When, in the midst of the adoption process, CrossHaven observed the difficulties Sovereign Grace was experiencing, I was able to assure the plurality of leaders and the congregation that I was absolutely resolute. I was going to walk with Rick Gamache in gospel partnership no matter what.”
One wonders if the CrossHaven plurality of leaders and congregation was as absolutely resolute as Oswald was? Surely there are discerning individuals in the church capable of critical thought. Admittedly I do not know Chris Oswald, but I can’t help but wonder if he is another heavy-handed authoritarian pastor that will determine what is best for “his” church with little or no input from other church members. Are the CrossHaven Church members aware that 40 churches, including Covenant Life Church, the former flagship church of the denomination, have withdrawn from Sovereign Grace? Are they aware that C.J. Mahaney has blackmailed the former co-founder of the denomination and covered up sexual abuse? Are they aware that a former youth worker, Nathaniel Morales, is now serving 40 years in prison for molesting young boys? Are they aware that church leaders paid hush money to keep one Sovereign Grace pastor from going public with the information that his son had been sexually abused by the son of another Sovereign Grace pastor? Are they aware of the convoluted church polity now in use in the Sovereign Grace denomination? Are they aware that “All SG Churches will sign a Partnership Agreement stating their agreement with the SG Statement of Faith and the SG Book of Church Order, and will commit to supporting the decentralized and centralized ministries of SG with minimally 5% and ideally 10% of the church’s budget?”
Oswald mentions that one of the benefits of belonging to the Sovereign Grace denomination is that he will be able to drive a mere 4 hours and attend theological classes at the Pastor’s College in Louisville. Yet Joshua Harris doesn’t seem to have benefitted much from the Pastor’s College, which before C.J. Mahaney fled to Louisville was co-located with Covenant Life Church. Harris has resigned from his position of senior pastor at Covenant Life Church citing in part due to his lack of education, which he now intends to pursue at Regent Seminary. If Oswald is serious about furthering his theological education I would suggest that he save about 6 hours on his round trip drive and take some classes at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He would be much better “served.”
It is lamentable that a pastor would willingly and “resolutely” subject his church to the corrupt leadership of the Sovereign Grace denomination. In the words of Brent Detwiler, “People inside and outside of SGM must come to grips with the corruption that characterizes the leadership of SGM starting with C.J. Mahaney. He was the President of SGM when this hush fund was set up. No one should be supporting or following any of these men. As I’ve demonstrated countless times, you cannot believe anything they tell you.”
One can only wonder at the discernment of pastor Chris Oswald.
Update- February 26, 2016: Recent articles in both TIME magazine and The Washingtonian magazine have further highlighted the fact that any pastor who brings his church into the Sovereign Grace Churches denomination has either shown an alarming lack of discernment or not done his homework or both. Read this article.
Also, for a recent analysis of the current financial situation of Sovereign Grace Churches, read this post. This denomination is facing serious financial problems in the not-to-distant future. Their only hope for survival is to plant and adopt churches. The problem is, with all the bad press they have been receiving, it is tougher for SGC to portray an air of respectability. Additionally, another suit on behalf of the seuxally abused children is looming on the horizon. Ace attorney Susan Burke has clearly stated she will be filing in Virginia in the near future. This could very easily bankrupt the small denomination.