Not long into our SGM journey, we started learning about loyalty. Loyalty is a wonderful thing, especially in a paradigm of mutuality in Christ. But this was not the kind of loyalty we learned at SGM.
A story early on demonstrates how we became conditioned to loyalty that works in only one direction. Unfortunately, I resisted the prompting of the Holy Spirit and bought into this monstrous perversion of a wonderful virtue.
The story I recall was a situation we were working through as a couple in the early nineties. Frankly, the issue itself was not earth shattering. But I got a shock when I realized a concern my wife expressed about me to my Care Group leader’s wife, showed up on a Care Group Leader’s report to the pastor. At the time, my first instinct was to label this as gossip. I went to the CG leader and expressed by objection to the sharing of information with a third party. My CG leader is a very humble man who I still occasionally relate to. His reaction was one of contrition. I remember he was very uncomfortable in this position. But as it was explained to me, CG leaders operate as “an extension of the pastors.” On this basis, communication about people within their “sphere” is fair game. I remember identifying it as glorified gossip: because “special people” share this information, what might otherwise be gossip is necessary communication to facilitate care. Unfortunately, I succumbed to this elitist perspective and later participated in it myself. But that would not be all.
I remember being impressed to see a church that boldly exercised church discipline. Now, years later, I have come to know people who were disciplined and have since learned that the narrative given to us by the church leadership was unbalanced and unjust in at least one situation. We see a trail of broken lives from that one incident that continues today. What is most disturbing is that the leadership operates like Mr. Magoo: they leave a trail of destruction and somehow don’t see the carnage they have created, all in the name of “doing church right.”
It is not just regular members or former members who are gossiped about and maligned, sometimes publicly. I remember the announcement about Larry Tomczak’s leaving SGM. At the time, “the process” impressed me. It seemed that the leadership did what it needed to do to protect the integrity of the ministry by having him step down. They sent a letter to all the churches announcing this. We now know there was much more to the story. After leaving SGM in 2008, I talked with Larry personally for the first time and learned just some of what happened behind the scenes. It did not take me long to realize Larry was a victim of slander. Let’s be honest. The so-called “apostolic team” lied.
So what is the deal here? Actually the explanation is very simple. There are two sets of rules within SGM: one for regular people, and another one for the “leadership.” Regular people are “spotlighted,” all of their sins identified and they become defined by their sin and shortcomings. They are encouraged to be accountable to leadership. Leaders are exalted. We are assured that they are humble people who walk out accountability with each other. When we see evidence they may be falling short, extreme caution is advised. We need to examine our hearts first. The result is the people are so repeatedly redirected back to navel gazing, their insecurity ultimately causes them to drop whatever it is they think they see. A friend and I put together a phrase to describe this arrangement: “Don’t trust your sinful heart. Trust ours.”
What we’re talking about is a system of “accountability” that only works in one direction. The people have to answer to leaders, but the leaders never bear a responsibility to answer to the people. This pastor/laity divide is profoundly ironic for professed Protestants. This is beyond even the Roman religious structure. What we have within SGM is a religious caste system.
For those reading this who are not, or never have been within SGM, I can tell you this mindset is prevalent in the American church system. Many leaders have developed an informal religious fraternity. They spend a good deal of time and energy honoring each other. And they view “regular people” with an attitude of condescendence. This is anything but New Testament leadership.
Without going too deeply into my story after leaving the SGM church, I will just say we experienced what I call a “halfway house,” a church plant with another church planting ministry very similar to SGM. Sadly, we found these same mindsets. The so-called “apostolic leader” and those with him seemed preoccupied with the need for people to “submit to their authority.” Again, this was a one-way street. We were expected to be accountable and submit to them. They were not compelled to do the same with us.
So what is this? I believe it is the very basic sin of favoritism.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13
The tragedy in this ecclesiastical religious pyramid system is that people without “titles, positions, or rank,” are held to a standard the leadership refuses to accept for itself. And even people with those positions are stripped of any respect once they are determined to be unfit or not called for ministry. They are cast aside and forced to accept a judgment on them and their character and gifting from an “elite class,” without any input from the rest of the body. This is a formula for egregious abuses and hypocrisy. Insulated as they are from correction, is it any wonder that at least two blogs have handled an incredible volume of activity on their servers: stories of abuse and hypocrisy that have gone on unaddressed for years.
And now, when allegations are lodged against the leadership, mainly the “top leader” of the ministry team, what is the solution? Church discipline? No, a reconciliation and evaluation process. SGM leaders, ask yourselves honestly: if you challenged a member about their sin repeatedly, without that person’s repentance, would that person be allowed to continue in good standing for years? You know the answer.
And to top it off, now that the main leader is “cleared,” the first order of business is not repentance and reconciliation, but recrimination. People who take issue with the way you have abused God’s name and His people are “marked” as divisive. You who apparently value your own reputations express nothing but contempt for that of others.
I also remember a nearby SGM church plant. When stories began circulating about the leader’s misdeeds, they were encouraged to read an article on gossip, slander, and bad reports. This has been common practice within the member churches.
The truth is, most often, division is the product of people who insist on putting their own reputations and their brand of religion over the priority of loving ALL of God’s people, whether they are in “our group” or not.
How do we change? We begin by acknowledging Jesus’ lordship over His church, and our appropriate relationship as brothers and sisters in God’s family. Before Paul addresses husband and wife relationships he speaks to our mutual relationship in the body: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is a foundational Kingdom value. Once in Him, we walk in a relationship of submission to each other. If we believe we can create a hierarchy or religious caste system from this, we clearly do not understand the gospel.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”(Romans 2:17-24 ESV)
Just insert “pastor” or “apostolic leader” in this text to replace “Jew”. The issue is the same. And sadly, the end product is a trail of carnage: the souls of precious people damaged by hypocrisy. I personally know people who are in a very dark place of unbelief because of what they have experienced. They’ve watched leaders sin grievously, with no consequence. We would do well to remember the religious system Jesus confronted, and honestly ask ourselves: are we guilty of perpetuating the same bondage?
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.(Matthew 23:1-12 ESV)