When C.J. Mahaney took a leave of absence this summer from the helm of his 100-church denomination, saying he was guilty of "various expressions of pride," conservative evangelicals nationwide took notice.
A college dropout who was once a hard-core partier, Mahaney went on to become one of the most-recognized and popular faces of neo-Calvinism, which teaches that man is lowly, sinful and in desperate need of spiritual oversight. Mahaney, with his perma-grin, distinctively casual style (shaved head, no jackets), and successful books and conferences, put a happy, hip face on the idea of discipline.
But inside his Gaithersburg-based Sovereign Grace Ministries movement, there was a growing sense that things had gone too far. Former church members said Mahaney had created something they thought was more like a cult.
His leave came days after a former top Sovereign Grace pastor distributed hundreds of pages of e-mails and internal church documents that portrayed Mahaney as fixated on the sins of everyone below him, particularly critics. The documents, which included discussions among the pastors, showed Mahaney and others threatening the movement's co-founder, saying they would make private family details public if the man were too openly critical of Sovereign Grace as he left.
Mahaney, who grew up in Takoma Park, is attending the Capitol Hill church of another well-known neo-Calvinist, Mark Dever. He's written a couple of blog posts thanking God for helping him "perceive a degree of my sin." He declined to comment for this article.
"Although my experience of conviction has already started — and this is an evidence of God's mercy — I'm sure there is more for me to perceive and acknowledge," he wrote. "I am resolved to take responsibility for my sin and every way my leadership has been deficient, and this would include making any appropriate confessions, public or private. Most importantly I want to please God during this season of examination and evaluation."
As the discussion about the direction of the ministry heated up, the daily clicks on two blogs on which former members vent shot into the tens of thousands. Usually anonymously, people told story after story of Sovereign Grace pastors being abusively controlling, shaming people who criticized clergy and dividing families when someone disagreed with a pastor. Some alleged that sexual abuse counseling had been poor, with victims being told to also scour themselves for sin.
"We as a family experienced a pattern of spiritual abuse, hypocrisy, harshness, deceit and some unfortunate threats that were not righteous for Christians and need to be repented," said Larry Tomczak, who co-founded the ministry with Mahaney during the hippie-ish Jesus Movement of the 1970s and then bitterly split from him two decades later. "There has been something systematic in the handling of people that has deviated from biblical, pastoral norms and has had serious implications in many people's lives. Lots of people have been waving flags. Hopefully, things are changing."
Now facing what its interim leader, Dave Harvey, calls a "time of crisis," Sovereign Grace has called in a Christian reconciliation firm to help decide Mahaney's future and whether to create a new structure for dealing with conflicts.
Two other church leaders at Covenant Life, the flagship church in Gaithersburg, have stepped down. Mahaney's protégé, Josh Harris, who is Covenant Life's lead pastor, left the denomination's board because of differing views on what God is trying to say through the shake-up. Although there is no evidence that the leadership upheaval has harmed attendance, pastors clearly know many congregants are asking questions. Covenant Life is holding unprecedented open-mike events. Some pastors have launched blogs.
Some conservative evangelicals worry that an inspiring movement might lose steam because of something akin to a management failure.
Experts have charted a rise of Christian energy in the past decade or so around the ideas of Calvin and Reformed Protestantism, which see a God that loathes prideful humans and predestines who will be Christian and who will be saved. Time magazine in 2009 called Calvinism one of the year's most influential ideas, and researchers say more and more students at Christian schools seem intrigued by these theologies.
Dennis Horton, a Baylor University professor of religion who studies resurgent Calvinism, said the trend emphasizes the sovereignty of God — thus the name of Mahaney's group — as opposed to free will and the idea that one can boost one's chances of salvation through good deeds.
"Of all the groups, they are more susceptible to authority issues because they put so much emphasis on authority and hierarchy," he said.
Thousands of pastors have come to Together for the Gospel leadership conferences centered on these ideas. They are run by co-founders Dever, Mahaney and Al Mohler, a Southern Baptist leader. Mohler called Sovereign Grace "one of the most vital evangelizing movements of this generation."
What happens to Mahaney is important because American churches are increasingly unable to take firm stands on anything, he said.
"You have an America today where very strong churches will bring forth strong disagreement and strong kinds of ministry may bring on strong adverse reactions. The alternative is becoming a generic church with a generic message, and that's not who C.J. is," Mohler said.
Some close watchers of American evangelicalism say the Sovereign Grace controversy shows the challenge in balancing desire for strong pastoral discipline with a culture swimming in free, unaccountable chatter on social media.
The Web is playing a powerful role in Mahaney's woes even as his movement owes much of its popularity to it. His wife and three daughters co-write a chatty, hipster-looking blog about "biblical womanhood," and Harris is something of a rock star in conservative evangelical circles for his book about dating and the importance of traditional courtship.
What happens next is unclear. Sovereign Grace officials emphasize they are deep into a period of spiritual reflection and management nit-picking. They clarified that he remains on staff. He joined with some other Sovereign Grace pastors at a retreat this summer, and some experts say he is too popular a figure in a thriving movement to disappear over the controversy.
In an interview, leaders of Sovereign Grace acknowledged some mistakes but seemed to focus more on how the fire has been fanned by many anonymous online posters. In sermons and blog posts this summer, they have referred to biblical bans on gossip and slander. Debate broke out among members when Harris first suggested that people read the insurgent blogs and then said not to.
"Sometimes pastors in their zeal to help people, they have strongly suggested things they needed to leave it to people to figure out for themselves," said John Loftness, a member of the church's board.
But things seem likely to change.
"I think many people nationwide have been watching and waiting and hoping for this day to come," Tomczak said. "We can't cover it up. Bring it out, change where change is necessary. Confess where there have been wrongs, repent, go forward, be redemptive."