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.”