By Bob Allen
One leading voice in a popular resurgence of Calvinism lent support to another Feb. 17 by showing up in the pulpit of a pastor accused in a lawsuit of covering up sexual abuse and facing leadership challenges in an eroding church-planting network that he leads.
John Piper, founder of Desiring God Ministries and former longtime pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, was one of 77 evangelical leaders addressed in a Feb. 6 open letter voicing concern about a class-action lawsuit in Maryland accusing Sovereign Grace Ministries founder C.J. Mahaney of failing to report allegations of sexual molestation to police, counseling accused pedophiles on how to avoid arrest and forcing child victims to meet with and “forgive” their abusers.
In Louisville, Ky., for a Feb. 15-16 collegiate conference on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Piper stayed over to preach Sunday at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, a church plant started by Mahaney after Sovereign Grace Ministries moved its headquarters last year to Louisville from Maryland, in part to strengthen ties to Southern Seminary.
“I chose to be here,” Piper said at the beginning of an hour-long sermon webcast. “Nobody forced me.”
Alluding to Mahaney, who was off-camera and moments earlier introduced the morning’s preacher, Piper quipped: “He’s a pretty persuasive guy, but I really, really wanted to be here, and therefore the opportunity arose and I snatched it, and I’m thankful for it.”
Piper said he is excited about Mahaney’s church plant and supports Sovereign Grace and “what God is doing in it across the country and around the world.” But he said his “most emotionally significant” reason to be there was his personal bond with Mahaney.
“He is my friend,” Piper said. “He has meant a lot to me over the years, both at the encouragement level of preaching and professional life — though nobody in ministry is a professional — but even more at the personal, family level of caring.”
“So it’s real easy for me to stand here and be with you,” Piper said. “It’s what I want to do.”
Piper made no direct mention of a lawsuit filed last October in Montgomery County, Maryland, that accuses Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace leaders of covering up a “pedophilia ring” for decades and putting concern for the church’s reputation ahead of children’s safety.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of setbacks for Mahaney, who has witnessed defections of more than a dozen of the 100 or so Sovereign Grace churches planted since he and others launched the church-planting movement three decades ago.
One such congregation is Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., where Mahaney was pastor for 27 years, and which housed Sovereign Grace Ministries’ offices until dissension within the movement prompted a relocation to Kentucky approved last April.
Stated reasons for selecting Louisville as the ministry’s new home included the proximity to Southern Seminary, allowing the organization “to upgrade our academic offerings, including opportunities for collaboration and potential transfer credit toward a master’s degree.”
Piper’s appearance at Sovereign Grace Church followed a Feb. 6 appeal by Brent Detwiler, a former associate of Mahaney, asking evangelical leaders to stop promoting the embattled preacher until serious questions about his fitness for ministry are answered.
In addition to Piper, recipients of the letter included Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Mahaney recently spoke in chapel and at a missions conference for college students.
Other recipients included Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Russell Moore, Southern Seminary’s theology dean and senior vice president for academic administration. Mohler and Moore joined Piper as headliners for a Feb. 15-16 Resolute collegiate conference on the seminary campus.
Mohler is a leading figure in a theological movement known by various labels including Reformed theology, Neo-Calvinism and the “doctrines of grace.” It is based on teachings of John Calvin, a 16th century reformer whose emphasis on predestination exerted strong influence on the formation of Baptists in Europe and the United States.
Growing popularity of the movement at education centers such as Southern Seminary, however, has prompted recent concern among leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some worry that disproportionate numbers of seminary graduates holding to ideas like double predestination – that God chooses some for salvation and destines others for hell – might bring division in traditional churches that believe salvation is freely offered to everyone and not just the elect.
Piper, the author of more than 50 books, is perhaps the movement’s most influential leader. He, Mahaney and Mohler are also among leaders in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group formed to keep “secular feminism” out of evangelical life, which has administrative offices housed on the campus of Southern Seminary.