CJ Mahaney, founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries in a 2006 photo.

Megachurch pastors leave Reformed evangelical network amid child abuse scandal

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(RNS) Two pastors have left a Reformed evangelical group after a pastor from the Maryland megachurch they oversaw confessed to covering up sex abuse claims, the latest chapter in a public struggle over evangelicals coming to terms with abuse within their ranks.

Pastors Joshua Harris and C.J. Mahaney left the leadership council of The Gospel Coalition, a central hub for the Reformed evangelical movement, after a trial involving child abuse at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which both men have overseen.

CJ Mahaney, who has left the Gospel Coalition council after a trial involving child abuse in the church, in a 2006 photo.

C.J. Mahaney, who has left the Gospel Coalition council after a trial involving child abuse in the church, in a 2006 photo

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

A criminal trial that concluded last week raised questions about what pastors at Covenant Life knew about the abuse and why steps weren't taken to stop it.

Nathaniel Morales, 56, was convicted Thursday (May 15) of sexually abusing three underage boys between 1983 and 1991 when he was a youth leader at Covenant Life.

During testimony, former Covenant Life pastor Grant Layman suggested that he withheld information from the police about the abuse allegations against Morales.

“Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse?” public defender Alan Drew, who represented Morales, asked during cross-examination. “I believe so,” Layman said. “And you didn’t,” Drew responded. “No,” Layman said.

Layman, who is Mahaney's brother-in-law, stepped down from his role at Covenant Life in March.

Mahaney and Harris are among a coterie of evangelical leaders who are trying to push the movement toward an embrace of Reformed theology, which has traditionally been the domain of Presbyterians and other followers of John Calvin, the 16th-century French theologian.

Reformed theology differs from some evangelical teaching in key aspects, particularly on the question of salvation, and it has roiled life within the Southern Baptist Convention, where 30 percent of pastors now consider themselves Calvinists, or Reformed.

The allegations of abuse cover-up that have dogged Mahaney's leadership -- he was never personally accused of abuse -- in recent years have also cast unwanted attention on the Reformed network he helped start and have sent leading Reformed pastors rushing to his defense.

Mahaney founded Covenant Life in 1977 and now leads Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Ky., which is also the home of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a national association of 80 Reformed evangelical churches.

Mahaney could not be reached for comment, but Harris tweeted Monday that he needed to focus on repairing the Maryland megachurch, which he inherited from Mahaney in 2004:

"I resigned the @TGC Council because I don't want the present challenges at my church to distract from this terrific ministry. Godspeed, TGC!"

Mahaney and Harris are no longer listed on The Gospel Coalition website, which boasts of leaders such as Al Mohler, president of Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

An employee at The Gospel Coalition said no further comment was expected.

Harris said in a tearful sermon on Sunday (May 18) that he has asked the church's board to consider placing him on administrative leave while the church continues to investigate the issue. "We have a zero tolerance policy of abuse of any kind," Harris said, urging people to go to the police if they know of any abuse.

Harris said that because of a separate civil lawsuit, church leaders are unable to speak openly about what pastors knew what when. "Right now, we're still getting conflicting information," Harris said.

In a statement released last year, Covenant Life leaders said they didn’t know about the abuse until “many years later.”

Nearly a year ago, Mohler, Keller and others came to Mahaney's defense after he was accused in a lawsuit of covering up sexual abuse of children. Mahaney announced that he would pull out of a conference called Together 4 the Gospel due to ongoing lawsuits, though he was seated in the front of the audience with conference leaders.

Mahaney took a leave of absence from Sovereign Grace Ministries in 2011 after other pastors in the network charged him with “expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” Six months later, the group reinstated Mahaney, declaring full confidence in him.

In October 2012, the same month that a lawsuit was filed, Mahaney stepped down from Sovereign Grace Ministries to focus on pastoral ministry. Two months later, Harris' Maryland church voted to leave the Sovereign Grace network.

In a sermon a year ago, Harris acknowledged that he had been sexually abused as a child, telling the congregation amid the ongoing lawsuit, “Please don’t allow the circumstance to draw you away from faith in Jesus.”




  1. This is a very sad story regarding sexual abuse in the churches of America. In my mind this is a strong confirmation of the biblical pattern of integrated family worship and against the unscriptural pattern of segmenting families for various church ministries and activities.

    Several years ago, while a member of an assembly that promoted various programs that separated children from their parents, I attended a one-hour leadership meeting for those who ran the children’s program. The vast majority of that time was spent attempting to deal with the issue of ensuring that all those working in the program had gone through the appropriate background checks, that the church had the documentation of such on file, and making sure that we struck a balance between obtaining the required consent forms and registration fees from visiting children and not making documentation an impediment for ministering to them. It dawned on me that we were expending a tremendous amount of energy, not to mention opening up potential avenues for abuse that no level of documentation can prevent, all because we were engaging in the unscriptural practice of separating children from their parents for various worship and activities.

    I am thankful to have left that practice behind and believe that God’s people are best served by following the simple pattern provided to us in the New Testament, namely, integrated family worship (Acts 2:44a, Acts 20:9a, Mark 10:14) which involves singing (Eph 5:19), preaching (II Tim 4:2), and praying (Jas 5:16). 

  2. What about the kids whose parents can’t/won’t attend church with them?

  3. Very rich how Joe Carter, an editor for TGC, claimed on twitter that Mahaney and Harris were not council members to begin with…until confronted with irrefutable google cache evidence to the contrary…then, when caught, he claims that he (an EDITOR, mind you) does not “keep up” with this stuff. Really now…why should anyone believe him that TGC and its players have nothing to do with what is happening at SGM if he cannot “keep up” with the basic facts pertaining to the case?

    God bless the brave survivors! #IStandWithSGMVictims

  4. Any chance this is the same Joshua Harris who wrote that ridiculous book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” all those years ago?

  5. He is the same one who wrote the dating book.

  6. Yep its the same sanctimonious individual that wrote that book in is very early 20’s. Apparently he had the code broken on life very early on. I had to deal with the fall out and legalism from that book and that person in an SGM church until I joined the Army at 17 to get away from it. It brings me great joy to see him fall from the place of pride he and others propped him up on.

  7. James…. you might want to be very careful if you find your heart having joy in such things…. the Lord is the avenger of ALL wrongs and ALL wrongs will be righted….BY GOD! 🙂

  8. The article is a bit misleading. Cov. Life left SGM because of their structural change in polity (how churches are governed). It was not related to the allegations.

  9. “It brings me great joy to see him fall from the place of pride he and others propped him up on.”

    That is a pretty revealing statement James. Taking joy in a tragic situation suggests a heart that is in a pretty bad place. Forgiveness is more joyful than vengeance.

  10. Thank you for bringing this up, Teresa! I drive the van at our church; always aware of the line between accessibility and legal recklessness for kids who, despite a lack of support from their parents, desire to be in the house of God each week.

  11. Funny the author would say “Mahaney and Harris are among a coterie of evangelical leaders who are trying to push the movement toward an embrace of Reformed theology”. That is poor journalism, though typical of website writing these days.

  12. What was so ridiculous about the book? It wasn’t like a Osteen or TD Jakes book!?

  13. It’s so sad that you still haven’t understood Matthew 7:1-6…especially if you are a follower of Christ! You might want to humbly focus on the log that is in your own eye before saying rash comments that don’t take into account the trial that Joshua Harris is going through…have compassion and pray that God would resolve this peacefully…Out of your heart your mouth speaks! Lord bless you…

  14. Great googly moogly James! I too had misgivings about the book, and found that it did cause some misconceptions and impractical solutions, the intention of the book was meant to address the myriad of Miley Cyrus and Justin Beiber (today’s examples) cloned 12 year-olds involved in musical chairs dating and sexually activity that did and still is infiltrating the church. James, you are walking precariously close to sinful pride yourself.

    “Do not gloat over your brother’s day, The day of his misfortune. And do not rejoice over the sons of Judah In the day of their destruction; Yes, do not boast In the day of their distress.” Obadiah 1:12

    “Have I rejoiced at the extinction of my enemy, Or exulted when evil befell him? “No, I have not allowed my mouth to sin By asking for his life in a curse… Job 29:30-31

    Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.… Galatians 6:1-2

  15. Did you not READ the article, or even just the dates?!? Though the title is a bit misleading, Harris has NOTHING to do with this other than he is a pastor at that church NOW. These despicable events took place during his formative years…LONG before he had any position of authority at that church. Joshua Harris and I are the same age, I met him on many occasions at various conferences in our youth. I am sorry if your personalities clashed and you did not like his writings…but this is no “fall” on his part. He is in a place to restore and bring healing to this hurting congregation. He, and the entire staff at SGC are in my prayers.

  16. The title is very misleading (probably by design possibly by ineptitude) ….. neither man was accused of abuse. Neither man was said to have had knowledge of abuse. Joshua Harris is not accused of a coverup. In reading some of the comments I would guess some people did not read article or understand what they read. Harris said he had zero tolerance for abuse.
    I suspect someone has an axe to grind and the title is disingenuous

  17. From all I’ve read, and I’ve read too much on it in the past, the sexual abuse issues did not occur under Joshua Harris’ watch. He came into leadership afterward.
    As for Mahaney, I’m sure he’d deal with it differently today and wishes he could go back and do so. There is a problem of taking our current standards and way of dealing with various issues and applying them to the past, on this issue in particular. In the past when this issue was found out it was hidden. It was not brought to the attention of the police. The way it’s dealt with has changed over time. It is arrogant in my opinion for people to attack Mahaney the way he has been attacked for dealing with it. These people need to be glad they weren’t in his position because it’s doubtful they’d done any different.
    Another thing, to use this issue to attack a particular theology or church practice or discredit a group these men were associated with, which seems to be done in this article, and in some of the comments in response, is wrong. It reminds me of what we commonly read in the secular news media where our minds are trying to be swayed in one direction or another. I think it’s poor journalism and only weak-minded people will be swayed.
    And to the negative comments toward Harris’ book, his thinking did evolve and mature on the topic, which he admitted to in a follow-up book on the same topic. But, to blanket dismiss the book and Harris’ thinking the way it has is just poor thinking. The book and it’s follow-up one are simply taking the Bible’s teaching and applying it with wisdom. The church should be counter-cultural, and if you don’t think so, just read your Bible. Another thing, God did say to flee sexual immorality. Harris’ has done nothing but wisely point out how to do just that! The sensibilities of those who fault him seem to be swayed more by the secular culture than God’s wisdom.

  18. It’s not Harris that is being prosecuted for sexual abuse.

  19. Thank you, I have been preaching against separating families for worship for years. It has never done any thing but hurt the church and families. God intends families to be in the worship service together, anything else is unscriptural and will lead to nothing good. Satan dosen’t care how he gets in as long as he can get in and the children he would love to lead astray.

  20. My husband & I NEVER allow ourselves to be alone with a member of the opposite sex or another person’s child. This is a safety rule that should be followed by every responsible Christian. It is for your own protection, as well as the protection of children. I even teach my own children this rule; never be alone with anyone, even another child. Overkill? I think not! We learned in our foster parenting classes that now days there are also false abuse reports from children. We also learned of instances where a foster child would falsely accuse older children of sexual abuse out of spite & jealousy. While I do believe most children generally report the truth in such matters, there ARE those who don’t! Being vigilant in making sure you or your children are never alone with another person in these circumstances ensures safety for everyone! I was also a victim of abuse as a child; my parents were very protective, but things can still happen to children! I have become a proponent for integrated family worship. For children whose parents do not attend church with their children & send them on the church bus I would highly recommend the church adopting this policy of never being alone with the children. It not only protects the children, but also the adults.

  21. The title of your article is very misleading, leading people who do not read the article to believe that Harris was involved in the child abuse scandal. Please retract that title and issue an apology. Just read through the comments here and you will see that is exactly what some people think. More careful editing by yourself or someone else would have noticed that the article title is very misleading!

  22. I think you are misunderstanding Harris’ position. He inherited the church from Mahaney and doesn’t have time to deal with a broken church and TGC. He was also abused as a child. How did he have the “code broken on life very early on”? He didn’t abuse anyone. He *was* abused.

    The principles of avoiding casual relationships with members of the opposite sex are very sound. Just ask anyone with serious baggage from ungodly relationships. You can be dealing with a damaged heart to STDs or children born out of wedlock. There are ditches on both sides of the road. Avoiding one too much will just put you in another. Put on your big girl panties and deal with stuff instead of running away.

  23. Great response! I never even considered that benefit of family integrated worship. About a year ago our family transitioned from a church where parents and kids went in separate directions for worship to a church where family integration and worship is of utmost importance. It was an adjustment for my kids initially, but now they love it!
    Praying for everyone involved!

  24. Joy is correct. It looks like the vultures are ready to devour innocent people. The “youth pastor” is guilty and has been found guilty.

  25. Denials, denials, denials is all that was heard out of the CLC and SGM “leaders” in regards to the Morales case. Until the case went to court and Grant Layman was put under oath.
    Then the truth comes out.
    CLC leadership knew about Morales as a repeat abuser and did NOTHING. except LIE about it to the parents. And the police. And to their congregation.
    Meanwhile, there is no compassion for the victims, there is no justice for the victims and there are NEW victims because CLC leadership continues to deny and lie.
    I pray that all the CLC/SGM leaders get a fair chance to tell their side of the story.
    In a courtroom.
    Under oath.
    Like Grant Layman.

  26. Joy, you are completely wrong by stating that Harris has “nothing” to do with the scandal. He, like the other Covenant Life pastors, is guilty for playing a role in the attempted coverup. So, what was his role?

    If you had actually researched the situation before making your claims, then you would have been aware of how Scott Bates, the father of Samuel and Daniel Bates (two victims in the criminal lawsuit), had spoken with the CLC pastors in *2007*. Bates expressed concern about how Morales was involved with a ministry in Las Vegas, NV.

    In *2007*, Joshua Harris was 33 and deeply involved with the leadership of CLC as he was being groomed by Mahaney to inherit the senior pastor position. I think it’s fair to say that someone is “of age” at 33.

    If you think Harris is innocent because no one would have told him about Bates speaking with the pastors about the abuse, then that’s incredibly naive because anyone with knowledge of how CLC operates knows how tight-knit the leadership group is.

    So, Harris *knew* that sexual abuse had taken place at CLC — and yet he chose to remain silent from 2007 on, including when the civil lawsuit brought the issue into the public spotlight.

    Is Harris just an innocent person who inherited these problems? NO. He has known about the child molestation that took place (since 2007) and chose to cover it up until worldly authorities blew the lid.

    Look up the court transcript if you need more evidence.

  27. While the story itself is tragic and disturbing from a Christian faith perspective, this is an excellent piece of journalism.

    All the facts and quotes can — and have been — verified and also appear in other reputable publications (Christianity Today, CBS News, etc.).

    The commenters who are criticizing this article either don’t understand the situation or don’t have adequate reading comprehension skills to process what was reported.

    Multiple commenters have tried to defend Harris by saying he is not being prosecuted himself for child abuse. The article never stated that; the article reports the *fact* that Harris has played a role in the coverup.

    Read my reply to Joy’s post if you want to learn how Harris was involved in the coverup.

  28. Re: “‘We have a zero tolerance policy of abuse of any kind,’ Harris said…”

    … except for the fact that they tolerated abuse for some time. Nice. I note the stunning irony here of a bunch of Reformed clergy behaving in a manner identical to that of their ecclesiastical rivals, the Roman Catholic hierarchs. Well done, guys. You’ve met your enemy … and your enemy is you!

  29. While having families worship together does not specifically solve the problem you reference, it does substantially reduce the opportunity for abuse in the context of the church itself by largely eliminating the occasions wherein someone might try something. It is a known fact that sexual predators actively seek out positions that provide them with trusted access to their victims. Reducing access reduces the likelihood of abuse of one’s children by someone in the church and also makes that particular church a less attractive access point for predators who are actively in search of such. I believe these points are not really even disputable, though it is certainly true that the problem is so ubiquitous that no single approach is capable of solving the problem.

  30. I should probably point out that when I use the term “integrated family worship” I am simply referring to the practice of the Primitive Baptist Church of which I am a member, and not to the more formal “integrated family worship” MOVEMENT responsible in many respects for popularizing the concept of late. For what it’s worth, Primitive Baptists have always practiced families worshiping together in the Sunday service, having shunned the encroaching concept of Sunday Schools among Baptists a couple of hundred years ago.

  31. Please reread the article. Joshua inherited the broken church. He has offered to set himself aside until everything is found out. He is NOT A HYPOCRITE. He is present putting things back together with Gods grace, guidance and a handful of Godly men. It’s this constant assumption and lies that drag out the healing. Reread statements and see what the courts findings are. God will reveal and honor truth.

  32. Very good points Patrice – Abuse of all kinds resonant from evil that is in the human heart – Child abuse is merely one expression of that evil – With that being said, we must be diligent about combating that evil Gal 6:9 – Also, you are absolutely right in that 80% or more of child sexual abuse is committed by a TRUSTED member of the family (father, mother, step parent, sister, brother, and etc…) or a close friend of the family – Not as much Stranger Danger as thought or would like for it to be – Let’s also be real in acknowledging that child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other forms of abuse occur in families where parents profess to be Christians…I don’t think that the issue rests with whether to separate families for worship services – Several years ago I was part of an investigation of a pastor of a very “family-centered” church that practiced “family worship” – He was eventually charged with over 20 counts of rape and sexual assault – This type of abuse rarely occurs during a worship service – This type of behavior most often occurs in seclusion in an environment that is comfortable and familiar to the family and child…his or her home, church building (if he or she spends a lot of time there), summer camp site, friend or family member’s house – I think that the best deterrent is open dialogue: even a word or two from the pulpit every so often about abuse…what it looks like, who its victims are, and how they can get help – The abuse to widows and orphans as described in the Bible was not just monetary or social stigma – Awareness and planning can do a lot in keeping families safe
    +++ 18 years of social work experience – 9 years in child welfare – graduate work in childhood physical and sexual abuse intervention and prevention – Husband, father, and follower of Christ

  33. Hi – just wanted to point out that I don’t think Tim Keller ever publicly defended Mahaney, as this paragraph claims:

    “Nearly a year ago, Mohler, Keller and others came to Mahaney’s defense after he was accused in a lawsuit of covering up sexual abuse of children. ”

    The link provided does not provide any evidence that Tim Keller is in the group of “Mohler… and others”. I’ve ready widely about this subject and found no indication that Keller defended Mahaney.

    Of course, the internet is vast and perhaps I’ve missed this.

  34. I see where you’re coming from, but I feel that it misses the mark entirely. Sexual abuse does not stem from kids going to nursery at church. That’s a huge leap. Also, just because there is a scriptural precedent for children being in services with they’re parents, does not mean it is an “unscriptural” practice to have them in a youth group or nursery situation. This, by the way, was not even mentioned in the scriptures cited. If we are going to be that “to the letter” about church, we would have to throw out pretty much the entire way we run the church all together. Sorry if I sound snarky. I don’t mean to but its simply not the point at all.

  35. I don’t know who will see this, but I went to Covenant Fellowship Church, a megachurch in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s in PA. When my stepdad was found as a Sex Offender and my mom finally opened up about his abuse, all the pastors said was “protect him” to my mom. So, when she divorced him, the church congregation and leaders treated her horribly. The church is extremely cult like and sexist, where only men can be pastors or hold positions of leadership. And if you’re called to be a pastor, forget it. They only allow people with close family ties to be “chosen” as a pastor. The leadership at CovFel consists of men with more knowledge of Business than actual pastoral experience. They don’t lie to their congregation, they just warp the truth to turn their members against families they love, like the Vanderwides. People need to know how messed up these churches are

  36. Lord forgive all of us for not acting to protect when we should act. For accusing when we are not judges.

  37. I’m not sure I understand your comment. Are you suggesting that TGC is not Reformed or that it is not trying to exert influence on the larger evangelical movement of which it is a part?

  38. Yes, it is sad. The very HIGHEST amount of child abuse and incest statistically takes place in the Bible Belt states of America, where mostly Evangelical fundamentalists.

    It is amazing that Evangelicals and Pentecostals and Jehovahs are always ranting about Catholic priests, yet BY FAR the hugest number of cases of child abuse is among the fundamentalist Protestants, as statistics clearly show.

    What hypocrisy! First they hack off part of the young male infants’ genitalia in a bloody and barbaric mutilation, believing God commands it, then they abuse them sexually a few years later.


  39. “Primitive” is sure a good word to describe Baptist churches. I totally agree!

  40. Hey, I thought fundamentalists like the “letter of the law” and fry in Hell anyone who does not comply.

  41. Actually I find the never-ending squabbling among America’s 45,000 (and growing) different Protestant churches rather entertaining. It’s like the ancient Pharisees on steroids. They all teach different doctrines and beliefs and all claim to be right. So funny!

  42. But Art, I thought the god of all fundamentalists was a vengeful, wrathful, jealous, god first and foremost. Forget that fluffy forgiveness stuff. That came much later with Jesus, but fundamentalists pay little mind to his teachings. They seem to prefer the punishment, burning in Hell, Armageddon type stuff.

  43. It all began when the fundamentalist churches started back 500 years ago. They have been devouring unsuspecting victims ever since in many ways.

  44. All the 45,000 (and growing) fundamentalists and other Protestant denominations all vie for power and influence over their unsuspecting victims (the congregants) whose minds they warp and whose lives they ruin with confusion and anguish, making them believe they will fry in Hell forever if they don’t follow the Church rules, which they say are god’s rules.

  45. The fundamentalists, statistically, have the greatest number of child abuse and incest cases in America (the Bible Belt states in particular). Imagine how much goes unreported and hidden because it happens inside families?
    Yet the Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jehovahs, etc. all point a bony self-righteous finger at the Catholic priests. What a joke!

  46. In the OPC faith the children stay with the parents, and this such a problem in all faiths in one way or another have had issues in this area.

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