Joshua Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, this past Sunday announced his plans for stepping down in order to attend seminary. Harris is the son-in-law of the controversy-ensconced founder of the church and the network of churches of which CLC was the mother church for 27 years, C.J. Mahaney. Ten years ago in 2004, Mahaney appointed the then 30-year-old Harris to the top leadership position, seven years into their relationship that began with Harris moving into Mahaney’s basement, being employed as a church intern, accompanying Mahaney as his assistant in his travels as a conference speaker, and culminating with him marrying Mahaney’s daughter.
In a 45-minute message, Harris chronicled the story of his beginnings in ministry at the age of 17 to the present to CLC’s dwindling congregation. He told the remaining faithful his decision to step down and to attend a resident college in Vancouver, B.C. for a year or possibly two pursuing a master’s degree was the culmination of a six-month long period of personal introspection. He confessed having never previously pursued formal studies of any kind and not possessing any educational degrees at any level, and that his only ministry and church leadership training was Mahaney’s mentoring, which he inferred was suspect in that Mahaney “had never received formal theological training, and the group of churches he led, which grew out of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s, at that time didn’t place a high value on seminary training.” Concerning his own lack of formal education and theological training, Harris stated, “I don’t even have an undergraduate degree. In fact, I have never attended a formal school full-time in my life.”
Harris went on to relate how that at the ripe old age of 30, “with no formal theological training and no formal training in organizational leadership,” only seven years after arriving at the then 3,000 member church, he “was set in as the hand-picked replacement for C.J.” as the church’s senior pastor. “That, my friends, is a crazy, backwards life!” he admitted.
“The plan was for me to be the pastor of Covenant Life with C.J. as the apostle over our church and our movement. I’m not going to go into the story of how that plan got derailed. But suffice it to say there were serious flaws in this structure and from the earliest moments of my tenure as lead pastor there was tension and great difficulty behind the scenes.”
Referencing a sermon he had preached two weeks prior about the life of Joseph that held a personal message to him, Harris reflected:
“It is a great comfort to know that God uses difficulties for his glory and our good. So I don’t look back with regret on how things have worked out. I see the hand of God. If I had been seminary trained with established convictions about church polity, pastoral leadership and other topics, I don’t think I would have been chosen to lead our church. (I might not have accepted the job!) But I believe that it was God’s purpose for me. I think it was God’s will for me to lead Covenant Life over the past 10 years—through all the challenges that we’ve faced. I don’t regret that for one minute.”
This portion of Harris’ message is both curious and troubling. For him to regard his lack of seminary training that would have produced “established convictions about church polity, pastoral leadership and other topics” as a good thing because it resulted in him being hand-picked by Mahaney as his successor, reflects a gross ignorance of the role and function of an under-shepherd standing in for the Great Shepherd, feeding and caring for the Flock of God. But then to actually state, “I see the hand of God,” in such an obvious case of mere human selection reflects not only ignorance, but abject deception in terms of the workings of the Spirit in the Church that Jesus is building. It is manifestly obvious to believers who do have knowledge and understanding of such matters and confirmed by the account Harris chronicled in his message that Mahaney “hand-picked” Harris because he saw him as his clone that he had manufactured in the laboratory of his personal mentorship. That, indeed, is where these kinds of humanly conceived succession scenarios almost always eventually go wrong and end up being derailed. “The best laid plans of mice and men….” Ostensibly, Mahaney set his sights on mentoring Harris to be the son he never had, and with Harris’ induction into the family by way of marriage of Mahaney’s daughter, the plan for all intents and purposes worked and continued to serve everyone fairly well until January 2010 when the fire of controversy was ignited under Mahaney and his ministry, CLC, and SGM, and continue to burn.
Whether or not it was God’s will for this 30-year-old relatively untested, untrained, uneducated, novice in the Lord, the faith, and church leadership to be chosen for the inestimably daunting task of properly shepherding 3,000 sheep of God’s Flock is a matter concerning which an extended range of opinions might exist. Notwithstanding, it is what it is, was what it was, and in June of this year the matter will end. No opinion or its possessor can change what has already taken place over the last ten years. But, when it comes to introspection and self-examination, though it is encouraged in Scripture (2 Cor. 13:5, et al.), in the process, it is always wise to keep in mind the tempering aphorism: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Pro. 18:17). Bias-void assessments and conclusions regarding one’s own life and decisions, in particular, are, if not impossible, at least rarefied, and only occur in the case of unusually mature tested and tried (over the course of many years) believers possessed of inordinate levels of spirituality and Spirit-inspired wisdom.
Moreover, validity of what transpired in this case having been the will of God would have to be assayed on the basis of the quality of the spiritual deposit Harris made into the individual lives of the congregation as well as the collective life of the church as a whole (which, given Harris’ admitted lack of education and training except from the mentoring of Mahaney, who likewise lacked theological education and training) would likely be less than optimal. And if it is the case that Harris’ spiritual contribution is the acid-test, then only God in His perfect Omniscience could properly perform that assessment, not Harris, or really any mere human. Such, in fact, is the nature of all ministry, but especially pastoral ministry, in which the eternal destiny and relationship with God of large numbers of people are at stake. Results cannot be measured in numbers of members or followers; if it were, Jesus, in terms of His earthly, fleshly ministry was the most colossal failure of all time, having been betrayed and deserted by every one of His followers, including his closest associates, the apostles, before the cock crowed thrice. Certainly, Harris would not want numbers and retention to be the calculus, since CLC’S current average attendance has decreased by no less than 43% (depending on which reports you believe) from ten years ago when he first stepped into the role of the senior leader.
Harris continued: “And even though these past four years in particular have been painful and difficult, I believe that everything—stepping away from Sovereign Grace, the pruning of our church, strained relationships and even the lawsuit—has all been used by God to refine us. God has used it for good.” He is referring here to a four-year period of severe and extensive criticism and controversy concerning Mahaney personally as well as Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and its entire top echelon of leaders—originally and until 2003 called “People of Destiny International”—that was initiated by a former leader in the organization going back to the earliest days of its genesis.
One measure of the effects of this four-year saga of scrutiny is revealed in the organization’s Audited Financial Statements (SGMI as since taken down this link) for the fiscal year ending August 31, 2014. It reports a precipitous decline in congregational giving from $4,819,801 in 2011 to $1,590,800 during 2014, a decline of $3.3 Million. SGMI’s total assets dropped from $6,234,757 in 2011 to $2,827,050 at the end of fiscal year 2014, a reduction of $3.4 Million. Included in those total assets figures is a decrease in cash savings of $1.8 Million from $2,542,367 in 2011 to $741,873 EOY 2014. Due to the substantial financial downturn transpiring over the last four years, which the auditor attributed in part to SGMI being “adversely affected by the economic downturn, negative publicity from litigation, and the departure of over 30 member churches from the association,” the organization’s 2015 projected operating budget was cut $3.7 Million to $2,910,648 compared to 2011’s budget of $6,623,168, and forecasts a budget deficit of $190,000 in 2015, despite cutting employee compensation and benefits over the past three years by 61%, and numerous staff pastors having been either laid off or having voluntarily left the church after being told their pay-packages were slated for reduction or their positions eliminated.
What Harris termed “the pruning of our church,” considering the precipitous decline in attendance of the Gaithersburg church can only be seen as an extreme euphemism. In a letter to the church members dated November 21, 2014 with a subject of “Budget Outlook,” the executive pastor stated that average Sunday attendance had dropped to 1,715 from 3,305 in 2011, which is a 43% decline. But, some observers say that estimate must be “evange-lastically”-speaking because far fewer than that now attend the current single Sunday service, a second service now having been eliminated.
And if Harris’ remarks about the decline in attendance is a euphemism, his reference to “strained relationships and even the lawsuit” is an understatement in the extreme. Relationships among the SGM leadership have been strained to the degree that many have broken off all ties with Mahaney and the organizations he leads. Mahaney himself suddenly and abruptly disconnected, disassociated, and physically distanced himself from the Gaithersburg CLC he founded 37 years prior with his relocation to Louisville, KY, where he launched Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, taking what remains of Sovereign Grace Ministries Inc, and many of its Mahaney-loyalist leaders with him, which, according to their website, now purportedly consists of 80 affiliated churches in various nations. You can read more about SGM here and on the organization’s website.
Jesus stated that whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, meaning that that which is born of flesh can never be of the Spirit (Jn. 3:6), but will always remain a creature of the flesh. That’s why in the case of humans, one must be born again spiritually, becoming a new creation (creature, KJV) in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). Neither Christ nor orthodox Christianity teaches transformation of the flesh nature, which is permeated with the sin nature, into something of the Spirit, but rather that an individual “must,” as Jesus put it, be born again (Jn. 3:7), which occurs when the Holy Spirit infuses a previously spiritually dead human heart or spirit and enlivens it with the Life/Spirit of God.
This fact of that which is born of the flesh perpetually remaining to be flesh and cannot ever become Spirit or of the Spirit, applies to many other elements of life. A good and illustrative example is marriages. Unless a marriage, i.e., a relationship between a man and a woman, is born in and of the Spirit, it is doomed to always remaining of the flesh realm and can never be of the Spirit, unless and until the man and woman both are born again. When they are, their relationship, because it consists of these two people’s lives who are now redeemed, becomes redeemed and of the Spirit. Essentially when these two individuals become one with Christ and God through the agency of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in their individual human lives, the mathematics-defying miracle occurs in which the two become one, and their relationship/marriage is redeemed and transformed from being “of the flesh” to being “of the Spirit.” It’s a miracle all the way around. In the case of marriages in which the man and the woman are not born again, have not been transformed from being mere sin-permeated and –corrupted humanity to becoming “redeemed humanity” as a result of receiving Christ and the consequential infusion of the Holy Spirit in their human heart, that man and woman, in the spirit realm, remain two individuals cohabiting together, even if they have been married in the natural by recitation of vows of matrimony, whatever the verbiage, performed by whatever authorized official. Vows of matrimony and wedding ceremonies do not have the power to join two hearts together to become one. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. All this is the foundational reason marriages fail, whether the individuals part company sometime along the line or continue living together. Many fleshly marriages are merely two individuals cohabiting together with a marriage certificate but human hearts that have never been merged together to become one in the Spirit, sadly. Transformation through genuinely receiving Christ and thereby instantaneously becoming new creatures in Christ is the only way to change that.
So, what does all this have to do with a matter such as CLC and Joshua Harris’ announcement that he is leaving CLC? Well, CLC, like many other ministries and churches in the 1970s and beyond was born from, or was a product of, the flesh– i.e., the flesh of C.J. Mahaney, in particular, and by extension, the flesh also of his associates in those days who aided and abetted him in the launching and development of the ministries he founded over the last nearly four decades of the church’s history. Such a statement may not sit well with him and his early associates, but it is nevertheless true. If they were completely honest with themselves and God, though that in itself is a rarity, and if they were able to see things clearly through eyes and discernment of the Spirit and correct Biblical doctrine, they would have to admit it is true.
Why do I say it was born in the flesh? Because it was not born of the Spirit, and, as Jesus indicated in his aforementioned statement, there are only two sources of anything that is born—flesh and Spirit. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. By default, that which is not born of the Spirit is born of the flesh, and what is born of the flesh is flesh. CLC and SGM were not born of the Spirit because they were both the product of Charles Joseph Mahaney’s ego and narcissism, which the history of both organizations have proven out, not of the Holy Spirit.
How do we know that? Well, for one thing the Spirit’s testimony is not at one time yea, and then at another, nay; rather it is consistently yea. God never changes (Mal. 3:6), meaning, His nature—who He is—never changes, and because Biblical doctrine, or Truth, is the expression of who God is, neither does it ever change. Mahaney’s doctrine has changed multiple times in his history, not in the sense of an evolution or continual deepening, but diametric 180-degree changes, such as in the case of having ascribed to authentic, orthodox Charismatic beliefs—i.e., espousal of the continual operations of the “charismata” or Gifts of the Spirit, or Manifestations Gifts, or Spiritual Gifts, whatever term you prefer, from the original Outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost—to a selective subscription to an unbiblical gerrymandered heterodoxy in which some gifts of the Spirit remain in operation, but in a redefined way, and some do not. Mahaney has also made about faces with regard to doctrinal beliefs concerning such matters as church government, apostles and prophets, Fivefold Ministry, and a number of other fundamental matters part and parcel to historical Pentecostal and Charismatic orthodoxy, though without anything approaching unanimity regarding any of these matters, either in particulars or practice. Doctrinal turnabouts such as these certainly can in no way be attributed to the Spirit. Rather, intrinsically, they are part of the flesh, and obviously so.
Add to this the profusion of criticisms made of Mahaney by a former close associate, one of those previously mentioned, early associates, in fact, which he documented and openly published on the Internet, even if only half right, show the fleshliness of Mahaney’s life and ministry over the last four decades. Mahaney has never substantively and specifically refuted the documents or defended his actions and statements they delineate. A supposed internal “investigation” spearheaded by SGM’s attorney as well as a purported “investigation” by a supposedly “independent” organization both ultimately declared Mahaney “fit for ministry,” whatever that is supposed to mean, but both of these investigations and their conclusions were considered highly suspect, egregiously biased, and, all things considered, virtually meaningless, especially to those who have been closest to the situation over the last four decades and aware of the internal workings of the ministries with which Mahaney has been and remains to be the real leader, whether publicly acknowledged or obscured.
Harris’ intention to attend a resident bible college in Canada to first pursue a bachelor’s degree (which presumably means, based on his statement that he did not have an undergraduate degree or even a high school diploma for that matter, he was awarded three years of credits in order to only need one year to complete a bachelor’s degree) his first year and possibly a master’s degree the next year is meritorious, but he did not have to link it to his departure from CLC as one of his reasons for doing so. He said: “My big news is that later this spring I’m going to step down from my role as lead pastor so that I can go to seminary.” He could have just quietly and without fanfare enrolled and began attending the bible college like thousands of other students do every year, without citing it as one of the reasons he was leaving his post. Connecting it as he did seems to be an attempt to obscure the more mundane and carnal reasons for his departure with this more spiritual and meritorious sounding reason.
Again, it appears that he has well learned from his mentor the art of melodramatic oratorical embellishment for effect. With Mahaney, particularly when he’s talking about himself, his own accomplishments, decisions he has made and the reasons behind the decisions, the scene he paints with his oratorical brush is never quite the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but rather Mahaney’s self-promoting and self-exalting version of cleverly woven together partial truths with subtle deception.
Then there is the matter of what influenced Harris’ choice of bible colleges: God or Mahaney’s self-taught doctrines and beliefs he ingrained into Harris with his mentoring, i.e., indoctrination and brainwashing. The destination of Mahaney’s theological journey, many polemic Pentecostal/Charismatic critics would assert, is apostasy and deception, yet it is a path congruous with and affirmed by the theological positions taught at the bible college Harris has chosen to attend. Unless the curricula for his degree programs are heavily weighted with comparison theology studies, the positions he learned from Mahaney will only be further confirmed with little challenge from other perspectives. And if that’s the case, obtaining degrees to be used for advancement, rather than learning biblically-validated truths, is the primary reason for attending the bible college, which diminishes the purity of his motives for attending bible college and in turn his motives for departing CLC.
There are no laurels or props on which Harris can build his future inherent in his tenure at CLC and mentorship program under Mahaney. It would be best for him that he acknowledges this reality. Outside of the context of CLC, he, like many of us, is not widely- or well-known. Any delusions he may have that he is and that he can ride a wave of any degree of notoriety outside of Gaithersburg, will quickly be dashed against the rocks of reality. He could, for example, spend any given day of the week walking both floors of the Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens, in the area where I live, and it is doubtful that even one person would recognize him, and if he approached any of hundreds of daily visitors, introduced himself, and asked them if they recognized him or his name, it is, again, highly doubtful even one would know who he is or ever heard his name. I should know because I’ve lived here 25 years and my wife worked in two different high-end department stores in that mall over a 15-year span, and the same is true of me whenever I walk those same floors in my many visits over a quarter of a century—complete anonymity. But the point is: that is something Joshua will have to deal with when he leaves the “friendly confines” of CLC—he’ll be a complete unknown—and he will have to, really for the first time in his life, begin to form his own identity based on who he is, rather than who he has been as the successor of C.J. Mahaney in the context of being the lead pastor at CLC. There are major differences between the two. It will test his meddle, for sure, and be a humbling experience, which never hurt anyone.
Despite the reasons Harris cited in his message and the mellifluous way he weaved the story, his departure is reminiscent of the cruise ship captain a few years ago who, eschewing all traditions of the captain going down with the ship or at least being the last to disembark only after all the passengers entrusted to his care have safely disembarked, was among the first to deploy the few rescue crafts the ship had, and traverse to land, saving himself first. CLC is a sinking ship, it will never be the same as it once was in its hay-day. Unfortunately, that is the history of these kinds of church debacles. Harris knows that, and he has jumped overboard to save himself, demonstrating that his heart is not the heart of a shepherd who stays with his sheep no matter what. If the claims of Harris and the church elders are true, he was not “forced” out or asked to resign, but departs entirely voluntarily, and that this was his idea and his alone. It was Harris’ choice. Reportedly, during his tenure at CLC, he has been paid several million dollars cumulatively, so he’ll have plenty of money to enable him to thoroughly enjoy his extended Riviera sabbatical, metaphorically speaking, in style in Vancouver over the next few years, off the clock and separated from the stress and problems that remain in the foundation of the church as well as the lives of the church members he is leaving behind.
Many fellow ministers, speaking from a carnal worldly viewpoint, will no doubt say, “Hey, it’s a great gig if you can get it; it’s not his fault; more power to him!” But was his inordinate pay-package over the years really commensurate to the value of his spiritual contribution into the lives of the CLC sheep, or was it padded with bribery from Mahaney to buy his loyalty and make it very difficult for him to ever substantially oppose Mahaney in his reported tyrannical hold on the church and SGM? If it is the former, he was not the one who set his remuneration, and most people would not fault him for banking whatever the church insists on paying him, and, hey, he can always use that money for beneficent purposes, right? If, however, the latter is true, attached to that hush-money remains a heavy price to be paid, somehow, sometime, somewhere.
No doubt a virtual myriad of good and commendable things have occurred over the last ten years at CLC, just as they surely did also in the previous 27 years. God uses whatever vessels and agents that are usable in His hands to accomplish His purposes and intents. However, God’s accomplishments are not an endorsement of the vessels and agents He uses. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7). The focus of what God manifests on Earth through earthen vessels must always be on the treasure and not on the vessels. When the earthen vessels are the focus rather than the treasure of God’s accomplishments we make a grave error in that we divert the glory away from God to the earthen vessels. That’s what has always taken place in everything Charles Joseph Mahaney has ever been involved in, and unfortunately, naively and without understanding any of this, Joshua Harris has fallen into the trap and walked down the road laid for him by his spiritual father. One day, God will remove the scales that are upon his eyes and he will clearly see all this, and be horribly chagrined, and if he wants to go on from there with his pursuit of God’s heart and God’s real destiny ordained for him, he will have to totally break the soul-tie with his father-in-law, ask for God’s forgiveness, repent, and begin to walk out his own path with God, as well as work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. I believe he will. I pray he will. He has a heart for God, no doubt, but he, unfortunately, has been walking down a path of deception that began the day he met Charles Joseph Mahaney and submitted himself to him, unintentionally giving him higher place than His real Master, Lord, Savior, and High Priest, Jesus.
There’s much more the Church can learn from this extended saga that we’ll talk about in the successive editions of this series.###
This article is the opinion of the author; every earnest attempt was made to verify the accuracy of all specific information it contains, and any inaccuracies it may contain are inadvertent.
[Last edited: 2-02-2015 3:04 p.m.]
Dr. Steven Lambert was ordained in 1977 and holds several earned graduate/post-graduate degrees. Over more than four decades in ministry, he has served as a pastor, radio/TV host, adjunct-professor, Board Certified Doctoral Diplomate Christian Therapist/Counselor, and a speaker/commentator on a range of social, political, and theological issues, particularly as a recognized authority on the matter of ecclesiastical authoritarian abuse. He is the founder/Overseer of Ephesians Four Network (ephesiansfour.net) and its subsidiary, Ephesians Four Network of Deliverance Counselors (efndc.ephesiansfour.net). Dr. Lambert authored several books (catalog at realtruthpublications.com), many published articles, and is the founder/editor of Spirit Life Magazine (spiritlifemag.com). His bio, extensive blog, and scheduling information are available on his ministry website at: http://www.slm.org. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Thanks for reading this article! If you enjoy the spiritually enriching articles on Spirit Life Magazine, please sign up to receive new articles via email immediately when they are posted simply by entering your email address in the "Articles Via Email" widget located on this page toward the top of the right-sidebar. Just below that widget is another widget—"Newsletter Sign-up"—you can use to subscribe to our newsletter we send out periodically to inform you of all our new articles and occasionally other information as well. Please know that we do not bombard your inbox with emails, and we hate SPAM just as much as you do, thus we will never sell/share your contact info with anyone else—rest assured it's safe with us! We hope you will subscribe to both lists because it's by far the easiest, fastest, and surest way to notify you of new posts. Thank you!
Spirit Life Magazine does not necessarily agree with the totality of the opinions, beliefs or philosophies of the authors of articles posted on the website, nor does the posting of articles represent an endorsement of authors other than our own authors/editors. Spirit Life Magazine is a publication of Real Truth Publications.
If you enjoyed this or any of the articles on Spirit Life Magazine, please click on the PayPal® Donate Button below to make a donation to help us with the costs of maintaining this online magazine. A PayPal® account is not required to use the PayPal® gateway, you can pay with debit/credit card or an e-Check from your bank. It's fast and secure! Thank you!