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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. 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.

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 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.

Covenant Life is holding unprecedented open-mike events. Some conservative evangelicals worry that an inspiring movement might lose steam because of something akin to a management failure.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.“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. 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.