Mars Hill Seattle, and the Problem of Insulated Churches

Photo credit: flickr/Mars Hill Church

You may have heard the recent story of a Mars Hill member named Andrew and the experience he had with church leadership following his voluntary confession of sexual sin, which focused around the fact that he had cheated on his fiance. “I take responsibility for my actions. I messed up,” he said. Andrew encountered name-calling from various leaders, not to mention several meetings and text messages. Despite his remorse and participation including tearful confessionals, things were just getting started. Next came a discipline contract printed on church letterhead outlining numerous steps to full reconciliation, pressure and intimidation when he announced he would not sign and would instead be leaving the church, and most remarkably- a document naming Andrew and his sin and detailing how members were to handle him socially (when to include and exclude him, and even how to answer), published on the Mars Hill community forum without Andrew’s consent. For details, here is the full expose on Matthew Paul Turner’s site: Part 1 and 2.

Mars Hill issued a recent response to this fiasco, which I will also focus on in this post.

The bulk of the response reads:

In recent days, there has been some discussion surrounding Mars Hill Church and our process of church discipline. We do not wish to comment on the specific scenario in question, as this is a private matter between church leadership and members, all of whom have voluntarily agreed to this prior to becoming members. We do want to be as clear and forthright as possible in presenting our theology of repentance, forgiveness, and church discipline and make clear that our convictions on this come from our study of Scripture and our deep love for our members and a desire for them to enjoy the freedom that comes from walking by the Spirit in response to Christ’s work on the Cross on our behalf. At the heart of the process is our deep belief that church discipline is about the grace of God, not penance.

What a paragraph. It nicely says “no comment,” pays lip service to privacy and discretion while previously destroying both for Andrew, and is followed with the assertion that every member in the church has already agreed to whatever is done to them by church leadership. Then, we’re given a chapter out of Pastor Mark Driscoll’s book on doctrine, explaining the importance of church discipline. This is a perfect example of the church as an insulated power structure.

The Anatomy of an Insulated Church

An insulated church will demonstrate over and over that it is not accountable to you, or to members or attendees who disagree, or to those who have left disgruntled and harmed. Power always confuses talking with transparency. An insulated church is happy to give some version of their side of the story, but it will marginalize pushback either by claiming Godly authority or using insults, two tactics that Driscoll employs with regularity. As an example, Driscoll often makes fun of bloggers in different ways, saying they should find better things to do with their time (or accusing them of sin) when he gets called out, and yet he himself takes to his own blog to complain about an interview that didn’t go his wayIn an insulated church, criticism will be fierce and constant as long as it is directed outward. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of a preemptive strike.

For leaders in the insulated church, they earn the right to the clubhouse at the top of the hierarchy, and everyone below gets a muddy slope. Others may progress up towards the clubhouse, but only if it is in ways defined by the leadership. For Andrew, this meant a series of steps as outlined in the discipline contract including not dating anyone inside or outside of the church, nor being able to serve in the church, and writing out a detailed history of his sexual sin to share with leadership. Questioning authority will get you pushed right back down to where you started. Sure, you can have a voice, but it must sound like the rest of the chorus.

Skilled at Dodging Criticism

Insulated churches are evasive when confronted in sincere and competent ways, and often train their congregation to do their dirty work for them. Here are a few of the more popular get out of jail free cards used:

“It’s all about Jesus.” It’s a nice way to minimize legitimate concerns while seeming playful and well intentioned. But doing something in Jesus’ name doesn’t make it automatically good. There are too many atrocious examples in history to name just one.

“You’re just writing about Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill for more blog traffic.” There it is again. The insulated church can do and say whatever it wants, disregarding the damage it causes. It’s the pushback that’s considered to be the problem. It’s like an unnecessary war, and all of the ensuing slaughter, which gets played as mere fodder for the nightly news. Being against that war: now that’s the real outrage.

“There are two sides to every story.” That’s true, but that doesn’t mean the leadership are always on the correct side. This kind of subservient thinking is spreading across the country. Whether it’s cops caught on tape beating a handcuffed person, or a charismatic politician doing things he swore against while running for office, some people go with the “benefit of the doubt” to the detriment of discernment. Sometimes, a whiff of solidarity (or power) is all it takes.

“We ARE accountable- to God and fellow leaders here.” To be accountable to God is convenient when one claims to speak for Him and have an insider’s understanding of God’s opinions on everything ranging from yoga and Avatar to the use of sex toys in marriage. To be accountable to the church leadership seems toothless in churches that attract a largely homogeneous group of men who all agreed to pages and pages of the same doctrinal minutiae.

“What you’re proposing is spiritual anarchy. There has to be rules.” Pointing out examples of spiritual abuse does not negate the need for church, church leadership, doctrine, rules of conduct or perhaps even rarely- church discipline. We don’t replace a bad President with no President, we attempt to vote in a better one, as another example.

And of course, insulated churches and their complaint congregations play apologism bingo.

Insulated Churches Need to Hear from Voices Other Than Their Own

Sure, churches can if they so choose highlight their own content, the weekly attendance, number of campuses, conversions, events, baptisms and anecdotes revealing the successes of the church. But that just leads to more cronyism. Outside, there are people hurting, suffering, struggling, and all with stories to tell. Many of whom have tried and failed to find a safe place in a house claiming to represent that guy who died for everyone. The body of Christ is not intended to be a singular noise hummed by perfect people, but rather a full symphony performed by misfits, and that’s going to include some subtle tones that take a little extra effort to hear, and some sour notes that are initially uncomfortable. But God is speaking, also through people and in ways that we may not prefer.


29 thoughts on “Mars Hill Seattle, and the Problem of Insulated Churches

  1. I am mortified for this young man and it breaks my heart that he had to go through this after trying to do what he thought was right. Thank you for your insights on this and for addressing the problems with these types of churches. I actually left Mars Hill a few years ago because I had questions about some of the doctrine and none of the pastors would speak to me. Clearly they haven’t changed their tune.

    • JMO why would they speak to you? They hold the key of understanding, and the best we can do is listen and learn from them.

      I am also a former MH attendee from some years back, having myself experienced first-hand nuttiness with some of their leadership including in one-on-one settings. The number of these kinds of stories really alarms me, and I’ve heard many that are worse than what happened to Andrew, usually occuring to women, as no surprise.

    • I too have experienced their mud mining, systematic oppression, and stonewalling ways. I find it healing to remind myself of what Jesus directly commanded his disciples:

      Mt20:25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. 26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; 27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: 28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

      Perhaps this is why:

      Mark 9:42 And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

      May God have mercy on their souls.


  2. Nicely stated, Ian. I’ve watched this thing with not a little dismay, and I’m glad some serious scrutiny is being paid to that…institution. It will be interesting to see what happens.

    I’m curious about their claim that “church discipline is about the grace of God, not penance.” Really? Not only does this belie the groveling form of “discipline” they seem to practice there, but it’s a profound misunderstanding of penance (contrition, confession, forgiveness, works of reparation), which traditionally is all about grace and restoration. If only they practiced penance, they might actually have something there worthy of praise.

  3. You make some salient points about the insulatory nature of this sort of leadership. Mark Driscoll would never have been a leader of a mega-church if 1)We didn’t live in a celebrity-cult culture 2) Churches didn’t model themselves after the CEO Wall Street brand of corporate structure. I’m old-school enough to still think there is real value in seminary training. That said, however, I would like someone to address the issue of church discipline. What is it and what should it look like?

  4. Excellent post, Ian. A point you didn’t state explicitly, but I think is part of the problem, is that in these “insulated churches” the greatest sin of all is failure to accept whatever the authorities have dictated as of God. While I don’t claim to know the full extent of the Mars Hill-vs-Andrew story, it appears to me that his cardinal sin was insubordination.

    This doesn’t only happen in megachurches; I’ve seen it played out in small independent churches and moderately-sized Evangelical denominational churches too. The common thread is the one you identified…the leadership consider themselves “accountable” to each other and to God, and believe this excuses them from any obligation to be accountable to the larger body. Because as we all know, the Holy Spirit would never speak to the greatest through the least, and God never uses the foolish to confound the wise…

  5. There’s a Facebook blog run out of Seattle called “Stuff Christian Culture Likes” that tracks the ongoing Mars Hill saga with a critical eye. The blog itself is geared towards trying to separate Gospel truth from mere Christian culture. There are a lot of refugees there from spiritual abuse backgrounds and other misadventures as PK’s (pastor’s kids), etc. As such it’s a place for people to thereaputically vent their spleen on bad Christian culture experiences — and it does have a negative bent at times. But it tends to be an interesting read. The Mars Hill stuff is always enlightening… ~

  6. Some tremendous insights here. I loved the Apologism bingo from your earlier post, too. With adaptations, these knee-jerk, authoritarian defense phrases are used by sycophants of abusive pastors on blogs of many denominations. Hope you don’t mind, but I used your “Power always confuses talk with transparency” maxim above for the Provender spiritual abuse quote of the month on the main Provender page.

  7. Dan has a great point.  I left a small church after years of progression to similar cult-like characteristics.  By the time I left the elders had also changed the meaning of the New Covenant to mean that it was not spiritual and eternal but external.  The new definition of Justicication that was happening in the U.K. was popular with the elders.  They insisted that families only associate with the church and with no one else, even sister churches in the area.  Previous relationships with those churches became largely off cut or ignored by the elders.
    Submission is essential in its place and season…and so is rebellion:

    “Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.  And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.”

    Gal. 2:4-6

  8. This has been very enlightening. While I am sure they might be true Christians in Mars Hill they(the leadership) must never forget that it was said of their own leader(Jesus Christ) that “A bruised reed He shall not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out” Isaiah 42v3 it breaks my heart to see that they are unwilling to show any of the Grace that God has shown them on men like Thomas and instead disgraced and humiliated him to serve their own end. This is an abuse of power that should not be taken lightly even in the Church so thank you for this article. I just pray that God will open either Pastor Mark’s eyes or the whole congregation because there is absolutely nothing righteous about driving people away from God and the Church, in fact Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for that very thing(Luke11v52).

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