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 way. In 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.