Mars Hill in Seattle is in the news again, but this time Mark Driscoll seems only vicariously linked to the controversy. This time, the issue at hand is apropos to all evangelical churches instead of reflecting on merely the character of Driscoll. This event has brought the concept of church discipline itself under scrutiny, and as the pastor of a church that seeks to practice accountability in a biblical way, how this shakes out can make a difference as to how our folks and our visitors view the process of church discipline.
The controversy began when a young man named Andrew decided to go public with the story of his own experience of church discipline at Mars Hill. In brief, Andrew was engaged to the daughter of an elder at Mars Hill. By his own admission, Andrew was unfaithful to his fiancee. Andrew confessed his infidelity to his community group leader, was admonished by the community group leader, and after this the process of accountability began. As Mars Hill admits, this process did not go as it should have. In response to the controversy, Mars Hill put out a statement. In it, they write:
Regrettably, a letter that was meant to be privately read aloud to a small group of about 15 people in close community and friendship with Andrew was instead posted to that group’s private online community page…In both cases that have been brought to light, things did not go as they should have, and well before they were ever written about in a public setting by bloggers and journalists, Mars Hill leadership stepped in to investigate. As a result of those investigations, it was determined that the leaders involved had a pattern of overstepping their authority. As such, they were released and are no longer on paid staff or in formal leadership in any capacity at Mars Hill Church.
There is plenty of blame to go around in this ordeal. First, Andrew sinned against his fiancee. Then, Mars Hill mishandled the accountability and counsel by overstepping their authority. But whose authority did they overstep? Did they overstep their authority in Andrew’s life? Or did they overstep the authority of Mars Hill by taking matters too much into their own hands? To whom ought these lay leaders confess? To Mars Hill leadership or to Andrew? Has Andrew received an apology?
There is much to consider here. Mars Hill is correct when they write, “It’s important to understand that church discipline is a necessary and biblical part of the Christian life.” Jesus himself taught about this kind of accountability in Matthew 18:15-20. Personal accountability and church discipline are not options that can be safely discarded due to the messy process of rebuke, correction, and repentance. Nor can they be neglected for fear of public backlash. After all, many outside the church complain that the church is filled with hypocrites. The church can hardly be criticized for being a haven for hypocritical sinners and at the same time be castigated for the very process meant to hold people accountable for hypocrisy. But since there is such danger, the church must be as careful as possible in this process to keep from abusing the trust of her members.
Mars Hill failed at several places in this process, and I fear that unless they repent from a few things, and unless they become wiser in others, the charge of being somewhat “cultish” in their practice of discipline will stick. The first error they made was publishing the offense beyond the circle of those immediately concerned. What happened with Andrew is gossip candy. Think of how quickly word of his infidelity would spread after this email went out to the group. He was engaged to an elder’s daughter! This should have been handled more discreetly. If you have a man or a woman addicted to pornography, you do not send an e-mail out that says, “Brother Joe is looking at pornography. Please pray for him as he strives to overcome his addiction.” The reason for this should be readily apparent, but in case it isn’t, it is bad for three reasons.
1) It violates the instruction of Jesus by skipping two-steps of accountability.
2) Every struggle with sin is intensely personal in nature, and if someone’s struggle doesn’t immediately affect someone, it is none of their business and only gives occasion for gossip and a judgmental attitude.
3) Anything you put in writing should be judged public domain even if it is not intended to be.
Forwarding an e-mail is as simple as a few clicks. Scanning a discipline sheet and sending it to the world is very simple. If you do not want something public, then do it privately, face to face, man to man or woman to woman. If not, you may wind up as a headline without context and bring reproach upon yourself and humiliation to the one you love.
Having said all of that, my sympathies lie with Mars Hill. First, Andrew signed up for accountability and the church’s process was clear from the start. Second, his infidelity was a big deal that needed to be addressed by the leadership. Third, he should not have went public in the manner that he did because he knew the process going into membership, and Mars Hill conducted an investigation into the matter before Andrew went public. Mars Hill did act in the situation, and prior to Andrew’s publication of the events, people were reprimanded for their handling of the situation (See update 2/16 of Mars Hill’s response). Fourth, we have only one side of this story, and it is coming from the guy who was unfaithful to his fiancee (who he again hurt by making this even more public). Mars Hill is right to answer this as vaguely as they can; they still have the privacy of those involved to protect. Plus, Andrew breached faith with the church by going public with the personal failings of his community group leader. That’s a two time faith-breaker, and he gave his story to someone who was going to gouge the church to boot. Finally, I know as a pastor that proper accountability is hard, messy, and rarely goes as planned when the issues are intense and personal. Yes, Andrew has a legitimate complaint about how this was handled, but the church was trying to do the right thing by him. The man cheated on his fiancee, and the leadership of the church acted just as they said they would in the church membership agreement.
The last thing I want to tackle here is whether or not a mega-church can properly handle church discipline. At our local church, we have around 80 people on a given Sunday with five elders, and we agonize over any case requiring accountability. We agonize because we personally know and care for every member, and we know that any time someone is rebuked there is the potential for congregational blowback. We wrestle with issues in order to walk as wisely as we can. How is a group of elders supposed to have oversight of 7,800 people? They have entrusted this ministry of discipline to their local community group leaders because they cannot do it. Going forward, the only possible way that this can work is if they have an elder or elders personally discipling each community group leader, and by discipling I do not mean by e-mail or letter, but by relationships which include eating together, talking together, and getting to know one another. Perhaps they have this in place, but if they don’t, they must do it or there is another train wreck on the horizon.
Church discipline is not cultish. At least, it shouldn’t be. It is a necessary component of church life and personal sanctification. We all need personal accountability, and that is the essence of church discipline. But it must be practiced wisely by friends, with much prayer, and above all, it must be done in love and humility. No Christian, whether male or female, will ever be more chastened than when they realize that, in love, Christ suffered the lash of the whip and the agony of the cross for them. We are rebuked by Christ’s suffering for us. Elders must be men who have felt the sting of that rebuke, who intimately know the pain of their own folly. This is the only antidote for fleshly pride, and feeling it is the only school that prepares a person to be qualified to deliver a stinging rebuke. No one should ever fall under the lash of discipline who has not first felt its scourges from the Lord God Himself (Hebrews 12:5-7). Mars Hill Church would do well to remember this, and so would your church and mine.