I grew up in the Baptist Church as many of you already know. While there was a lot of positive that came from it – largely in direct relationship with other church members – there was always an undercurrent of fear and guilt that I found oppressive. Beyond that, I actually found the message often alienated me from the community and even from God.
I’d come to worship, youth group or go to church camp feeling pretty good and excited to see my friends. I loved the singing and the fellowship, even if I didn’t agree with a lot of the theology. I could live with that discrepancy.
But more often than not, I left feeling worse than when I got there. I was told sternly that I was sinning, even if I didn’t realize it. And rest assured God was watching. Summer camp was the worst. It seemed a gathering was incomplete until several children were crying, prostrating themselves and begging for forgiveness – for what, they weren’t always sure, but they knew they needed it.
I felt dirty. Unworthy. Lower than low. And of course, the only prescription for such a spiritual malady was contrition and confession, as the church leaders saw fit to dispense. So when I read a two-piece blog post by my friend and colleague, Matthew Paul Turner, about a member of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church in Seattle and what he went through there, it dredged up any number of emotions and memories from the past.
Not pleasant ones, mind you.
I’ll abstain from retelling the whole story since Turner told it so well to begin with, but I’ll try to summarize. Basically, a young man named Andrew was engaged to a woman in the church. He was an active participant on many levels in the church, and she was the daughter of a deacon. However, one night he succumbed to temptation and got physically involved with a woman he knew from the past. They didn’t have sex, Turner reports, but they “came close.”
Andrew confessed soon after to his fiancée, and then to his small group leader within the church. On further inquiry, he confessed to having been physically intimate with his fiancée prior to marriage as well, which is (understandably) counter to the teachings and values confessed at Mars Hill. Andrew was required to attend numerous meetings with different leaders within the church, in which he was castigated for his sins, and even called a “wolf.”
Here’s the first big red light. Though the physical encounters with both women were consensual, within the community of Mars Hill, Andrew and all other men are considered to be sexual predators when engaging in any sexual contact outside the bonds of marriage.
Why? Because, as senior pastor Mark Driscoll often proclaims from the pulpit, women are “
inferior weaker vessels.” Women, in their inferior state, can’t be expected to be held accountable in the same way as men, who always bear the burden of forced aggression. Period.
If this was all there was, it would be enough, if not new information. Driscoll’s legacy of misogyny is well chronicled. However it gets worse. A lot worse.
Church leaders at Mars Hill decide Andrew will sign and adhere to the demands of a behavioral contract they drew up. It outlines not only how he should go about seeking forgiveness for his sin, but also how he is expected to behave both within the church and elsewhere, including having no personal association with women anywhere.
Andrew was hesitant to sign the agreement, and subsequently submitted a letter ending his membership with the church. In response, a church leader wrote him the following:
If this is your decision, you need to know you are leaving as a member under discipline not as a member in good standing. What this means is Matthew 18 discipline we discussed in our last meeting will be escalated, as there has not been enough time to determine if in fact you are walking in repentance. It is communicating to [name of community group leader] and me that you are unwilling to follow the leaders of your church who have determined you have been in sin and that time will be needed to determine if you are in fact walking in repentance.
[Paragraph mentioning Andrew's ex-fiancee edited out by Matthew Paul Turner]
If this is your final decision, you will also need to know this will not be our final communication as this is not an instance where you can walk away from the mess you have helped create and leave many issues unaddressed.
Please let me know if this is in fact your final decision as we will need to know how to best remain in follow up communication.
And then the church leadership posted the following letter to all members of Mars Hill on their own internal social networking site:
There’s so much to respond to here, but I’ll try to be brief. First, for pastors of a church to tell members who they can or can’t associate with outside of church smacks of cult-like behavior, as do the codes of conduct and public shaming of congregants. Had Andrew not confessed remorsefully to his fiancée and even his small group leader, there might be more grounds for calling him to account. But he readily admitted his wrongs and seemed to be seeking counsel and forgiveness.
But it wasn’t in the way the church wanted it. He had to be punished in their way.
To claim another has committed “Gospel shame” is damaging and judgmental enough. But to do so in an open letter to the entire church about someone who is no longer a member at Mars Hill seems to me to border on slander.
What’s more disturbing to me than all of the bullying, name-calling and shaming, sadistic tactics employed by the church leadership is that so many seem to accept this as a proper way to act as church to one another. Where is the grace? Where is the offer to help the couple reconcile or part peacefully? There’s not even a hint of the old draconian “love the sinner, hate the sin” ethos. It’s more like “hate the sin, abuse the sinner and shame him back into conformity.”
Meanwhile the world watches, with many assuming this is typical, acceptable Christian behavior. It’s not. There’s nothing Christ-like about calling women “
inferior weaker vessels.” Or in shaming a person publicly for their transgressions. Or in prohibiting them from engaging in relationship with others outside of the church.
And especially in ordering your entire congregation to effectively ostracize another person until and unless they will toe the line drawn by church leaders.
Our church in Pueblo, Colorado is made up in large part of people whose spirits have been damaged in other church settings in the past. what we have tried to present is a space of unconditional love, forgiveness and grace. We’re not perfect, and we’re not averse to calling people to account for their actions. But we try our best to love people through their struggles. We trust that, given the proper care and support, people will open up to the possibility that God’s grace – not our discipline or judgment – will offer the healing they seek.
I’m embarrassed to call myself a Christian when I read heartbreaking stories like these. My only consolation is in claiming publicly to Andrew and others that this is not my understanding of the Way of Christ. This sadistic, hateful behavior is not what we’re called to as church. It can be different; in some cases it is. But obviously it’s not common enough.
I’m sorry for Andrew. I’m embarrassed by the actions of Driscoll and Mars Hill. In a perfect world, we who serve the damaged, alienated and outcast would have no job left to do. Until then, the best the rest of us can do is say, on behalf of Christians who equate faith with sadism, “I’m sorry. There is another way. You are loved.”
(See an addendum to – and further thoughts on – this issue in a second post HERE.)