I wrote a piece recently about Mark Driscoll, his Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and their practice of disciplining members. A number of bloggers have responded with our concerns about how the situation was handled, and recently Mars Hill issued a brief response to criticism of their handling of the matter (thanks to Ian Ebright for bringing this to my attention):
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.
First, I have to question the final statement made in this press release. Though the claim that the basis of their church discipline is “about the grace of God, not penance,” the case itself suggests otherwise. Andrew, the young man in question in the case, was accused of sexual indiscretion. Namely, he cheated on his fiancée (also a Mars Hill member) with an old girlfriend. No sex, but clear lines were crossed that compromised the trust and covenant between him and his girlfriend.
Andrew confessed his transgression both to his fiancée and to church leadership in search of forgiveness. But as you can read in my earlier article, the church hardly kept it a private matter among those involved.
I won’t re-hash the whole series of events that followed again here, but suffice it to say that, in my estimation of what God’s grace is about, there was little (if any) to be found in the process. But my particular concern in writing this follow-up piece has to do with the accountability for the church as a whole. To be blunt, there doesn’t seem to be any.
I’ll readily admit an ambivalent relationship with denominations up front. Many times, I’ve written about the potential hazards of deeply embedded institutionalization in the context of personal faith. In some respects, I consider myself an advocate of Christian anarchism (a flattening of the hierarchic model of leadership, and not to be confused with the broader socio-political definition of anarchism), but the move toward self-contained nondenominational churches presents its own dangers.
Now, I’ve seen first-hand how the institution of denominations can do its own share of damage. I’m currently working on a piece about younger people who have recently left the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because they feel the “Search and Call” process (the way we circulate papers for ministers seeking a church, and churches seeking a minister) has fallen victim to cronyism and systemic paralysis. I’ve also seen my LGBT brothers and sisters marginalized by what effectively has become a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of ordination which encourages opacity about sexual orientation, rather than open, affirming discourse about one’s call to, and skills for, ministry.
So I’m the first to conceded that there’s serious work to be done if denominations hope to survive in the twenty-first century postmodern culture. But there seem to be at least as many risks is going it alone.
I’ll stop short of calling what Mars Hill has cultivated a cult. However, there is a clear cult of personality dynamics surrounding Mark Driscoll. As the architect and voice of the community, what he says, goes. There are no checks and balances beyond the walls of the church, short of the IRS and media folks like myself responding to what we observe. This kind of insularity tends to normalize whatever the leadership deems appropriate, and over time, abuses like those in the case of Andrew are practically inevitable.
So, if the “island church” model of Mars Hill presents one set of dangers, and the traditional institutional model of denominations presents another, is there a third way? I want to explore this question in some greater depth, and I welcome your input. What have you seen that works? What have you seen that doesn’t? Is there a way for us to be in covenant-based community without falling into traditional hierarchic models or simply cutting ourselves off from all other communities?
Ultimately, the church is an inherently flawed organism because of us, its component parts. But to abandon this community because of our apparent inability to get it right doesn’t seem to address the need for belonging we all have, as well as a necessary degree of somewhat objective accountability.
I’m not naive enough to believe that there’s a perfect balance between autonomy and accountability, but unless we ask the questions and seek solutions on an ongoing basis, human nature inevitably takes over, at which point the Gospel takes a back seat to own own agendas.
God help us.