Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill: A Case for Accountability

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.

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  • I really appericate your comments and in general I agree, and I typically don’t agree or think highly of much that comes out Mars Hill in Seatle, but I actually disagree with you somewhat here. Right or Wrong they have gone about establishing their own hierarchy and have even created a church planting network (acts 29) with (from my limited understanding) finacial, theological, and pastoral accountability. Now I think your comments work in reference to Mark Driscoll himself since he does seem to be unabated at the top of that pile. In some ways I think Acts 29 is accomplishing a 3rd way of church. And based on the fact that there are 2 acts 29 churches in my town in missouri…I would say it’s worked numerically.

    •  Send me a more detailed explication of this. I’ll work it into an upcoming article.

  • Wayne

    It’s a discussion we need to have.  I still believe that a covenantal relationship could be one of loving and mutual accountability, as long as we maintain a clear understanding of our mutual fallibility.  I think a part of the “human nature” that “inevitably takes over”, comes from our human desire to gain power.  Within every level of the church there are people who were called to serve and, in time, decided that they were really called to rule.  Or they may even decide that they were called to serve by ruling.  But I suspect we all know the committee chairperson who was called to serve the church in a certain area and before long, they were “in charge” of that part of the church’s life.  Pastors are called to serve the church, but sometimes begin to rule the church.  Upper judicatory staff sometimes make the same move from service to power.  A covenantal relationship works best when those involved are answering a common call to serve a common mission.  When some decide they are called to rule instead of serve, a power structure develops, and either submission, or rebellion or exodus, follows. If the rulers could be reclaimed to humble service along side of the others in the covenant, then perhaps that covenanting body could develop a mutual accountability  that would be more loving and supportive.  I was once a part of a small group that covenanted together to meet for prayer retreats twice a year.  Within that group, we chose “accountability partners”, set our own goals, and maintained frequent contact to share our progress on our goals.  I think there are other models out there for covenanting and mutual accountability.  Hopefully, some of those models will be shared in response to your post.

  • JohnGault74

    What concerns me most is the quick piling on from Christians who have no more information about this situation than what’s given from the person under discipline.  Since when did it seem right and godly to assume the worst when we’ve only heard one side in this particular situation?  Scripture teaches us to judge impartially and gives us warning about stories sounding true until the other side is heard (Prov. 18:17).  At the very least, this should give us ample pause to “no comment,” until we’ve either a) personally spoken to both sides, or b) have personally witnessed the situation in question.  I think overestimating our importance pushes us to comment on things we probably shouldn’t.  For the unbelieving world, fine, have at it.  For those who name Christ and desire to love the Bride He purchased with His own blood, I think we ought to have greater integrity and a more cautious posture.

    Having taken part in a number of church discipline cases and enduring the same divisive assumptions as this story has produced, I can tell you it feels strange to desire purity in the church and a love for God’s word in His community only to be criticized and slandered by those who are in need of discipline.  Had our church been as large as Mars Hill, the bad press would be far worse since some accusations were far more slanderous than this story.  Does this make the elders right and the person wrong?  No.  Does this mean the stories from those disgruntled are necessarily true? No.  That’s my point.  Unless directly involved, you simply have no way of knowing without stepping over the line into conjecture and hearsay.  This is why we’re instructed to not admit a charge against an elder without 2 or 3 witnesses.  AND if that charge is admitted, it is up to the local church and her leaders to determine the factual nature and biblical warrant to further pursue discipline with an elder, not the outside world watching in.

    Elders are sinners and just as prone to error in judgement and application as anyone .  God’s grace forgives gossip and slander from disgruntled members.  Jesus will build His church as He promised.  And you and I are not the Christ.  This much is true.  It isn’t the leaders you should entrust yourself to and defend, it is Christ and His work through the local elders of the church.  Read 1 & 2 Timothy to get a feel for the force of Paul’s concern for the purity and unity of the church in His charge to Timothy.  I don’t see, biblically speaking, how anyone could read the high ethic of the New Testament literature and not walk away saying, “Wow, Jesus really does care that His church is holy by grace as well as action.” 

    Lastly, though I dont’ know you Christian, you seem like a thoughtful, articulate writer.  I’m assuming you have a concern for things pertaining to the church, and that is a beautiful and noble concern.  Yet I implore you, for the name and fame of our Lord Jesus, to be more cautious in your approach.  Just as you care for such individuals as this story tells, please care just as much for those elder(s) involved.  How much have you prayed for either of them before commenting?  How much have you treated them as well as you would like for them to treat you?  How have you fought for the unity and reputation of this church?  These things are not reserved solely for the local elders of Mars Hill, but for any Christian that cares for our mother, the very bride of Christ who He has sacrificially and selflessly served with life and blood.  

  • Adam Clark

    Hi Christian,

    On the subject of Christian anarchism, if you haven’t already seen it, you may be interested in this BBC blog post titled “Was Jesus an anarchist?”:

    God bless,


  • ElderA TCOD

    the message of reconciliation has vanished from our circles of influence we move away from those who fall and lay law on them,as if they are disqualified from the provision of GOD and the blood of CHRIST and the comfort HOLY SPIRIT revival,with this being said we have to not just claim saved by grace but live in a everyday state of renewal we all get pulled at sometime or another but we must stay ready for war.and never forget this will cost us our live,ive been on both sides and now 30+yrs in this Way i need to be more accountable. the best way to stay accountable is to always put THE KING, in His proper place in our lives,and view our life as dead,dead men have no power any more so we need JESUS TO live this life in power amen,

  • Dee

    All you haters in here, find something better to do.

  • Leslie F Wolf

    I am a Roman Catholic, but I actually think that the Presbyterian model of church governance is probably the best. No form of church governance can prevent leadership abuses, but I think that the government of the Catholic Church and the congregational government are the least effective at discouraging such abuses. Many large non-denominational churches with multiple campuses inherit the same weaknesses of the Catholic system. I don’t know much about episcopal systems of church governance, but those may be good too.