For quite a while now, I’ve been arguing that influential movements within the American church have gone off the healthy, Jesus-centered rails and entered into the realm of empire business.
I’ve explored two main categories for this phenomenon – Celebrity Christianity and Controlling Christianity – along with what I believe to be the solution: a deeply-rooted Creative Christianity (though you’ll see more of the “solution” stuff at The Antioch Session). And honestly, the hits just keep on coming. As the systemic values of American celebrity culture continue to reshape the culture of the church in its image, the concurrent (though not always directly connected) problem of selfish power and control in the hands of arrogant leaders seems to be escalating as well.
Enter Mars Hill Church (Seattle) and the spiritualized non-compete agreement that they have, in recent months, been requiring their elder-level leaders to sign:
Unity of Mission
An Agreement between each member of the Full-Council of Elders, Executive Elders and the Board of Advisors and Accountability of Mars Hill Church.
As Pastors, we commit together that we will serve the best interests of our Savior Jesus Christ, and our church, Mars Hill Church. If and when any of us feel led to serve the Lord somewhere other than at one of the church locations of Mars Hill Church, we will submit our opportunity to one another and our Executive Elders first in accordance with Proverbs 11:14, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Together this day, we commit that our next church ministry will not be within ten miles of any location of Mars Hill Church, except with the express consent of the local pastors of the nearest church, the sending church, if different, and the Executive Elders of Mars Hill Church. We are, as Ephesians 4:3 says, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We care about the church, the testimony of our church, and the dear people who attend our church.
We would not want our actions to cause confusion or harm by making the people of Mars Hill question our love for the Lord, the purity of our church, or their decision to worship Christ here.
We acknowledge that as we adhere to this commitment, the Executive Elders and the Board of Advisors and Accountability will commit to do everything within their power to offer and support a church plant outside of the radius stated here.
If you have any familiarity with Mark Driscoll’s teaching, you know he is unashamedly “all business” in his approach to leadership and church growth. But this non-compete agreement represents, in my view, more than just an unsavory business approach to ministry. It is that – certainly the idea that someone who moves on from a church cannot legally do “ministry” within a ten mile radius of that church, reduces “ministry” to a competitive revenue-centric enterprise – but it is more that that. This is a controlling clamp down that signals a moral and organizational downward spiral.
This has been confirmed by the recent firing of Mars Hill elder Phil Poirier, who another former elder calls “one of the most faithful, godly men I know.” And, only a day or so ago, another pastor, Phil Smidt, was fired for “not trusting” the executive elders (perhaps because of disagreement over this very same non-compete issue). And in one of the most devastating personal accounts that I’ve heard, the executive elders threatened one of their departing pastors with the non-compete, saying that if he signed it, his departure from the church would go well. But if he didn’t, they would do everything they could to make the departure as difficult as possible.
The veneer of spirituality around the agreement is perhaps the most troubling thing of all. It would appear that this is all supposed to preserve the unity of the local church; to provide good guidance and counsel; to not cause undue “confusion or harm”; etc. There is even a seemingly generous offer of support for the future ministries of those who sign! But the behind the scenes firings and threats, along with the inherent definition of a non-compete agreement, tell a different story. This is about safeguarding financial growth by doing everything legally possible to prevent members from leaving (because of their loyalty to a departing leader’s ministry) and maintain the desired rate of revenue expansion.
And this ultimate concern for institutional/financial stability and expansion is the tell-tale sign that church has stopped and empire business has started.
It’s the same thing happening among the organizations close the Sovereign Grace Ministries child sex abuse scandal. Instead of putting victims first and coming clean about all compromise and error, committing to support the victims and seek the truth no matter the cost, there is hedging, covering, threatening, spinning. There is anything but the God’s honest truth. There is anything but stepping into the light that deeds may be exposed. There is anything but prioritizing the justice, peace, and joy of the Holy Spirit (which is the kingdom of God) and, in its place, a prioritizing of institutional/financial stability and expansion at all costs.
The empire comes first.
And the kingdom is all but lost.
In Mark Driscoll’s case, there is also the Walter White-like narcissism that keeps him attacking and abusing people behind closed doors (“I am the danger! I’m the one who knocks!”) and forcefully driving the high-control Mars Hill machine that has shipwrecked hundreds of lives.
But as goes Walter White, so goes Mars Hill Church – at least if things don’t change radically, and soon. The downward spiral is in motion. It doesn’t matter what the church tagline says – everyone can see that it’s not, in fact, all about Jesus.
In fact, more and more, it seems to be all about money and power.