My thoughts on the latest round of Mark Driscoll and Acts 29 controversy

My thoughts on the latest round of Mark Driscoll and Acts 29 controversy August 9, 2014

mark driscollAs most of you may have heard by now, Acts 29 has removed Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church from their network of churches, stating,

 “It is our conviction that the nature of the accusations against Mark, most of which have been confirmed by him, make it untenable and unhelpful to keep Mark and Mars Hill in our network. In taking this action, our prayer is that it will encourage the leadership of Mars Hill to respond in a distinctive and godly manner so that the name of Christ will not continue to be dishonored.”

There were two different forms of communication from Acts 29 about this decision, one of which was not intended to be made public, but was immediately leaked and placed in full on several Christian sites, as has happened before.

Within hours, a response from Mars Hill’s board was written and sent to a private church members list, and was predictably and immediately shared on the same Christian sites.

When God calls leadership he does so with a view to them representing Him in a loving and caring way. When He has gifted people to such an extent that they become a strong influence, He expects them to represent Him even more. With such a position comes great responsibility. When that responsibility does not get handled properly, people get hurt. This certainly seems to have been the case with what has happened over years in Mars Hill Church.

I feel for the brothers and sisters who have been hurt. I feel for leaders who have made mistakes. I feel for our brothers and sisters all around the world who are affected by this. I feel for our Faith, which seems to be under attack from all sides.

The situation at hand is real, and it is raw, and it must be dealt with.

The big question for us to consider is how should we all respond as Christians, especially those of us who do not have a direct stake in these events.

Firstly, I think it is vital that often we should choose not to take sides. When a ministry disagreement is taking place, it is not at all helpful for us to “pile in” shouting “fight, fight, fight!” and adding our own metaphorical punches.

Nor should we be surprised when such splits happen. It is not as though, for example, that Paul and Barnabas’ argument was a pleasant thing. We are told it was a sharp disagreement. But, when it became clear that this could not be resolved, they went their separate ways. A bit of distance is often the healthiest response when ministry relationships break down. This may feel hard to achieve in the world of social media where you can “follow” someone who you should be giving some wise space to.

Emotional entanglements sometimes need a bit of calm and room to work through. It is a bit like dating. I can only imagine how much Facebook and Twitter can contribute to causing the wounds of a break-up to fester. Surely the advice to those suffering from a relational break-up, whether it be romantic or ministry-related, is to block that social media account, at least for a while.

Also, as far as we know the respective followers of Paul and Barnabas didn’t write articles for and against their positions on the 1st century equivalent of Twitter or Facebook. There are some disputable matters in all controversies, even when the main points seem clear cut. Outsiders can never fully understand what has really gone on.

In the 21st century pastors are subject to a form of scrutiny that has never existed before. Every word a pastor says in private can now be reproduced online for the world to see. Words written in some online forum in a moment of angry foolishness are also preserved for decades, and can be used against you at a convenient moment.

This sounds rather like what Jesus taught when He said, “what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3).  Jesus was of course talking about the final day, when the One innocent and righteous Judge will judge all things. On the Internet, judgment is often passed by people who have no concept of what it is like to carry the pressures of being a pastor, and who themselves are far from perfect.

Before rushing to judgment against any pastor we should ask ourselves, “What if everything I had said or done in private were to be made public? Would I stand up under such scrutiny? What if that included things I had said decades ago?”

We should all be concerned about this. I am witnessing a growing and worrying tendency for everybody to be surrounded by their own personal paparazzi.  You cannot go to a party these days without someone posting a photo of you on Facebook. You have lunch with someone, and the chances are good they will tweet about it.  Much of this is harmless, but if published unwisely without reference to the context, these things have the potential to be easily misunderstood, and may even be harmful.

Increasingly the scrutiny that the famous are all too used to is being focused on everybody. People today will find more and more that they cannot get away with the things our forefathers used to be able to get away with.

Mark Driscoll has become perhaps the leading target for intense criticism among Christians online. There are many who are reporting and promoting controversy after controversy. Some seem like they would only be happy if he quit preaching altogether.

Driscoll himself accepts that he has made a number of mistakes over the years. He acknowledges that many of the criticisms are accurate. He has withdrawn from social media for a season of personal reflection. He has engaged in an ongoing process to bring about change in how Mars Hill is led. Surely there comes a time when outside Christians who were never part of the church should for a season allow him, the leaders and members of Mars Hill, and their board of accountability to have the space to work all this out together.

If we were to examine the lives of great preachers of the past as closely as we do today, we would also see great flaws. What of the intense rows between Whitfield and Wesley, or for that matter the overly harsh way that the Apostle Paul treated Barnabas and Mark?

We live in a fallen world. If we examine our pastors under the microscope, we should not be surprised if we find out that they are also fallen, and that they are a work in progress.

Driscoll has now made something of a habit of giving public apologies for a whole list of his errors from the past. But what those of us who are not currently close to Driscoll cannot judge is to what extent these apologies have led to real, sustained change. The leaders of Acts 29 presumably feel that Driscoll has not changed sufficiently. One can only assume that if their form of church government allowed Acts29 to fire him they would have. But in common with many church groupings, the only significant form of discipline they can meet out is to remove the church as a whole from their affiliation, as they do not have any formal power over the churches in their network.

Many Evangelicals uphold the idea that the local church should be an independent body, which may ask for advice from outside, but is ultimately autonymous. Local churches may be congregational, where all members voting is the ultimate decision-making body, or elder-led, where the body of elders make spiritual decisions. In both cases there will also be a board, often comprising of elders. And in fact, the methods of government are more overlapping than you think. In an elder-led church, the people will only ever be led by consent, and if they strongly disagree, their vote will be counted as they leave and cancel their financial giving. By the same token most healthy congregations who vote will also surely be heavily influenced by the wisdom of their leaders.

Mars Hill has a board of accountability comprising three executive elders and some outsiders. So far this board has been clear that they feel Driscoll should remain as pastor. They are the closest to Driscoll and they report significant change in his life. It does seem that the complaints being publicly aired, and which are being dissected by so many, stem from the past rather than the present.

Mars Hill publicly reports that Driscoll and the leadership are involved in a reconciliation process with ex-employees and members who say they were hurt by their experience of the church. They also make clear that for some while now they have been endeavoring to change the church’s culture. I hope and trust that this process will bear fruit, but such fruit will take time.

The simple fact that most people who are so eager to jump to a judgment about what the Mars Hill board should do are not in a position to do so. As much as we might like things to happen quickly in our instant gratification age, change takes time. It was interesting to see in that context that Jonathan Merritt, a journalist who has been one of Driscoll’s previous critics, argues that we should accept his apologies.

With everything that one has read online, one encouragement is that many of those sharing their criticisms, including many of those who have been directly hurt by all this, do not seem to want the destruction of Mark, but his restoration.

It seems clear to me that one of two outcomes to all these controversies is inevitable: either Driscoll and Mars Hill Church will succeed in changing and putting their errors firmly behind them, or they won’t. If change is not genuine we will know it because there will continue to be a constant stream of elders and deacons leaving as a result. Longevity in the Mars Hill leadership team has seemed to be an anomaly rather than the norm. A stable team is a healthy team. And if change doesn’t come then the church will also hemorrhage members, and if that happens to a significant extent to any church, eventually that church simply ceases to exist.

The Evangelical movement has always put a lot of faith in the One who is building His Church to also be the One who opens churches and closes churches. He puts out the lights. He also determines how He will distribute His blessing. And, He works through His people inside each local church giving them wisdom and discernment. No church is ever perfect. But Jesus loves them all.

Those of us who are not members of Mars Hill, and never were, should be prepared to take a back seat and let the local church get on with this process. Perhaps the most dominant form of church government among Evangelical groups broadly says that each local church must lead themselves. Let’s allow Mars Hill to lead itself.

It is time us outsiders stopped talking about Driscoll for a season. It is time the local church be allowed to do its work, with whatever external help they choose to bring in. I understand that those ex-members who feel they have been hurt will have an opportunity for meetings to discuss this. But even that process must stop at some point. Indeed, for some people getting involved in such meetings might be as unhelpful as a premature “reconciliation” meeting would probably have been between Paul and Barnabas. Wisdom will give a different answer to different cases on this point, and great care is needed to ensure that such meetings do not make matters worse for everybody involved.

The reality is, that for all his failings (which he himself acknowledges) Driscoll has been a powerful voice for the gospel. Many preachers were reminded to preach Jesus first through him. Through listening to his preaching thousands have come to faith, and tens of thousands have had their walk with God strengthened.

I am praying that a renewed Driscoll will emerge from this season of controversy as a mouthpiece for God. The church desperately needs vocal, bold, men who will roar about the gospel. It is in such preaching that Driscoll is such a gift to the global church. It is in the pulpit that he is strong, and has an almost unique voice.

I hope Driscoll will increasingly focus his attention almost exclusively on proclaiming Christ and him crucified. The pressures on a mega-church pastor are massive, especially during seasons of great growth.  Even the Apostles felt the need to find trustworthy men that they could leave to run the organizational side. They said, “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4)

Driscoll would do well to follow the Apostles’ example. I think the whole world now knows he is a much better preacher than he is an administrative leader. Anyone who functions outside of their true gifting will stumble and make errors. A truly strong leadership team requires each member to be humble about the areas that they are strong and weak in, and necessitates a proper division of the responsibilities accordingly.

To any who don’t merely wanting Mark to change but genuinely seek his downfall, I think that Jesus would probably say, “let him who has no sin, cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

Surely I know that for me, and the leaders in our church, we will be praying for the hurt and for the humbled, for the sheep and for the shepherds.

For all of us who love the bride of Christ, our primary response should be to pray. To pray for those who have been hurt, that they may find avenues to share their hurts and be healed. To pray for those who are members of Mars Hill Church that may support one another during this storm, and that the church and its witness may continue to be a force for good in Seattle and beyond. To pray for leaders who have been wronged that they be helped and be restored. To pray for the body of Christ which feels under attack, that it not be divided but be united, and be stronger than ever. To pray for the leaders of Acts 29 that their ministry would continue to flourish and plant the churches this world so desperately needs. And to pray for Mark, for his wife Grace, and for his five children, that they would feel the hand of God in all this, know a fresh revelation of the Grace of God, and be protected, transformed, and restored.

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