In the two cases that have recently received media attention, we want to remind readers that there are always two sides to every story. As Proverbs 18:17 tells us, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Unfortunately, in most of the articles and blog posts published in recent weeks, with the exception of the recent Slate article, we were not contacted by the authors to verify the facts or seek explanation regarding those cases prior publishing their articles. Out of sensitivity for all involved, and a biblical mandate to handle such matters within the church, we do not wish to comment publicly on those specific cases and drag into public what should be private.
The Stranger did contact Mars Hill and got a response from Pastor Jeff Bettger. So more media outlets than just Slate contacted Mars Hill about the situations of recent months.
Note: This article has been updated since its original posting to reflect Mars Hill's new statement that two of its leaders were removed as a result of cases unrelated to the two that drew recent media attention.
The article quotes the original form of the discussion of disciplinary action:
In both cases that have been brought to light, things did not go as they should have, and well before they were ever written about in a public setting by bloggers and journalists, Mars Hill leadership stepped in to investigate. As a result of those investigations, it was determined that the leaders involved had a pattern of overstepping their authority. As such, they were released and are no longer on paid staff or in formal leadership in any capacity at Mars Hill Church. [emphasis added] Again, these actions were taken months ago, prior to any public exposure. … We're reviewing our current church discipline cases to make sure all our local leaders are operating within the spirit of love intended to be present in our existing policies.
The updated version at MH reads as follows:
[Updated 2/16] In both cases that have been brought to light, things did not go as they should have, and well before they were ever written about in a public setting by bloggers and journalists, Mars Hill leadership stepped in to investigate because we take the care of our people seriously. As a result of this investigation, we are taking steps to streamline our church discipline process to ensure that it is applied in a biblically consistent manner across all of our churches. In addition, in two separate instances, we have removed the staff members involved and they are no longer on paid staff or in formal leadership in any capacity at Mars Hill Church. Again, we began taking these actions months ago, prior to any public exposure.
In this case "in two separate instances" is apparently supposed to tell us that in neither the case of Andrew or Lance was the disciplinary process problematic. It was in the case of two unrelated staff members that it was decided, apparently, that there was a pattern of overstepping authority ... ?
But, wait a minute, what constitutes overstepping authority when the by-laws seemed to suggest there was no appeals process in church discipline? How can you overstep spiritual authority if there's no clear limit as to what you can't do or decide as a pastor disciplining a member? If there was a pattern of overstepping authority how long did this pattern take to make itself known? A few months? Four years? Six years? We don't know. How would the pastors overstepping authority themselves even know? Given what has been publicly stated by Mars Hill about church discipline is overstepping spiritual authority possible?
What I wrote in the last few months that Slate linked to may have been misunderstood. I didn't say Driscoll used cultish leadership methods. I wrote that I had, four years ago, come to completely doubt the competence and good will of counseling pastors at Mars Hill in the months before I stopped renewing my membership. I was disturbed by the way pastors handled a long-standing relational conflict I had with fellow members who, in 2007, had stopped being members of the church. On their way out they shared by letter they were willing to work with a MH pastor to reconcile with the understanding that as they were changing churches they would not be under the spiritual authority of the MH pastors. One pastor knew of the situation and the letter and said nothing to me about its contents. Another pastor was involved in trying to ameliorate the situation for a while and then got fired. Naturally since non-profits don't usually pay into unemployment the fired pastor was busy trying to rebuild his career after getting canned. We're all good in the hood.
There was another pastor who was on the counseling side of things who held that because the former members withdrew their membership they were not interested in reconciling with me but only wanted control. He would not state the reason for this but just declared that it was so. He declined to answer my questions as to how and why he came to this conclusion. Finally, a whole year later, due to a misunderstanding no less, I approached yet ANOTHER pastor to finally mediate the swamp that the web of relationships had become. He understood that the former members were under the spiritual authority of another church and he was fine with it. Thankfully things got worked out! My story, at least, had a happy ending.
But by then my confidence in the competence and good will of counseling pastors at MH was completely shaken. The pastor that made the call "they only want control" didn't apologize for or explain anything. That's not necessarily overstepping spiritual authority for a pastor, is it? For those who have read my blog over the years you might be asking, "Who was in charge of counseling and stuff at Mars Hill back around the time you left?" Well, department names change from one thing to another. For a while there were counseling pastors then biblical living pastors and the like. Whether or not one of the people released from paid staff and pastoral authority has anything to do with Andrew or Lance or the story I shared I don't know. I can discuss that there was, at least, once a pastor in charge of Redemption Groups who isn't a pastor anymore.
Remember how years ago I blogged about the disappearance of any reference to Lief Moi in public documents and websites from Mars Hill? If not, well, here you go:
Well, a pastor has dropped off the list of pastors at Mars Hill but there is still a bit of material available that attests to his pastoral role. Which pastor? James Noriega, a name that will probably mean nothing at all to anyone who wasn't part of Mars Hill over the last six years. Nevertheless, it's easy to establish that he was once a pastor and is no longer a pastor. Whether or not he was one of the staff who was removed for "overstepping spiritual authority" I can't say. However, because he was at one point in charge of the Redemption Groups and was mentioned by no less than Mark Driscoll and A. J. Hamilton it's easy enough to establish Noriega's now former role as one of the leaders of the counseling branch of Mars Hill.
This material is not only easy to access it's probably going to stay up for a while because one of the sources of information about this pastor is direct mention from none other than Driscoll himself in a sermon. Another source is from Pastor A. J. Hamilton who refers to the man in his description of when Mars Hill became a multi-campus church.
First the content from Pastor A. J. Hamilton
In the above document Pastor A. J. Hamilton wrote the following:
In early 2006, Mars Hill first became a multi-site church when we launched the Shoreline campus with live-streaming over the Web. This meant that at times, the sermon would look like a badly dubbed Samurai movie or Pastor Mark's image would explode into a messy digital kaleidoscope of color. We also increased the number of elders from 15 to 24, adding Pastors James Noriega and Bill Clem from Doxa (a former A29 church plant that is now our West Seattle campus). Campus planting took off for a season and Bellevue, Downtown, Olympia and Federal Way launched and continue to grow, relaunch into new facilities and plan for further expansion through new works.
Hamilton names a Pastor James Noriega. And it seems Noriega turns out to be the "James" Mark Driscoll refers to in the sermon "Joy in Humility" from the Phillipians sermon series that he preached on November 4, 2007. He refers to the Board of Directors that was reconstituted in 2007. He makes mention of four men who were appointed to that board who were new men added to the board at the time. He describes these as men who were pursuing humility. As Driscoll put it:
I’ll give you an example. In the middle of our reorganization as a church – we go to multiple campuses – we’ve just reconstituted what we’re calling a Board of Directors. It is sort of a senior level of eldership that oversees a lot of the policies and procedures for the whole church, and I was meditating on it this week. And I could tell you about all the men on the board. I’ll just tell you of a few. These are new men that were recently added to this board, and the one common thread which I see weaves all their stories together is this, humility. Not that they are humble, but they are pursuing humility by God’s grace.
The last one is James. He was running a drug and alcohol treatment center, I think for the Union Gospel Mission. He was an elder at Doxa Church in West Seattle. He and Pastor Bill were there and I approached them and said, “I think we should partner together,” and turned that building into Mars Hill West Seattle. I don’t know what the building’s worth – $4 million, whatever. He said, “Well what’s the deal?” I said, “Give us the building, resign as elders, work through the membership process, work through the eldership process. I guarantee you nothing – no power, no job, no eldership. If you meet the qualifications and the men vote you in, we’ll make you an elder, but I guarantee you no job. Nothing. If you believe it’s right for Jesus, give us the building, resign, give up all power of authority, give up your position. Walk away from it all for the cause of Jesus.”
He said, “Okay, I think it’s best for Jesus.” He resigned, voted to hand us the building and the people. Humbly went through the eldership process. After he finished the membership process, oversees our drug and alcohol addiction recovery. We just voted him onto the Board of Directors. Why? Because God opposes the proud and he gives grace to the humble.
Between Driscoll's 2007 sermon and A. J. Hamilton's description of how Mars Hill first went multisite it's apparent that James Noriega was appointed to the Mars Hill Board of Directors in 2007 and put in charge of the drug and alcohol recovery groups. So between Hamilton and Driscoll's mention of Noriega in 2007 it would seem Noriega had been promoted to an important role in the counseling/biblical living branch of Mars Hill ministries. What can we find out about this guy?
Well, here's something from March 17, 2009 written by Nate Ellis
As of March 2009 Noriega described himself as Co-Pastor of Redemption Groups and Biblical Counseling. That seems to fit what Driscoll and Hamilton mentioned about him.
Of note is that Noriega describes Jonathan Edwards as a man who understood the human heart when there was no psychology. He leans on the Puritans a bit such as Edwards and Owen. I don't know if he read Richard Sibbes. Ed Welch's Blame it On the Brain gets a nod and Welch is described as doing a good job of distinguishing between chemical imbalance and sin.
Of particular note Noriega responds to a question as follows:
Q: What are you looking forward to seeing God do in this ministry?
A: Uncovering more of the enemies schemes, that the church actually becomes a real healing ministry, that we do not have to rely on outside sources to help our people, and that the church is seen by the secular world as a place where real change that glorifies God is going on.
Interesting, "that we do not have to rely on outside sources to help our people". I'm not sure what that actually means and that Mars Hill added Justin Holcomb to the team suggests that whatever Noriega's idea of "we do not have to rely on outside sources to help our people" it would seem that adding Holcomb to the team The Holcombs's writing on abuse and sex trafficking would sure look like outside sources brought in to me.
Well, anyway, in Pastor Tim Beltz' currently posted profile/quiz he's asked for a list of books that fueled his thinking or challenged him in the last few years. The first material he lists is Pastor James Noriega's Biblical Counseling Class Materials. There's even a hotlink to Pastor Noriega's profile with the West Seattle campus.
But if you click on the link to Noriega's profile you get a 404 error. So where'd he go?
Well ... let's consider a little device for tracking old websites called Internet Archive, aka The Wayback Machine:
With a little help from The Wayback Machine on the Ballard campus we can discover that a cached copy of the site for Mars Hill Ballard lists James Noriega as a Biblical Living Pastor. There were 14 captures between June 28 2008 and December 18 2009. This would correspond with the above-mentioned link to an interview with James Noriega describing himself as pastor co-leading the Redemption Groups, though from that information you would not be able to necessarily establish that he was a Ballard pastor since Noriega's long-time connections to the West Seattle campus were well-established within Mark Driscoll's November 2007 sermon. Perhaps he was moved to the Ballard campus and his West Seattle campus profile just became a dead link.
So at one point James Noriega was listed as a Biblical Living Pastor Mars Hill Ballard. But he's definitely not listed as a pastor at Mars Hill Ballard now:
What's more he isn't even listed as a pastor on staff at West Seattle, either, which was the church he used to be elder at before Driscoll asked him to step down, jump through the hoops of eldership for Mars Hill, and this with no promise of getting any job or anything out of the process.
James Noriega does not appear to be listed as a pastor in any capacity at Mars Hill anywhere. If Mars Hill explained recently stated some staff were released months ago over the issue of persistently overstepping spiritual authority was James Noriega one of those? Noriega was described by Driscoll as a man pursuing humility who was not humble. Noriega was also described as being put in charge of rehabilitation/recovery groups and Noriega's own acccount was that he was co-pastor of the redemption groups. Driscoll also described him in 2007 as having been elected to the Board of Directors. Now there's nary a trace of Noriega's name in the current leadership roster.
So since the documentation of Noriega's pastoral role is attested by no less than Driscoll and Hamilton; and since the sermon in which Mark mentions Noriega is easily accessed and it's obvious now that Noriega isn't listed as a pastor anywhere at MH; here's a new/old question--if James Noriega isn't a pastor now when he used to lead the Redemption Groups and was praised by Mark Driscoll for seeking humility, what happened? He's not even listed as a pastor at the West Seattle campus that was the Acts 29 church plant he was part of. He may still be a member there, perhaps, but he doesn't seem to be referred to as a pastor anywhere. In fact he stopped being listed as a pastor on staff, so far as I could tell, as far back as November 17, 2011. He has content from March and July 2010
He was also part of a conference in 2009. The content may have tapered off a bit after Driscoll's public introduction of the Holcombs but I leave it to others to research that.
And Noriega's on Twitter which has the profile description:
Pastor at Mars Hill Church Seattle. A lover of Christ, the Holy Scriptures, my wife, and my children.
And he links to this blog which has been up and running since October 2011
So Noriega, it appears, is no longer a pastor at Mars Hill that Mars Hill know about but his Twitter feed still lists him as one. Perhaps an update of the twitter profile is in order?
If Noriega is no longer co-leading pastor of Redemption Groups what happened? Now I'm not going to pull punches here, Noriega seemed to have a prominent role in influencing the approach of counseling pastors at Mars Hill during late 2007 on that I thought had a deleterious influence on the situation I was dealing with at the time. He's a fellow Christian but I wasn't sure why he got promoted to running Redemption Groups. Was it just because Driscoll decided Noriega was seeking humility? Driscoll made a point of referring specifically to Noriega in his "Joy in Humility" sermon in 2007. A. J. Hamilton made a point of referring to Noriega as one of the pastors at Doxa who were brought on (the other was Bill Clem). Only one of these two is listed in leadership at Mars Hill now.
Lief's name and references to him got scrubbed pretty thoroughly a while back. I have a feeling that discussing these things related to Noriega's absence from the elder roster is best brought to light now since MH still has so many documents publicly attesting Noriega's role. I'm not suggesting that if Noriega is no longer a pastor at Mars Hill the elders as a whole had no good reasons for removing him. If there's anything I've tried explaining to watchbloggers critical of Mars Hill over the years it's that the place is more complex than you think it is and there's more than just Mark Driscoll's personality influencing things.
If Mars Hill has explained that the staff who got removed were not the ones that were involved in the cases of Andrew or Lance then, okay. Since it appears Noriega got removed (or resigned) I don't need to suppose the reason was necessarily good or bad. There could have been fantastic reasons elders decided at some point in 2011 Noriega was no longer going to be a pastor. Or the reasons could be terrible. Or Noriega might have decided to resign for very good or very bad reasons. I'm not proposing an actual answer or explanation myself, I think it's more important to raise the subject that Noriega seemed to get a bit of press from Driscoll in 2007 and isn't listed as a pastor at Mars Hill now. It's just a matter of reviewing the documents in the public record and realizing there's a question. Four years ago the question was "what happened to Lief Moi"? Well, maybe this year the question is "what happened to James Noriega?"