Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mars Hill on church discipline--my concerns about competence and precedent remain unchanged

Over at get ...

There's been some discussion of the Slate coverage of the Mars Hill disciplinary situations. I must confess that when I realized I was getting linked to by Slate I was nervous and disappointed.  Sure, it's "big time" to get linked to by Slate but once I actually read the coverage I realized that Slate linked to me in a way that indicates nobody read what I actually wrote. 

I didn't accuse Mark Driscoll of employing cultic leadership disciplinary tendencies.  My numerous actual criticisms of Driscoll are all over this blog.  In the blog entry Slate linked to I explained at some length that I had doubts about the competence and good will of counseling pastors at the time I didn't renew my membership at Mars Hill.  I also shared my concerns from that time that if a more careful approach to discipline and a more balanced hamartiology were not embraced in approaching discipline weren't taken up that some kind of disaster was on the horizon. Furthermore I explained both positive as well as negative experiences interacting with Mars Hill pastors in dealing with some long-standing relational conflicts. This is, to put it mildly, not a purely academic distinction!

Now that Mars Hill has taken some time to add more comments and clarifications in response to coverage here:

I figure I should take some time to further comment on what I've written as distinct from what a bunch of bloggers and linkers have claimed I have written. But first a few thoughts on things shared in the Mars Hill posting.

With over 550 Community Groups and growing, much responsibility is placed on our lay leaders and local pastors to faithfully administer discipline. By and large, the process adheres to biblical standards, is healthy and loving, and results in restoration. It is also rare. Out of 5,417 members, we currently have nine church discipline cases in process, which represents 0.17% of our members.

When I left I shared my conviction, which has not wavered, that in such a setting community group leaders must have training comparable to that of pastors or they will not be qualified to exercise all their responsibilities. I became concerned over time that community group leaders in such a setting were simply not competent to do the things necessary to be what they were, functionally little pastors. I was aware when I left that there were Mars Hill pastors who agreed with this assessment of the situation. I note, again, that Andrew's story has not actually been proven false in its essentials. People have been asked to accept that Andrew has misled or ommitted in his account. That may be but I'm no more obliged to avoid the thought that Mars Hill may be doing the same thing.

That being said, we do wish to clarify one detail. In one of the cases, regrettably, a letter that was meant to be privately read aloud to a small group of about 15 people in close community and friendship with Andrew was instead posted to that group’s private online community page. There was never a letter sent to the church as a whole. The tragedy of this whole situation is that what was once a private and discreet matter is now on a grand stage, and those who were misinformed as to the actions of the church in this matter are now complicit in doing the very thing for which they have wrongly criticized us.

My concern, as I've expressed it over the years, is that Mars Hill has a habit of pursuing meteoric growth at a rate that is faster than the competency of its infrastructure can handle organizational communication. Since that has been one of my core criticisms I haven't wrongly made such a criticism in light of Andrew's case.  That Mars Hill has to publicly field this issue just proves my criticism has had some warrant.  I have also taken pains to express reservations about the competency of counseling pastors at Mars Hill; the consistency and clarity of disciplinary precedent and procedure; and even this clarification from Mars Hill proves that my concerns have been legitimate ones.  Unlike bloggers and members of the press I privately expressed these concerns four years ago as I opted to not renew my membership. 

My goal then, and now, is to provide constructive criticism that may, if possible, help the church engage the issues of organizational communication and disciplinary procedure and precedent in a more competent way.  I even shared a long account of how some MH pastors made a personal situation much worse and how another MH pastor made the situation much better.  That Slate linked to that account with a couple of words indicating that I was accusing Driscoll of having cult-like leadership tendencies only demonstrated to me that people at Slate didn't bother to read what I wrote when they linked to it.  That is, to put it mildly, disappointing. 

Since I expressed uncertainty whether Andrew's account was whole or accurate I don't feel any conviction that how I have blogged about the situation has been irresponsible. 

[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.

As a large church that is growing fast, we place much faith in our local and lay leaders. They initiate, oversee, and complete the church discipline process. In almost all cases they serve admirably and do a great job of serving the church and our members. Our central leadership, which includes Pastor Mark Driscoll, is not involved in the discipline process, as it is handled at a local level. 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. [bold is emphasis mine in both cases]

This, again, proves that when I shared my concerns about the competence of people handling church discipline four years ago that this was a legitimate concern.  I have been pointing out in a couple of settings that there has been no reason at all to suppose Driscoll himself was directly involved in disciplinary cases.  He's busy promoting his book and doing things like reacting to Justin Brierley or trying to get us to think T. D. Jakes has convincingly repudiated modalism, prosperity teaching concepts, or Word-faith stuff.  He's been functionally a kind of pope for a few years who is not directly involved in a lot of the actual running of every aspect of the campuses.

A number of people have refused to accept this and while I am sure they will continue to disbelieve my claim that Driscoll is not involved in local church discipline this clarifying statement from Mars Hill confirms what I've been trying to point out for about a month and a half.  But for anyone who just looks at all the available information about how Mars Hill gets run only a person biased by a direct, personal encounter with an angry Mark Driscoll can actually claim that a case like Andrew's would have been personally attended to by Driscoll. 

For Driscoll to personally take an interest in slamming a specific person in a church disciplinary setting means that person has to be a hugely high profile person able, at some level, to precipitate a potential church split at least as Mark would perceive that person. It wouldn't be necessary for that person to actually cause a church split, just to be perceived as someone having that level of influence in the organization. Andrew couldn't possibly have been such a person and he certainly won't be one now that he's not a member. So all that is to say I'm not even remotely surprised to read that Driscoll isn't involved in campus disciplinary cases as a rule.  Duh. I've been saying this for a while now and some folks don't want to believe me.

Of course that staff were removed from their positions because they screwed up the disciplinary process simply confirms the concerns I raised years ago that not every case of church discipline or counseling seemed to get approached by those who had either competence or good will in the situations into which they became involved. 

As I've been spelling out here in this post and this blog generally, these revelations simply prove the points I made privately years ago I've got no regrets sharing publicly that the situations at hand that Mars Hill has attempted to clarify just prove that my actual concerns (not the concerns Slate thought I had) have been confirmed as legitimate.

Now if staff were removed for their role in, say, Andrew's disciplinary case, wouldn't now be a good tmie to revisit the question (or visit it for the first time) of whether or not the involvement of such staff tainted the disciplinary process where Andrew was concerned?  Since I already blogged my belief that it would be better for a couple of guys to eat crow (or, as MH clarifies things, lose their jobs) for a misapplication or miscarriage of church discipline an implication of such a correction would involve reassessing whether justice or injustice was carried out in the cases where staff or leaders had a propensity to misuse or abuse authority. 

As a large church that is growing very fast Mars Hill should trust lay leaders ... but if the goals and responsibilities for what community group leaders are supposed to do remains consistent then the lay leaders are not being asked to be truly lay leaders but unpaid deacons and pastors.  With this in mind it may be many community group leaders who might otherwise have been given simple tasks have been asked to take on pastoral responsibilities for which they are not yet qualified. It may be that in most cases things are fine but how can anyone be sure this is because the community group leaders are qualified for the sorts of pastoral roles they are effectively asked to fulfill on a weekly basis?  It could be that things are fine because sheer dumb luck, to use a very non-theological term, has favored Mars Hill throughout this time.

As I explained at length about my own story some Mars Hill pastors made my situation vastly worse and another pastor made it vastly better. I am disappointed that people who have linked to my blog entries about Mars Hill seem to have not been careful readers; seem to have read just one blog entry as though that were somehow my comprehensive statement on the subject of Mars Hill; and seem to have read my writing as though it were some simple advocacy for former Mars Hill members or a campaign against Mars Hill church as a whole. 

I've made no secret that I believe Driscoll is irresponsible in his use of Old Testament texts and that he continues to have a weakness for using ad hominem and reductio ad absurdum ploys on anyone he disagrees with while refusing to accept that he can be subject himself to these irresponsible rhetorical devices in public discourse.  He has a history of dishing out what he refuses to take.  This does at some point have to stop.  Nevertheless, as I have blogged at some length here I do not take as given that any old person who used to be at Mars Hill and is no longer is actually a good person or is being honest. 

When I stopped renewing my membership I was not under church discipline, I left on very good terms, I love my friends and family who are at the church, and I have been eager to offer what I believe is constructive criticism where I feel it's needed.  I also spent about a decade connected to the church and know things about the church culture that not all bloggers pro and con know about Mars Hill.  I disagree with Driscoll on stuff but I refuse to entertain the paranoid conspiracy theory that anything that goes wrong at Mars Hill must have Driscoll's fingerprints on it. 

The reason I share my personal history as someone who left on good terms and not under church discipline is to explain a larger point, when I do care enough to write about the church I used to call home I'm not doing it as a person who would be considered to have left Mars Hill under discipline or as someone who tried to be divisive on the way out.  The very serious concerns I had I shared privately. I left with many concerns but I also went to a church that fits where my personal convictions had been moving for years.  So my Mars Hill friends who know me best will know that the process of discovering my convictions were more Presbyterian than the kind held by Mars Hill took a while.  I didn't want to keep being in a church that constantly has to reinvent the wheel every few years and has no organized set of precedents or procedures for situations that come up.

Let me put it this way, if the story of Mars Hill were compared to some point in the Exodus narrative this is the part where no competent local judges have been appointed, no organized case law has been established, and things are getting messy.  I don't need to presume malice on the part of people who, I sincerely believe, just have no idea what they're doing.  Their committment to church growth and denominational expansion has come at the severe price of not having a competent set of procedures and precedents for church discipline.  I don't say that intending it to be derogatory, it's just an observation I've made having been a part of or having observed the life of this church since 1999.  When Mark Driscoll used to joke "We don't know what we're doing" I never laughed because I was awkwardly aware of how true that was.  If the clarifying remarks about the disciplinary situation of Andrew tells me anything it's that they still haven't quite figured out what they're doing yet. 

Since I was never sure Andrew's story was the whole, true story (though even now Mars Hill has said nothing that demonstrates that the majority of Andrew's claims are actually false) I don't think I have anything to retract in what I've said.  I do, however, think that I have grounds to say that a number of blogs that have linked to me seem to have completely misunderstood what I've actually been saying.  When people link to what I've said in a way that suggests none of them actually read what I wrote I figure I should post my own clarifying statement.  Now there are people who read what I wrote and have demonstrated they know what I actually said.  My blogging cohorts at Phoenix Preacher, for instance, actually read what I actually wrote!  Other folks, up to and including Slate, not so much.

Now Proverbs says that the first person to speak seems right until the cross-examination.  This proverb is not really saying that the person who does the cross examination is right, which is how many people prooftexting from a proverb would have us believe, it means that more Christians ought to go watch the Kurosawa masterpiece Rashamon. Just because Mars Hill and Andrew are both certain they are telling us the truth doesn't mean either of them are.  We're not in a position to know that for sure out here on the internet.  I don't have to doubt the sincerity of either side to wonder if I should really take the statements of both sides at face value.  In fact it could be that almost nothing about the two accounts actually contradict each other.  It doesn't matter who quotes Proverbs 18 about the first side seeming right, the heart is deceitful above all things can be a warning that everyone could be wrong about a few things in the midst of being certain.  Being wrong feels pretty much the same as feeling right. 

Since the recent clarifications from Mars Hill happen to fit concerns I raised privately four years ago I'm willing to revisit those concerns.  It's as close as Mars Hill is likely to come to conceding that some of the actual criticisms of Martian disciplinary procedure and precedent (as distinct from allegations of abuse or cultic tendencies) have had some merit. Mars Hill, don't be so eager to pursue growth you grow the church in a few months past the point where your revised disciplinary procedures stop being effective again.  What just got published indicates that even if Andrew were needing the disciplinary shunning approach that got issued, Mars Hill has kinda sorta maybe conceded that staff or leaders at Mars Hill involved in implementing some kind of discipline (in some vague way) either lacked clear instruction, organizational competence, or impartiality needed to implement church discipline in a way that didn't go haywire.

A church can only go so long with the philosophy of "love means never having to say you're sorry". This is still a situation where it's not really possible to say that either Andrew or Mars Hill are really "in the right" about anything. I don't have to assume either side is lying to have doubts about whether or not the stories aren't being filtered.  I saw in my own case how a number of pastors assumed the worst about me and others without bothering to explain things.  But there was a pastor who assumed the best about me and the other people I was in conflict with and things got worked out very well.  For the pro and con sides of Mars Hill it would seem that posting at the speed of the internet before researching things and thinking things through makes both sides look bad.  Yes, both sides.  I submit that a careful reading of the relevant materials to this much-blogged-about situation doesn't present anyone in a particularly flattering light.  As I've said before and will probably say again, this is disappointing but not surprising.


jeremy said...

I noticed that MH hasn't said ANYTHING about levels of checks & balances so that a church discipline case can be handled properly. They may have alluded to it in their first response, but they have never officially come out and said such a system exists. They just believe in one. When Andrew was brought under "discipline" it wasn't with the entire church (campus) elder team but with just one pastor and the community group leader. Which begs the question "how long did said elders 'deliberate' on this case?" You'd think by now MH would come forward and talk about such a system, but they have yet to do so.

jeremy said...

email me at if you have a response.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The Stranger has made a point of clearing up a misrepresentation of facts. The Stranger did contact Mars Hill and Jeff Bettger responded.

The Stranger apparently doesn't count in the eyes of Mars Hill, just Slate. There are other media outlets that have been contacting Mars Hill and have gotten stonewalled so it's not as though Mars Hill can truthfully say that NOBODY has contacted them, it's more a case that of the people who chose to contact Mars Hill they will admit they talked to Slate. But that's not the same thing as saying no one else contacted them.

jeremy said...

Interesting. Now, referring to the specific discipline cases (Lance, Andrew, and to some degree the young couple at the new 2011 plant), the way it was handled was that there was a community group leader and/OR a pastor (in the case of the young couple it seemed like it was just CG leader, no pastor or elder) present to "read them their rights" so-to-speak. It seems like church discipline is supposed to happen with ALL the elders present to act as a system of checks and balances. So far, Mars Hill has not mentioned anything about this type of elder accountability in place regarding those (or any other for that matter) cases of discipline. It seems like community group leaders and campus pastors can discipline members however they like with no required approval from the elder board. If I'm wrong, please correct me.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

jeremy, I haven't been a member since 2008. I've written about Andrew's case only in so far as that his case went public at all confirmed concerns I expressed four years ago that the lack of any clear, competent approach to disciplinary procedure and precedent in Mars Hill was likely to lead to a problematic case in which someone would go public. Unlike other bloggers or authors who have attempted to focus on Andrew and other people specifically I'm not in a place to confirm or deny the particulars of cases. I am, however, in a position to say that the fact that these cases have gone public indicates that the cautions I gave in my closing months at Mars Hill have turned out to be well-founded.

You may want to see about finding the Mars Hill by-laws I don't recall there being anything in the by-laws that said that more than two pastors had to be present to make a disciplinary decision and no appeal process is ever indicated but I haven't seen the by-laws in years.

rach.h.davis said...


I read your comments with interest considering that you have some first-hand experience with Mars Hill. I've been following the blogosphere as the saga of Andrew hit, then as MH responded, then as people went back and forth about which side was right and which side wrong.

I find your comments regarding church growth outstripping infrastructure to be a very insightful thought, and it does seem to go a long way in explaining what happened.

I wanted to ask for your take on one comment that has been circulating; as someone who has actually been part of MH, I think your insight could be valuable.

Some people have criticized the Andrew fiasco as being the natural outworking of a system that teaches a rather grace-less system of submission and "not questioning." They say that, even though Mark Driscoll and the elders at the top aren't directly involved with Andrew and other supposed cases of "spiritual abuse," the way that Driscoll and others INSTRUCT their leaders to view/handle sin and insubordination predispositions leaders at the bottom to act in ways that turn out to be very, very unhealthy and lacking in grace.

I'm not trying to "find a way to blame Driscoll" for everything that happens in the church; at the same time, if a church's approach to theology and sin predisposes its leaders to handle church discipline in an unhealthy way, isn't that something that should be called out and addressed? And, hopefully, fixed?

I feel that's a little bit different than simply claiming that leaders didn't have enough training.

Just wondered if you had thoughts on that angle of it. Thanks!


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Red, those are good comments and good questions within them. I've had a decade (more like twelve years now) to observe how things work in the church culture. I would say that the leaders are certain they understand grace and think they are being gracious. When I stopped renewing my membership I shared privately (and on this blog) that I think the trouble is that Mars Hill has a dangerously truncated hamartiology (theology of sin). I had to dig around a bit in my blog to find old entries where I discussed Mars Hill bottom-lining things to pride without considering the other categories provided by Scripture for understanding different kinds of sin. At the risk of linking to myself here are the earlier blog entries.

Eagle said...


I think your concerns in some ways apply to mega churches focused on growth and compared to discipliship. Though discipleship runs the risk of turning into shepherding if handled badly. But when I was involved in a large mega church problems just abounded.

1. It was hard to meet a pastor
2. It was hard to get involved in small groups as the growth exceeded small groups that were available.
3. To follow up...people who led small groups I thought failed to have the understandings or training to deal with life situations.
4. People fell through the cracks on a regular basis.

What disappointed me was to witnes this playing out in my mega church and hear these vision messages about expansion and grwoth when they never fixed the problems that previous growth created!

Just my .02....