About a quadrillion people read Matthew Paul Turners article the other day about a guy named Andrew, a member of Mars Hill (Mark Driscoll’s church), who had committed a sin. Andrew was engaged when one night he messed around with a woman who was not his fiancee. He stopped short of sex – feeling convicted – confessed to his fiancee the next day and also to a leader and friend in his study group. Soon other leaders knew about his sin – the sexual one and the deceit of not confessing sooner – and the leaders sought to help him. He willing submitted himself to their authority. He endured meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. Okay. Fine. Situations like these take time to work through. I get that. But the problem here is that the meetings involved so many people. These are delicate situations that need to be handled delicately. If Andrew was repentant, cooperative and actively seeking restoration, than the proper pastoral thing to do is to keep the situation as tightly knit as possible. That means the fewer the hands involved, the better.
After several months of these meetings, Andrew surprisingly received a “disciplinary contract” outlining his sins and responsibilities. I could see how this could be very confusing. He had spent months submitting to the leadership of the church, cooperating and confessing repeatedly. Is a ‘disciplinary contract’ really necessary (or even biblical)? I suppose when a church becomes an institution everything becomes red tape.
I wonder how many counselling sessions the man living in sexual immorality in the Corinthian church had to endure before he was considered restored (1 Cor 5)? The difference here (and this is a big difference) is that the man in sexual sin in Corinth was not interested in repentance, so Paul instructs the church to put him out. But Andrew was the one to bring up his sin and seek repentance. Don’t underestimate the significance of that fact.
When the man in the Corinthian church finally repented, lets face it, he probably poured his heart out before God, had a long conversation with his leaders who then forgave him and allowed him back into fellowship. We can’t be sure, but at the least I doubt he had a million meetings to endure and a disciplinary contract to sign. The church is more organic than that. It’s Christ’s body. The man repented and sought forgiveness. Let it be done. If he needs counselling that is a separate matter from “church discipline”. If he’s being counselled it’s because he needs help, but if he’s being disciplined it’s because he’s in rebellion and sin. Which of the two – given Andrew’s actions up to the point of the “disciplinary contract” (based on the information we have) – should he have undergone, counseling for help, or discipline for sin and rebellion?
Paul tells the Corinthian church after the man repented and sought forgiveness, “you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:7). Let’s get one thing straight: the leaders of Mars Hill should have done this MONTHS ago, right after Andrew confessed his sin, repented and sought help. THAT is when forgiveness and affirming love should have taken place. The meetings should have been approached not as discipline, but as discipleship(!) and a ‘disciplinary contract’ should have never seen the light of day (Consider the dire parallel: if we still require discipline after we repent and seek forgiveness, should God still punish us by sending us to purgatory? Or have we been forgiven? And should not the church then do the same, remembering that God will only forgive us according to the measure we forgive others! Matt 6:12?).
At this point Andrew realizes he’s in the wrong place. He was correct to sense intuitively that the leaders had entered – intentionally or not – into an abusive posture towards him. This was no longer a God-honoring direction. What should he have done? Who could he have gone to? Should he have just laid down and allowed these charades to continue? When would it have stopped? He knew that he had to go. It was the only option that would prevent him from becoming the victim. There are other godly churches and other godly leaders who could help him.
So Andrew sent a reply removing himself from the situation and from Mars Hill. A leader sent him a reply to his reply urging him to reconsider and, in fact, warning him that leaving will result in “escalation”. That “escalation” was a published letter to the congregation announcing all of Andrew’s sins and instructing them on how to respond should Andrew seek to talk and hang out with any of them.
The way the church leaders handled the situation at Mars Hill is precisely backwards to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians. Paul tells them to send out the unrepentant sinner and when he repents, to embrace him and forgive him and reaffirm their love for him. But Mars Hill excommunicated the repentant brother and rather than affirming him, they publically humiliated him.
The leaders seek Matthew 18 as grounds for their actions. There’s a problems with that. In Matthew Jesus is talking about someone who is unwilling to concede his sin and seek repentance whereas Andrew was a repentant believer who was seeking restoration. There was no need for “two or three witnesses” to go to Andrew because it was Andrew who sought to confess to two witnesses. Therefore the escalation of Matthew 18 does not apply to this situation.
Now, the thing is, while not minimizing Andrew’s sin, I’d like to point out that the leadership of Mars Hill has effectively lead their entire congregation into sin. We have been talking about Andrew’s sin, but what about the sins committed by the leaders? The sin of abuse of power? The sin of manipulation? The sin of twisting the Bible to keep a brother down? Who’s going to hold the leaders of Mars Hill responsible?
I understand the desire many of us have to hope and see the best in our spiritual leaders, but my rose coloured glasses were knocked off my face in 1997 – and a few times since. Abuses in church leadership happen as leaders develop a sense of entitlement. I know. I can count a half a dozen different and unrelated instances that I have witness first hand. The temptation for authoritative abuse is substantial and addictive. It spreads like cancer throughout an entire leadership team. It becomes like a drug you don’t even know your addicted too. We should not minimize this sin. We often look at pastors who have scandalously fallen into “moral sin” which often means sins having to do with sex or money. But abuse of God’s people and a misuse of God’s word is also a moral sin (James 3:1).
This is one of the problems with how we run the church today. Corporate Christianity, it comes in all shapes and sizes. And who’s going to hold the boys at the top responsible? Until now there has not been much by way of widespread accountability (since leaders of the same chicken coop tend to cluck together). But the blogosphere is changing that. For the better or worse, the broader Christian community has for the first time the ability to stand up – the multitudes who have been victimized by authoritative abuse by church leaders – and hold them accountable. Just read the hundreds of comments left under Turner’s post. Each one tells a story of abuse. And of course, I have my own story to tell.
I should point out that I serve on the board of my church and have loads of respect for my pastor. I have no axe to grind toward church leadership in general. But at some point we have to admit, in terms of our Christian culture, that we have a real problem and misunderstanding of what “authority” means in the body of Christ today.
[Addendum: I realized that Matthew’s post only tells one side of the story. Fair enough. But if that story is only 50% true – I’m inclined to think it’s more than that, but for sake of argument – that still leaves us with a church leadership that has abused it’s power. Nobody is minimizing what Andrew did (and certainly not Andrew who willing confessed and underwent months of counselling), but there were plenty of serious sins committed by all parties involved. At least Andrew has shown an attitude toward repentance. It’ll be interesting to see if Mars Hill will make any public statements on the matter from the pressure of the blogospher. Though experience in these situations tells me it is unlikely.]
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