Update: Mars Hill addressed what happened and acknowledged that the leaders involved overstepped their bounds. And I’m going to defend Driscoll here: He’s pastoring a freaking large church. It’s unlikely he’s personally involved in the vast majority of these cases.
The relevant text:
The church is made up of sinners, leadership included. The result is that sometimes things are handled poorly by leaders in a church discipline process and sometimes those who are under church discipline respond poorly. In such instances, it is the responsibility of the church leadership to protect our members, and when we hear of leaders overstepping their authority through the church discipline process we are quick to act to rectify the situation.
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. Again, these actions were taken months ago, prior to any public exposure.
A popular story flashed all over the Internet last week regarding a story of church discipline enacted by Mars Hill upon an individual identified as Andrew. According to his version of the events, Andrew got physical with a girl who was not his fiance, confessed to her and his leaders about his sin, but was then forced to jump through hoop after hoop of confessions before being whacked with an overly harsh form of church discipline (including a contract that he needed to sign, agreeing to multiple predetermined steps). When he felt that Mars Hill was no longer the church for him due to this treatment, they warned him that he was leaving as a member not in good standing and that they would inform any church he tried to attend about his sin. He told his story to a blogger, Matthew Paul Turner, who then wrote about it and caused quite the firestorm.
That was just a summary, obviously. Turner has two posts on this (Part 1 and Part 2), and Mars Hill put up on article on general church discipline here, although they did not address this matter directly. Apparently, Andrew’s brother, Stephen, has written general thoughts of the ordeal here.
Before I talk about church discipline and this story in particular, I’m just going to… well, be mean, in general, towards many Internet commenters. Naturally, when a story like this hits the Internet, we are gifted with massive amounts of stupidity. If you ever want to rid yourself of the illusion that human beings are essentially smart, read comments on Youtube, ESPN, CNN, and the like, especially since these comment sections are largely not moderated. The amount of poor argumentation, ignorance, and willful blindness is astounding, and it never ceases to amaze me. The majority of comments on Turner’s blog are no exception.
Allow me to zero this in on many professing Christians. I would expect stories like this to bring out the bitter agnostic or atheist who talks about the Bible and Jesus as if he knows anything (he doesn’t) and gleefully denounces religion, but to see incredible amounts of biblical ignorance from Christians is downright sad. Stuff like, “Jesus would never excommunicate anyone” (apparently they are not familiar with Matthew 18), “There should only be LOVE!” (as if God’s love precludes holiness and justice), and “Where’s the grace?” (It’s in the blood of Jesus, who died for something called SIN), among others, makes me want to bang my head against a wall. This kind of hippy bullcrap does not show a lick of biblical knowledge or sound reasoning, and frankly, Christians who use such sloppy catchphrases should be embarrassed. Such an attitude does not show love because it is not grounded in God’s truth, who is love.
Some might be thinking, “Just another one of Mark Driscoll’s fanboys trying to defend him.” Nope. I am not a big fan of Driscoll and I’ve criticized him many times before. I ripped him for his careless review of The Shack (even though I didn’t particularly like the book myself) as well as his bonehead use of the phrase “false gospel” to describe different interpretations of the righteousness of Noah, which was made even worse because his interpretation completely ignored Gen. 6:9. Whenever I hear him preach the Gospel, I affirm it, but if I hear Reformed theology, I disagree, and when I hear him say really dumb stuff, I laugh at him. I am not weighing in on this because I feel the need to defend Driscoll or his church, who may have indeed screwed up here. I am weighing in to talk about why church discipline is both biblical and necessary.
What the Bible Says
The two main passages regarding disciplinary action (and booting someone out of the church) are Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. We’ll begin with the Matthew passage:
15 If your brother sins against you,go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father n heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
The first thing to notice is this: Jesus spoke these words. So much for the notion that Jesus would never want someone kicked out of a church.
Secondly, repentance and reconciliation is what is sought, not vengeance. Only after a refusal to confess do the subsequent steps become necessary.
Third, the sin in question is obviously one that warrants consideration of removal in the first place, so it is quite a bit more serious than, “Jimmy told me to shut up once and it hurt my feelings.” It is not merely personal offense either. While the text does say specifically that the brother sins against “you,” it’s more to emphasize personal responsibility to forgive and seek reconciliation than it is to try to categorize sin as “personal” and “impersonal”; for example, it would be inappropriate to think that if an unmarried deacon is found to buy prostitutes from time to time, he cannot be disciplined because he is allegedly only harming himself and no one else. Not only does this text not support this, numerous other texts regarding the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12) refute the notion that members’ sins can only effect themselves.
Fourth, the matter is to be kept private if possible. It is incumbent upon the member who discovers this sin to try to initiate reconciliation without bringing things out in public. I do not believe it has to be a wooden formula; for example, if you don’t go by yourself but bring a leader with you, that is hardly unbiblical, nor is it unbiblical to have a few more steps than this (after two or three people, if you decide to try again with two or three people or even five, that’s not necessarily wrong either). Jesus was not concerned with giving a handbook for church discipline but rather that intentional and repeated steps are made to bring the sinner back into the fold, guarding against flippant reactions or dishonesty (hence the need for multiple people to confirm as witnesses).
Fifth, if all else fails, then it is brought before the “church.” The use of church here refers to a local assembly of believers who are in voluntary and covenant association with another. That is just obvious in the text and obvious when you think of virtually any organization. If I join a professional club at a school, that is my choice, but when I decide to do so I agree to their terms of membership. Likewise, if I were to become a member of a local church, I agree to be held accountable by the other members of the congregation. Thus, the church has the right and the duty to pass judgment on these matters (for those alarmed with my use of “judgment” here, read this). She also has the authority to do so, because verse 18-20 establish their authority to administrate insofar as the church is in Christ.
Sixth, only if the sinner is unrepentant even in the face of the church is he removed. This does not mean, obviously, that literally every single member of the church needs to show up on his front door, depending on the size; that is both impractical and probably intimidating. What it does mean is that the whole membership is involved, meaning that they are informed of the matter, they are told what the leaders are doing, and they are allowed to voice their concerns. In other words, removing someone from fellowship should never be done lightly and should always have the backing of the membership. Essentially, since the person shows no evidence of being a follower of Christ, then the church treats him as a nonbeliever (without actually making a judgment on that matter).
Next, let’s look at 1 Cor. 5:
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature[a]may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
Paul’s words seem harsher than Jesus’, but on close inspection, they are in line with that of Christ’s. While Paul does not instruct a gradual process like Jesus does, we should understand that he doesn’t because A) The sin is already public and B) the sin is especially obvious and egregious that it’s not even a matter that requires much time to understand (basically, it’s like getting a summary judgment). Also, this sin has been going on unrepentantly; in verse 2, Paul is astounded that some of the Corinthians were even proud of the behavior. Paul still grounds the dismissal in the authority of the local assembly, as is made clear in verse 4, and he still aims for the person’s restoration: “Hand this man over to Satan” sounds harsh, but he means that the person needs to be thrown out into the world and hopefully see the fruitlessness and evil of his ways so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
In summary, here are some basic biblical guidelines regarding church discipline:
-The sin must be harmful and divisive enough to warrant consideration of removal. This obviously requires some wise discernment and should be a guard against politically-motivated actions.
-Private steps should be made for restoration, unless of course the sin is already made public.
-Only in the face of unrepentant and defiant behavior should the entire church be involved, whose authority lies in Christ.
-If, even when confronted by the church, the sinner is unrepentant, then he should be removed.
-Church discipline is always aimed at restoration or salvation, not retribution. Even when someone is removed from fellowship, it is considered a last-ditch effort to make him realize the error of his ways and come back to be restored or, if he was never a believer to begin with, to see that his sin leads him nowhere and that he needs Christ.
I should also clarify that being repentant does not just mean saying a casual, “Sorry.” It is confession of sin and involves a genuine turning away. This does not mean that the person never falls again or becomes Master Holiness in a week but that he is committed to living for Christ, and that is evident to the church.
Church discipline is never fun, but when done biblically, it is actually the most loving and gracious thing we can do to an unrepentant sinner. What’s worse, pretending that a potential nonbeliever is saved and letting him believe that or confronting him with his need for Jesus? Or how about allowing a believer to damage his witness and harm his church against showing him that his ways are displeasing to the Lord? There is nowhere in Scripture where “love” equals “pretending sin isn’t there.” That’s not love; that’s deceit or a lack of care. Furthermore, not only does it seek to protect the person who is being disciplined, church discipline protects the body from destructive behaviors and keeps the body of Christ healthy. I think even Christians who disagree with some of interpretations on the above passages can agree here.
That said, the reason why Jesus and Paul are so careful is because such a practice is ripe for abuse. On one extreme, some churches don’t practice church discipline at all, but on the other extreme, some churches use “church discipline” to self-righteously belittle people and/or to squash any sort of dissent. Neither is biblical and should be guarded against.
This discussion alone refutes the majority of comments that are decrying the practice of church discipline and shows that Andrew’s brother’s blog article was simply not well-thought out. He carelessly throws out labels of “fundamentalism” and then chooses to run to quotes from various authors rather than grounding anything he says in Scripture. It was hardly a very illuminating piece, and if he is a Christian, he must state his case much more carefully.
Mars Hill and Andrew
Now to this particular issue: What are we to make of this whole fiasco? First of all, let me advise caution: As I said above, we’ve only heard one side of the story. I’m not saying Andrew is necessarily dishonest, but I’ve seen enough ex-church goers embellish things or downright lie to make themselves look like the victim or the hero. We have to tread lightly because we simply do not know the whole story.
However, granting that Andrew’s story is at least partially credible (this is bold for a reason), it may well be that Mars Hill was overly harsh in its practice of church discipline. If he is telling the truth that he confessed his sin multiple times for an entire month before he was actually informed that he was under church discipline (and given a contract at that), then the church only served to beat him down after he confessed his sin rather than try to build him up. A restoration process is reasonable to have, but nowhere in the above texts is there indication that the threat of discipline continues after confession, as if confession never took place. It’s one thing to have someone admit he is in the wrong but not care; I’ve met plenty of those. It’s quite another if he confesses and genuinely wants to be restored, as Andrew, according to his testimony, wanted.
Also, in its letters to all the members instructing them to disassociate with Andrew, there is no mention that it was he himself who confessed his sin and brought it to light, and the implication was that he was caught red-handed and then refused to listen. Again, if what Andrew says is true here, that is hardly fully honest by Mars Hill. Furthermore, the detailed instructions on how to treat Andrew were frankly a bit much and sounded controlling. While Jesus teaches that we are to treat him as a “Gentile or tax collector” (meaning, a nonbeliever), that doesn’t mean we are duty-bound to disassociate him in the manner and degree Mars Hill was directing. It honestly sounded as silly as, “Don’t invite him to your birthday party.”
Nonetheless, while Mars Hill may have erred in its implementation of church discipline, the church is assuredly not wrong in teaching it and practicing it. Also, none of that necessarily excuses Andrew from bolting from the church or airing dirty laundry to a blog. He may argue that he’s trying to warn others away from what he sees to be a dangerous church, but to run to a blog that seems very anti-Driscoll seems more like slapping Mars Hill then a genuine concern that Driscoll is running a “cult.” If he truly experienced that kind of treatment from Mars Hill, I feel bad for him, but I hope he is very sure about his course of action, or otherwise he just crapped all over a church that is preaching the Gospel. If he also believes in grace and forgiveness, then he should know full well that no church is perfect, and many a church could look bad if we plastered all their bad stories on the Internet. I’m not necessarily defending Mars Hill; they are open to criticism as any organization is, but criticizing them for some mistakes is a lot different than accusing them of being an un-Christian cult (which he didn’t do but is fostering with his story).
This whole situation is just a mess: The ignorant discussion around church discipline by many Christians, the apparent way Mars Hill enacted church discipline, and then the way Andrew decided to go to Turner, someone who dislikes Driscoll, to bomb the church. Just another reminder that we all need Jesus, I guess.