What a strange title for a blog post. If you have “why” questions, keep reading here, but if you just want the meat of the post, skim down through the “Discerning …” headings. May I ask a small favor? If you are already angry and are ready to flame me, please at least read the post first. You might be surprised.
I’ve been called a Pharisee enough times to take it to heart. On one hand, if you are someone who’s willing to take a stand on sound doctrine, there will always be people willing to call you a Pharisee, but on the other hand if you’ve been called one by people you respect, then you need to take it to heart. I’ve posted a multi-part series on this invisi-blog that tells the story of my continuing fight with Pharisee-ism and its underlying pride. I bring it up here for a couple of reasons. Mostly because I see myself in a lot of Mark Driscoll’s troubles of late. If I were more charismatic of a teacher, a more dynamic leader, and more entrepreneurial…, if I’d experienced the amazing growth his churches, networks, conferences, etc. have seen, I could easily see myself blowing it. A foolish comment here, an exaggeration there, a short cut or two, and before you know it, I could have been in similar hot water. Another reason I bring up my battle with sinful pride is to keep me grounded as a take on a difficult task–Discerning Driscoll.
Why Me?–I have family and dear friends that are members of Mars Hill Church (MHC) and I am watching them struggle with how to process all that is going on. I am a local pastor (lay elder) with people in our congregation who also have friends and family in MHC. While there has been plenty written about Mark and MHC lately, I haven’t seen anything like what I’m attempting to write here–a discernment aid. While I desire to write something helpful for the Body of Christ that people on both sides can agree with, I have no such expectations. For what it’s worth, I take no pleasure in Mark’s or Mars Hill’s troubles and I certainly don’t enjoy the risks involved in writing this.
Why Now?–I needed to stop being a coward. I’ve had a draft of much of this post written for months and haven’t posted it. My excuse was that it was too badly written. It was, but that’s hardly an excuse to not put in the work and fix it. The truth is, that I was worried whom I might offend while I allowed others who might benefit from some do without. Now that the bombshells have stopped dropping and the feeding frenzy has died down, it is time for some sober reflection. A quick note to any haters looking for more dirt–there is nothing new here, you might have better success on my confessions posts.
Discerning His Accusers
A wise friend wrote to me that it is hard to discern the “good guys” in all of this. It’s so true. At one end of the spectrum we have many folks who appear to relish every little bit of bad news, every speck of dirt that is revealed, and cannot wait to share it. I don’t understand the pleasure that we can sometimes get when someone else suffers. But–we have to be careful when we start to judge people’s intentions. Some are no doubt driven by their own pride and hatred, some have been genuinely hurt but are sinfully seeking revenge, some are hurt and just trying to expose what they believe to be a sinful and corrupt man/organization but are doing so in unhelpful/ungodly ways. Also there are some who are trying to be faithful to the responsibilities that come with their God-given offices. Even these may only be receiving one side of the story. Some people with inside information, who never intended their words for a broader audience, have remained silent for their own reasons and have only recently chosen to speak up or they have been quoted by others.
We have accusers who are offended by his in-your -face style or crass language, and for that alone are on the attack and enjoying his troubles. Others may allow doctrinal disagreement (hate his Calvinism or his complementarianism) to turn into hate for the man. Others are driven by a genuine love for the man, Mars Hill Church, and the good name of Jesus Christ.
The bottom line here is that we need to be careful where we get our information from and examine the information first for the fruit of the Spirit, and then for content. We need to remember our own hearts are tainted by sin and our own motives are impure, and our information is limited.
Discerning His Defenders
At the other end of the spectrum are those who seem to refuse to even consider the accusations against him may be legitimate or potentially disqualifying for pastoral ministry. Again motives are difficult to discern, but are they/we driven by something as irrational as denial (I dare not believe it because of what it would do to my world…), as irresponsible as ignorance (“wait–what accusations?”), as worldly as pragmatism (too big to fail/we couldn’t go on without him), as base as pride (“if it’s true, how would that reflect upon me?”), or as … , or as … It is easy to fall into a cult-of-personality trap in our own hearts and minds. Among these auto-defenders will be those who are outraged that I dared write this post.
Our only hero that cannot fail is Jesus Christ. Our only leader that we cannot do without is Jesus Christ. In our saner moments, every Christian leader will understand these things to be true. In our more deluded-by-sinful-pride moments, we will fail to act like it.
Discerning the Accusations
It is not my intent to step through a list of specific accusations. They are easily found by Internet search, and it will be a good exercise in discernment to be able to sort through the haters and auto-defenders in order to find credible information. Here are some important questions to keep in mind as you sort through them. Consider the source. Is this coming from secular media? — You’ll find they are more concerned with things that make good headlines and are of little interest to discerning Christians (e.g. references to his biblical stance on homosexuality, the foolish things he posted long ago under another name on a church discussion board…”women as penis homes…”, etc.). Are the accusations coming from his consistent long-time critics? If so, is there substance to it or are we just talking about matters of style and personality. Or are the accusations coming from long time ministry associates and pastors who have served with him? Now we are getting close to home. Out of necessity I will make references to some well documented and credible (so far/from my perspective) accusations in a later section.
As the fog begins to clear on what is going on with Mark and MHC, begin assessing what you are discerning about the facts (you don’t have the complete picture and don’t pretend you do) with Scripture. The gifts of the Spirit are first and foremost discernible by the evident fruit of the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. –Galatians 5:22-23
Is the fruit of the Spirit on display? Or are you discerning things from the other “works of the flesh” listed in the previous verses:
… idolatry, … , enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy,… , and things like these. –Galatians 5:22-23
Are the fruits of repentance evident? That leads us to the next topic.
Discerning His Apologies
I’ve only seen two of his public apologies, the “days of the angry prophet are over” one and the most recent “I’m stepping down for at least six weeks” one. I know there have been other statements of regret, etc. and I have no doubts about the sincerity of his regret. He, like all of us, has done some stupid things in his life and he genuinely regrets them.
How do we discern repentance in apologies like these? Since apologies can be given for a wide range of reasons, and none of us are mind readers, how do we discern if an apology is given for selfish reasons (to make me feel better… the guilt bugs me, it’s necessary to get things back to normal, …) or genuine contrition (I’m grieved over my sin, the evil I’ve perpetrated against God and against people, bringing reproach to Christ and His Church’s name)? Further complicating it is that this side of eternity and the culmination of our sanctification, each of our confessions or apologies are tainted by selfish pride in some way. So goes the war between the Spirit and the flesh.
Probably the clearest indicators of genuine repentance are sin acknowledgement, specificity, and brokenness. Does the person, Mark in this case, acknowledge specific actions as sins against God and against specific others? It is important for each reader with a stake in this to do this for themselves. What follows is a list of tough questions in Biblical language we can each ask after viewing his apologies. Has Mark specifically confessed to being a thief? (plagiarism and publishing of the ideas of others as his own). Did he confess to being a liar? (book “confiscation” at Strange Fire, not knowing about ResultSource). Did he confess to other specific instances of devious behavior? (use of ResultSource to get on NYT bestseller list) Did he confess to any specifics in the mistreatment of fellow servants of God now “under the bus”?
As we watched the first of these apologies, most of us wanted to just forgive and forget and be glad that was all over with and behind us, but the “mistakes were made” content of the apology unsettled me. As weeks passed and more accusations surfaced and another apology was delivered I was grieved to see the same lack of sin acknowledgement or specifics. Yes, there was regret for mistakes made and foolish acts and a sincere “I’m sorry,” but what about sin? A self-serving apology is one where it has a desired effect for one’s self. It is an apology that comes with it the expectation that everyone is obliged to forgive so that we can put all of this behind us as soon as possible. Though it confesses nothing explicitly, it is expected to cover everything so that all is considered “old news” and “already dealt with.” As humbly as it may have appeared to have been delivered, it is actually further manipulation. I don’t know Mark’s heart and I doubt that these apologies were intentionally manipulative. I also don’t believe botched apologies are unforgivable sins. If right now you are still confused about “what’s the difference,” my best advice is for you to sit down and read Psalm 51. It was penned by King David after he’d been busted. This is what repentance looks like. Isn’t it great that God is not only in the business of redeeming souls, but also in redeeming legacies? It is hard to believe that David the great sinner (seduction, adultery, murder, cover up …) is remembered as “a man after God’s own heart.” Why? Because his repentance is more famous than his sin.
The last indicator I mentioned for repentant apologies was brokenness. I’m speaking of brokenness in a positive sense of the word where pride is crushed and the fear of the Lord is evident. There is a difference between regret & sadness and true brokenness. Evidence of brokenness would be the proverbial sack cloth and ashes. Evidence to the contrary might be … well … the hiring of a public relations firm.
The pop-church-culture errors of preemptive forgiveness, single-party forgiveness, and forgiveness of the unrepentant have done tremendous damage to understanding what forgiveness is. As Christians we are certainly called to be forgiving–to extend forgiveness wherever and whenever possible. We are also to love our enemies, cover the offenses of others against us, rise above offenses, and absorb them when we must and forgive them when we can. Forgiveness is two party and leads to restoration. You can no more forgive a person who doesn’t want it than accept a wedding proposal that was never offered–you may want to, but you can’t. See my web page for a more in depth explanation. Excuse the rabbit trail, but I bring this up because…
I’ve seen “I forgive my pastor” links shared on social media from MHC members. Has anyone really asked/sought your forgiveness for anything specific? Have vague statements of regret and apologies been substituted for genuine confession and humble requests for forgiveness? Of course you want to forgive, but is that really on the table right now? Please understand there is a difference between forgiveness and “blowing it off and pretending it never happened.” True forgiveness is glorious and built upon truth and grace, while the other is irresponsible presumptuousness. Pray for your pastors to be faithful, wise, courageous, and humble before God. As we’ve been reminded repeatedly, pray for your leaders. Prayer is powerful and appropriate, and it is not the only thing we are called to do sometimes. Pray, discern, and do with both boldness and humility.
Early/unpublished drafts of this post made mention of a courageous letter signed by some elders of Mars Hill Church (the contents of which can be found here) as a good sign for the process that MHC leaders are going through. My only disagreement at the time with it was the presumption that the appropriate end game for this process is the restoration of Mark as the lead/preaching pastor. As we study the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5), what are the qualifications for a leader? What would “qualify” as a disqualifying offense? The prevailing church culture seems to think that some kind of sexual sin, a felony conviction, or perhaps having been divorced at some time in the past are the only disqualifying offenses for pastors. I hope that list sounds as absurd to you as it should have. The contemporary evangelical church culture has a baffling disparity between their low bar for leadership qualification and their high bar for disqualification. Instead, let leaderships’ fruit be examined and compared with what Scripture teaches us about elders/overseers. This isn’t just a process of looking for the one ‘biggy’ that put them over the line, it is a matter of fruit inspection and discernment. Here’s a partial list of characteristics to look for from the texts I listed above: temperate, prudent, not fond of sordid gain, respectable, not quick tempered, not self-willed, not pugnacious, gentle, uncontentious, self-controlled, sensible, a good reputation with those outside the church.
A person can certainly be restored into fellowship and good standing in the church without being returned to a previous leadership role. If he’s not been disqualified (this is not easy to discern), how long is long enough to demonstrate the fruits of repentance? Is it a self imposed time of six or more weeks?
Discerning the Resignation
Now that Mark has resigned from leadership, does that wrap things up? Is it now just a matter of waiting to see if Pastor Dave will be able to step in take his place satisfactorily? That consumerist approach is an easy one to slide into. What is Mars Hill’s leadership structure now and more importantly, what can you/we do as members/friends to help move towards a healthier Mars Hill Church? One thing is to seek to discern the remaining leaders’ shepherding and teaching gifts and faithfulness. As for the latter, be careful not to confuse charisma/style with faithfulness. I’ve always appreciated Dave’s teaching and have have confidence in his handling of the Word, but that is a discernment process that MHC members must continue as faithful Bereans. What about shepherding/oversight? What can we discern about the leadership that remains by examining Mark’s resignation letter and the Mars Hill announcement? Many of the same questions from the “Discerning His Apologies” section arise: are there any specifics provided with respect to confession of sin and repentance?… etc. The more relevant questions now that he has resigned are about remaining leadership.
Trevin Wax, a Gospel Coalition blogger, has posted a helpful but dreadfully titled1 The Mars Hill Postmortem. In his second point about church polity he refers to the Driscoll/MHC model this way:
His prescription sounded something like this: gather a group of aggressive “yes men” to run the church, implement changes, and then rubber stamp the pastor’s agenda.
Is this a fair characterization? That’s a big question. If it is, what’s left are “yes men” without their leader. As we’ve witnessed this process of Mark stepping down and resigning, who has been in charge every step of the way? More specifically, was he removed or did he remove himself? As we read and consider the resignation letter and the announcement, does this look like healthy church discipline or the resignation of a CEO from a corporation? Are there any differences expressed between the remaining leadership and Mark?
Discerning What’s Next
What is a desiring-to-be-faithful Christian to do in these difficult circumstances? So far the leading choices seem to be flee or wait. To those who have already bolted, did you do so for appropriate reasons? What’s next for you? Are you going to seek out a healthier church environment or are you going to fade back into the world with a chip on your shoulder? Let me assure you, the latter choice is not an option for a believer in Christ, and if it is your plan, declared or just what you find yourself drifting into, you are compounding the sin in this situation. You either need to return to MHC and help right the ship or find a healthy church and get plugged in.
There are a few choices here. The more irresponsible are going to stay until … uh, … I don’t know… until everybody else leaves I guess. Will you be among those so easily blown about by the wind? If you discern that you can have confidence in the faithful leadership of your church, you need to stay and work for God’s glory to help right the ship at MHC. If you discern that your church’s leadership is not healthy and is unwilling to make the necessary changes to be a healthy church, you need to find a healthy church and get yourself plugged in there. The only other choice is to “abandon organized religion” and demonstrate that your conversion was a farce in the first place as you “go out from us because you are not of us.”
Pray! Study the Word and discern. Resolve to a life of loving and serving with faithfulness and mutual submission in an imperfect but healthy church with servant leaders. Whether you stay or you go, do so with that odd-but-biblical combination of humility and boldness.
That’s my prayer and encouragement for each of you.
1The points Trevin makes about what we can learn from all of this are spot on, but the title, and his explanation for the title, give the impression that this was somehow an end to the story. To believe that, one must believe that Mark Driscoll’s position as lead/senior pastor for Mars Hill is the foremost issue. Mars Hill’s leadership problems are not fixed by his exit. There is a need for servant leaders to rise up and for members to grow in discernment, boldness, and humility.
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