The Mars Hill Postmortem

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Ballard CampusThe news of Mark Driscoll’s resignation closes a painful chapter in the life of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. This is a time to pray for the Driscoll family, Mars Hill Church, and those who have suffered through various forms of spiritual abuse.

What can we learn from this situation? We should consider four lessons to take away, but I want to preface these remarks with two caveats.

First, this blog is not a place for gossip and personal attacks, and I will not allow the comments section to become a feast for those who are hungry to either defend or decry the Driscolls or Mars Hill. Go elsewhere if you’re looking for drama.

Secondly, the title of this post does not imply that Mars Hill Church’s ministry is over. The good news is that King Jesus loves to take seemingly hopeless situations and bring resurrection life from them. (Case in point: New Life Church where Ted Haggard was once pastor.) I use the term “postmortem” because a difficult season of Mars Hill ministry has come to an end, and in between this chapter and the next, we should examine the causes that contributed to this situation.

So, with a heavy but hopeful heart, here are four things I hope we can learn from the events at Mars Hill.

1. Leadership Matters

This situation marks the first time I recall a pastor resigning from a church for a reason other than marital infidelity or embezzlement. There were moral issues and financial impropriety involved in the Mars Hill controversy, of course, but the presenting reason for Mark’s resignation is an abusive form of leadership that revealed significant character flaws.

What we can learn: Leadership matters. Church members need to know what spiritual abuse of leadership looks like, and church leaders need to be trained well, enthusiastically supported when they walk in line with Scripture, and held accountable when they abuse their position of authority.

2. Church Polity Matters

The last Mark Driscoll talk I listened to was several years ago. In it, he mocked Congregationalists for our inefficient and ineffective structures of authority. 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.

I understand why Driscoll’s bravado appealed to younger pastors. But efficiency is not and never has been the point. Polity is about authority and governance, not what makes the best sense in corporate America.

Churches of all kinds often have squabbles and pastoral issues (we’re all sinners, after all). But whatever polity your church adopts, you should ensure an appropriate accountability to people within the body. No leader should be unable to be confronted. If your elders never say no, you don’t really have elders.

Please don’t misunderstand me: there were sin problems at Mars Hill, not merely structural problems. But not all structures are equal in helping churches through sin problems. Evangelicals don’t like to talk about polity because we’re so diverse on this issue, but we must not ignore the impact these questions have when a church is in crisis.

What we can learn: Polity matters. Know your church’s structure of authority well and do your best to empower godly people to lead well through times of crisis. 

3. Character Matters as Much as Doctrine

In conservative evangelical churches, we often determine “who’s in” and “who’s out” by doctrinal and theological precision and pay less attention to the fruit of the Spirit. Doctrine matters, for sure, but the Apostle Paul commanded Timothy to watch his life, too. And I worry that we are slow to see some leaders’ “life” not lining up with godly character as long as their doctrinal checklist turns out to be sound.

Conservative evangelicals are not alone in this regard. Every tribe has its blind spots. It’s human nature to assume the best of your friends and worst of your enemies. I have seen this club mentality when well-known evangelicals with good reputations and solid character are dismissed simply because their biblical exegesis differs from ours. And I think some Christian leaders were slow to see the problems with Driscoll because he ”believes the right things.”

If anything, evangelicals gifted with discernment and biblical doctrine of sin and grace should have been the first to expose these problems. I know some of this critique happened behind the scenes, inside and outside Mars Hill. But more could have been done sooner to warn and protect the flock.

Like my friend Lizette Beard says, “I don’t care who you are or how big your church or ministry is. Nobody gets a pass on the fruit of the Spirit.” Theological precision is vitally important, but never at the expense of failing to love our neighbors and never as an excuse for sin.

What we can learn: Don’t dismiss people outside your theological circles who exhibit the fruit of a vibrant walk with Christ. Also, don’t overlook or excuse character flaws from leaders inside your theological circles, as if doctrine matters more than life.

4. The Celebrity Culture Hinders Our Witness

Some have pointed out the dangers of celebrity-ism in Christian circles, to the point the critics of celebrity have become quasi-celebrities themselves. Fame is not inherently bad, and a pastor or leader who is appreciated and respected for faithful service is worthy of commendation.

But let’s not ignore the kind of celebrity culture we live in, where we are apt to jump on the bandwagon and praise someone simply because everyone else is, regardless of credibility or ministry qualification. This YouTube prank in New York City of a man pretending to be a celebrity for a few moments is illustrative of the kind of world we live in. The crowd wants to be in tune with the latest trend and fashion and therefore makes up reasons to gawk at the celebrity.

In our celebrity-driven world, we are more apt to promote and praise people simply for attracting attention than for demonstrating faithful service and ministry experience over many years. The social media world adds another layer of complexity, as people who burst onto the scene with a strong social presence and later torn apart limb from limb on the same social media channels. We prop people up and then watch them fall.

What we can learn: Look for wisdom and maturity more than glitz and glamor. Be willing to ask tough questions of the popular leader no one wants to challenge.

Conclusion

Tim Keller describes a “gospel-based ministry” not merely in terms of doctrinal correctness but as being “marked by loving honesty, not spin, image, and flattery.”

Likewise, John Stott writes: The Christian minister should be preoccupied with the people’s spiritual progress and care nothing for his own prestige.

The temptations to make your ministry all about yourself are ever-present. Take heed, lest you fall. For, in Stott’s words, “Only when pastor and people keep their eyes on Christ will their mutual relations keep healthy, profitable, and pleasing to God.”

See also:

Eric Geiger – “A Tale of Two Mars Hills”

Ed Stetzer - “Unhealthy Christian Organizations”

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