A Shunning in Seattle
A powerful megachurch’s harsh tactics raise questions about how much control churches should have over their members’ lives.
Before now, Mars Hill’s only response has been posting an excerpt on church discipline from Driscoll’s 2009 book Vintage Church on its website and an opaque tweet from Driscoll. But Justin Dean, the church’s PR and marketing manager, agreed to answer my questions by email to tell the church’s side of the story.
One key element that was not clear in Andrew’s original account, Dean told me, was that the letter was intended to be read aloud, not posted online, and only to a “handful” of people. Instead, the group leader received unclear instructions and posted the letter online, a move Dean insists was not meant to hurt Andrew.
Furthermore, says Dean, only the approximately 15 members of Andrew’s small group, who met regularly and knew one another well, had access to the letter on the City. (Though Andrew was blocked from accessing the City, he says the letter was available to a slightly wider circle, including his fellow security volunteers.) “His case was not shared with the full church and had, until he posted it publicly online, only been known by a handful of people who were involved in his life and cared deeply about him,” Dean said. (Confusing social-media privacy settings strike again!) He added that Driscoll was not involved in the case at all. Mars Hill currently has 5,417 members and just nine ongoing church discipline cases.
Ugly, divisive cases like this one can make the entire concept of “church discipline” seem medieval. But the practice has a long history in the church, including a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, and 16th-century reformers who named discipline as one of the three “marks by which the true church is known.” Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries, an organization that consults on Christian conflict resolution issues, compares church discipline to how a bar association operates. The bar polices itself, watching over members and holding them accountable. Church discipline can help intercept true predators before they do more harm and sends a message about the consequences of sin—a phenomenon Sande compares to when the bar association publishes the names of disbarred attorneys.
As a church grows from a tight-knit community to a group of thousands, discipline becomes more difficult. That’s why churches like Mars Hill encourage participation in small groups, in which members can be accountable to one another in their personal struggles. Moral development, as old-fashioned as that term may sound, can be a beautiful, transformative part of the work of the church.
Though experts say the practice of church discipline has been broadly on the decline for decades, cases of heavy-handed punishment occasionally make the news. In 2008, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported than a megachurch pastor in Nashville, Tenn., threatened to expel 74 members for gossiping. But “when church discipline is working well or rightly, it is respectful of personhood,” John Ortberg, the influential senior pastor of California’s Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, told me. “So it’s not coercive, it’s not manipulative, and it doesn’t build a culture that’s characterized by inappropriate levels of fear or shame.”
The question that Mars Hill members must confront is whether the atmosphere at their church is one of respect or shame. Dean says that the church would welcome reconciliation with Andrew, but Mars Hill is not backing down from its strict definition of repentance. The unspoken implication seems to be that Mars Hill itself has done nothing it needs to repent from.
Dean describes Andrew as “a man who cheated on his fiancee, lied about it, and only confessed after being pressed about suspicious details.” And Driscoll made it clear in remarks at a 2009 conference that he does not tolerate divisive “troublemakers” at Mars Hill. “You can really change the culture of a church by just removing a few ‘negatives’ and elevating a few ‘positives.’ Most of the ‘neutrals’ change. You don’t need to get rid of everybody most of the time,” he said.
Getting rid of Andrew may end up being a mistake for Mars Hill, though. Because of him, the chorus of troublemakers is growing louder.
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.