Note: This article has been updated since its original posting to reflect Mars Hill's new statement that two of its leaders were removed as a result of cases unrelated to the two that drew recent media attention.
While affirming its commitment to "bringing correction in grace when members are living contrary to the Scriptures in a way that is unhealthy," Mars Hill Church leaders in a blog post said that "things did not go as they should have" in recent church discipline cases. Two church leaders overstepped their authority, the church said, and now those leaders have themselves been disciplined and removed from ministry.
The announcement comes as the church has come under media scrutiny for church discipline cases.
Over the last month, several blogs have discussed the case of Andrew, a member of Mars Hill Church's Ballard, Washington, campus. Andrew (his last name has been omitted from all accounts) told Matthew Paul Turner's eponymous blog that he had cheated on his fiancée and told his community group about it (as well as about the physical nature of his relationship with his fiancée). That led to a series of church discipline meetings and, eventually, Andrew said, he was asked to sign a contract promising that he would not "pursue or date any woman," would "not be involved in serving" in the church and would write a detailed sexual history. When he said that he would instead leave the church, the pastor overseeing the discipline posted a letter to the community group's social networking site announcing that he was being excommunicated. "Associate with Andrew only for the purpose of admonishment and restoration," the letter said. "Refrain from associating with Andrew in social setting such as: eating a meal, attending a concert or movie together."
As Andrew's story gained attention on Christian blogs, it gained local and national media attention. The Stranger, a Seattle alt-weekly, summarized Andrew's story and told the story of Lance (a pseudonym), whose pastor at Mars Hill demanded he end a long-distance relationship even though it had not been physical. The online publication Slate weighed in with a reported essay by writer Ruth Graham (not the famous evangelist's daughter). Mars Hill's "harsh tactics raise questions about how much control churches should have over their members' lives," Graham said. But she added, "Moral development, as old-fashioned as that term may sound, can be a beautiful, transformative part of the work of the church. … The question that Mars Hill members must confront is whether the atmosphere at their church is one of respect or shame."
Graham's story included some response from Justin Dean, PR and marketing manager for Mars Hill. This week, Mars Hill leaders posted a lengthier response on the church's website. In part, it reiterated some of the points Dean made to Slate: The excommunication letter was to be read aloud to the community group members, not posted on the community group's restricted-access social networking site. The church also reiterated that "Our central leadership, which includes Pastor Mark Driscoll, is not involved in the discipline process, as it is handled at a local level."
But there's a significant difference between the comments to Slate and this week's blog post: "Dean says that the church would welcome reconciliation with Andrew, but Mars Hill is not backing down from its strict definition of repentance," Graham wrote. "The unspoken implication seems to be that Mars Hill itself has done nothing it needs to repent from."
By contrast, the blog post says:
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. … We're reviewing our current church discipline cases to make sure all our local leaders are operating within the spirit of love intended to be present in our existing policies.
The church also said that church discipline is rare at Mars Hill: "Out of 5,417 members, we currently have nine church discipline cases in process, which represents 0.17% of our members." Rarer still, the church said, are leaders overstepping their authority through church discipline. "By and large," the blog post said, "the process adheres to biblical standards, is healthy and loving, and results in restoration."
Update:Mars Hill's Justin Dean explains: "We want to clarify that there are many leaders involved in the discipline process and the vast majority did a Christ-honoring job of pastoring those people. The two leaders who we identified in the blog were removed because of overstepping their authority in cases unrelated to the Andrew and Lance cases. Our goal in mentioning them was to say that we protect our people and not our leaders." The church has updated its blog post and this article has been edited to reflect those comments.
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In 2005 Christianity Today published a cover package on church discipline. Articles included:
How Discipline Died | The church should stop taking its cues from the state. by Marlin Jeschke
Shaping Holy Disciples | Mark Dever says church discipline is not about punishment or self-help. Interview by Mark Galli
Spheres of Accountability | The dynamics of discipline in the megachurch. by John Ortberg
Keeping the Lawyers at Bay | How to correct members while staying out of court. by Ken Sande
Healing the Body of Christ | Church discipline is as much about God as it is about erring believers. by David Neff
Our Uniquely Undisciplined Moment | Formal accountability has been a core part of church life from its earliest days. by Thomas C. Oden
Other articles on church discipline include:
Bottom-Up Discipline | What do you do when your pastor—or your entire denomination—strays? By Ted Olsen (February 2007)
Church Discipline on the Rise | Or maybe just lawsuits. By Rob Moll (January 18, 2008)
Debates on Debates on Church Discipline | Catholic bishops will issue statement on Communion as a Matthew 18 lawsuit is reinstated against a Texas Bible church. (June 2004)
Sex, Money … Pride? Why Pastors Are Stepping Down | What's causing some well-known leaders like C. J. Mahaney (and John Piper before him) to step aside is not what you might think. (July 14, 2011)
Why Gayle Haggard Stayed | She tells CT why she remained married to Ted Haggard—even after he suggested that she divorce him. (Jan. 27, 2010)
Condemnation | Should Christians publicly denounce believers who vilify others? (Oct. 6, 2010)
Charismatic Character Clash | Journalist and pastor debate restoration for disgraced revivalist Todd Bentley. (Mar. 23, 2009)
Tullian Tchividjian: Allow Your Critics to Teach You | The new pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church talks about the effort to remove him from the pulpit. (Sept. 24, 2009)
What to Do about Unbiblical Unions | African churches seek a better response to polygamy than in years past as western churches address new same-sex marriages. (June 25, 2009)
Resolved to Discipline | Southern Baptists repent of inflated membership numbers. (July 9, 2008)
Day of Reckoning | Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel face an uncertain future. (Feb. 16, 2007)
Church Discipline for Repetitive Sin | How do you work pastorally with people who are likely to fall again? (Leadership, Spring 2009)
A 2010 Barna study noted by Christianity Today found that only 5 percent of Christians who are involved in a church say their church holds them accountable. And only 7 percent of small-group attenders say accountability is one of the functions fulfilled by their group.