Mars Hill Says It Released Leaders Over Church Discipline Cases
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."