Mars Hill imploded a little while after my brief flirtation with Harvest Bible Chapel. While at Harvest, I met young males who were initially quite enthused about the masculine Christianity that Driscoll represented. As for myself, I have complicated thoughts and feelings about this now “Goldstein” in the New Calvinist pantheon. This is as it should be. Contrary to the Manichean stick figures of Hollywood, the larger part of humanity are a complexity.
I do not wish to speak to Driscoll’s attitudes, personality, and failings; nor to the hostile milieu which confronted him, globally, locally, and within his own multisite megachurch; nor the interaction between such, which contributed to greater contention in feedback loop. Others, many with personal acquaintance with the actors involved, have better testimonies to those elements.
Rather, it is Mars Hill’s Church Discipline in the Bible (2012) in-house document, which I found of greater pertinence and enduring import. For contained therein is a systemic theological understanding and ecclesiological practice, common with other New Calvinist churches. The purpose of this essay is to suggest a traceable link between those systemic understandings and the various scandals that consistently plague New Calvinist churches in various forms.
Star Chamber Justice
As already declaimed in the first article of this series, the elders of The Journey violated scriptural and universal justice and due process in the manner that they fired Darrin Patrick. The particulars of the sin(s) of the person under discipline are to be exposed before all and adjudicated by the full assembly (Matthew 18:15–17 or 1 Timothy 5:19–20), rather than a coterie of elders informing the assembly of the decision by behind closed doors. This is not a matter of optional ecclesiastical styles, but the explicit counsel of God’s Word. (“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church” Matt 18:17; cf. 1 Tim 5:20.)
The public nature, however messy, prevents a myriad of judicial travesties. First, since some of the purported offenses were against the elders in question, these elders have made themselves both plaintiff and judge of their own grievances. This is an evident conflict of interest. The “sin” could be more a matter of disagreement over doctrine and direction, like what happened at Mars Hill over the firing two pastors, Bent Meyer and Paul Petry, in 2007.
It can be hard to say when these things begin, but a convenient starting point is 2007, with the reshaping of the church’s eldership team in 2007. This was designed to put more power – glossed as ‘authority’ – into the hands of Driscoll and his trusted lieutenants. It sparked the dismissal of two pastors, Bent Meyer and Paul Petry, who had questioned the process. Petry’s website provides a timeline and documentary evidence about the incident. A string of leaders and former leaders involved at the time have come forward to apologise for their roles in the dismissals. What seems to have happened is that arguments about the substantive issues triggered accusations of disloyalty and unfaithfulness.
The vague and changing nature of the charges leaves Darrin Patrick’s reputation in tatters with his congregation, who are too prone to trust in the virtue and competence of their elders; and before the wider Christian world, without knowing the reasons. This emits of an odor of the Kafkaesque justice in the Soviet era. This complaint is hardly a unique personal bugaboo.
The firings [of Paul Petry and Bent Meyer] riled up Mars Hill’s membership, and a lengthy discussion on the church’s private online message board (provided to The Stranger by a disgruntled Mars Hill member) ensued. “I am concerned Mars Hill is currently under a cloud of secrecy,” one member, identified as Cameron Black, posted. “I don’t understand why the members are being kept in the dark.” On the message board, Mars Hill members repeatedly asked church elders for clearer justifications for the firings, and voiced support for the two men. “Bent and Paul are two of the most trustworthy and Godly men I have ever met,” wrote a board user identified as Doug Finefrock. The debate got so acrimonious that some members were banned from the discussion.
Going Beyond What Is Written (1 Corinthians 4:6)
There is place for discipline. Herein, I am not speaking about formative discipleship, but the more aggressive and harsher forms (e.g. public rebuke, dissociation). Indeed, I have been forced to privately practice separation against persons close to me, who self-identified as Christians, but egregiously, consistently and unrepentantly trespassed in ways explicitly expressed in Scriptures after a patience of years and with more than the required escalation of warnings.
But “ways explicitly expressed in Scriptures” is the key operative phrase. For while Scriptures admonishes Christians in general, and elders in particular; these are not necessarily grounds to exercise “church discipline.”
The following list constituted the grounds by which a person was subject to the discipline of Mars Hills’ elders and vulnerable to the complaints from fellow congregants:
- When a Christian sins against another Christian, and it cannot be overlooked in love.
- When a Christian who professes faith lives in sin without repentance.
- When a Christian continually blasphemes God.
- When someone encourages or promotes false doctrine.
- When a Christian is a habitual doctrine debater.
- When a Christian will heed only false teachers.
- When a Christian is sincere but deceived.
- When a teacher is in moral sin or doctrinal error.
- When an elder is in moral sin or doctrinal error.
- When a Christian appoints himself or herself to leadership.
- When a Christian is divisive.
- When a Christian is an idle busybody.
- When a Christian promotes legalism.
- When a Christian refuses to obey civil laws.
- When an alleged offended Christian seeks legal recourse.
- When a Christian has repeatedly rejected counsel by a church elder.
- When a Christian is not consistently in community.
- When a Christian leaves the church to pursue sin or heresy.
A mature Christian should require little knowledge beyond these stipulations to anticipate a toxic ecclesiastical environment of Eleanor Roosevelt nags, and high probability of future schisms. And this indeed was the case with “a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus” collecting before these expansive and often vague grounds for discipline. But by God’s grace, the pile of bodies never reached a mountain before these stipulations were turned against its author by the 21 pastors who filed a Statement of Formal Charges and Issues – Mark Driscoll. And just as in the Darrin Patrick case, wherein I am asking, “Where’s the beef”; there also lacked substantive and palpable evidence of misconduct in that Statement beyond subjectivist, inscrutable, and amorphous vapors, mostly amounting to “Driscoll hurt my feelings” in their complaint.
Scriptures gives explicit conduct and expressed beliefs which warrant dissociation.
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
Keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:1)
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching (“Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh”), do not take them into your house or welcome them. (1 John 1:10, 7)
These are, by no means, the only scripturally justified circumstances. However, while “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25) is castigated, there is no Scriptural warrant to discipline “when a Christian is not consistently in community.” Too many of the Mars Hill stipulations fail to distinguish between those doctrines, which come under liberty of conscience provisions of New Testament Scriptures, from those which are essential. “When a Christian is divisive” becomes a gavel by which tyrannical elders can impose their own, and often erroneous, non-biblical notions of the Truth and the Right.
This became the case in my flirtation with the Harvest Bible Chapel, who are committed, as a primary order of belief, in the historical-grammatical hermeneutic (Scriptures: “Therefore, those applying themselves to study its literal, historical-grammatical context can accurately understand God’s Word.”) Being a lifelong student of history, I am wary of the “historical” element, which, to my mind, is merely the historical-critical method on Prozac. Interpretation becomes vulnerable to currently available extant historical documents or the integrity and competence of the current set of historians.
This is made manifest in the New Perspectives on Paul, which derives its theological argument from Ed Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). However, Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans to the Romans, who had their own, albeit declining, moralist Republican tradition (i.e. Sallust, Livy) and tradition of legal reasoning (i.e. Cicero). In knowing this historical reality, plain rendering of Romans 2 can be salvaged from the historical prejudices of the seminarians. For contrary to those seminarian prejudices against all pagan society, the first half of Romans still refers to all humanity (ō anthrōpe pas ho krinōn – Romans 2:1, cf. 2.3). And the Romans had their own works righteousness mindset (do ut des – “I give that you might give”), as have many other cultures, including within Second Temple Judaism. In this historical ignorance and prejudice, interpretation of Scriptures became skewered.
However, any quest to correct erroneous doctrine at this church becomes subject to ecclesiastical authority, making semper reformanda a buzzword phrase without practicable effect. And in order to attend Harvest’s small groups, I must submit that which I know to be true, and thereby violate conscience concerning an extra-biblical hermeneutic.
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. (Revelation 22:18–9)
Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar. (Proverbs 30:6)
Whether in Old Testament or New, we are neither to practicably add nor subtract from the balanced word of God with regard to those items that the church may discipline its members and elders. To transgress scriptural boundaries results in toxic psychic suffocation, sclerosis in thought (and yes, God enjoins innovation within the boundaries of His Word, especially in order to engage in the ongoing and never-ending battle with the zeitgeist and nefarious forces of this cosmos), and to schism. To fall short in timidity leads to latitudinal ideological and ethical chaos, and wolves swarming into and conquering the Commanding Heights of that church.
Instead of being a safe place to inquire and develop one’s understanding and a Christian mind whereby each individually “may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2), this inflated list of grounds for discipline engenders theological replicas, who learn their Christianity by rote, upon overhanging threat of disparagement, public disgrace and social alienation.
Amongst a more limited list that Matt Chandler’s The Village Church includes for admonition and, if necessary, discipline:
- to refrain from such activities that the Scriptures would deem foolish (Romans 14:14-23)
- to take seriously the responsibility of Christian freedom, especially actions or situations that could present a stumbling block to another (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
“Foolish activities” and “stumbling blocks” or the amorphous items among the extensive list produced by Mars Hill become a vague and open-ended standard for discipline, to be interpreted by the capricious whims of those with oversight. Even secular courts normally have sufficient humility and wisdom to nullify laws defined by such vague terms, which give rise to tyrannical abuse. As incidents at Harvest Bible Chapel, Mars Hill and The Village Church testify, these vagaries become pretexts for arrogant and power-hungry seminarians who demand submission and control and recognition of their hierarchal superiority.
Pertinent to the Karen Hinkley–Jordan Root scandal in 2015, whereby the child porn voyeur husband was protected by the church while the wife, who understandably sought divorce/annulment rather than be coupled with one so drawn, was subjected to discipline for failing “to submit to the elders and other appointed leaders of the church and diligently strive for unity and peace within the church” on the matter of separation until it became a public scandal.
But the scriptural basis for this ecclesiastical innovation is specious and controversial at best (Ephesians 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5). And even if it be true that one must yield authority to those appointed, there is no Scriptural grounds, in of itself, to make “When a Christian has repeatedly rejected counsel by a church elder” a disciplinary issue.
Moreover, the very salvation of the congregant is imperiled when any given church promotes mere men, even ecclesiastical men, to be ultimate arbiter of the Truth, arrogantly arrogating themselves as priestly mouthpieces of the Spirit, rather than allowing the Scriptures, under the direct magisterium of the Spirit, to be ultimate authority.
It is upon such inflated and vague stipulations, The Journey Church of St. Louis conducted their Star Chamber inquisition of Darrin Patrick.
- The initial and now confirmed accusations were not of adultery but did violate the high standard for elders in marriage through inappropriate meetings, conversations, and phone calls with two women. (I Tim. 3.2).
- abandonment of genuine Biblical community (Titus 1.8)
- refusal of personal accountability (failure to be a fellow elder according to I Pt. 5.1)
- lack of self-control (I Tim. 3.2)
- manipulation and lying (Titus 1.8)
- domineering over those in his charge (I Pt. 5.3)
- misuse of power/authority (I Pt. 5.3)
- a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms (necessity to be “sober-minded” in I Tim. 3.2 and avoid selfish gain in I Pt. 5.2)
 Mark Woods, “Decline and fall: the slow erosion of Mars Hill,” Christian Today, November 4, 2014, http://www.christiantoday.com/article/decline.and.fall.the.slow.erosion.of.mars.hill/42568.htm.  Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, “Fired and Brimstone,” the Stranger, Nov 22, 2007, http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=445277  Church Discipline in the Bible, Mars Hill Church, January 27, 2012, Accessed http://marshill.com/2012/01/27/church-discipline-in-the-bible on June 2, 2014 (no longer extant at site).  The Village Church, Membership Covenant, 2014, p.5.