Joyful Exiles from Mars Hill

This may already be old news for many as it has been circulating for a few days, but Mark Driscoll is again at the centre of controversy. Amidst and in response to many other critiques of Mars Hill popping up recently, a former Elder of Mars Hill Paul and his wife Jonna have shared their story. Here’s how they introduce their website Joyful Exiles:

Those who do not remember the past will have it rewritten for them.  Well, not in this case. Not anymore. Four and half years ago, I was fired from Mars Hill Church because I refused to resign under pressure. I was a pastor on staff, an elder, and an officer of the corporation along with a group of other men.   I spent months seeking formal reconciliation and years hoping for a better course.   I have not spoken about these matters publicly until now. With the mounting stories and “histories” coming out regarding Mars Hill Church, it no longer seems right or beneficial to remain silent.

I’ve shared many thoughts about Mark Driscoll before. I don’t really want to end up repeating the same complaints about his harmful methods. But there are certain specific things here to point out:

The exiles are clearly in theological and ethical alignment with Driscoll. The issue had nothing to do with being liberal heretics. It’s not like they dared to think that women should be allowed to influence the church. It’s not like they questioned Calvinism or the doctrine of penal substitution to satisfy the wrath of God. It’s not like they are ignorant of Scripture – everything they say is punctuated by it. It was an entirely an issue of questioning an authority structure that placed Mark in the role of God over the church, and their complaints were based largely out of the founding documents of that very church.

You really do get a glimpse of just how power-hungry Driscoll is as an individual. I had always assumed that while he was clearly the main influence that there was still some type of meaningful board of governance. There are very few churches where the pastor holds all the power. There’s a good reason for that. Influencing polity and doctrine and spiritual formation through teaching and counselling is a powerful combination – that one person essentially controls everybody’s lives in all ways. Few, if any, people have the maturity to handle such responsibility well, and Driscoll is clearly not an exception. The scary thing is that in most cases where I’ve heard of churches getting this structure it was because the church shrank and there weren’t enough people, or because everyone insisted on it. In this case, Driscoll actually was outraged over a prayer meeting?! Something is wrong with this picture, but that prayer meeting was about the proposed reforms in church polity which would solidify his power, and he obviously didn’t want there to be any room for the possibility of people concluding that his will and God’s will weren’t the same.

As well documented before, this power extends to dominance over his own wife. He has no shame in this and his and Grace’s book about marriage is a best seller. He talks about how he wanted to divorce her when he found out through a vision that she had done some “sexual sin” years earlier when they had just started dating. “No forgiveness for you!” The aforementioned prayer meeting he was outraged about? He found out about because he reads all of Grace’s emails, including the email list for the elders’ wives which this was sent to. Many power-hungry people still have one person that can get through to them, and it isn’t too unusual for that person to be their wife (the most-loved person in their life, theoretically). But Grace is not even allowed to pray about his decisions, let alone question them.

There are video clips of Driscoll telling the entire church that he wants to physically beat up some members of the leadership team, presumably including Paul. As with Driscoll’s sexism, his violence is also well-documented, but this is a whole different level to actually threaten dissenters in front of the entire congregation. The pulpit should not be used for any kind of coercive church politics, let alone for violent coercion.

Jonna and Paul are clearly still showing some signs of battered spouse syndrome. They put a ridiculous amount of trust in Driscoll and in Mars Hill in general. They were beaten repeatedly, but refused to give up. They were almost fortunate in the sense that eventually the abusive husband kicked them out instead of continuing to beat them. But they still speak as if they long to go back to be beaten some more, referencing that there were some good things, too, much like a battered wife often does.

Driscoll is an example of why many churches cringe at the idea of church discipline. I do believe in church discipline in the sense described by Jesus. Before any kind of shunning, we are to approach anybody we think is sinning. It is to be always in love, even if you admit that they are no longer part of your church. Most importantly, church discipline is for clearly dangerous and unrepentant sins. Questioning authority should not be seen as a sin, but it is at Mars Hill. I’d bet that if people listened to Paul and Jonna and then voted against them after a genuine consideration of their concerns, they would have stayed with the church, albeit maybe with some mild reservations. Instead it was the mere act of asking for the elders to do their jobs of holding Mark accountable that gained them the wrath of Driscoll. And the thing they questioned had no biblical or traditional precedent (even hierarchical denominations like Catholicism have a lot of checks and balances on power), so it’s not like there was even an argument against them.

The other clear area of problem with this discipline is who decided the punishment: a board of Driscoll supporters, with nobody to defend them. In Jesus’ description of church discipline, if approaching individually or with one other doesn’t work, then we are to take before the church – which would have been a house church. Not a special inquisition panel charged with stamping out anybody who dares to question the almighty Driscoll. But that would be giving too much power to others, so of course that isn’t what Mars Hill does. How dare Jesus suggest that we trust the church to make decisions? Mark’s idea is obviously much better.

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I continue to find myself pitying Mark a lot. I am still fairly convinced that he isn’t deliberately hurting so many people. I am convinced that he is simply immature. He rose to a position of a lot of power because there wasn’t enough accountability – Paul and Jonna tried but they were too small of a minority – probably because of his strong speaking skills. As that power started to come, he equated that power to God, and everything since seems to be about solidifying his power one way or another: modifying church polity, kicking people out, making sure everybody in the world knows that he isn’t afraid to strong-arm even his wife into agreeing with him, threatening violence against dissenters…. What’s next?

And what will it take for people to walk away? It is a bit like a battered wife. So many people go there because they don’t want to think for themselves. They don’t want to be allowed to make their own decisions because that is hard. Driscoll’s black and white thinking and domineering personality are attractive. While much of the North American culture champions independence as true maturity, many are attracted to its opposite of dependence upon one man to make every decision for them. It is easy to fall into that mindset instead of fighting for the real maturity of interdependence. So they get beat up by their abusive pastor repeatedly, but they go back because it is comfortable and easy and they don’t know any other way of living. I pray that they learn another way – the way of Jesus instead of the way of Driscoll – before it is too late. In the meantime, we’re going to continue to hear these horror stories.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.