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A Response Regarding Church Discipline

There have been some recent stories in the media surrounding our church and our discipline process for members. Specifically, two cases have been cited by various blogs and the media that have raised a number of questions.

Because of the confusion surrounding these cases and much misinformation spreading in regards to them and our church discipline process in general, Mars Hill leadership felt it appropriate to write this statement to offer clarification.

Before we speak to the matter at hand, we’d like to take a moment to simply say that we love the people who have made the decision to make Mars Hill Church their home and are extremely thankful that God has entrusted them to us to teach, live life with, and serve. It’s a high calling, lots of work, and worth every bit of time and effort.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve watched God do amazing things in the lives of our members. His grace has been undeserved and joyfully received. We’ve seen addicts delivered, families and marriages completely changed from devastation to restoration, hard hearts softened, the hungry fed, the hurting healed, and more. We take no credit for this and give all glory to God for changing lives through the work of Jesus on the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve also seen many heartbreaking things: marriages devastated by adultery and porn addiction, people hurt by selfish actions and ambition, lives destroyed by alcohol and drugs, innocence taken by sexual and physical abuse. As with any church, we’re a community of saints who are in Christ but who also still struggle with sin, and the effects of sin are sometimes evident in devastating ways.

In some cases, the severity of sin in a member’s life, especially when it harms others physically, emotionally, or spiritually, requires the leaders of the church to step in and provide correction in a loving and grace-filled way as laid out in several places in the Bible. This is traditionally referred to as church discipline.

It’s important to understand that church discipline is a necessary and biblical part of the Christian life. While the idea of church discipline is foreign to many people who are not part of the Christian faith, it should be noted that it is a common practice among a majority of churches, and when applied correctly results in amazing and grace-filled stories of healed lives and relationships. The goal is never vengeful ostracism but always loving restoration. When applied correctly, it’s not a shameful process but a reconciling one designed to bring about repentance, not just confession, in a believer’s life to live in a way that honors and glorifies God.

In talking about the difference between confession and repentance, we should first distinguish true confession from various false forms of confession. True confession is agreeing with God that we’ve sinned and naming the sin as God would name it. An example of false confession might be to give partial details in a way that glosses over the severity of the sin. In that case, one’s hidden intention is actually not to bring the sin out into the light, but rather to offer true words as a decoy that keeps the underlying sin in the dark. In any case, confession amounts to bringing sin out into the light by telling the truth about it. To confess is to only to speak of a sin; to repent is to follow up a confession with change.
Repentance is a heart change that leads to behavior change. In repentance, we stop wanting to engage in our sin and start wanting to please God. The fruit or evidence of repentance is that our outward sinful behaviors begin changing to reflect our inward changing desires. Sometimes this change comes slowly, especially when habitual patterns of sin are deeply ingrained, yet when we are committed to the change process and are in fact changing—even if we have a long way to go—we are repentant.

Conversely, we’re unrepentant when we pridefully resist the change process. A few examples include: unwillingness to face our sin truthfully, including not allowing other wise and loving members of our community to help us see what we may be blind to; reluctance to grieve our sin as something offensive to God and hurtful to others; or when we defend, justify, or even boast in our sins rather than forsake them.

A truly repentant heart wants to make things right with others through restitution and to restore relationships damaged by sin through reconciliation. In short, sin is prideful, but repentance is humble at every turn. There are a number of circumstances, however, under which someone may confess but not be fully repentant to sin such as being caught or confronted, or giving partial details to gloss over the severity of sin.

The Bible is clear on the responsibility of leaders in the church to train, equip, and teach church members. Part of that responsibility requires bringing correction in grace when members are living contrary to the Scriptures in a way that is unhealthy for them, for their families, and for other members of the church. Our theological convictions on church discipline can be read in full detail on our website in a post entitled, “Church Discipline in the Bible.”

Because we take our responsibility as leaders seriously and wish to steward it well, we make the process clear in our membership process and only administer church discipline for members who understand what we believe and have agreed to undergo the process in the regrettable case it becomes necessary.

We have a lengthy and thorough membership process that allows potential members to learn what we believe as a church and ask questions. This includes a class with chances to interact with pastors and church leadership. Part of that includes going over our membership covenant, which includes the following:

“I covenant to submit to discipline by God through his Holy Spirit, to follow biblical procedures for church discipline in my relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, to submit to righteous discipline when approached biblically by brothers and sisters in Christ, and to submit to discipline by church leadership if the need should ever arise (Ps. 141:5;Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 2 Cor. 2:5-8; Gal. 6:1-5 8; 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 1:9; 3:10-11; Heb. 12:5-11; Rev. 2:5-7, 14-25).”

You can find out more about the process on our website by visiting this page. Additionally, our membership covenant is available for anyone to review here.

The goal of the process is to not just to address a sin issue but to explore the roots of sin in our lives and to discover why the sin is present in a believer’s life. Part of being repentant is being willing to explore the depths of our past behavior to discover why we struggle with certain sins today. The goal is not to get past the sin as quickly as possible through confession but to explore past patterns of behavior and find healing through Jesus from our past as well as our present sins.

At Mars Hill, the discipline process is a private one and decentralized, generally involving a Community Group (small group of Christians who gather regularly for prayer and study), its leader, and a local pastor from one of our 14 churches.

With over 550 Community Groups and growing, much responsibility is placed on our lay leaders and local pastors to faithfully administer discipline. By and large, the process adheres to biblical standards, is healthy and loving, and results in restoration. It is also rare. Out of 5,417 members, we currently have nine church discipline cases in process, which represents 0.17% of our members.

In the two cases that have recently received media attention, we want to remind readers that there are always two sides to every story. As Proverbs 18:17 tells us, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Unfortunately, in most of the articles and blog posts published in recent weeks, with the exception of the recent Slate article, we were not contacted by the authors to verify the facts or seek explanation regarding those cases prior publishing their articles. Out of sensitivity for all involved, and a biblical mandate to handle such matters within the church, we do not wish to comment publicly on those specific cases and drag into public what should be private.

That being said, we do wish to clarify one detail. In one of the cases, regrettably, a letter that was meant to be privately read aloud to a small group of about 15 people in close community and friendship with Andrew was instead posted to that group’s private online community page. There was never a letter sent to the church as a whole. The tragedy of this whole situation is that what was once a private and discreet matter is now on a grand stage, and those who were misinformed as to the actions of the church in this matter are now complicit in doing the very thing for which they have wrongly criticized us.

We love people. Our goal in church discipline, as it should be for all churches, is to help those who’ve chosen to trust church leadership to speak into their lives to live the life that God intends for them according the Bible. We take the process seriously and endeavor to always do it in love and humility.

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.

[Updated 2/16] 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 because we take the care of our people seriously. As a result of this investigation, we are taking steps to streamline our church discipline process to ensure that it is applied in a biblically consistent manner across all of our churches. In addition, in two separate instances, we have removed the staff members involved and they are no longer on paid staff or in formal leadership in any capacity at Mars Hill Church. Again, we began taking these actions months ago, prior to any public exposure.

As a large church that is growing fast, we place much faith in our local and lay leaders. They initiate, oversee, and complete the church discipline process. In almost all cases they serve admirably and do a great job of serving the church and our members. Our central leadership, which includes Pastor Mark Driscoll, is not involved in the discipline process, as it is handled at a local level. 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.

We love those who call Mars Hill Church home, we love those who criticize us from the outside, and we also love those who have left the church. This includes the two members whose stories have been shared. Our desire is to be faithful stewards of God’s grace and to serve our church well as leaders.

We ask that you would please keep our church and our leaders in prayer to be loving and faithful stewards of all that God has given us.

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