(Trigger Warning: Spiritual abuse, conservative evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, religious authoritarianism, in-depth discussion of a coercive religious group, misogyny, sex-negativity. )
While this piece is about a specific church, Mars Hill in Seattle, Mars Hill's abusive, authoritarian organizational structure is not unique. Nor is abusive authoritarianism unique to evangelical churches, or Christianity, for that matter. People need to be informed about this sort of underhanded authoritarian abuse so they can recognize it in ANY organization, whether it is a congregation or a job offer or a fan club.
Mars Hill Church of Seattle, Washington, USA and its pastor Mark Driscoll have had an increasingly high media profile in the past few years. Driscoll is known for discussing sex frankly from the pulpit in a way that appeals to many young evangelicals, but also for seriously problematic ideas about women and an overwhelmingly "macho" conception of Christianity. Mars Hill is an evangelical megachurch with multiple campuses and a membership of approximately 12,000, and is organized in a strict hierarchy with Driscoll at the top.
Despite Driscoll's raunchy style, Mars Hill subscribes to Calvinism, an extremely conservative and problematic branch of Protestant Christianity. Calvinism teaches that sin pervades every aspect of human beings, that only certain people are "elected" by God to go to heaven, that Jesus died only for the elect, that all the elect are compelled to believe in Jesus, and that a person who is "saved" will definitely go to heaven. (See here--note that this is a Calvinist site--for greater detail on Calvinist doctrine.) In practice, Calvinist teaching tends to heavily emphasize human sinfulness, hell, and God's judgment, and Mark Driscoll's sermons are no exception.
(Trigger Warning: description of rape apologism, for this paragraph only.)
Driscoll's, and by extension, Mars Hill's attitude towards sexuality has two key elements in tension with one another: a determination to be frank and ribald about sex in order to promote masculinity and avoid Puritanism, and sexual and gender role ethics that are at their core very conservative. While Driscoll frequently encourages women in the congregation to provide their husbands with oral and anal sex, he also roundly condemns sex before marriage and preaches that women should submit to men. Earlier this year, Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace made the news by releasing a book on marriage in which "Grace is often cast as the damaged and sinful wife who withholds sex from her deserving husband, Mark the hero who is justified in leaving his wife but instead comes along to rescue her." (Driscoll, “Real Marriage,” and Why Being a Pastor Doesn’t Automatically Make You a Sex Therapist, Rachel Held Evans, January 03 2012.) Mark Driscoll's attitude towards women and excessive glorification of masculinity appear to be disturbingly misogynistic.
Over the past few years, there has been increasing evidence of an extremely authoritarian social and theological climate at Mars Hill. In 2007, Driscoll was widely criticized for firing two elders who expressed concern about changes to the church bylaws that centralized power in the hands of Driscoll and a few others. Further details of this incident, including one fired elder's account of the situation, are here at The Wartburg Watch. (Warning: sex-negativity.)
In January of this year, Matthew Paul Turner, a Christian blogger who frequently posts about the foibles and frailties of American evangelical culture, broke the story of a young man identified as "Andrew" who was spiritually abused by Mars Hill Church. (Trigger warning for spiritual abuse, toxic conservative evangelicalism, and, in the comments but not the actual post, spiritual abuse apologism) Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here. I'm going to summarize Matthew Paul Turner's blog entries below. 
Andrew, who had been homeschooled and was raised in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, moved to Seattle at the age of 20 and joined Mars Hill. In early 2011, he began dating a stepdaughter of a Mars Hill elder. That fall, they were engaged to be married, and Andrew did something wrong. He engaged in sexual activity with another girl, a friend from his community college. "They didn't have sex. But they got close." (Matthew Paul Turner). He regretted it immediately. The next day, he confessed both to his fiancée, causing the relationship to end, and to another member of his "community group". (Community groups, or small groups, are groups consisting of several members of a church, usually an evangelical church. They meet regularly for Bible study, prayer, and discussion of spiritual matters. They let members of large churches get to know a few other members well, but can also serve as a way for church leadership to keep tabs on group members via the group leaders.)
Over the next month, Andrew was made to meet multiple times with several other church members, including his old community group leader, the leader of the community group he was required to switch to, his former fiancée's stepfather, and the friend in whom he'd originally confided (who also led Andrew's men's small group). Andrew admitted that he and his fiancée had also had some sexual contact, and as a result the meetings proliferated further. He was referred to as a "wolf", i.e. a sexual predator, even though his sexual activity was consensual, because Mars Hill believes that men who engage in premarital heterosexual activity are leading the woman, or "weaker vessel", to unrighteous behaviour.
After a month of meetings of gradually increasing harshness, Andrew was told that he was being "brought under church discipline." A few days later, a pastor, "Pastor X", presented him with a "church discipline contract." It read as follows (note the discrepancies between what Andrew did and what the contract says he did):
Andrew has been sexually involved with another church member, keeping it secret and using deception to cover it up.
He was dating/courting the woman under false pretense, while being an active member, serving, and attending community group.
The repercussions of Andrew's sin have been widespread, as he is well-connected in the church.
Andrew brought his sin to light with a friend and then his CGL. As a result, he is under church discipline with the hope and goal of full restoration upon walking in a repentant lifestyle.
Plan of Discipline
Andrew will attend XXX's CG and meet with XXX on a regular basis (define)
Andrew will not be involved in serving at MH
Andrew will not pursue or date any woman inside or outside of MH
Andrew will write out in detail his sexual and emotional attachment history with women and share it with XXX.
Andrew will write out in detail the chronology of events and sexual/emotional sin with K and share it with XXX and Pastor X.
Andrew will write out a list of all people he has sinned against during this time frame, either by sexual/emotional sin, lying or deceiving, share it with XXX and develop a plan to confess sin and ask for forgiveness
Since Andrew had seen security remove unwanted church visitors from the property, he delayed responding to the contract until after he could attend a Mars Hill friend's wedding. Profoundly uncomfortable with the contract, he then sent the following message:
"After extensive prayer and careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that Mars Hill is not the place that God has for me to be right now. Therefore, I respectfully decline your help in this next stage of my life. I will not be returning to [name of community group leader's] CG, and will not be attending Mars Hill anymore. Thank you for your continued prayers."
Pastor X's response:
[Paragraph mentioning Andrew's ex-fiancée edited out by Matthew Paul Turner]
"If this is your final decision, you will also need to know this will not be our final communication as this is not an instance where you can walk away from the mess you have helped create and leave many issues unaddressed."
"Please let me know if this is in fact your final decision as we will need to know how to best remain in follow up communication."
Andrew declined to respond. A week later, a friend from Mars Hill told him that the following letter had been posted on Mars Hill's online social network, available to a number of church members at the campus Andrew attended: File Attachments 341254 Letter to Members
Many, though not nearly all, of the people who read this letter on Matthew Paul Turner's blog shared Turner's righteous indignation at the letter's obviously coercive and spiritually abusive nature. A few days later, in response to the public outcry, Mars Hill released the following statement (quoted here on Matthew Paul Turner's blog:
Mars Hill also, to explain their discipline policy, posted a book chapter written by Mark Driscoll about church discipline here.
The chapter demonstrates that Mars Hill's church discipline policies are egregiously abusive, and that that everything Andrew reported to Matthew Paul Turner was completely in line with official Mars Hill teaching. The chapter is written in a very manipulative way, with offensive statements framed in a context that could look very reasonable to unwary evangelicals with a high opinion of church authority. It gets worse and worse as you read further, so reading the whole thing is the best way to get an accurate impression of the document. It is very clear both how Driscoll has been able to manipulate ten thousand people into following him, and how egregiously abusive Mars Hill's policies are.
First, it's important to note that the membership covenant--the document that, unlike this one, is actually likely to be given to new members before they join--is not clear about how church discipline works. While members explicitly promise to submit to church leadership and church discipline, there is no detail about what the procedures are--just an assertion that they are "biblical" and some Scripture references. The membership covenant is here. It has some red flags that someone who is knowledgeable about spiritual abuse might notice, but would look fairly innocent to many evangelicals with a high view of church authority.
Now, back to the comprehensive statement/book chapter about Mars Hill's church discipline process. There is quite a bit of content designed to emotionally manipulate the reader into thinking that Driscoll and Mars Hill are good and loving. Driscoll says his "heart broke" for the woman with the adulterous husband, and describes himself "fight[ing] back tears" when looking at a picture of kids who were sexually abused. Various phrases throughout the chapter are meant to reassure the reader that Mars Hill's intent is loving. Example: "Thus, corrective or restorative discipline is never to be done in a harsh, vengeful, or self-righteous manner. It is always to be carried out in humility and love, with the goal of restoring someone to a closer walk with Christ." In the context of how Mars Hill discipline is actually carried out in practice, it is clear that these reassurances of the church's good intent and Biblical justifications of its policies are meant to soften the blow of the draconian measures they take to keep their members in line.
One notable point is the way Driscoll turns "reconciliation" into a weasel word. He extensively discusses how church discipline is meant to reconcile people to Christ and the church community. When we think of reconciliation in the context of a relationship between people, or between a person and a group, we think of resolving a conflict in a way that leads to renewed friendship, closeness, and emotional comfort. But that's not how Mars Hill defines it. Driscoll, in this chapter, defines reconciliation as follows: "In the Bible reconciliation is the word used to refer to the process by which God changes human beings and adjusts them to the standard of his perfect character." That's very, very different. It denotes change in one direction only: the church member is being "adjusted" to "the standard of [God's] perfect character". Every passage in this chapter that talks about reconciliation (and there are a LOT) needs to be read in that light. There's no compromise or mutuality in Mars Hill's "reconciliation". It's all about the person being disciplined changing the way Mars Hill wants them to change.
The types of "false repentance" Driscoll describes in his five-step explanation of repentance are another huge red flag. They're all unfalsifiable. In other words, it's impossible to prove that someone isn't "falsely repenting" in any one of those four ways. That allows Driscoll and his staff to basically assume false repentance whenever they want, because there's no way for the person to disprove the accusation. Skipping ahead a bit to step five, one sees that according to Driscoll, "If one or more [parties involved in sin] fail to work through the process [of reconciliation] in good faith, restoration is impossible." So, Driscoll and his staff can allege that someone is falsely repenting, and then, as far as Mars Hill doctrine is concerned, "trust, friendship, and relationship" cannot be restored. This essentially makes it entirely up to the arbitrary will of Mars Hill leaders whether a person can ever complete the discipline process.
In the "Theology of Church Discipline" section, things get even worse. The second guiding principle states baldly that the church's interests and reputation are prioritized above the welfare of members. The third says that Christian leaders aren't to abuse their responsibility, but also that their responsibility is to "oversee the obedience of [the church's] members". Not holiness or spiritual health, obedience. The ninth throws up yet another red flag: not just unrepentant sin, but also "unnecessary division" is considered "unacceptable to a holy God". That clearly indicates that the church sees disagreement with the status quo as a moral failing.
The scope of church discipline as defined by Mars Hill is huge and incredibly problematic. The church asserts authority not just over members, but over "all other professing Christians who regularly attend or fellowship there". It disciplines not just unrepentant sin, but also alleged errors in doctrine, and explicitly asserts that whether a congregant's conduct violates Scripture is to be determined by an elder team, with no consideration for the individual congregant's conscience.
The list of sample situations in which Mars Hill exercises discipline is downright scary. It includes "when a Christian is a habitual doctrine debater", "when a Christian is an idle busybody" (note the use of language that is almost always applied to women), "when a Christian has repeatedly rejected counsel by a church elder", "when a Christian is not consistently in community" (tough luck for anyone who has to work on Sundays), and "when a Christian leaves the church to pursue sin or heresy". In other words, Mars Hill believes that it continues to have authority over attenders after they leave the church, if Mars Hill isn't happy with why they left. Scary, isn't it? There is clearly no room for dissent here, not for anyone at all who's gotten involved with Mars Hill.
The list of offenses also includes "when an alleged offended Christian seeks legal recourse". Yes, that's right-a member may not be allowed to seek legal recourse, with the exception of reporting criminal offenses to the police and allowing them to investigate. The later elaboration on this is confusing: "Christians are welcome to pursue justice on civil matters if they believe they have been wronged and are to do so within the church if at all possible." (Italics mine.) Furthermore, "any Christian considering bringing a charge against another Christian must be careful not to harm the reputation of the gospel in the eyes of non-Christians." It looks like theoretically, Christians can sue other Christians--but only if Mars Hill is satisfied that all avenues for pursuing justice within the church have failed, and that the case won't give Christianity a bad reputation. Those are very arbitrary criteria, and would be very easy to twist so that a Mars Hill congregant can't file any lawsuit that Mars Hill doesn't like--for instance, a defamation of character lawsuit in response to Mars Hill publicly defaming the congregant on its website.
Mars Hill says some things that look good about how the church should handle a sin that is also a crime: reporting it to authorities and allowing them to investigate. However, they use that reasonable-sounding material as a way to sneak in and justify one of the most dangerous and unethical parts of their entire church discipline system: the lack of confidentiality. Mars Hill's bylaws state that "Members of Mars Hill Church are not guaranteed confidentiality regarding issues of church discipline, and understand that in submitting themselves to the authority of the church, issues of a sensitive or personal nature may become known to others." Not only that, Mars Hill "[does] not conduct biblical counseling with someone unless they sign a waiver relinquishing their right to confidentiality," and if it refers to a counselor outside the church, requires the Mars Hill congregant and the outside counselor to sign a confidentiality waiver allowing disclosure to Mars Hill staff. This essentially guarantees that no Mars Hill member will ever be referred by church staff to an ethically practicing counselor, because no counselor or psychotherapist worth their salt would sign that waiver. This is very probably a serious impediment to Mars Hill members attempting to seek mental health care.
It is not until towards the end of the document that Driscoll openly discusses the practice of shunning and admits that a "church discipline court" can be comprised of only TWO elders. Any two elders who follow the steps established in this chapter have the authority to dismiss people from the church and tell the whole membership about it. There is generally no appeal process because "the Bible does not support" it. When a person is dismissed from the church temporarily or permanently, the other church members are instructed to "treat him [sic] like an outcast--not an unbeliever, an outcast--and interact with the person exclusively for the purpose of getting them to "repent" as per Mars Hill's specifications.
Furthermore, the person cannot escape Mars Hill's discipline by switching to another church. Driscoll is explicit that "members who resign their membership while under discipline do not terminate the discipline process." Mars Hill contacts the leaders of any church an "unrepentant" former member attempts to escape to, advises those leaders that "they are unrepentant and have been removed from fellowship in our church", and requests that the new church not allow the former Mars Hill member to take part in its community. In other words, Mars Hill does its level best to blacklist anyone who leaves the church without the leadership's blessing. Mars Hill tries to create a situation where for former members, there is no escape from its authority. It is easy to envision people attempting suicide or changing their names as a result of these systematic attempts to bar them from any Christian fellowship.
It is also important to note that a church refusing to accept a resignation of membership is illegal in the U.S. due to the constitutional right to freedom of association, and judges have ruled against the Mormon church in such cases. Other democratic countries tend to have similar laws protecting individuals' rights to choose the groups of which they are members and to leave groups at any time. Mars Hill demonstrates incredible hubris by flouting a basic legal right for the sake of "church discipline".
To summarize: A close reading of Mars Hill's discipline policy makes it clear that Mars Hill's entire system of church discipline is egregiously abusive and is as Andrew described it. There are no real limits to the authority that the church asserts over anyone who attends or once attended regularly. The system is set up so that any two elders can enforce the whole gamut of abusive policies. Any deviation in belief or practice from what Mars Hill supports can result in church discipline up to and including shunning and blacklisting. The criteria for what constitutes repentance allow leaders to arbitrarily and unfalsifiably declare anyone unrepentant and therefore refuse to restore them to fellowship. Mars Hill has spiritual abuse embedded in its structure, and attending Mars Hill for any significant length of time is not safe.
 The author provided Matthew Paul Turner an advance copy of this article and he green-lit its publication.↩
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