NOTE: I asked our friend, Wenatchee the Hatchet, to update us on one of last year’s scandals involving the discipline process at Mars Hill Church. You may recall that we used this situation as a basis for discussion last year, and then decided to leave further discussion to others who were better informed. (See “MPT Posts on Church Discipline — And I Suggest a Better Way,” “Thoughts on Church Discipline and Relational Wisdom,” and “Grace Means Saying, ‘I’m Sorry.’”
I also encourage you to check out his riff on Martha’s post on the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, in which he applies her observations that there were cultural factors contributing to the problems in Ireland and helps us see some of the cultural factors affecting Mars Hill and other Neo-Reformed bastions that provide context for their scandals.
Make sure you read this carefully. WTH has some extremely important things to say, not just about Mars Hill and their shortcomings, but also about the biases and failures of the Christian blogosphere and other Mars Hill critics. I thank him for his wise and balanced approach.
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In early 2012 Mars Hill Church in Seattle made headlines over the disciplinary procedures made in the case of former church member Andrew Lamb. Andrew’s story was shared by Matthew Paul Turner and told a story of a young man who was dating a pastor’s daughter, engaged in behavior he regretted, confessed the behavior to his girlfriend, and the confession catalyzed the gears of the Mars Hill disciplinary apparatus. Along the way Andrew confessed that he and the pastor’s daughter who was his girlfriend at the time were in a physical relationship. The disciplinary process Lamb underwent involved many meetings and a lot of correspondence to which we were not made privy but the culminating escalation letter posted to The City discussing Andrew’s departure from Mars Hill while under member discipline was posted by Matthew Paul Turner.
The subsequent controversy that erupted made enough news to get covered in Seattle by local newspaper The Stranger, by a number of bloggers, and by Slate. While there are many important details and subjects that can be discussed about Andrew Lamb’s case (such as that he finally identified himself to the public this year) the two most salient issues to discuss a year later can be summed up in two questions. How could we know whether or not Andrew’s story was plausible or true? Why did nearly everyone who was for or against Mars Hill already display no interest in addressing the veracity of Andrew’s story once Matthew Paul Turner put it on his blog?
Where the first question is concerned Andrew Lamb identified himself publicly earlier this year. More than sufficient information was available on the internet to identify the names of other parties involved on the basis of social and broadcast media content that was available even before Andrew became a subject of Mars Hill Church discipline. For those with the patience to read about that “A Confluence of Situations” is available to read at Wenatchee The Hatchet. The most basic details of Andrew’s story were very specific. He was a security volunteer at Ballard, was in love with and dating a pastor’s daughter there, and the daughter had a stepfather. This permitted the identification of at least four parties involved in Andrew’s case if a person could go through publicly available information provided by Mars Hill and associates over the last nine years.
The problem with doing that was that in early 2012 Mars Hill had embarked on a massive information purge that removed basic information about Mars Hill staff and families from all publicly viewable websites. Even information that had been available on The City for members may have been amended for all we do and don’t know. When Mars Hill PR said that they regretted that bloggers and journalists did not contact them to confirm the facts about Andrew’s case this was just that, public relations. Had Mars Hill not undertaken a massive information purge no one in the press would have needed to bother finding out whether or not Andrew’s story was reliable because they could have worked out which divorced-then-remarried pastor had a stepdaughter who could have been involved with Andrew. Mars Hill’s public response seemed insincere precisely because they presented themselves as beleagured by bloggers and journalists who didn’t want to find out the facts while the church was taking significnat measures to prevent basic details of Andrew’s story from being investigated.
Mars Hill critics, for their part, seemed far more obsessed with finding ways to tie everything back to Mark Driscoll. Never mind that Mark and Grace Driscoll were on tour promoting their book Real Marriage during the time that Andrew Lamb’s story became a news item. Critics supposed that Driscoll had to be the subject of discussion as often as not. Mars Hill PR asserted that Driscoll was in no way connected to the discipline of Andrew. Mars Hill advocates asserted repeatedly that Andrew’s story only became public because Andrew went to bloggers. That’s not exactly true, Andrew’s story became a matter for possible discussion in the public once his disciplinary case was posted to a social media network known as The City. Mars Hill history of posting notices to church members about member and leadership changes would take more time than is suitable to discuss here. That subject, too, is a matter you can read about at Wenatchee The Hatchet if you wish.
As public discussion escalated Mars Hill PR response suggested a team that was coping with a situation they didn’t actually have a grip on. Mars Hill stated that only Slate attempted to verify facts about disciplinary cases when, in fact, Mars Hill Pastor Jeff Bettger had gone on record to The Stranger even before the Slate article was published. The story of Lance (a pseudonym) was another story of church leadership taking a stern stance against a romantic pairing. What was lost in the coverage for and against Mars Hill was that these controversies were not swirling around because of executive pastor Mark Driscoll, the controversies surrounded the competence and good will of what are called biblical living pastors. Amid a blogosphere and press eager to reduce every controversy related to Mars Hill about Mark Driscoll the actual controversy, concerns about incompetence, malice and unchecked authority in the biblical counseling/pastoral counseling branch of Mars Hill, were overlooked in favor of critics attempting to make the controversies about Driscoll.
Mars Hill advocates, for their part, simply accepted at face value whatever leaders said about former members or staff with no demonstrable interest in investigating matters further. All that mattered was that Andrew had been labeled a wolf and he was considereed a liar and sexually immoral for fornicating with multiple women. Whether or not that assertion about Andrew’s sexual life and character could even be confirmed was of no interest to Mars Hill advocates just as Mars Hill critics seemed to have no interest in verifying whether Andrew’s story checked out. Neither side was interested in the facts because their minds were made up. In most cases the prosecution and defense fixated on Mark Driscoll in blogs and debates and not about establishing the competence, credentials and good will of what are called “biblical living pastors” at Mars Hill. The real story and controversy Andrew Lamb’s story was pointing to was largely sidelined by the story people already wanted to discuss, whether or not you liked Mark Driscoll and why.
The first and most distressing observation is that when Andrew Lamb’s story made news virtually no one in the Christian blogosphere displayed any interest in confirming even basic details about Andrew’s story. Matthew Paul Turner very obviously put a lot of effort into establishing all the details he could before running with the story. At no point did Mars Hill ever correct any claim in Andrew’s story as actually being fraudulent or untruthful. Mars Hill advocates insisted that Andrew’s story was incomplete at best and likely deliberately misleading but no attempt to establish facts supporting this contention were provided. Critics of Mars Hill, however, seemed to take everything in Andrew’s story at face value without seeming to investigate even basic claims and facts in the story. After a month of steady research I was able to establish that the basic claims in Andrew’s story were, at the very least, credible and credible enough to identify the names of at least four parties involved by name relying entirely on social and broadcast media that, to my knowledge, remains available to the public to this day.
Mars Hill’s critics were not working particularly hard or creatively to find out whether Andrew’s story was plausible. A great deal more time and energy was spent insisting that Mark Driscoll was ultimately behind all this and responsible for the situation. Never mind that Mark Driscoll was busy on tour with his wife promoting the Real Marriage book, in the eyes of many of his critics Driscoll had to be connected directly to whatever was going on with Andrew. Driscoll had to be the puppet master behind whatever happened. That meant that when Driscoll mentioned not being sure why Mars Hill Orange County got an eviction notice that he had to have been playing very dumb or he genuinely hadn’t been kept up to speed by campus pastor Nick Bogardus in Orange County about the inevitability of the eviction notice that was handed down in 2012. Mars Hill critics will need to learn that criticism of Mars Hill does not necessarily have to involve Mark Driscoll.
Mars Hill advocates took as given that Andrew Lamb was a liar and a wolf, even though Andrew fornicating with a pastor’s daughter meant that Andrew’s conduct was not entirely different from Mark and Grace Driscoll fornicating prior to marriage. Anonymous people posted Andrew’s full name online in retaliation for what he was considered to have done, while some anonymously proposed that Andrew being told he needed to get tested for sexually trasnmitted diseases was reasonable since he was a volunteer security guard at a Mars Hill campus. No questions about whether or not Andrew’s former girlfriend had any history of dishonesty ever came up. The woman’s identity was not even up for consideration. All that mattered was Andrew had been labeled a wolf by Mars Hill leadership and he had left the church under member discipline.
Andrew Lamb’s disciplinary case eventually looked like the tip of an iceberg as Lance’s story was covered by The Stranger locally. Former leaders quickly went on record with concerns about the leadership culture in Mars Hill. Wendy and Andy Alsup, who both served in ministry at Mars Hill years ago, reviewed Real Marriage and mentioned that Mark Driscoll described putting an elder through a proverbial woodchipper. The sermon cited and quoted was subsequently redacted so that the woodchipper incident was no longer a part of the sermon. While Mars Hill public relations statements asserted that they did not wish to defend themselves against misinformation (which was presumed and implied rather than established) Mars Hill was undertaking a quiet campaign to eliminate things that could be considered incriminating evidence of Mark Driscoll’s methods for conflict resolution.
By the spring of 2012 Mars Hill issued “A Call for Reconciliation” asking that people meet privately with Mars Hill rather than go to the press or the public. Mars Hill also stated that they would review their member disciplinary process. To date Mars Hill Church has not published any statement about what they concluded in their review of the member discipline process or even if such a review ever happened. Neither has Mars Hill, to date, mentioned anything about the results of the reconciliation process they called former members to in the spring of 2012. For many former members and staff the two public gestures seemed more like public relations moves rather than sincere efforts at reconciliation. Although a handful of people did have meetings set up through what Mars Hill considered a call for reconciliation, the general account of the meetings summarized them as follows–Mars Hill leadership simply agreed to disagree about differences on doctrine and the suitability of Mark Driscoll for eldership was reaffirmed.
During the spring of 2012 former Mars Hill pastor Paul Petry established Joyful Exiles recounting through documents how he was terminated from employment at Mars Hill in 2007. Within a week of this site going up Acts 29 announced that Scott Thomas was stepping down from leading Acts 29 and that Matt Chandler would assume leadership. Scott Thomas’ role as head of the Elder Investigative Taskforce during the 2007 termination process has been documented at Joyful Exiles and does not need to be rehearsed here. It is worth mentioning that a common theme among former members and staff of Mars Hill in the wake of Andrew Lamb’s story becoming public was to affirm that what happened to Lamb fit what former members and leaders experienced once they ran afoul of upper-level leadership within Mars Hill over the years. Former members and leaders had, by and large, worked out the identity of Andrew by dint of being within Seattle.
In early 2012 former staff and leaders from Mars Hill began to go public with their stories. Bent Meyer went public at The Wartburg Watch saying he was one of the two pastors fired in 2007. Paul Petry set up the website Joyful Exiles, which includes a timeline with documents and correspondence outlining his termination in 2007. To date no one at Mars Hill has publicly acknowledged anything about any documents at Joyful Exiles. Within a week of the website going up, however, former president of Acts 29 Scott Thomas was described by Matt Chandler as feeling released from leading Acts 29. While in February Mark Driscoll siad he was urged by Scott Thomas and the Acts 29 board to reinsert himself as President this may not have come to pass as Thomas was stepping down from presidency so Chandler could step in.
When Real Marriage was published it was reviewed by former Mars Hill members and staff Andy and Wendy Alsup. In their review the Alsups referred to a Driscoll session in which Driscoll talked about putting a pastor “through the woodchipper”. Some time after this incident was referred to at Practical Theology for Women, the sermon titled “The Man,” that was available for download through the Acts 29 media library, was obviously edited to remove the woodchipper anecdote. For a church with a PR team talking about not wanting to combat misinformation it was starting to look like the church was working hard to remove anything that might seem incriminate Mark Driscoll’s reputation. Taken with Mars Hill Church scrubbing all their webpages free of biographical and family details about their pastors and staff and a person could get the distinct impression that Mars Hill was trying very hard to make sure that Andrew’s story couldn’t be investigated in a way that would lead a person to identifying parties involved.
In the months after Paul Petry’s Joyful Exiles went up Mars Hill faced an eviction in Orange County as well as a fiscal situation that was in part resolved by a mass layoff. By the summer of 2012 Chris Rosebrough of Fighting for the Faith, was given audio for a presentation Mark Driscoll gave after the 2007 terminations. In that audio Mark Driscoll mentioned that there was “a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus” with a slight chuckle and another explanation that sometimes you have to put guys through the woodchipper. In the audio Driscoll referred to two elders being fired for the first time in the history of Mars Hill and this would have referred to the firings of Meyer and Petry at the end of September 2007. To date I’m not aware that anyone in Mars Hill leadership in the upper levels has contacted Paul Petry or Bent Meyer.
After some extensive research on how and what is said by Mars Hill advocates in defense of Mars Hill about former members I have observed that though rare public defenses of Mars Hill by its more ardent advocates are characterized by a willingness to directly state or imply character defects on the part of former members and staff that disqualify them from being able to make any public statement about Mars Hill. Disqualifying sin is considered to preclude critics from saying anything about Mars Hill that is critical and if this means making a point of referring to documents published and distributed within Mars Hill about former pastors then so be it. When the shoe is on the other foot and information gets out about problems in how Mars Hill pastors and staff treat people then advocates tried sticking to privacy.
What this has engendered in critics is a reflexive distrust great enough to presume that controversies about Mars Hill must be connected to Mark Driscoll on principle. That the Andrew Lamb disciplinary case highlighted shortcomings in the competence and goodwill of biblical living pastors (aka counseling pastors by another name) was easily overlooked in blogs and comments. For those for and against Mars Hill it was all about Mark Driscoll at the expense of making any serious investigation of what else might be going on inside the church. This anti-Driscollian fervor reached a peak when Matthew Paul Turner published the story of a woman calling herself Amy. Amy described herself as one of the original core at Mars Hill Church’s planting and mentioned being married to a man who is at Mars Hill. Amy described divorcing her husband in 2005 and being subjected to an exorcism by Mark Driscoll. Amid the outpouring of sympathy people critical of Mark Driscoll did not display any interest in basic questions such as whether or not Amy got custody of her two sons or not or how often she sees them if she does not have primary custody. Questions about the reliability of her story were as reflexively moot for Driscoll critics as the reliability of Andrew’s story was moot for Mars Hill members. The other side had to be discounted in advance. As cognitive biases go we can see that the halo effect works both ways, it’s an all or nothing bias the human brain readily embraces.
As coverage of Mars Hill’s controversies have gone in the last 14 months there has been a lot of disappointment. When we discuss a church as obsessed with using social and broadcast media in every way possible to further its story we must resist the urge to rely on a merely Wikipedia-level approach to research. I have annoyed and frustrated people over the years by insisting that you do not trust Wikipedia entries. Go to the primary sources and actually read them. You may discover that Wikipedia footnotes have inaccurate and decontextualized references that have nothing to do with what the footnotes claim to support in the body of a Wikipedia entry. It is important to go seek out primary sources not simply because Wikipedia itself can be unreliable but also because when a controversy gets big enough an institution seeking to protect its reputation is capable of suppressing massive amounts of information relatively quickly. The downfall of the confirmation biases of most critics is that they are looking for what they want to see about Mark Driscoll (or an Andrew Lamb) and do so at the peril of discovering what the truth is.
One of the ironies I discovered burrowing deep into the internet to find out whether Andrew’s story was plausible was that everything needed to establish the basic credibility of his story was sitting in plain sight. It wasn’t just sitting in plain sight, it was published in most cases by the Mars Hill members and culture who, as a whole, claimed they didn’t want to compromise the privacy of hurt women who were in some cases blogging away their own privacy. The Christian blogosphere culture was evidently not up to investigating these matters any more than Mars Hill was up to suppressing information rapidly enough to prevent names from being discovered. At the risk of dropping some media studies jargon, institutions commit too much to the fallacy that their media presence can’t boomerang on them and bloggers put too much stock in their own observations and a libertarian theory of the press. A church as big as Mars Hill may think it can retract and redact information fast enough to avoid a story becoming news, but bloggers too often assume we know the real story when the real story is sliding past us. This can paradoxically happen because we reflexively distrust primary sources because we don’t like them.
While there are reasons to doubt the reliability of official sources and content can get suppressed or redacted, if you want to get information about Mars Hill the most reliable way to begin doing that is to go to the primary sources. As many criticisms as I have made about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll over time it is still true that critics have accepted claims about Driscoll that are simply not true, such as the claim that Driscoll said Ted Haggard went to a gay prostitute and used meth because Gayle Haggard let herself go. What Driscoll did was simply use the Haggard scandal as a pretext to discuss what were already his hobby horses about marriage and sex without any particularly clear link between those hobby horses and the actual scandal involving Ted Haggard. The confessions in Real Marriage retroactively shed light on why Driscoll seemed determined to publicly discuss pastors exasperated by the lack of sexual enjoyment they got from their wives.
Conversely, Mars Hill critics have tended to uncritically accept any and every story from former members as reliable without question. This is not the case, either, and the reliability and credibility of the stories of former members and staff has to be assessed case by case. A person who is willing to go public with their real name should be given more consideration because they are willing to present claims that can be disputed. No one to date from Mars Hill has even acknowledged that Joyful Exiles exists but, in principle, Mars Hill could publicly issue statements about Joyful Exiles or get in touch with Paul Petry any time they wish. I’m not aware that they have and that’s their business. The story of Andrew Lamb is now established as that of a person with a name in the public sphere. Whether or not a person agrees with Andrew’s ethics, decisions or story the burden of proof is on each party to establish the credibility of his or her claims. Anonymous or pseudonymous parties have to be assessed with the understanding that they could be wrong. This is will be as true of me as it will be of Amy’s story related to Matthew Paul Turner. You simply can’t be sure that our respective biases or experiences might not blinker our understanding but you can’t assume that our respective stories or understandings must be wrong, either.
The trouble with the Christian blogosphere as it showed its colors over the last year or so on Andrew’s case is that for the most part everyone had already made up their minds about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill before the disciplinary case became news. It was ironically left to the secular press in the form of The Stranger (and to a much lesser degree Slate) to make an effort to figure out what was going on. While Christians understandably believe a secular mainstream press is not up to the task of covering religion in America it’s become more apparent that neither was the Christian press up to keeping up with how fast the Mars Hill stories were breaking. The best coverage on Mars Hill I’ve seen in the last ten years on hot topics has come from The Stranger and Matthew Paul Turner. No one who has read a single issue of The Stranger will have any illusion about whether or not they are conservative evangelical Protestants. Their wear their advocacy on their sleeves but that also has not kept them from fact-checking that many Christian bloggers and at times Mars Hill’s own public relations team didn’t bother to get to. The long-term health of a local church may not just depend on Christian bloggers but also on a hostile secular press as a form of accountability.