First of all, thank you to all of you who have made this a vibrant and thoughtful conversation. As I said in my original post, I am agreement with most of you that the disciplinary process as described was inappropriate at best.
As for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, I guarantee that stories like this are not going to win them a lot of fans. Articles like this thoughtful one, written by frequent iMonk commenter Wenatchee the Hatchet (who left MHC a few years ago), suggest that practices of church discipline and accountability at MHC have long been of concern to observers. The web has been buzzing about Matthew Paul Turner’s articles, and more blogs have sprung up in their wake for those who feel they’ve been abused in authoritarian church settings.
Second, the more I’ve thought about this matter, however, the more I’m thinking that the shame of this story is that the “church discipline” aspect of this whole matter was unnecessary. That makes the rest of the story even sadder.
Why do I say “unnecessary”? Because this story provides a clear case study of the lack of relational wisdom that plagues many church communities. And that’s what I’d like us to consider today.
For purposes of discussion, once more, we will accept the story at face value. As I understand it, here is what happened.
- One night, Andrew acted inappropriately with a woman other than his fiancee. (They did not have sexual intercourse.)
- The next day, he felt guilty about what he had done and determined to tell his fiancee.
- That night they went to their community group together.
- After community group, they walked to his car and they had a hard conversation, during which Andrew confessed what had happened.
- His fiancee understandably became upset and went back into the house.
Before the church ever got involved, Andrew set himself up for problems. What happened next led even further in the wrong direction, until the whole situation blew up in his face.
- Andrew drove away.
- Stung by his conscience, he stopped, turned the car around and returned to the group.
- On the way he called a friend from the community group and asked if they could talk. When he got back to the house, they met and he confessed to his friend what he had done.
- From there, the situation became known to his community group and its leader.
- Within days, he was asked to join another community group, and the process of having meetings with others, including church leaders, began.
- The rest is “church discipline” history.
In Matthew Paul Turner’s post, before he talks about “church discipline,” he uses the words “church drama.” That drama itself was not necessary nor helpful. And that church drama grew out of unwise decisions about how Andrew chose to handle his sin from the beginning.
How could this have been dealt with differently?
First, Andrew should not have chosen the community group setting to have a confessional conversation with his fiancee. This was a matter between two people in a relationship and was of such importance that it required a discreet and private meeting. This is not something you tell your fiancee out in the driveway after you leave a meeting, with a bunch of other people around. This showed relational immaturity, insensitivity to his fiancee, and lack of awareness of the danger that other people might become inappropriately involved.
The young man confessed to the appropriate person but because of his immaturity it got beyond the two of them and it wasn’t long before bigger machinery started working. If we really want to apply a Scripture like Matt 18 to the story as it stands, the process should have stopped with him confessing to his fiancee. He sinned against her. It was her forgiveness he needed to seek. In my opinion she was the only one at that point with whom he needed to have a conversation.
Unfortunately, because he took it to community group and tried to deal with it in a semi-public setting, their small group friends and leaders became aware of what was happening. Before you know it, the big boys were involved and it just kept getting more complicated from that point. There is a lot in the leadership’s reaction to criticize down the road, as we’ve seen, however none of it may have been necessary if Andrew had shown better judgment at the start.
So, for me, the problem was not only what happened when the church leaders got involved. The whole thing got started on the wrong foot. The matter should have been kept within appropriate bounds at the beginning — between Andrew and his fiancee. If she forgave him, they could have then decided together (with whatever guidance from trusted others they thought best) how to proceed with counseling or some other form of help. If, in the course of counseling, it was recommended that the young man or woman had more serious or habitual problems that needed attention, then church leaders could have helped with that, as appropriate.
In my view there was no reason this needed to become a matter of “church discipline” the way it did.
Now, don’t go away from this saying that I’m blaming Andrew for everything that happened!
That’s not my point. I am looking at this entire matter as a prime example of the lack of maturity from top to bottom in Christian communities. Yes, as we discussed yesterday, the church did not act well. But let’s be honest. The young man sinned and then did some relationally foolish things. Furthermore, he did them in the context of a church and small group. Those are not always places where relational wisdom reigns either. To that we turn next.
Needed: Relational Wisdom in the Church
Andrew and his fiancee’s small group became the petri dish in which a lethal combination of sin and relational immaturity quickly fermented, creating a stink of “church drama” at the outset of this situation.
I have seen numerous examples of relational immaturity and unnecessary drama over the years in churches. I’ve contributed my fair share too. Churches can be unsafe relational places, not just because some of them are toxic or authoritarian, but because churches are human communities, frankly, in which people tend to broadcast their business indiscriminately while others stick their noses into other people’s business without warrant. Saying the church is our “family” is not always a happy description.
The Bible says, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1Pet 4:8). However, in the church, because of our unhealthy habits of relating to others, we often uncover and spread a multitude of sins. How?
- We talk too much.
- We talk to the wrong people.
- At the wrong times.
- In the wrong settings.
- For the wrong reasons.
- We talk rather than act when action is required.
- We “share” prayer requests.
- We verbalize our “concerns.”
- We talk to the pastors or other leaders about problems we should be dealing with.
- We ask friends to bear “stuff” they should never have to carry.
- We share too much personal information in the name of “transparency” and “vulnerability,” and others don’t know what to do with it.
- So they talk about it with others who don’t know what to do with it.
- And so on.
- We hear parts of stories and think it is our job to come up with “answers” immediately for people we think we “know.”
- We hear a couple of those stories and now we think we have a “pattern” of behavior that demands even more attention.
- And because this person is a “member of the Body” we feel we are all responsible to deal with “helping” him or her.
- So we talk about them all the more in the name of “helping” them.
To be sure, certain kinds of churches exacerbate these tendencies more than others, so issues of leadership and theology do come into play. If the leaders are unhealthy, the congregation is undiscipled, the Gospel is not prominent in both preaching and practice, and the spirit of the church is toxic, it is certain that these kinds of problems will be intensified and various groups and cohorts in the church will not be safe, loving places.
So, let’s take the next step beyond Andrew and his fiancee. Let us assume that Andrew is immature and lacks relational wisdom and follows the same course. He commits his sin, still meets his fiancee at community group, walks her out afterwards, and has his hard conversation. She runs back in the house, he speeds off. Conscience-stricken, he returns, calling his friend to meet him when he arrives.
My next concern would be whether or not his friend has relational wisdom. As Andrew begins to tell him what he’s done, a wise friend might say, “Andrew, stop before you go any further. You know, this really is not my business. I’m your friend, but if you have a problem with your fiancee, you need to try and work it out with her first. If you need help, we will assist you in figuring out how to do that. But I don’t need to hear the details of your sin. Jesus took care of that. We love you and want to help you here. So, let’s go see if she wants to talk with you.”
And let’s say Andrew’s fiancee, when she ran back into the house crying, was soon surrounded by her community group friends, trying to comfort her. I would hope those friends, or perhaps one or two that she was especially close to, would stop her as she began to pour out her story and say what Andrew’s friend said to him.
The specifics of the sin, the details = none of their business at this point (if ever). Caring friends try to “cover” others’ sins through love, to protect them from undue exposure so that sensitive matters might be dealt with properly.
I’m not talking about a “cover-up” — as in trying to hide or conceal sin. I’m talking about dealing with sin wisely, deliberately, carefully, lovingly, keeping all the relationships that are involved in mind. I’m talking about dealing with sin responsibly and only increasing the number of people who are participating in the matter when necessary.
That, to me, is a key point Jesus made in Matthew 18. Only expand the circle of information when necessary, and do so with care.
In addition, as I said in my first post, I recommend that churches have a venue for the practices of corporate as well as personal, confidential confession of sin and absolution to help all the “Andrews” — every one of us! — find relief in Christ from our guilt and shame.