Elders Matter — The Mars Hill Debacle Is Proof

Elders Matter — The Mars Hill Debacle Is Proof

If elders and ministers are to rule the church in the name and with the authority of Christ, treating their fellow sheep as divine image-bearers, then it should be perfectly clear that their primary job is to ensure that God’s word is properly preached, that God’s sacraments are properly administered, and that in everything they seek the blessing and power of God through prayer. When elders and ministers are focusing upon these things, disciples will be made, and God’s people will grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll debacle is well known. Many have listened to Christianity Today’s excellent podcast series, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The fall of Mars Hill is but another incident in a long series of scandals plaguing American evangelicalism. Why do such things happen over and over again?

My response . . . A bad or non-existent ecclesiology. Throughout contemporary American Christianity there is little if any regard paid to the biblical model of church government (Presbyterian/Reformed), which is rule by a plurality of elders, approved by the congregation, whose role is, in part, to keep watch upon the life and doctrine of the pastor and their fellow elders.

I wonder if there was ever a moment in the early days of these entrepreneurial churches when the founding members asked themselves, “how did the church in the New Testament govern itself?” Probably not, or else the subject was quickly dismissed as an appeal to mere tradition, something too cumbersome or unnecessarily inefficient. Start-up church groups like this often view its charismatic leader as taking on (even if indirectly) the role of an apostle. He leads, they follow, so there’s no real discussion of church governance. No one sees the need.

The leader appears to have a direct link to God, which allows the group members (better—“followers”) to let the leader unquestionably assume the role of arbiter of the group’s doctrine, the gifted one who determines the group’s mission and “casts its vision,” as well as the primary decision maker should there be differences of opinion. Without a biblical ecclesiology in place, the visionary leader is able to get his way through manipulation and guilt, and if necessary, will remove any and all who oppose him. Yet nobody blinks. In the end, the once loyal followers are left embittered and wonder, “how did God let this happen?” Many leave the church. We have seen this story play out over and over again, often in the media.

As the Mars Hill series demonstrates, Mark Driscoll did indeed appoint “elders,” (who really didn’t function as biblical elders) but then fired them whenever it suited him. Many of these Driscoll appointed elders were sincere and godly men, committed to an exciting new vision for a church effectively reaching the largely un-churched Seattle area. They didn’t sign up for what they got in the end. The wide-eyed energy of youth often comes without the experience, wisdom, and battle-scars that older men and established churches possess. After what they went though at Mars Hill, they now have the wisdom and scars of grizzled veterans, and Lord willing, without the cynicism such an ordeal often produces.

While listening to the series, a comparison to life in Stalin’s politburo came to mind—the continual purges of anyone who crossed or disappointed him, or who no longer had value in achieving Driscoll’s vision. No, Driscoll did not send people to their death or the Gulag. Rather, I’m referring to what political philosopher Hannah Arendt described as the fate of many opponents of a totalitarian regime, they become “non-people.” Not only is their dignity stolen (in the prison or the Gulag), but what happens to them (their loss of humanity and purpose) serves as a frightening example to others of what happens if you do not wholly embrace the leader’s agenda. The cruelty recounted by Mars Hill survivors of continual removal, shaming, and bullying of worship leaders, fellow pastors now seen as rivals, and the removal of hand picked-elders who decided they could no longer tow Driscoll’s line or further his own personal aims, reflects a level of authoritarian abuse much like the politburo. His narcissism should have kept Driscoll out of the pastoral office from the get-go. But narcissists are quick to size people up. They are skilled manipulators. Not long after one of these followers first entertains the thought of being unwilling to go along with his agenda, Driscoll was on to them, and callously pushed them off his stage as a “non-person.” And the purges kept coming. No one would stand in his way.

For some time it looked as though Driscoll humbly sought the wise council of noted church leaders. But those highly respected evangelical and Reformed leaders whom Mark Driscoll brought to Mars Hill, ended up being unwittingly used by Driscoll to give him respectability, along with an open door to the Reformed-evangelical publishing and conference circuit. It looked as though the young buck was genuine in his willingness to follow the better path of church government explained to him. But only as long as it suited him. His subsequent actions demonstrate he never learned (if he even listened). Public perception of credibility through rubbing elbows with respected evangelicals is what mattered.

In rejecting a biblical ecclesiology, Driscoll was free to “make it up as he went along”—until his sheep and co-laborers had nothing left to offer him. Then he went too far, abused too many, and he was out, for a time. Several years of self-imposed exile later, he was able to swing a move to Scottsdale, Arizona, and start all over again, this time with a revised vision (Calvinism was now out) and he found a new group of followers who were all-too willing to ignore his well-known track record. Caveat emptor.

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