Saturday, March 22, 2014

When is "I'm Sorry" not enough?

When you don't mean it, of course. Or when you're a controversial megachurch pastor.


If you haven't been following the Evangelical headlines (and why would you? we're an increasingly marginalized minority and hardly merit a byline compared to most of what happens in worldly affairs), Mark Driscoll is the pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle (not the Mars Hill in Michigan started by hipster heretic--hipetic? herester?--Rob Bell) has been called out for several issues, the most recent being plagiarism in several of his 'best selling' books. Books which are best sellers largely because church money was spent to manipulate the market.

Following these allegations, there was a longish period of silence from Driscoll and Mars Hill, until this letter appeared on the internet, apparently 'leaked' (if we can apply such a word to so large and public a church affair). There has been some speculation as to whether we should be spreading this letter around, given that it's nominally from Driscoll to his congregation, but since 1) the damage is done at this point anyway and 2) I highly doubt this was released in any kind of secrecy, I think I'm okay linking to it here.

The question has then been raised: what now? There seem to be two sides to the question, the first being whether or not the apology linked above is sufficient, and the second being whether an apology (if sufficient) should end the matter, or whether there needs to be some kind of follow-up discipline.

As for the second question, I'm happy to say that the answer really should be up to his church. The Mars Hill congregation is at the end of the day Biblically responsible for disciplining Driscoll, should such discipline be needed, and as such any opinion I had on the issue would be moot anyway. If there are no such  structures in place in Mars Hill to provide such discipline, well, we can only pray that they learn from this and implement them. Whether they do or not, this is a matter for the local church to handle, not for the blogosphere and armchair inquisitors.

To some extent, I want to give the same answer to the first question (i.e. is the apology sufficient). After all, if it is not sufficient, then presumably we are suggesting that Driscoll is continuing in unrepentant public sin, and as such needs to be disciplined--again a function of his church. If it is sufficient, then no further action need be taken.

And yet, because so much of this controversy has been made public, here at least some public discussion can be useful. To that end, here are the handful of articles I've read on the topic that may be of interest.

1) Janet Mefford
Mefford, who originally broke the plagiarism story on her radio show, argues that Driscoll's apology is insufficient both in its details (many pertinent ones are left out, she claims) and in its substance. How do we know that? She argues we can know he's not really repentant because his actions have not matched his words:
And there’s the rub. Of all the things Driscoll never mentioned in his letter, the most glaring omission is the obvious and necessary act that should have come as a result of his repentance: Driscoll should have resigned as pastor of  Mars Hill Church. That act, more than anything else, would confirm his true turning from sin, his heartfelt sorrow over what he has done and his desire for accountability to every person who’s ever heard his sermons, attended his conferences or bought his books.
2) Ray Ortlund
On the Gospel Coalition website, Ray Ortland for all intents and purposes declared this an across the board Driscoll victory.
But let’s understand what just happened.  His repentance just pulled the rug out from underneath all the Driscoll-haters out there.  He shifted the moral burden to them.  Not that that was his purpose.  But it was an outcome.
Everyone who feels the power of the gospel will also feel that a penitent man deserves another chance.  That man should be held to his professed repentance — but gently, with encouragement, with support, with prayer, with every positive expectation of beautiful outcomes.  And if we don’t cut him that slack, we are the ones whose turn it is to repent.
While Ortland's triumphal language is perhaps unwise, there is an important point here. Driscoll has done something that I've only rarely seen from celebrity pastors. And speaking of celebrity pastors,

3) Kevin DeYoung
Also on the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung raises some important tangential points that are good reminders, even if not exactly on the same subject of the topic of this post. Namely, [not DeYoung's numbering] that 1) delay in repentance (especially over a public sin that involves a whole church) is not necessarily either wrong or unwise; 2) when public sin is trumpeted, we should be equally aggressive at trumpeting the repentance. He makes other points too, but these are the pertinent ones.

4) Owen Strahan
Strahan suggests with a good deal of gentleness and kindness that maybe some of these problems would have been offset in the past and could be offset in the future with a better church polity. Namely, if there were some kind of accountability structure in place to keep an eye on these things, instead of the functional one- or few-man rule that seems to be the norm at so many of the churches run by 'celebrity pastors.'
The “celebrity pastor” criticism is overblown, but it does land on this matter. Too many of us are now familiar with a methodology that tends to remove close pastoral accountability and connection between shepherds and the flock. This is a serious problem. We need to collectively think hard about what the Lord might be showing us. Many young and restless types hunger for globe-stretching, campus-multiplying ministries of the kind of our beloved leaders. I wonder, though, if the old ways might be commending themselves afresh in our day.
Here’s what I mean. If we’re hearing from super-energetic, remarkably-gifted individuals like Mark Driscoll that super-complex ministry is indeed as demanding, exhausting, and hard as it might seem, perhaps we should seek out simpler models of ministry. Perhaps we should think once more of the simple, humble model of the local church as being led by a body of elders. These leaders do not oversee multiple campuses. They are not elevated as a kind of “super board to manage other boards.” They simply oversee one church. At this church, they do their darndest to know their people, to keep watch over their souls, and to lead them in soul-delighting worship of the holy Trinity.
5) Dave Doran
Doran rightly points out that this is far more complicated an issue than we can ever really get through in a single 1000-word blog post. We have to account for the fact that these days (contrary to, say, a hundred years ago) millions of people are affected by pastoral sin, despite the fact that none of us who publicly reply know anything about the actual details of the inner-workings of Mars Hill life.
Doran raises a few interesting questions that merit some reflection:
Even granting the sincerity of a public apology does not eliminate the fact that some sins bring consequences which affect future relationships and actions. A church treasurer who embezzles funds can repent and apologize, but I doubt that very many people think he should be allowed to continue managing the church’s funds. When someone serves in an office which requires that he meet the qualifications established in Scripture, an apology does not necessarily wipe away the impact of disqualifying actions and/or patterns of life. So, as an example, if someone is accused of and admits that he has violated God’s Word that shepherds are not to be “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3), should an apology simply wipe that away? Does he immediately get a “do over” or should a new pattern of humble service be demonstrated before being restored to leadership? If character actually matters, then character should be displayed.
6) Todd Pruitt
On the Ref21 blog, Todd Pruitt argues that given the public nature of Driscoll's ministry, it is not wrong for pastors and other public figures to respond in a way that cares well for their own congregations.
I am troubled when every conceivable explanation is used to excuse a man who has stretched the biblical command to be above reproach to the breaking point while those who dare to call a thing what it is are classified as "haters." In pointing out these concerns, what is not happening here is hatred. It is far from hate. It is love for the church. Believe it or not, it is love for a man who, for the good of his own soul, may need to be steered away from the office of pastor by those who hold him accountable. Most of all it is love for our Lord and his reputation. It is love for his people who have suffered enough from our pastoral malpractice.

7) Coyle Neal
Okay, not really-- I don't have a response. I just want to point out in conclusion that this whole issue is truly complicated (despite the oversimplifications of Mefford and Ortlund linked above) by the fact that Driscoll is a very, very orthodox preacher. Seriously, jump on his website and listen through any given sermon series. While he certainly says things that I disagree with (what preacher doesn't?), he strives to exposit Scripture in a way that is Christ-centered and clearly articulates the Gospel. In some ways, it would be easier if he were preaching something awful (not that I'm hoping he becomes a heretic!), since then we could all wash our hands of the whole thing. The real world, of course, is never so simple, and the Mars Hill church has a long, difficult haul in front of it as they sort through the sticky issue of what to do with their senior pastor.
And in that sense, there is exactly one thing that we all can do whether we're members of Mars Hill or not: pray for Mars Hill and their continual faithfulness to the Gospel.

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