An Ecclesiological Take on “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”
Now that everyone has stopped talking about Mike Cosper’s podcast series on the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, published by Christianity Today, I thought it was high time to wade in. Leave it to 9Marks for a Pony Express delivery of hot takes.
Cosper’s podcast reminds me of Blue Like Jazz. Like Don Miller’s iconic 2003 book, it’s well-crafted and cool. More than that, both products caught the cultural winds at just the right moment, accelerating their popularity. A sailboat might be well-made, but it still needs wind. And Cosper and Miller found fortuitous weather conditions.
Blue Like Jazz caught the postmodern, anti-consumeristic, and anti-megachurch gales that the Gen-X kids who grew up in 1980s and 90s youth-groups felt around the turn of the millennium. He embodied their vibe and expressed their misgivings better than anyone. Cosper has caught recent gusts of growing existential angst over complementarianism and Calvinism, abuse and authority, engendered by everything from the #MeToo movement to anti-Trump exasperation. Driscoll’s message and leadership style, after all, are the Platonic ideal of what today’s climate can’t stand. No one else thought to do this in a dramatized podcast form, but now that Cosper’s done it, it feels like it was inevitable, as with Emerson’s poet whose genius lay in holding up a mirror to the world around him.
My goal here is not to review the series—what I liked, what I didn’t like—but to offer four lessons that I think are a little more timeless, and lessons that point to the worst inevitabilities of bad ecclesiology.
1. We’re too easily seduced by numbers and giftedness.
With a story about the rise and fall of something, everyone wants to know who the good guys and bad guys are. There’s one bad guy I want to usher more clearly into the light, because I suspect many listeners overlooked him: pragmatism.
Pragmatism is a results-driven orientation, especially results that can be measured, like dollars in the plate or bodies in the pew. It throws overboard almost everything else the Bible says about being a church in pursuit of those numeric goals. Little by little, churches value leaders more for their giftedness than their faithfulness, their charisma more than their character.
The members, too, change. We begin acting more like an audience than a body. More like consumers than a family. Our desires for our church change. Our expectations morph. And our commitments to each other grow thin.
The ironic thing is, Driscoll rose up in the Young, Restless, & Reformed world, a world that is supposedly theologically driven and knows you should spit when you say “pragmatism.” Driscoll himself called church consumerism “a sin” (Vintage Church, 252). But a dynamic young leader drawing big crowds and reaching new groups makes us lose our heads. He exposes how much pragmatism remains in us, since pragmatism, in the final analysis, means living by sight and not by faith. Sight says, “Look at those polling numbers! Tell everyone it’s a movement of God.” Faith says, “But is he wise? Is he building with materials that will stand the test of time?”
Cosper was correct early in the series to encourage listeners to consider themselves, like Paul laying responsibility at the feet of churches choosing ear-scratching preachers (2 Tim. 4:3). I’m not looking to lay specific blame on specific people or organizations. I’m not even saying we should completely disregard giftedness or drawing power. I am saying we should all double down on prioritizing finding leaders
- who are faithful to the Bible,
- who have exemplary character,
- and whose general patterns of life and speech leave you thinking, “That looks like wisdom. It feels wholesome.”
What do you value in your leaders? What are you looking for in your next pastor? Are you prioritizing the right things?
2. Character was the problem, not complementarianism.
The podcast series gave a lot of airtime to Driscoll’s version of complementarianism. Cosper didn’t say—and I don’t think Cosper personally believes—that complementarianism leads to abuse. Yet that was the conclusion for some, or at least the lingering question.
If we asked the apostle Paul to listen to the series, I don’t think he would invite us to debate the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12. I think he would turn the page, put his finger down on chapter 3, and say, “Anyone read this?” Paul spills more ink on an elder’s character than his job description, in part because good character is crucial to the job description.
Yet I don’t want to let us complementarians off the hook either. We cannot commend the goodness of authority while failing to mention that those under authority are in a more vulnerable position (at least on earth; vulnerabilities switch before God’s judgment seat in heaven). An authority figure with good character brings life, growth, strength, joy, and vitality. But an authority figure with bad character abuses, breaks, crushes, destroys, exploits, fleeces. Bad character turns any gift of authority—parental, governmental, pastoral, etc.—into something putrid and wicked. It will turn the office into something God never designed it to be.
Which is to say, I think Paul would listen to Cosper’s Mars Hill story, point also to 1 Timothy 2:12, and remark, “No, that’s not what I meant in those verses.” Then he would go on to explain why a man’s authority in the home and church should be a source of joy and flourishing for women and men. Drawing from Jesus, he would explain that people of good character use their authority to place themselves in the position of greatest vulnerability. They put themselves at risk of the greatest pain (see Mark 10:45).
3. Nobody cares about church polity until things go south.
Yet the Mars Hill story doesn’t just feature pragmatism and character problems. It also features structural problems.
When an organization is growing and prosperous, nobody cares much about its governing structures or polity. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” People only care when things fall apart. Then they clamor, “Who has the power of discipline here? And who should be holding whom accountable?”
Discipline and accountability are the first things people wonder about when leaders fail. Why didn’t Driscoll keep himself accountable? Why didn’t the elders? Why didn’t an outside board? And so it goes.
As with nations and their governments, the most crucial piece of church polity is who possesses the power of accountability and discipline. The “highest” authority is the authority which can fire, eject, or execute you. Insofar as the government can execute you, they can do anything else, like raise your taxes. Likewise, church discipline is authority’s teeth.
Who holds the power of discipline in an independent, elder-ruled church like Mars Hill? The elders. They are the highest authority. Indeed, they are the only authority.
Not so in congregational, presbyterian, or episcopalian-structured churches (lower-case to refer to systems of government, not denominations). Congregationalists push the authority to excommunicate down from the elders to the whole congregation. Presbyterian and episcopalians push it up to the presbytery, general assembly, or bishop.
For my part, not only do I think the downward push to the congregation is more biblical, but if the history of governments has anything to teach us, pushing power downward always does more to keep it in check. See the Federalist Papers. Not only that, but by pushing accountability upward to bishops or presbyteries, you’re pushing it outward to people in other churches, those with far less first-hand knowledge of a church than its own members.
Yet never mind my quarrel with the presbyterians and episcopalians—good hearted friends—for now. We mostly agree that independent, elder-ruled churches concentrate all authority in a church’s own session in a way that’s unbiblical and unsafe, and all the more so when one elder concentrates the lion’s share of that authority in himself.
But now ask yourself: which form of church polity do pragmatists love most? You guessed it—independent pastor or elder rule. This structure is easy and efficient. You can make decisions quickly. And you don’t have to bother with outside bodies or even your own congregation. If your church asks, you can point them to Hebrews 13:17’s call to submit to pastors. Furthermore, tell them you’re prioritizing the mission, not the bureaucracy. Never mind the possibility that those authority structures might in fact prepare people for the mission.
Adopting a congregationalist, presbyterian, or episcopalian church structure, on the other hand, requires a fairly developed set of ecclesiological convictions, and most folks don’t have those these days. Their inconveniences require an extra level of biblical (for the congregationalists and presbyterians) or at least historical (for the episcopalians) conviction. Yet evangelicalism and its seminaries haven’t been passing out such convictions these days. And they haven’t at least since the days of Billy Graham rallies, if not revivals going back all the way to George Whitefield. Who cares about polity differences as long as people are getting saved, right?! Polity is not essential for salvation. Therefore, it can’t be important.
Not surprisingly, the independent pastor or elder-ruled church structure has come to characterize the evangelical landscape for the last 70 years—from the Crystal Cathedral, to Willow Creek, to Saddleback, to the independent Bible churches I grew up in, to Mars Hill, to most hip church plants, to so many fundamentalist churches who work desperately to be biblical. Even those SBC megachurches which claim to be congregational are so in a rubber-stamping sort of way.
We’ve not considered the possibility that—as Mark Dever often observes—a middle lane exists somewhere in between “essential for salvation” and “mostly unimportant.” Yet the sad tale of Mars Hill Church, which crushed the faith of so many, demonstrates why a middle lane is important. Polity is not essential for salvation, but it’s essential for helping the saved walk lovingly and peaceably together. It’s essential for passing the gospel to the next generation. It’s essential, finally, for biblical obedience. Driscoll’s self-manufactured structures failed his congregation and the city of Seattle in all three ways.
4. Elders don’t have the authority to discipline, but to teach.
If the final authority of discipline belongs somewhere else—not with the elders all by themselves—what authority do elders have? If Driscoll abused his, what’s the right way? It’s hard to understand the wrong unless you place it side by side with the right.
Pastoral or elder authority is the authority to teach, to set an example of godliness, to give oversight in the direction of the church, and to lead the congregation to use its authority, like me teaching my daughter to drive. Yet here’s the crucial piece, and I’m going to sound more decidedly congregational now: elders, like husbands, lack the power of discipline. (And I’m using the word “discipline” here narrowly, not as rebuking or warning, but as the final act of excommunication.)
The Bible gives parents, governments, and congregations the power of discipline insofar as it gives all three an enforcement mechanism for ensuring their decisions are obeyed. It gives parents “the rod,” governments “the sword,” and congregations “the keys” for excommunication. But scan your eyes across the pages of Scripture. Can you think of any passage that gives husbands such an enforcement mechanism? You’d better say no. And what about elders—in what passage is their rule linked to excommunication as explicitly and decisively as the congregation’s (see Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:2,4-5; 2 Cor. 2:6; Gal. 1:9)? I cannot think of one.
What’s going on here? Philosophers distinguish between the authority of command (which possess an enforcement mechanism) and the authority of counsel (which doesn’t). Parents, governments, and churches possess the former. Husbands and pastors the latter. An authority of counsel is true authority because God does lay a moral burden on wives and church members to submit, and there is an eschatological enforcement mechanism—teeth. But it’s in God’s hands, not ours. Husbands and pastors are like middle managers who are in charge of their department but cannot actually fire anyone. They’re required to use more winsome tactics if they want their department members to follow.
In other words, the fact that husbands and elders possess no enforcement mechanism changes the nature of how their authority must be exercised. It forces a man to be patient, long-suffering, tender, and consistent. It requires him to live with his wife and church in an understanding way. It requires him to woo and be winsome. He must work for growth over the long run, not forced outcomes and decisions in the short run, which is why Paul tells Timothy to teach “with all patience.” What good is a forced decision or forced love from a wife or a member of the new covenant? A husband and an elder want the flowers of loving decisions growing naturally from loving hearts.
To put it another way, an authority of counsel requires husbands and elders to honor those they lead as positionally equal. While a police officer or the parent of a young child will sometimes override the agency of those they lead for purposes of protection and instruction, respectively, a husband or elder can never do that. They must always appeal to a person’s own agency. They possess a variety of authority particularly suited to partnership and collegiality. Their leadership requires collaboration, involvement, and consent from the ones they lead.
My guess is that many husbands and elders at Mars Hill Church did lead this way, because they were reading their Bibles and God is gracious to teach his people in spite of bad leadership. Yet too many stories in Cosper’s narration about Driscoll featured something different—leading, as it were, by slamming a fist on the table; leading with fear and forms of coercion; leading by diminishing people and not empowering them.
When an elder or pastor treats all authority as one thing, and fails to realize that God has established different kinds of authority, he begins to exercise his authority coercively. It becomes characterized by demands, not invitations. Combine that with underlying character issues, and you have a recipe for disaster.
WHY THE FALL OF MARS HILL WAS NOT SURPRISING
Let me sum up the ecclesiological angle on the rise and fall of Mars Hill in a way that might sound a little arrogant, but I hope is not: the rise and fall of Mars Hill were not surprising. There’s a reason that, for over two decades, 9Marks has been insisting that churches look to the Bible for their ecclesiology and polity, like Protestants did for centuries, at least up to our great-grandparent’s generation. And have you noticed that so many of today’s church scandals have occurred in independent, elder-ruled churches?
Good ecclesiology is not just an academic enterprise for the folks who want to cross their theological “t”s and dot their polity “i”s. Ecclesiology is the social outworking of the gospel. Polity is the shape the gospel gives to our relationships with each other. It shapes your understanding of who you are and how you relate to everyone else calling themselves a Christian. It empowers and constrains. It trains and it disciplines. It pushes us down the path of gospel righteousness while putting up guardrails along the sides.
The trouble is, too many evangelicals have decided that the Bible doesn’t address how to build, grow, lead, and live as local churches. That’s one reason we’ve become pragmatists. In effect, we supplant God’s wisdom with our own. Which is when things start to fall apart. Accountability breaks down, as does discipline. Authority and leadership assume ungodly shapes and sizes. Men demand what they shouldn’t. Women respond in kind. We redefine sin and make our peace treaties with it. Love becomes whatever the culture tells us it, not what Jesus says it is. On and on I could go.
I said at the beginning of this article that the sails of Cosper’s series caught the winds of a growing existential angst over complementarianism and Calvinism, abuse and authority. After all, so many celebrity pastors have fallen. There are so many reports of abuse and coverup. #MeToo has grown into #ChurchToo. Politics and protests have divided churches. Christian friends, rocked by all these political divisions and moral scandals, have “deconstructed” their faith. I don’t believe every social-media-led charge of scandal has been right or just. Not at all. False accusations will accompany the true, and always have. Still, my 9Marksy response to all the Twitter and Facebook fireworks through a decade of political, moral, and deconstructing turmoil, of which Cosper’s podcast series provides only one illustration, is: what else did you expect?
We’ve reaped what we’ve sown. A house full of undisciplined children will leave a mess behind. Progressive Christians argue all the failures and abuses should cause us to rethink our doctrines—from our views on men and women to our views on the atonement. Conservative Christians, in response, get understandably defensive, but then don’t offer another explanation because pragmatism blinds us, too. And my point is not that bad polity and pragmatism are the source of all our woes. Yet at the risk of being the man with a hammer for whom everything looks like a nail, here is 9Marks, once again, waving the ecclesiology flag, pleading with folks: have you considered your polity? Your ecclesiology? And, inside that, the character of your leaders and members both?
On the one hand, biblically faithful churches and leaders will stumble and stray. Let’s admit it. Just last week I learned of another pastor-acquaintance of an otherwise biblically faithful church who stumbled. Lord, preserve each of us. On the other hand, we make it worse for ourselves when we build our churches on human wisdom.
Good ecclesiology and a more biblical complementarianism offer the best correction to what happened at Mars Hill, and what is happening in so many evangelical churches.
Churches and leaders should worry less about bare numbers and more about biblical faithfulness, knowing that faithfulness produces the greatest numbers over time. They should cultivate leaders of good character and congregations who live and love as families.
Congregationalism requires elders to train and equip their members toward maturity by modelling Christ-like lives, lest those congregations wield the keys foolishly. Faithful elders, faithful church. Unfaithful elders, unfaithful church. Congregational rule should also temper and is designed to check authoritarian elder leadership. And elder authority, when understood rightly, is an inviting, winsome, patient, and beautiful picture of one who stands at the door and knocks, bears the heavier yoke, and even lays down his life for the sheep.
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 This paragraph and the next come from my forthcoming, Authority: How Good Leadership Protects the Vulnerable, Makes Society Flourish, and Saves the World (Crossway, 2023).
Image Credit: Christianity Today