Here is the fixture list:
Arminians v Calvinists
Egalitarians v Complementarians
Creationists v Theistic Evolutionists
Conservatives v Liberals
And so on.
Bill Kinnon calls for Christians to stop ripping each other to shreds in the way opposing sports fans do.
I am recently on record as having grave reservations about Mark Driscoll‘s teaching and attitudes to those he disagrees with. But as goes the man, so goes the church and group of churches he has founded. Here are some gruesome links. The stories are so consistent.
Matthew Paul Turner tells in two parts the story of a young man who confessed to sexual sin and sought help, but who was then placed under draconian discipline with a ‘contract’ that could be described as voyeuristic. When he deems it unfair, he is removed from Mars Hill’s social network and those in his home group are told not to associate with him and are even given a form of words to say, indicating their assent to Mars Hill’s decision. Frankly, the way they put words into the mouths of people could come from North Korea.
A couple separately tell of the pressures they were put under by church leaders when they decided to leave a Mars Hill church, even though they tried to do so diplomatically. Detailing Scripture just isn’t good enough in a church that likes to talk more about correct doctrine than Jesus.
Earlier, when another member queriedwhy he was being asked to shun a sacked staff member when he doesn’t see evidence of the kind of outright sin that would lead to ostracisation in the New Testament, he is told by an elder, “When dad and mom are having an argument the kids don’t need to know what’s going on.” The church member concludes,
So when dad and mom live off the tithe checks given by the children they don’t have to explain why dad decides to fire mom?
Later, his membership covenant (which has to be renewed every few years – a strange kind of covenant that, he observes) is voided by the elders.
Time and again, if you click on these links, you will see people are using words like ‘control’, ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘cult’.
Bill Kinnon understandably asks why that bastion of the neo-Reformed movement, the Gospel Coalition, hasn’t spoken out against Mars Hill. Driscoll is one of their council members, and they have had resignations before on grounds of doctrinal controversy, as Bill points out. But what does Driscoll have to do for that to happen? Let’s suppose that actually it’s being addressed behind closed doors. If so, that would be a good start. But this has gone on for a long time now. The sacking of two key leaders (one of whom was the person to be ostracised in the last story above) happened in 2007. It’s unthinkable to consider that any such measures were still at the first level of New Testament discipline, the private stage.
Why, then, is there a conspicuous silence in the public arena? Could it be that Driscoll is the poster boy of the movement, untouchable due to the numbers he and his churches draw in? Could it be that he is regarded rather like a mercurial and talented footballer who is something of a rebel, when he might be more like a Paul Gascoigne character, out of control?
And if Driscoll’s friends can’t deal with this, who can? Is it surprising that in desperation some outside that camp (either always outside or, like those above, people who have left) raise strong voices?
Those of us who are critical nevertheless have the responsibility not to lower ourselves to the standards we find objectionable in Driscoll in the way we speak out. We have to be careful that the fear we have for the damage that we believe is being done to people and will be done to Christian witness does not make us act out of fear and hence just lash out. If we do, it just gives an excuse for Mars Hill/Driscoll to say, there you are, look at how our opponents behave. It is hard not to be cynical and sarcastic, though, but we must guard against it.
Yet on the other hand, to be too soft is to give in. What else would those who exercise control want than to make people fearful to criticise?
Then there is the question not only of tone, but of language. Are words like ‘cult’, ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘control’ unfair? If the evidence above is at all reliable (and the consistency tells us something, I think) then certainly we’re talking about control issues, and that raises the issue of ‘why?’. You can’t help thinking about fear and power, maybe a combination of the two, a fear of power being undermined, perhaps. If the structure is hierarchical, with all vision and pronouncements coming down from on high as if Driscoll has descended from Sinai carrying two stone tablets, then anything that questions that approach is not an isolated problem, but an attack on the foundations. And jolly good, too, because no frail mortal can cope with that kind of elevation. Even Moses didn’t.
What about spiritual abuse? Fifteen years ago, near the end of a difficult phase in my life, I heard Marc Dupont speak on the subject, and I bought his book, ‘Walking Out of Spiritual Abuse‘. Helpfully – in my opinion – he draws lessons from King Saul. On the one hand, the people of Israel got the king they deserved, because they rejected seeking the face of God in favour of having a charismatic personality. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells in all sorts of ways on today’s church scene, I don’t know what does.
But on the other side was the character of Saul himself. He looked the part, but his fears and insecurities led him into control and manipulation. At the conference where I heard Dupont speak, he talked about the incident where Saul is picked out as king. You may recall how Samuel ‘drills down’ through tribes and families before finally picking him out. Dupont pointed out that it says that Saul was found ‘hiding in the baggage’, and while the ancients didn’t use the notion of ‘baggage’ metaphorically as we do and so this is strictly bad exegesis, we can say from painful experience that it often is people with ‘baggage’ who cause spiritual abuse. As he says in the first chapter of the book,
Most leaders who end up with a harsh and demanding style of leadership are not individuals who would deliberately hurt others. (Page 13, author’s emphasis)
Could it be that Mark Driscoll is a man with unresolved baggage? He has owned up to fair amounts of difficulties in his marriage. Is he a man who wants to see many people come to Christ? Might it therefore be that this is a man with deeply good intentions, but whose emotional pain has led to the founding of a chronically misshapen church, leading to the problems described in the testimonies cited at the beginning of this post? On this basis, the accusation of spiritual abuse is possible – religious power misused in a way that consistently harms others, and done so by a wounded person who has been elevated to the level of celebrity, one place where a Christian minister probably never should be.
The most contentious allegation, though, is that of ‘cult’. This is a loaded term for Christians. It is a term often applied to religious movements that are essentially heretical deviations from Christianity, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons or Christian Science. However, these should more properly be regarded as heretical sects, not cults. Or it is applied to heretical groups that engage in spiritual abuse – the Children of God, the Moonies and the like – and perhaps end in extreme dangerous devotion to the leader, such as David Koresh at Waco or Jim Jones at Jonestown.
On the surface, Mars Hill’s devotion to neo-Reformed theology still puts it in the Christian mainstream, which is why I can raise issues about whether the Gospel Coalition is doing anything about one of its Council members. But some cults began with orthodox Christian leaders who then deviated – David Berg of the Children of God could be a case in point here. Mars Hill cannot be regarded as unorthodox, and many of its currently contentious doctrines have been held by large numbers of Christians for a long time. Theologically, it would be wrong for Christians to call it a cult.
However, there are other definitions of ‘cult’ that operate not merely theologically but more sociologically. Is there intense devotion to a particular individual other than Christ? Are there behavioural patterns enforced which lead to, or are based on, a sense of superiority or exclusiveness? Exclusivity can be ruled out, due to associations with other Christian leaders such as John Piper and Terry Virgo (and, presumably, the Gospel Coalition leaders), even if they come from a fairly narrow field.
Even here, then, it is hard to justify using the word ‘cult’ of Mars Hill, but it must be admitted that the warning signs are there in the intimidatory and manipulative tactics to which those who have left testify. Authoritarianism certainly seems to be present, and if you read the ten signs of authoritarianism that Scot McKnight quotes from Wade Burleson, you will see a number of similarities.
But given these warning signs, the only right thing to do is to continue to raise the alarm. Today, much of that is going to mean doing so on the Internet.
I repeat: I do not think Mark Driscoll is evil. I think he has good intentions. He wants many to find Christ. He wants a disciplined church. He wants healthy relationships and for young men to be responsible. He wants to preserve the historic Gospel. All these things are honourable. I disagree with some of his emphases, as I do with some of what the Gospel Coalition stands for. I do not believe that Calvinism is the pure Gospel. Nor do I believe that the arc of Scripture points to a complementarian view of relationships, or to a view of hell as eternal conscious torment. I believe in substitutionary atonement, but I believe other images of the atonement also come into play in the New Testament. I also believe the Gospel Coalition intends well (I should point out that another of their council members is an old friend), although my expression of evangelical Christianity differs from theirs in almost exactly the same ways, and I have severe ideas with a sense that anything other than their exposition of the Christian message is unsound, just as Driscoll tends to label his detractors as automatically ‘liberal’.
Yet … for all the sincere intentions with which I believe Driscoll and Mars Hill started out, the combination of what looks like a possibly wounded (or maybe ‘undiscipled‘, using Bill Kinnon’s word) leader and a church celebrity culture makes for an explosive mixture. And when it does explode – quite regularly, it seems, because it is also volatile – great damage is caused. And for that reason, those of us who are concerned must keep raising our voices.
I have been sitting on this post for three days. I’ve fiddled with it, wondered whether to publish it, but in the end I’ve decided to go ahead. Feel free to make constructive comments in response.
On Tuesday, Bill Kinnon linked to the latest sign of Todd Bentley’s return to public ministry. He has a new website that is a variation on his old ministry’s name. There is much talk on it of ‘restoration’. To me, it still looks like Bentley is rushing/being rushed (delete as applicable) back into the public arena.
Now I have to say I like the word ‘restoration’ when it comes to church discipline. It is Jesus’ intention. Church discipline is not violent vengeance. The aim is not ultimately to condemn but to bring someone’s life back in order in relation to God and the church. However, if some talk more about discipline than restoration, there is more talk about restoration than discipline on the new site, insofar as I can see. (Do tell me if I am wrong.) Yes, there are passing references to Bentley’s fall and the damage caused, such as in this article. However, it is also peppered with references to Bentley having ‘lingered with the Word Face-to-face’, so he still seems to claim Moses-like stature for his spiritual experiences. And that makes me nervous. Not because I deny the possibility of such experiences, but because it looks like they are being used to validate the spiritual superhero. How can you argue with someone who claims such an experience? It’s the charismatic trump card.
I see the references to having fallen from grace and past mistakes and so on, all on the same page that advertises all sorts of product. Guys I’m sorry, please give me eighteen dollars. What would be ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, though? Some of it depends on how you weigh the thorny question of divorce and remarriage. I am not an ‘indissolublist’ (one who believes that any subsequent marriage after a divorce while the first spouse is still alive is automatically adulterous, because all marriages last for life whatever happens). I believe that the New Testament exemptions for divorce under certain circumstances only make sense if they end the marriage and leave the wronged partner free. Indeed, that was the position of my own wife when we first met. (See this sermon for an exposition of a relevant passage.)
But to me, I struggle to see how such exemptions could be relevant to someone like Bentley, although if I am right they would be true for his ex-wife Shonnah. From what I know (and I have to acknowledge there may be more that is rightly being kept from the public eye for the sake of Bentley’s children and ex-wife), I would normally expect that the Christian thing for Bentley to do would be to remain celibate. Sex is not a right; it is a gift. The same is true of ministry.
(By the way, I am not alleging that Bentley caused marital breakdown by actual adultery. I do not know, and I do not wish to pry. But what is undisputed is that it was the emotional involvement with another woman, and that has led to a new bond that should not have been made.)
There is an issue of public scandal to be addressed for the sake of public witness. For example, I have seen churches act decisively when scandal has rocked their congregations and their witness in the community. That such churches took action was respected by those non-Christians who had wondered about the standards of the church. Had the church not done so, there would have been a legitimate charge of hypocrisy. I don’t see an equivalent action in this case. Yes, Bentley had to step down from Lakeland immediately. But in only a few months he’s back back back. Is that right?
I am also aware that the ‘mainstream’ Christian Church has not always acted with integrity in this area. I know of an instance where a minister left his wife for another woman, whom he then married, and he was allowed to remain in the ministry. What message that sends to his ex-wife is deeply troubling.
And there is also then everybody else’s situation. None of us is without sin. Who can cast the first stone? If I am not perfect, what sin am I entertaining? How do we distinguish between the struggles we all have and outright flaunting of God’s word? Are there different degrees of sin? These for me are the most difficult questions of all. However, they cannot be used to disallow any possibility of discipline. The same Gospel – Matthew – that says ‘Judge not’ also has the clearest passages on church discipline. People have been clearly wronged. Relationships have been damaged. Injustice has happened here. The Gospel has been brought into disrepute. That must be addressed.
And if I am so imperfect, why even write about this? (I could even be writing for poor motives – like getting more hits for my blog.) That is because this whole sorry saga has unfolded in public and in the light of the massive public claims Bentley and others made about the Lakeland movement and the like, all of which were discredited by the actions of certain ‘apostles’ and Bentley himself. Following that, the restoration process is being played out like a reality TV show on the web. And as I’ve said before, you don’t do pastoral care like that. Right now, you still have to wonder what the motives are for getting Bentley back on platforms so soon. I continue to have some very cynical ideas about why, and I wish I didn’t.
UPDATE, 26th June, 2:00 pm: Maggi Dawn has a post here and she ends with some prescient words:
Rick Joyner’s voice welcomes you to the website, bigging it up with “God mobilising”, at this “strategic time”, “miracle power”, etc etc. There are links galore to Bentley’s teaching, and you can buy his books, and invite him to minister. OK, so allegedly he isn’t actually taking UP any invitations right now, as he is still in a period of “restoration”… still, you don’t launch a new website when you aren’t planning your comeback, do you?
That’s rather how I feel about the invitation/not taking up invitations issue.
Just found this Clay Shirky video rather belatedly via Bill Kinnon last month:
Shirky uses geeky stories to make the point that the old model of doing small things with love whereas large things need commerce isn’t the whole truth any more. There are plenty of applications to church and mission. See what you think.
What happens if you mix that most popular of Internet phenomena, the social networking site, with the in-word in many western Christian circles, ‘missional’? Why, you get a social network for those involved in the missional approach to Christianity. It’s called Missional Tribe and has launched overnight.
It is good to see something like this ‘appearing’ on the Feast of Epiphany. I shall be signing up in just a moment. Thanks for the circular email, Rick.
I wrote several posts a few months ago about Todd Bentley. We arrived home from holiday to discover he was leaving the Lakeland ‘Revival’ and separating from his wife. Three days later his ministry admitted he was in an unhealthy relationship with another woman. Many bloggers have waded in. Dan Edelen has a lot of wisdom borne of pain in several posts. Bill Kinnon is more fiery, especially on the backtracking by C Peter Wagner. There are numerous others.
Whatever my criticisms of Bentley, I take no pleasure in these events. Here are some thoughts.
Losers According to Bill Kinnon, C Peter Wagner has described Todd Bentley as a loser. Crudely, that seems to mean Wagner didn’t back a winner, so he inflicts this description on Bentley. Whatever I think of Bentley’s ministry, especially the violence, if you write people off as losers you dismiss the Gospel. In the words of an old Steve Taylor song, ‘Jesus is for losers’. Watch the video for the song here:
No, if Wagner talks like this, what Gospel does he believe and preach? Where does the Cross fit in? Dan Edelen talks much about charismatics needing to recover the Cross: here is a prime reason why.
This isn’t a time for casting stones, it’s a time for prayer and grace as well as church discipline (which after all according to Jesus was meant to be restorative).
Scott and I knew about Bentley’s immorality two months ago, but couldn’t find anyone willing to go on the record.
It’s in the nature of wrongly relating to someone other than yourself that there will be deceit, but this implies that appropriate accountability structures were abused. Yes, it’s good that Bentley stepped down, but that seems to have been for the sin of having been found out. Why were others culpable in the cover-up? Was it conspiracy or fear? We may never know.
But there is not only the accountability to his organisation Fresh Fire and the wider church, there is also the question of accountability in marriage. In what I am about to write I am aware that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, but – it seems one of the problems seemed to be Bentley’s protracted absence in Lakeland. Like many ministry marriages, Debbie and I have it built into our relationship that if a question arises of my being absent overnight or longer, we discuss it before agreeing. We have done so with respect to my forthcoming sabbatical early next year.
It must have been very tempting (and yes, I probably do mean ‘tempting’) for Bentley to stay in Florida rather than Canada, given what was happening. It must have been exciting for him. The emotional pressure on Shonnah to agree must have been huge. But the fatal flaw in the logic is the idea that the revival depended on him. I suspect that when I take my sabbatical next year, my churches (which have never had a minister on study leave before) will discover just how unnecessary I am! It is a salutary lesson.
Prophecy Clearly, Wagner’s ‘prophecy’ in June that Bentley would increase in this, that and everything looks pretty sorry now. While I am not one of those who believes modern-day prophecies have to be 100% accurate (as per Old Testament standards) because they’re not adding to Scripture, it does strike me that the prophecy concerned is just altogether too typical of the prophetic drivel that sometimes infects charismatic Christianity. It is the sort once characterised by a friend of mine as ‘Thus says the Lord, I love you O my children’. It’s all about how wonderful the recipient is. While I’m neither for the sort of word that reduces everyone to worm status, I thought the only person we were meant to big up like this was Christ. This stuff needs serious questioning. It’s linked to my next observation.
Personality Whatever happened to all those prophecies around the 1990s that ‘the coming revival’ would be ‘a nameless, faceless’ one? Rather than that, we still promote our personalities, and then (like the secular press) exclaim with horror when they fall. The personality cult is one of the most insidiously worldly aspects of evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Bentley often said on the stage at Lakeland that it wasn’t about him but Jesus. Nevertheless, others promoted him and he allowed it. He could have stepped out of the way more for his associates or others. He rarely did. This may have been a tactical error rather than malicious, but any of us called to a public rôle in Christianity need to learn and accept the hard lesson that it’s not about us, it’s about Christ, and our actions need to match up. That’s not easy, and it requires some holy ruthlessness on our part. Often we’re not willing. The attention or acclaim is too attractive.
So may God have mercy on Todd and Shonnah Bentley and the anonymous female staff member. May God have mercy on C Peter Wagner. May God have mercy on us all. We who are without exception sinners need grace – the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.