The latest blogosphere controversy involving Mark Driscoll concerns the church discipline practices at his church Mars Hill. Matthew Paul Turner shared on his blog this week the story of a young man named “Andrew” who confessed to a sexual impropriety and was asked to sign a discipline contract as part of his penance. When Andrew refused to sign the contract and opted to leave the church instead, his sin was disclosed on an intra-church website with the instructions that Mars Hill members were not to associate with him. The situations sounds pretty blatantly abusive. I haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to churches who do this sort of thing. My United Methodist Church (generally) has the opposite problem of Mark Driscoll’s church; we offer our people absolution of sin without confession or accountability, which is theologically grounded in the doctrine of prevenient grace, but our lack of any concept of church discipline denies our people one of the sweetest gifts that Jesus’ sacrifice has to offer: integrity.
In the original Methodist movement in England, small groups did not come together to discuss chapters from the latest celebrity pastor’s book. The purpose of the original Methodist small groups was to care for each other spiritually by providing the framework for confession and accountability to take place. John Wesley gave the small groups exhaustively detailed lists of questions to ask each other about sin. I imagine if Wesley were alive today, he would get panned in the blogosphere as a hyper-authoritarian cult leader. I definitely think he had OCD issues. But we’ve gone so far in the opposite direction as Methodists. Here’s a troubling question: are churches like Mars Hill more faithful to the heritage of John Wesley’s methodistic approach to Christian discipleship than Methodists ourselves are?
Part of the problem is structural. Today we organize our small group ministry around curriculum rather than accountability. When our reason for coming together is to talk about a book we are reading (and maybe even the Bible), we experience some semblance of community, but our personal disclosures are going to remain mostly surface-level and uncostly without an intentional environment of confession and accountability. It’s too hard to fight the uphill battle against the social norms in which sharing your personal baggage is always TMI. So you enjoy each other’s company for a few months, “learn a lot” on a mostly cognitive level, and go your separate ways once the curriculum is over. I realize it doesn’t always happen this way. The women in our churches seem to have no problem bonding and sharing their struggles with one another even when they’re coming together to talk about a book. The Companions in Christ series in particular seems helpful for this, though I’m not sure whether or how much it gets into confession itself. But what about the men?
I never thought I’d be on Mark Driscoll’s “side” about anything, but I do think that men have a need for explicit structure that women don’t seem to need. Otherwise, it goes completely against the grain of how we are socialized by American middle-class society to openly share our struggles with other men (never mind mixed gender company). I wonder if vulnerability has to be an expectation in order to feel like we have permission to disclose our struggles with each other. Here’s where I differ from Driscoll and others like him. I suspect that they would say that a leader, for decorum’s sake, should not be vulnerable with those “under” him/her. But I think that establishing a hierarchical power-differential of vulnerability is precisely what creates a cult-like, Big Brother atmosphere instead of a liberating, safe space for perfect intimacy. I know that I sometimes disclose more about myself than I should (which could cause people to lose respect for the office of pastor), but until I’m persuaded otherwise, I think that Christ’s model of servant leadership suggests that I best create vulnerability in my church community by modeling it myself. It seems like it creates safe space for others to be real with me when I make the first move in sharing my brokenness.
I so badly want people to recognize that the freedom to confess our sins openly to one another is such an amazing gift that the cross has given us. And I know that there are Christians reading this who do not understand how liberating confession really is. It’s supposed to be the basis for perfect community, what Scot McKnight terms A Community Called Atonement. It’s true that God’s forgiveness is not contingent upon our confession. I would never want anyone to think that they’re walking on a tightrope above the fires of hell which they’ll fall into if they forget to apologize for even one sin. But that’s completely not what confession is about! It’s about our liberation and our ability to bear each others’ burdens as a community so that we can experience the deeper exhilaration of God’s glory that we taste the more we are sanctified.
In any case, I’m getting together with a group of guys tonight for the first time to explore creating some kind of accountability covenant group where we could support each other spiritually. I’m super-nervous not because I’m worried about being judged for my own sin, which I’ve grown comfortable sharing openly with others, but because what I’m hoping to do together is so radically against the grain of the northern Virginia environment where we live. God planted this seed a year and a half ago when I first arrived in Burke. It is so freaking awesome that He’s pulling it together now. Please pray for our courage and trust!