Is Mark Driscoll closer to John Wesley than we are?

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!

14 thoughts on “Is Mark Driscoll closer to John Wesley than we are?

  1. I think the difference is that Driscoll’s church is not practicing accountability. The measures outlined in those articles and the letters border on gossip rather than accountability. Once he has chosen to remove himself from the church community, the church community should not then air his dirty laundry in the name of discipline or accountability. Wesleyan accountability had to do with those who wanted to maintain their status as part of the community.

    • Yeah it seemed like what this church did was retaliation rather than anything done for the purpose of any kind of spiritual edification. Where I was coming from is simply that Methodists are very bad about keeping with our Wesleyan heritage of spiritual discipline, and I slapped on a provocative title to draw readers.

  2. There is something to be said for the practices of confession and accountability. Both have a long tradition in the church. Holding one another accountable was a cornerstone of the movement that Wesley founded. However, what Driscoll has done here is nothing short of abuse. The only example that this action should provide would be about what we should not be doing.

  3. In short — not by a long shot. Mark Driscoll espouses practices and attitudes that are the very antithesis of John Wesley’s experience and teachings. Driscoll’s denigration of women would be anathema to Wesley, whose mother Susanna was a stalwart Christian leader in her own right and a constant advisor to her son. Some of the earliest Wesleyan evangelists in the colonies were women. Furthermore, Driscoll’s advocacy of only “macho men” as Christian leaders flies in the very face of Jesus’ example, who risk his own “macho” standing among Jewish men to respect and care for women, children and those considered ritually unclean. We United Methodists have own problems, but modeling ourselves after Mark Driscoll’s prejudices shouldn’t become one of them.

    • Cynthia, this is the case of using a provocative title in order to attract attention, when the actual post was simply about the way that we need to follow the early Methodists’ example of confession and accountability. I’m afraid I may have engaged in somewhat false advertising. Check out my post on gender hierarchy.

  4. Oh… I forgot to mention – I have been in a small group of men who did confess sins to each other, pray for one another, and seek to help one another with our burdens. It was fantastic… and looked NOTHING LIKE what apparently happens at Mars Hill.

    • “There’s a difference between confessing our sins and striving for repentance, and being browbeaten by others about our sins. We are encourage to lift each other up, not rub each others’ noses into the ground. What happened to Andrew is the latter.” I absolutely agree. Admittedly I went with a provocative title to attract attention, but the only point I wanted to make is that we need to be confessing our sins and bearing each others’ burdens, not that we need to adopt a totalitarian ecclesiology.

  5. There’s a difference between confessing our sins and striving for repentance, and being browbeaten by others about our sins. We are encourage to lift each other up, not rub each others’ noses into the ground. What happened to Andrew is the latter.

    I’ve seen this happen before – a pastor in a church I used to attend got a little too close with a woman he was counseling – nothing sexual, but apparently beyond what was appropriate (I wasn’t privy to the details). He was asked to attend counseling sessions with elders, and did – for a time. Eventually he left the church – perhaps because he was feeling the way Andrew did; that he couldn’t be sorrier and couldn’t ask forgiveness more than he already had, and that everyone else was essentially making him perform until they felt satisfied – with no real end in sight. Meanwhile, others in the church whose sins were less visible were not made to do anything. Greed and materialism were evident, but not mentioned. Cheating happened elsewhere. But nobody else was made to jump through the hoops this pastor was. Of course things were a little different as he was a pastor… but in the end the church “disciplined” him out of the congregation.

  6. Thanks for a provocative entry.

    I think there is often confusion made between two very different kinds of groups that were both available to persons in the early Methodist Societies– bands and class meetings.

    Bands were very small (3-5 max) single-sex groups created for the purpose of “confessing our sins to each other that we may be healed.” Not everyone who was a Methodist (that is, a member in good standing of a Methodist Society was part of a band. Participation in a band was highly recommended for class leaders and other leaders in the organization, but it was not mandatory.

    Class meetings were a very different kind of group– larger (7-12, though some were larger than that), open to persons of both sexes, and focused primarily on helping each other live out the General Rules. In order to BECOME a Methodist, one had to attend a TRIAL class meeting and show signs of spiritual progress and living the General Rules for 3-6 months. If the class leader than recommended you, AND the members of the Society voted to receive you, you could be a member of the Methodist Society, and would then be enrolled in a “regular” class meeting. The agenda remained the same, essentially– but was now focused on helping each other grow in holiness of heart and life as you gave testimony to how you were living out the General Rules, how it was with your soul, and where you (or others in the group) sensed you might need additional help.

    What could get you “kicked out”? Well, certainly “notorious sin” COULD be an issue– but the more frequent reason persons were “read out of the Society” tended to have to do with failing to participate in class meetings of failing to continue to make progress toward growth in holiness of heart and life, thereby showing they may not be serious about what Methodists intended to be serious about– helping all experience both justifying and sanctifying grace until all could come to perfection in love in this life.

    Now, keep in mind that Methodist Societies were NOT congregations, nor were they trying to be. They were instead “Discipling Communities” (as I describe them here:

    Congregations as we now have them are public in ways that Discipling Communities generally are not. Without a sort of autocratic senior pastor/elder board, such as Driscoll at his church, it’s nearly impossible for congregations, as congregations, to carry out discipline for members at that level. Neither Anglican tradition from which we hail, via the Wesleys, as well as the Pietist tradition that underlies some of our German ancestry (EUB) thought congregations were the right venue for exercising such discipline. Rather, such discipline COULD be provided in accountable small groups that may or may not be directly connected to congregations. Class meetings and bands, for early Methodists, fulfilled that role.

    So no– I do not think United Methodist pastors or lay leaders should be trying to make “Driscoll-like” discipline a norm of our congregations.

    But I do believe the time is ripe for a rebirth of something like the Methodist Societies, and especially class meetings and bands, where those who are ready and willing to live together under our General Rules, watching over one another in love (including offering both “accountablility” for failures and support to succeed in growing in holiness of heart and life) are given every opportunity to do so. And in those settings, yes– such accountability, though certainly no such breaches of confidence, would absolutely be expected, just as they were in the Methodism the Wesleys actually founded.

    • Thanks for fleshing out the historical perspective more, Taylor. I don’t think that we need a congregation-wide autocracy. What we need are small-scale discipleship accountability groups.

  7. Blessings on you, Morgan! I will be praying for you and your group. I think such groups are essential for church in North America where we seldom get beneath the surface with others, esp. men. There is something profoundly liberating at being known, or at least in the process of being known by others, that I have found nowhere else. Thanks for your faithfulness in venturing out in this way.


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