It was exactly eighteen years ago that I personally experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of a “pastor.” I put that word in quotes because I do not believe that men who so abuse members of the flock that God has entrusted into their care deserve to wear the title or to serve in the Biblical office. My experience is probably not unlike others’ experiences, particularly when it comes to spiritual language that abusers use to beat down anyone who dares to even question their leadership. The abuse, many times, is done behind closed doors and a veil of secrecy is used so that what “happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors. After all, we wouldn’t want to spread gossip and rumors — that would be divisive and unholy.” Abusers like to twist Scripture so that the victims of spiritual abuse don’t have the courage to speak up.
If you have been in the church for any length of time, you have no doubt personally experienced — or know someone who has personally experienced — spiritual abuse at the hands of an authoritarian leader, usually a “pastor” or other “minister” of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That this happens at all is a travesty. That it happens far too often is inexcusable. The reason why it happens so much is because good, Godly men stand by silently when well-known celebrity abusers continue their abuse unabated. We should all know by now what flourishes when good men do and say nothing.
As the song says, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” It only takes one man (or woman) to take a stand against authoritarianism to make a difference. When the right person begins to speak up and to put feet to their words, it’s amazing how quickly the floodgates open. Such has been the case with the revelations of Paul and Jonna Petry at their new blog, Joyful Exiles. Four years after suffering spiritual abuse at the hands of the leaders of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, the spotlight is shining brightly on the leadership style of the church’s lead pastor, Mark Driscoll.
Driscoll, the founder and face of Mars Hill, has led the church to expand to expand to 14 locations in four states, with some 12,000 people attending weekly services. The influence of Mark Driscoll, not only through the ministry of Mars Hill, but through Acts 29, the church planting network that he also founded, cannot be understated. With best-selling books and top-rated podcasts, Driscoll’s warped form of “masculine Christianity” is shaping how thousands of (mostly) younger pastors and church planters — many of whom are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — do church. Despite the overwhelming numbers being “reached,” I’m not sure that is positive. And, if you want to argue that numbers are THE evidence of God’s blessing, then you need to acknowledge that the God of the Bible (who is not the same as Allah) is likewise blessing Islam, the Mormon “Church” and Joel Osteen. In a word, that’s preposterous!
Paul Petry, who was an elder at Mars Hill Church, was asked to draft revised By-Laws for the church in late 2005. With his legal background, it would have been entirely reasonable for him to be involved in this process. What Jonna Petry now describes as an “ominous circumstance” why the By-Laws’ revision was necessary:
As the church was growing, Mark wanted a smaller group of men involved with the everyday details of running the church without the need to gather every pastor/elder for discussion and voting. A number of issues had to be hammered out and the bylaws changed in order to allow a smaller group of elected elders (termed “the executive elders”) to operate freely with the day-today administration and “vision” aspects of running the church while still granting full disclosure and including all the elders in votes for major decisions like changes to the bylaws and purchasing property. This was to ensure accountability and protection. (“My Story,” by Jonna Petry)
This initial move to shrink the circle of “real” leaders was, according to the Petrys, just the beginning of the move to what can only be described as an authoritarian style of church governance and leadership. After the revised By-Laws were approved, the Petrys claim that Jamie Munson, Mars Hill’s Administrative Pastor/Elder said to Paul, “This is only half way.” I suppose the question that could be asked is, “Half way to what?” As more details emerge, we are beginning to get an answer to that question.
But, questions in an authoritarian organization, including churches run by authoritarian leaders, are not often received well. In fact, asking questions, even if one happens to be an elder, will apparently not only get you fired, but stripped of your eldership and shunned in the process. This is what the Petrys allege happened to them. To read their account is to understand how spiritual abuse can be perpetrated by “Christian pastors/elders.” In yet another revision of the By-laws, this time in an apparent attempt to further consolidate power, Paul Petry, a trained attorney who had drafted the previous revision, was not even asked to participate in this second round of revisions. That’s curious. Why? But, beyond asking why, when Petry, an elected elder of Mars Hill, contacted the attorney for the church to discuss the language of the new By-Laws, this was seen as rebellion and an affront to “authority.” When Petry sought input from a layman regarding an appeal mechanism for members undergoing “church discipline,” this was seen as a greivious breach of confidentiality. So much for getting counsel from non-elder types. When Mars Hill members have no voting rights, I guess one should not be surprised that elders are not even allowed to seek input from members’ regarding the church’s By-Laws, even when the language would directly impact members who were subject to church discipline. Truly scary.
After two weeks of “investigation” and “fact-finding,” a “trial” was convened. Twenty-two elders and all the elder candidates filled a large room where Paul was permitted to read his prepared statement regarding accusations he wasn’t even sure of and was then called upon to answer any and all elder questions. His accusers presided over the trial. Paul had no advocate, no friend, no witnesses to support him. After the questioning he was asked to leave the room so the elders could “deliberate.” Paul was found guilty at his “trial” of: “lack of trust and respect for spiritual authority and improper use of confidential information” (for discussing the proposed bylaws with a MHC deacon/friend to get input regarding an appeals process for members under church discipline). The elders then voted to remove Paul as an elder.
For daring to ask questions of leadership or to suggest due process and a more Biblical (i.e., Matthew 18) approach to church discipline, it appears that Paul and Jonna Petry were summarily dismissed through a sham trial and subsequent public shunning.That no real appeal mechanism was included in Mars Hill’s By-Laws certainly puts into perspective the shunning not only of the Petrys four years ago, but the most recent shunning shenanigans by Mars Hill in the last few months.
The Petry’s story is one that should be read by Christian leaders and lay folks within Evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention. But, we should not merely stop at reading their story. What the Petrys describe is an authoritarianism run amok. It is a leadership structure with the veneer of Biblical governance (i.e., elders), but with the practical effect of an un-Biblical corporate model that is just about as far removed from the spiritual leadership that Jesus exemplified and taught. I’m not sure some of these megachurch/CEO celebrity pastors would even understand Jesus’ words, “I have come, not to be served, but to serve and to give my life a ransom for many.”
That many within Southern Baptist and Evangelical life have bought into this Driscollian leadership style (he’s not the only one who exhibits it) is inexcusable. It is past time for our so-called leaders to publicly rebuke this nonsense and to distance themselves from it. I hold out very little hope that the elitists within the SBC will do so. Their silence will be deafening, but it will not go unnoticed. And for that, they will not be able to avoid legitimate criticism.