Senior pastor of Mars Hill Church, Mark Driscoll, and other church leaders responded in a joint statement Monday to recent media reports that describe the discipline within the church as "cult-like."
Reports have been emerging recently comparing the Seattle, Wash., megachurch to a despotically ruled "cult" with Driscoll as a strong-willed leader who encourages harsh punishment techniques on sinful congregants.
In the midst of the controversy is a congregant named Andrew who apparently cheated on his fiancee, engaging in sexual contact with another woman, and was consequently shunned by the congregation, as he told Christian blogger Matthew Paul Turner. Turner described the issue and published a letter in which church leaders seemingly prepared rules for shunning the unruly church member. According to the letter, Andrew was brought under church discipline on Dec. 18 and was informed of his new status.
The document included a ban on meeting Andrew in a "social setting" as well as examples of how to decline the ex-member's attempts to reach out, like: "Andrew, I would enjoy time with you but I can't because you're under church discipline. You can join me if we can talk about your refusal to listen to God and the church."
Around the same time, more reports criticizing Mars Hill and its pastor started emerging, including one from a former church elder who was reportedly fired in 2007. On Wednesday, a Christian blog, The Wartburg Watch, which has been very critical of Mars Hill and its leading pastor, published a report criticizing Driscoll for allowing discipline methods deemed by some as too harsh.
"Driscoll has lurched from controversy to controversy, acting more like a monster truck whose steering wheel has broken, crushing everything in its path," the author alleged.
Slate magazine in its report on the controversy described Driscoll as a strong-willed despot who "maintains a firm grip over his congregation" and "holds the power."
Church leaders took to telling their side of the story in a recent statement.
"We love people. Our goal in church discipline, as it should be for all churches, is to help those who've chosen to trust church leadership to speak into their lives to live the life that God intends for them according the Bible," the statement reads. We take the process seriously and endeavor to always do it in love and humility."
The statement acknowledges the strict covenant and explains it as coming out of a need to be honest and open with future congregants, as well as drawing the rules clearly because breaking the rules will result in church discipline.
The church's central leadership, which includes Driscoll, is not involved in the discipline process, as it is handled at a local level, the leaders said, adding that they are reviewing current church discipline cases "to make sure all our local leaders are operating within the spirit of love intended to be present in our existing policies."
"As with any church, we're a community of saints who are in Christ but who also still struggle with sin, and the effects of sin are sometimes evident in devastating ways," the statement reads. "In some cases, the severity of sin in a member's life, especially when it harms others physically, emotionally, or spiritually, requires the leaders of the church to step in and provide correction in a loving and grace-filled way as laid out in several places in the Bible. This is traditionally referred to as church discipline."
It is important to understand that church discipline is a "necessary and biblical" part of the Christian life, the church leaders further explain, emphasizing that church discipline is common practice among a majority of churches, and "when applied correctly results in amazing and grace-filled stories of healed lives and relationships."
"The goal is never vengeful ostracism but always loving restoration. When applied correctly, it's not a shameful process but a reconciling one designed to bring about repentance, not just confession, in a believer's life to live in a way that honors and glorifies God," church leaders said via the statement.
"The Bible is clear on the responsibility of leaders in the church to train, equip, and teach church members. Part of that responsibility requires bringing correction in grace when members are living contrary to the Scriptures in a way that is unhealthy for them, for their families, and for other members of the church," they added.
The ministers added that the leaked letter was meant for internal use among a small group of church members and was never sent to the entire congregation.
"The tragedy of this whole situation is that what was once a private and discreet matter is now on a grand stage, and those who were misinformed as to the actions of the church in this matter are now complicit in doing the very thing for which they have wrongly criticized us," Mars Hills' leaders said.