Editor's Note: Sutton Turner was the executive pastor and an executive elder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He spent several years in the business world, working in Texas and the Middle East before God called him to serve at Mars Hill. Turner oversaw the church's central operations and business functions, including finance, property, media and communications, and technology. He trained and mentored the executive pastors and deacons across all Mars Hill Church locations.
A theology of forgiveness and repentance is put to the test when we have been sinned against. (Prior posts in this series covered the biblical definitions of forgiveness and repentance as well as lessons for their practical application.) In trying to obey, we are challenged with when and how to forgive. Do we forgive unconditionally, even when it seems the one who sinned against us hasn't yet repented? Do we forgive only once we have begun to see the fruit of repentance? These questions came to a head and were at the crucial center of the last days of Mars Hill Church, and many leaders strongly disagreed on the answers. This post explores how varied our answers to these questions can be, even according to the Scriptures.
As a leader and pastor of a church, you need to understand what type of culture exists in your church leadership. And though it may seem that all should agree on the essential natures of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, slight differences during the good times turn into massive chasms when crisis comes.
SPLITTING HAIRS INSTEAD OF SPLITTING CHURCHES
At Mars Hill, the definitions of important theological terms like sin, repentance, and forgiveness were a critical area where I think our church leadership was split. Unity of leadership is impossible when leaders use these terms yet actually disagree with their definitions. Unknown disagreement on these theological definitions compounded the disagreement on church polity from 2007 and created a perfect storm that, with other factors, contributed to the closing of Mars Hill Church.
Since becoming a Christian, God has graced me to be a part of many different types of churches: a large church experience in Texas, two small churches in the Middle East, and then most recently, Mars Hill Church. I have had an opportunity to become friends with many leaders and pastors from all different perspectives. I have seen some very different theological understandings of sin, grace, forgiveness, repentance, identity, and reconciliation. Unfortunately, most pastors don't discover there is disagreement on these theological pillars until there is a crisis in the leadership or church body. This post will hopefully start the conversation among your church leadership. It is critical that your team comes to an understanding of and agreement on these pillars before you have a crisis. You need to determine what repentance and reconciliation looks like practically for your church. I am by no means attempting to say what is right or what is wrong. I simply want to raise this issue because, as I mentioned, this is one of the major areas where the Mars Hill Church leadership was split.
OPPOSITE ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM
For example, churches approach the doctrine of forgiveness differently. One church believes that there must be signs or fruits of repentance before one brother can forgive another. So repentance and reconciliation are directly connected. This church believes repentance must be done in a very public way. Another church will hold that forgiveness should be given freely and we should forgive, even when we personally have not seen fruits of repentance. Steps in reconciliation are not specified, and things are handled privately.
Another good example is sin. One church will have a very specific list of wrongdoings that comprise their definition of sin. However, another church will say that anything that is "unloving" is a sin. Because of these two differences, you can quickly see that one church might say a leader has sinned while another church will say he made mistakes that were not sin.
What about the definition of identity? One church will focus on their identity in the righteousness of Christ and the grace of God. This church will avoid talking about sin, suffering, and other attributes of being a son of Adam. However, another church will focus on our sin and the total depravity of man. Their focus on sin and their pre-Christ state dominate their active definition of identity.
Of course, I am over-simplifying these differences and realize that most churches lie somewhere in between the extremes. However, you need to know where your church and its leadership stands on these very important theological concepts.
You might respond to this saying, "Our church has a doctrinal statement on our website that I wrote when I planted the church and it clearly communicates each of these definitions." Then do me a favor, ask your top level leaders these questions and test your doctrinal statement in the beliefs or opinions of your leaders. New people joining your church will listen to your leaders, not refer back to your website's doctrinal statement.
Your leadership team will fracture if there are differences of opinion on the practical outworking of sin, grace, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in your church. I certainly believe there are beautiful, healthy churches holding each of these theological convictions. However, when opposing convictions are present in the same church leadership, it will eventually split the leadership especially amidst crisis.