If you have been paying attention at all to the evangelical world in the past 24 hours or so you will probably know that the board of directors for the Acts 29 church planting network has removed Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, the church he pastors, from their network. You can read the statement made by Acts 29 here.
For some, this is a welcomed, and even long awaited, development. For others, it’s an outrage. One thing is for certain though, the blogosphere is buzzing with opinions and arguments pertaining to this “controversy.” This is evidenced by the simple fact that you are currently reading a blog post about the very topic. So, in a context in which pastors are celebrities and church controversy is becoming a spectator sport, what should we think about this situation?
In Acts 29’s letter to Driscoll and Mars Hill they say that they had “leaned on the Mars Hill Board of Advisors & Accountability to take the lead in dealing with this matter.” but that they “no longer believe the BoAA is able to execute the plan of reconciliation originally laid out.” In Mars Hill’s response to the letter, they say that no one from A29 ever contacted them about the situation and that they are “deeply saddened that the A29 board would make such a decisive and divisive conclusion without speaking directly to the board or Mark prior to their public announcement.”
So which is it? Who is being less than honest here? A29 says this, Mars Hill says that. He said, She said. And we all get to conveniently participate in the controversy from the comfort of our arm chairs even though it’s more than likely that none of us actually know the details of the situation. See, that’s the problem with this whole situation, it’s a free for all. There is no structure, no procedure, no rules or guidelines, everyone is just doing what they think is best.
All of this should cause us to ponder a better way to deal with controversies, a better way to navigate the choppy waters of conflict. Now, conflicts and controversies are not a new phenomena in the church. The Church of Christ has been dealing with controversies since the first century of it’s inception. So rather than just letting our emotional responses guide us in how we deal with controversies, we ought to follow the path set for us by our fathers in the faith that came before.
Now if there was a robust and healthy acceptance of a structured polity in the Evangelical world to which the church is submitted, then all of this could have been avoided. If Evangelicalism adopted chapter 30 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, then there would have been a precedent for presbyters (elders) to step in and check the attitudes and actions for which Driscoll is being accused. If Driscoll was submitted to the authority of the church at large (not just his church, or an administrative board that is contained within his church) then the church officers who exercise authority over him could have stepped in and done something.
But that isn’t what happened and now we are here, knee deep in controversy where everyone has essentially picked a side. So what now? Well, Chapter 31 of the WCF provides the structure for how to deal with controversies that transcend the local and even the regional church. What could (and I think should) happen is there should be a council in which both sides present their evidence and their facts and submit themselves to the oversight of the church committees. For any theological disagreements the respective sides can present and defend their exegesis.
Some might say that all of that is unrealistic, and given the lack of structure in Evangelicalism, the desire for church autonomy, and the lack of commitment to any historical confessions, I would agree. However… we Presbyterians have been doing it for centuries.
I suppose a rejoined is in order. It came to my attention that many have read the tone of this post as being “scathing” which is surprising to me because that was certainly not my intended tone. Though I do recognize that this being a particularly sensitive topic for many might influence the way in which it is read.
Now, some might say (and indeed have said) that Presbyterians are infamous for infighting and thus should not be viewed as an authority in matters of how to deal with controversy. At face value, that may be fair point and I want to be clear in saying that no one denomination or organization is going to be perfect at it. However, just because no one is perfect at dealing with controversy does not mean that we shouldn’t be proactive in ensuring that there is indeed a structure for handling controversy and conflict.
With that being said, I think Presbyterians are infamous for infighting because the way in which we fight is so clearly delineated by church order. If you look at the recent General Assemblies of the PCA you could say… “look at how un-unified they are, they have 4 huge controversies going on.” Or you could say, “look at how structured they are in the way the set up various research committees to study the issues at hand and present them to the GA for clarification and reproof.”
I think Presbyterians are known for in-fighting because we have (arguably) the most structured doctrine and are the most committed to upholding that structure. There were 4 controversies going on in the PCA simultaneously but they were handled according to a structure that is rooted in the Book of Church Order complete with trials, defenses, and exegetical examination.
Now, we cannot forget that as Protestants we were basically birthed from conflict. There was possibly no more contentious a time in the history of the Christian church than the Protestant Reformation. None of us are immune. The question isn’t if you deal with conflict, it’s how do you deal with it.
Is the way we fight going to be more akin to a boxing match in a ring with a referee, gloves, and protective headgear, or a no holds barred street brawl?