A Review of “Question Mark: Why the Church Welcomes Bullies and How to Stop it” by Jim Henderson and Doug Murren” By Christopher Thrower
I enjoyed readiA Review of “Question Mark: Why the Church Welcomes Bullies and How to Stop it” by Jim Henderson and Doug Murren” By Christopher Thrower
I enjoyed reading this eBook by Jim Henderson and Doug Murren. It deals with the topic of abusive leadership in the church using Mars Hill, particularly the personality of Mark Driscoll, as a case study. I found both some agreement and disagreement in both the diagnosis of the problem and the proposed treatment. Overall I think this publication marks an important perspective on the matter that can and should be broadened. So here’s my take on it broken down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good Jim begins by identifying the root cause of spiritual bullying and those who enable religious abusers as spiritual pride. I think this was the right place to start, since the scriptures tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, therefore wise governance and wise membership in the church must have humility and holy reverence before God at its core and in as much as it doesn’t we will find opportunities for abuse and for those who enable abusers. When religious abusers exploit people and when church members refuse to stand up to bullies they both have a problem with fearing man more than God.
The interview with Doug Murren is eye-opening as it highlights the rise of another megachurch in this area before Mars Hill from the perspective of a self-reflective “alpha” leader. It highlights how hard it is to have a fair game when one man holds all the cards in an organization, how scary it is from the perspective of a pastor (and ought to be for the church) to be heavily “leveraged” in debt, and I thought his analysis of the dangers of a “vision-centric” top-down approach to church was spot on. Doug’s run-down later in the book of 1 Timothy 3 in evaluating leaders in our church is of course important and scripturally informed discernment exercised by Christians represents to me one of the best treatments to the problem of religious bullying described in this book.
Readers are also treated to a brief history of the celebrity preacher in America beginning with Billy Sunday, I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the book and I wish it were extended, I think it could include the pragmatism and emotionally manipulative tactics of popular revivalist Charles Finney and his “new measures”, in fact religious abuse and cult of celebrity could be traced across geography and history through to the abuses of Rome and its hierarchical structure that elevated one man above all others, the emergence of powerful and popular Bishops in the ante-nicene period of the church and of Roman primacy, all the way to Peter’s sense of superiority toward Gentile converts and his rebuke from Paul in Galatians and the emergence of “super-apostles’ that Paul writes about in his letter to the Corinthians, religious bullying and the dangers of pastoral celebrity have been a thing since day one and that’s important to note as we seek to combat it.
The Bad Jim writes disparagingly of certainty, he appears to view it as a symptom of spiritual pride and a precursor to religious bullying. He writes “Once we become “certain” we’re right, and that our beliefs are the “correct” ones we automatically resist information that challenges that certainty, which brings us back to the virus of spiritual pride. To feed our addiction to certainty we seek out leaders who will confirm our bias.”
If Jim were not certain enough that the above statement were true, he would not have taken the time to write about it, therefore it’s self-refuting to write with certainty about the danger of certainty. Rather, giving Jim the benefit of the doubt I think what he means by certainty is what the scriptures describe as “being right in one’s own eyes” aka pride. But here’s where I would differentiate the word certainty from “being right in one’s own eyes”. To be certain regarding those things which the Lord has spoken clearly on in the scriptures is not pride; it represents humility and the fear of the Lord to defer to the counsel of the church guided by the scriptures rather than our own opinions. In fact, to claim uncertainty on matters where the Lord has spoken clearly is an often veiled form of arrogance. Mark Driscoll had certainty regarding what the scriptures taught regarding church governance when he taught through 1 Timothy 3 and accurately named the qualifications for eldership and rightly called for accountability if he ever got out of control, he lost that certainty and pursued more pragmatic approaches to church governance when it became convenient for him to do so later on, the former position represents humility before God in the midst of certainty regarding the content of the scriptures, the latter represents pride in one’s own opinion with no deference to the church guided by the scriptures.
More concerning than anything else written in this book is what Jim has to say about the importance (or lack thereof) of a working theory of the atonement in the Christian life, he writes of penal substitutionary atonement: “This theory originated with Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and other reformers from the 16th century, but was never mentioned prior to that time. “However, as theologian J.I. Packer observes, the stark absence of this view in the early church fathers should not come as a surprise since it is a 16th century medieval interpretation.” The quotation cited by Jim is from a short blog post by an Eastern Orthodox author, what is cited does not actually quote or even accurately summarize J.I. Packer’s words (taken from his essay on the Logic of Penal Substitutionary Atonement http://www.the-highway.com/cross_Pack... ) and even the few sentences taken out of context that the Eastern Orthodox author does quote (which Jim left out of his book) make it appear that J.I. Packer believes that penal substitutionary atonement is not the teaching of the apostles found in scripture, preserved in the teachings and tradition of the church, and expounded upon in greater depth by the Reformers, the very thing that J.I. Packer wrote his lengthy essay to confirm. This represents an alarming misrepresentation not only of a brother in the faith but of sound doctrine.
Jim writes, “The reason there have been five theories on the Atonement is that while theologians across millennia agree that the death of Jesus is critical to our faith, they’ve never been able to agree on why it is important. For example, none of the classic Christian creeds define how the atonement was provided through Christ’s death on the cross…to further complicate things, since what we believe about the atonement theory is so central to our identity as Christians we’ve effectively become a people of beliefs instead of practices, meaning what you believe about the Atonement turns out to be more important than how that belief is translated into your life. Believe the theory, pray the prayer, and you’re going to heaven regardless of whether you’re a misogynist, a bigot, or a glutton. We’ve learned to put our faith in a proposition rather than a person or more accurately the person of Jesus.”
The most obvious problem with what Jim is saying is that the proposition under discussion here is a proposition about the person of Jesus, the proposition is perhaps best stated as “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says and in Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
The point is well taken that we should put our faith in the person of Christ rather than in a proposition, but when the proposition is about who Christ is and what he has accomplished on our behalf, to believe in the truth of that proposition is to put one’s faith in the person of Christ. If I claim to believe in Christ but I don’t know a thing about who he is or what he did for me which ought to command my trust, then can it really be said that I believe in Christ?
Every believer needs to have a working theory of the atonement, some idea of why it matters to them that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and rose from the dead and not every theory will be equally valid. For example, if I were to believe that Jesus died on the cross only to make salvation possible for me and that in order to receive salvation I need to earn it by acting obediently and doing good works or if I believe that Jesus lived and died merely as an example of obedience to God that we ought to imitate, that theory completely changes the import of the cross and makes it a laborious matter of good advice instead of a joyful announcement of good news.
Sadly, this appears to be Jim’s trajectory when he attempts to shift the central focus of the Christian life from beliefs to acts and from a focus on the Atonement of Christ to the Incarnation of Christ.
He writes, “We think we’re seeing the center of the church’s theological map shift from The Atonement to something more biblical: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the historical act of God becoming the one thing He had never been before—a human being…unlike the Atonement there are no competing theories about the Incarnation… Jesus the savior needs to be subsumed by Jesus the servant. The meaning of the death of Jesus is mysterious because God wants us to put our trust in Him, not in a proposition. The incarnation forces us to do something to become better human beings. It requires us to lose our life every day in little ordinary acts of love so we can discover and find life.”
Of course there are in fact competing theories of the incarnation, the council of Chalcedon dealt with many of these competing theories and established the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s humanity, but many errors concerning the nature of Christ in his incarnation persist today even among popular teachers and they do matter because the ideas themselves have consequences on how we think about Jesus and act in response. For example, if I embraced the heresy of Modalism as popular teacher T.D. Jakes does, I cannot truly view Christ’s incarnation as demonstrating what it looks like for me as a Christian to walk faithfully in obedience to God the Father, since in Modalism the Son is merely God revealing a different facet of his being rather than one distinct person acting in relationship to another distinct person united in one divine substance.
I am in agreement with Jim that good works and love need to attend the faithful Christian, but I think he errs gravely in divorcing a working theory of the atonement from a theory of the incarnation. After all, if we don’t understand why Christ died and what if anything it accomplished, then how will we understand the meaning of why the son of God came and lived among us in the first place?
The Ugly It’s worth mentioning that the one place I felt that Doug Murren really lets his readers down was in his shoddy exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 wherein he completely dismisses Paul’s argument from creation that women are not to teach in the church by introducing a plausible scenario wherein there was one particular woman in Ephesus who was stirring up trouble and so what is written in that passage does not apply to modern day readers, despite the fact that Paul mentions nothing of this plausible scenario and instead appeals to the creation of Adam and Eve as distinctly male and female to support what he is saying about the role of women in the church.
Doug then points perfunctorily to Galatians 3:28 where Paul writes that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and uses this as a proof text for affirming women in all levels of leadership in the church. Rather than recognizing Paul’s point that in regard to salvation none of us is any more or less fit or distinguishable from the other, but that through Christ we are all heirs of the promises given to Abraham regardless of our station in life, he applies this statement awkwardly and inappropriately to the matter of distinction between roles and callings in the church, even though the same Paul who wrote this also wrote of the qualifications (ie distinctions) required of elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and clearly distinguishes between the roles of men and women and of different callings and giftings in other places like 1 Corinthians 14. This all belongs in the category of ugly, because its just plain ugly exegesis.
Jim writes, “Driscoll’s attachment to the Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: “John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg for forgiveness Mars Hill is not 16th-century Geneva, but Driscoll has little patience for dissent.”
This belongs in the category of ugly because it’s an ad hominem attack on John Calvin laden with chronological snobbery (it ignores that Calvin did nothing unusual or socially unacceptable by 16th century standards, the burning of the heretic Servetus for example was done at the hands of the Geneva city council, not Calvin in particular, and was an entirely ecumenical act that both Rome and Geneva could agree on) and the Protestant Reformed tradition as a whole in which, guilty by way of association with Mark Driscoll, the whole thing is to be thrown out. Mark Driscoll held to a loosely reformed soteriology (doctrine of salvation) but it is important to note that Driscoll has demonstrated extreme contempt for reformed ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) in the way that he governed and behaved at Mars Hill especially from 2007 on, though the seeds of his political coup were already clearly there. It was the Protestant Reformers who stood up to the religious bullying and celebrity cultism of the Pope and it is reformed ecclesiology which taught that the church in its practice and teaching must hold the scriptures as its highest authority rather than itself and its office holders.
As Calvin himself aptly wrote, “Nothing therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent. As to the question, how shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.”
The Reformed doctrine of sola Scripture which is summarized above is the ultimate guardian against tyrants in the church. When Christians pickup and read the Bible for themselves they access the same inspired word of God that their pastors and countless other Christian teachers and disciples have been taught by throughout the centuries and the Holy Spirit works in the heart and mind of believers to illuminate, guide, and correct through the reading of scripture.
Since, in the Reformed tradition, scripture is the ultimate and final authority for matters of faith and practice, no one man or group of men may be given primacy in judging the scriptures and each must be held accountable by others through appeals to the inherent authority which the inspired scriptures as the word of God command. Rule by council of elders rather than by a singular man was re-established in the Reformed tradition as the biblical model.
While Mark Driscoll gave lip service to the ecclesiastical model of elder rule, in practice he completely undermined sola scriptura and subsequently reformed ecclesiology as a whole with his emphasis on charismatic revelations. From the beginning, Mark claimed that God had spoken directly to him in a special way and it was on this basis rather than the word of God that he established his authority. The root of Mark Driscoll’s authoritarianism was not the Reformed tradition as Jim suspects, but rather the charismatic revelations that Driscoll claimed uniquely for himself which made him the equivalent of God’s mouthpiece from the beginning and ensured that no one could question him because no one had received the direct revelation that he had received.
Therefore, when Jim eschews the Reformed tradition, he robs his readers of the most powerful tools available for fighting religious tyranny, the doctrine of sola scripture and the ecclesiastical model of rule by council that it establishes.
In conclusion, I can certainly commend this book as worthwhile look at the problem of religious bullying in the church particularly with regard to Mark Driscoll and his history with the now defunct Mars Hill Church. But by and large, I would suggest some revisions to Jim and Doug’s ideas about what fundamentally went wrong and I would put forth an embrace of the robustness of the Reformed tradition both in its soteriology and especially its ecclesiology as the antidote to religious bullying.
The problem with modern evangelical protestants is that most of us don’t know why we’re protestant (or evangelical for that matter) and have not learned the lessons that the history of the protestant reformation ought to have taught us, we have each adopted our own mini-popes and submitted to their tyranny, we’ve turned the good news into good advice and embraced a new system of penance, and we have handed the word of God back to the clergy and asked them to interpret it for us. What we need is further reformation according to the scriptures, rather than a rejection of the reformation and a return to the dark ages. Let us recognize these faults of ours that led many of us to subject ourselves for so long to religious tyrants like Mark Driscoll and lets us hope, pray, and actively seek for reformation in our local churches.
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You know, like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?...more