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 during 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. Unknown disagreement on these theological definitions compounded the disagreement on church polity from 2007 and created a perfect storm that, along with other factors, contributed to the closing of the 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. I have had the opportunity to become friends with many leaders and pastors from 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 realise 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 by 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.
Individual churches = individual practical theologies
What is your church's real doctrine statement?
If you are a church leader, I recommend that you set up a dedicated day or leadership retreat and put these terms on the board. As you begin this time with your team, hand out a piece of paper with the chart I've given above. Ask your team to first write out their own personal definition of each in the blank space of the first column. Then have them circle which extreme they think your church most closely resembles. Have each team member complete the evaluation anonymously.
Then document the results on a white board, tallying up each definition's votes. After you have posted all the results, lead the group through a scriptural discussion on each of the items. Allow a lot of time for open discussion on each topic. Make sure to tell the team that the point is not to convince people of your opinion, but to hear everyone's thoughts and beliefs on each issue.
It is critical that you as a leader know what your team believes on these key issues. As you begin to understand your team's views, you will begin to understand where your church body is on these same issues. We know from Luke 6:40 that a fully trained student will be like his teacher. So if your leadership (pastors, staff, teachers, ministry leaders) has a certain viewpoint, one can assume that your church body will think similarly, especially if your church has several new converts who are receiving their foundational doctrine from your team.
Closing to the Mars Hill blog series
Over the past couple of weeks, I have written a series of blogs about what I have learned through my experiences at Mars Hill. I have tried my best not to talk about any one person, but rather to focus on the things I would like to take responsibility for publicly, and also provide clarifying information to certain situations. I hope these blogs have informed a leader who doesn't want to make some of the same mistakes I made nor sin in the manner that I did. I also pray that they allow healing to people that were hurt by things that I did or did not do during my tenure at Mars Hill.
I suspect you might like me to talk directly about Pastor Mark Driscoll. So in closing, I will say something concerning him: I love him very much. There are two men from whom I have learned the most since Jesus saved me: Pastor Mark Driscoll and Pastor Joe Champion. I love both men very much and will continue to pray for them, their families, and their ministries each and every day. I am honored to have served each of them as their executive pastor. Even though full-time ministry is the hardest job I've ever been privileged to do, I choose to focus on the good times I shared with them and how these men were used by Jesus to grow me into a better man. I am very thankful that God allowed me to serve each man and his church.
Going forward, these blogs represent all that I want to address about my past experiences.
My God is good
Many people ask me the simple question, "Are you angry about all that has happened at Mars Hill?" I simply say that if I were to be angry, it would be only at one Person: the God of the Universe. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, completely good, infinitely wise, and wholly sovereign (1 Tim. 6:15, Jude 25, Rom. 8:28). So in knowing his character in the midst of these struggles, I can't be angry at him. Instead, I praise him for the blessings in my life, and praise him for allowing me to go through difficult things to become more like him (1 Peter 4:12-19). I am not a victim of anyone's actions, but a receiver of exactly what Jesus designed to happen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 2:10).
Most of my suffering at Mars Hill was self-inflicted as a result of my own sin and mistakes. By the grace of God, I hope to continue to learn from the sins that I have committed, repent of the sins that I will commit, and quickly forgive others for the sins committed against me. If you are in Christ, there are two guarantees in this world: sin (yours and others') and the grace of God. You need to decide now how you will handle both. "But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15) by Christ's grace, through the Holy Spirit's power, to the Father's glory.
Sutton Turner was formerly the executive pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. This article is also available here, and prior posts in this series covering forgiveness, repentence and their practical application can be found here. Follow him on Twitter @suttonturner.