Anne Graham Lotz on Mars Hill: 'It might have been better if they'd had millstones tied round their necks and been thrown into the sea'

Anne Graham Lotz

The Mars Hill debacle shows the danger of an unbiblical view of ministry, Billy Graham's daughter told Christian Today.

Speaking about her new book Wounded by God's People, Anne Graham Lotz reflected on the fallout from the controversies at Mars Hill church in Seattle. Previously led by Mark Driscoll, the church imploded after a string of revelations about authoritarian leadership and coercive behaviour. Referring to Jesus' words in Matthew 18:6 about those who led children astray, she said: "The leadership that has done that, I almost feel that it's better that a millstone was tied around their neck and then thrown into the sea than it is to face a holy God when you have damaged his people like that."

However, she said: "I know the way back is through the cross, I know you forgive those who've damaged and hurt you, I know that you repent of your own sin, I know you pray and ask for a fresh outpouring of God's Holy Spirit. That's happened in other big church families in America. It's probably happened [in the UK], it's just that we seem to do things bigger, so when fall we fall harder. It's very painful for a church family."

Lotz said one of the dangers was giving pastors an elevated status. "Maybe we've had our focus on the wrong thing. We've turned our pastors and leaders into celebrities. We've turned them into more than what they were ever intended to be." Referring to Peter's teaching in 1 Peter 2:25 and 5:2-4, she said: "They're to be shepherds, they're under-shepherds. Peter said, don't ever forget, shepherds, that you're also a sheep. And somehow we've gotten it backwards."

She added that congregations bore some responsibility for the behaviour of their ministers. She referred to Jesus' words in Revelation 2 when he spoke of a 'Jezebel' in the church at Thyatira leading them astray: "They weren't necessarily doing what she was doing, but they they allowed her to be in the congregation, so he was holding them accountable for who they allowed to be their leader. So I think God holds us accountable to a degree to think for ourselves, to pray for ourselves, to study the scriptures for ourselves. Then we know what the plumb line is, so we hold it up and if the leadership's getting out of focus we can pray for them and encourage them. And when they fall then it hurts, but it shouldn't damage our relationship with God, because we know who God is."

She added: "It's very important for believers to develop a relationship with God that's independent of a spouse or of a church, because if you get stripped of those things, then it would damage your relationship with God. But if you independently have built a strong, one-on-one relationship with God, then those hard things just strengthen it because God is there for you."

He book is based on the story of Hagar, who was the maidservant of Sarah and bore Ishmael to Abraham – a biblical example of someone who was "wounded by God's people". It draws on her own experiences and that of others to show how Christians can learn to deal with what happens when they are hurt by other Christians.

However, she said: "I don't want to trash the Church. This is about how you can be healed; it's a journey. If I get over this wound, I'm going to be wounded again by somebody else in a different way and you have to start the journey again; so it's a lifelong journey that you keep taking."

She explained: "Churches should be a safe place. That's what makes the wounding so devastating. Hagar was in Abraham's family for 10 years and I would expect she'd come to love Abraham and Sarah and trust them, and to believe in their God. When they turned on her like they did that hurts even more, and makes the wound worse."

Writing the book, she said, had opened old wounds of her own.

"As I began to write God would bring things to my mind, things I hadn't remembered, wounds I had forgotten. One was when I was in school and the leadership of the boarding school accused me of being a homosexual or of having homosexual tendencies. I did not even know what that was, but I knew it wasn't good by the way they said it – and things like that I had forgotten, but they just came back – and the hard thing was to relive those wounds, but not allowing the bitterness or the anger to come back in, to just let God's grace wash though and learn from it so I could help other people when they are wounded."

Lotz spoke of the need for those who have been wronged to forgive those who have wronged them and avoid clinging to bitter feelings. Forgiveness, she said, was "a choice, not a feeling. The reason is because God says so. It's not because they deserve it; it's an act of worship. The only reason I would forgive this person is because God says so and because Jesus has forgiven me, so because I love Jesus I forgive someone else."

Refusing to forgive because it would somehow mean that the other person had 'got away with it' was "like drinking the poison hoping the other person will die. So to refuse to forgive, to hang on to bitterness, resentment, anger, because you think that if you release it they'll will get [away] with what they did: that's killing yourself, it doesn't hurt them.

"So we release that for our own selves if nothing else, for our own moral, spiritual and emotional health. But God says, vengeance is mine, I will repay. God will deal with that person. He is a just God, a loving God, and he has mercy, but there are people in my life who have hurt me and wounded me so deeply, and I'll let it go, because in the end God sees and in the end he will sort it out."

However, she added: "There's a difference between offering forgiveness and reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two people. You can't reconcile with someone unless the other person is willing.

"There are relationships I have that are not reconciled, but I believe I have forgiven everyone I know that has wounded me.

"I live my life for God's pleasure. The worse the wound, the harder it is to forgive, but the greater the act of worship."

She spoke of the importance of building healthy relationships in churches, saying: "We have to be good forgivers. We can't allow ourselves to be easily hurt. Some people are just very easily offended. You just look at the them the wrong way and they've read into it and they're offended.

"It's like a family. I have two brothers and two sisters. I can tell you we did a lot of fighting. But there's a lot of give and take. We love each other and I don't expect them to be like me and they don't expect me to be like them. It's the same thing in a church family. We have to expect that other people can be different and have different gifts, we can't press everybody into our mould."

She concluded that writing the book had been a "humbling journey". "The wounds are there and that's for sure, but I've also been a wounder. So I'm very sorry, and I'm sorry when the people I've wounded ... hang on to the bitternerness and the unforgiveness.

"But that's what God did. He sent Jesus to forgive us and he says, I'll forgive you, and we say, sorry, we're not interested. So you really enter into the fellowship of his sufferings, just the pain of wanting to be reconciled with someone that you love and they refuse to be reconciled."

Anne Graham Lotz is the author of several books including The Magnificent Obsession, My Heart's Cry and I Saw the Lord. The New York Times named her as one of the five most influential evangelists of her generation.

Wounded by God's People is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £13.99.