GUEST POST: On Faith, Perfection, and Control (why Andrew’s story matters to me)


Over the last couple of days, I have followed – with something more than dispassionate interest – the conversations happening on this blog and around the blogosphere about the way Mars Hill handles church discipline and the ways that people find many of their actions indistinguishable from a cult. I’ve read story after story after story, in blog comments, on other blogs, and in e-mails, that all share a common refrain: this is my story, too. Every one of them breaks my heart. But the story Matthew recounted here means more to me than all the rest. Andrew is my brother. He first started going to Mark Driscoll’s church on my recommendation, years ago when I was first stepping outside of the fundamentalism we had grown up in and trying to find out what my faith would look like. I was attracted to Driscoll’s style that so closely resembled the preachers I heard growing up, only with more of an edge and more cussing, and it took several years for me to realize how small of a step I had taken outside of the fundamentalism of my childhood. Walking with Andrew through this now, I am haunted by the fact that, less than ten years ago, I almost certainly would have followed the pastors demands and broken off all contact with anyone they deemed unrepentant or unworthy of grace and love, with no questions asked.

That is why I decided to write this. – Stephen

One reason I am no longer a Fundamentalist – and I use the term here in its popular and not historical understanding – is because it came easy to me. It allowed me to follow what I see now as my basest instincts. The prioritizing of abstract principles and alleged or imagined biblical truths over the complexities of real life was an easy path for me to take. One reason I count Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, as one of my favorite films, one I’m constantly recommending, is because I see a part of myself in the character played by Bettany, someone more interested in hypothetical situations and ideas than in how they affect the real flesh-and-blood people surrounding him, with the tragic consequences playing out on the stage over the three hours von Trier takes to tell the story.

It is one of my biggest regrets today, when I look back at the years I was a fundamentalist, that when my mother was struggling with the idea of divorce from my father – an action she had been counseled to take by multiple sources for legal purposes, partly so that his inevitable future financial troubles would not destroy the new life she was trying to piece together – that I was for a long time strongly opposed to it, because, I was sure, “the Bible is clear.” It didn’t matter that this course of action was only considered after God, my father said, had told him to kill her and us kids, or that a judge had already issued a permanent restraining order. The Bible was still clear. Sin was still sin. Divorce was wrong.

I was, it should be noted, being faithful to the ideas I had learned growing up in church, convinced that principles are always more important than people, that everything is always black and white, ambiguity be damned.

This demand for perfection, as I see it, ties into how one approaches the issue of church discipline, which almost inevitably is tied into the ways a church or pastor tries to establish complete control over their followers. In this thinking, with this fetish for being perfect, or at least pretending you are perfect, the worst one can do is deviate from the accepted practices of their community. And even if the offender decides to once again confirm, they will continue to be considered anathema if they do not jump through each and every hoop invented purely for the sake of making it clear who is in control and the dark consequences of admitting any further deviation.

Pervert is a verb,” David Dark writes in The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, in what I see as a caution against the easy dividing of people into groups we can talk to and those we should shun, as church discipline often demands, groups of those who are on the inside and those who are on the outside. “To pervert is to degrade, to cut down to size – and we do it to people in our minds. We devalue them. [But] the reductionism implicit in perversion doesn’t ultimately work. It doesn’t do justice to the fullness of what we are… Like the God in whose image people are made, people are irreducible. There’s always more to a person – more stories, more life, more complexities – than we know. The human person, when viewed properly, is unfathomable, incalculable, and dear. Perversion always says otherwise. Perversion is a way of managing, getting down to business, getting a handle on people as if they were things. A person reduced to a thing has been, in the mind of the perverter, dispensed with, taken care of, filed away. Perversion is pigeonholing.”

When we start to think about how a church treats their members who, either perceived or in fact, step outside of the prescribed rules, it is worth moving past the way Paul wrote about church discipline to see how the church fathers wrote about it. Including the idea, expressed in one form or another by men like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), that since everything you do either improves or worsens the state of your soul, if there is an unrepentant sinner in your midst who continues to do worse things, you should kill them to save their soul later on. Even acknowledging that Aquinas would have given greater nuance to that argument, it still remains that this kind of thinking is out there, though my guess is that these days you are more likely to hear someone say they’ll pray for the death of someone they think is an unrepentant sinner than try to kill the offender themselves. I’m reminded of a childhood friend breaking down around a campfire one summer at church camp, sobbing that God had killed his brother in a car accident earlier that year, having lost the emotional detachment his parents always exhibited when telling their friends at church that they were glad God had taken their boy, death being a fate better than the path he had started down.

In his 1964 book Beyond Fundamentalism, Daniel B. Stevick outlines the ways he thinks that we should address differences with an argument that I think should be extended to the way we first approach those who we think are not living up to certain standards, one that comes closer to fulfilling what Christ said was one of the greatest commandments, that of loving your neighbor, than other perverse methods do. “An outlook that recognizes the legitimacy of differences can only work through Christian charity,” he writes. “People enter Christian life with different backgrounds and capacities, and they progress at different rates in different callings. Yet all are brothers in Christ – the point of their union is beyond common background, common interests, and common behavior. So in Christ, forbearance, patience, and understanding are called for. Love has precedence over knowledge as a basis for action.” (emphasis added)

Did you catch that last sentence? I don’t think it can be said loudly or often enough, so here it is again: Love has precedence over knowledge as a basis for action.

****

A fresh reminder of how I viewed the Christian life as a child came last week when I read Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father’s Faith, by Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. In the essay Faith of Our Fathers, Balmer writes about a conversation he had with a friend where they parsed the image of God they had as children.

This was a God who demanded perfection. If we hoped to gain entry into heaven, we had better toe the line, otherwise we could expect utter abandonment, consignment to hell. This God of our projections was not a God who gave us permission to embrace life in all of its ambiguity and complexity, let alone to embrace ourselves in all of our ambiguity and complexity. This, in fact, was a God who refused to recognize ambiguity altogether, who forced us to see the world in dualistic categories – good and bad, black and white, right and wrong – with no allowance whatsoever for anything in between. This God, just like the evangelicals who invented him, viewed the Christian life as a steady ascent toward holiness. Once you had been born again, once you had “prayed the prayer,” you could expect to move onward and upward in your faith, and if that trajectory didn’t hold, if you falter along the way, well, you were doing something wrong.

I remember, not long after I first started reading the work of Frederick Buechner (he quickly became my favorite author), coming across the way he talks about faith, a way of thinking that stood in stark contrast to my childhood conception. “Faith is homesickness,” he wrote. “Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” Buechner elsewhere describes a Christian as “one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank”.

Maybe there is something to that. Maybe grace is more than an abstract idea, more than something to consider only after every i is dotted and every t is crossed. Randall Balmer articulates this in his own way with the conclusion of his essay.

“I have come to see the Christian life no longer as a steep and steady ascent toward holiness but as a tortuous journey full of twists and turns and switchbacks and perhaps a rockslide or two along the way.

But in the course of that journey I feel the embrace of a God who accepts me as I am in all of my humanity, who loves me unconditionally, in spite of my shortcomings. It is a pilgrimage of joy and sadness, of loving and suffering, triumph and tragedy, but it culminates in sweet union with Jesus, who somehow takes our sad and broken lives and makes us whole. That’s the gospel, I think. That sounds like good news to me.”

 


Comments

  1. Juliakate says

    My brother stayed after I left… It was even more hurtful than the actually shunning. He secretly disagreed with how I was handled/treated but remained. He was dating the pastor’s daughter and they soon married. Eventually they left and were also shunned. This left the door wide open for our restoration & healing. Different congregation, same spirit. Thank you for sharing your story as the brother.

  2. Gina says

    Love this post, Stephen. I am glad for it, for your awakening and that you are now there to help your brother Andrew during this time in his journey.

  3. says

    Thank you for this articulate, reasoned, loving response to all that has been smeared across the blog the last few days on this topic. The polarized response to MPT’s bombshell has been sad and hard to read. Yours is a loving word – in support of the intricacies of faith, the role of doubt and struggle and the need for grace above all. This editorial calms the waters a bit, makes us think about our reactive responses and encourages intellectual honesty. While I do believe scripture calls us to walk beside those who have confessed a struggle with sin of any kind AND to require them to do the hard inner work that might help them unravel the always complex reasons for their behavior, I most definitely do not support public humiliation, rigid conformity, downright shunning. This was an instance of confession FIRST, not obstinate denial of sin and continuation in it. The church leadership took it upon themselves to redefine Andrew’s sin as rebellion against their authority rather than honest disagreement about tactics/scriptural interpretation. I am glad to know that he is in counseling, both to recover from this very ugly episode with the MH church but hopefully, to also dig deep into the reasons for the self-destrucive (and hurtful to others) behavior that began this whole thing. While I think the church has handled this entire situation in a scarily bad way, I also believe that Andrew has more work to do. Just not with those people! There are so many loving ways that church leadership could have chosen to walk with him in this process. Instead, they opted to make themselves judge and jury – and misused scripture to do it. I pray that your thoughtful, prayerful response here is emblematic of your relationship with your brother and that you, and other wise people who love him, can step into the gracious, redemptive role the church leadership should have played. Blessings to you both as you continue to seek God’s wisdom and grace.

    • Jordan Bradford says

      Indeed! Matthew 18:15-17 is about telling a brother or sister that they’re sinning and what to do if they refuse to repent. It’s about initiating correction in another person who is either ignorant or willfully disobedient. Andrew confessed on his own — HE initiated it, HE took the first step by confessing to his fiancée and to a friend in his small group. Matthew 18:15-17 doesn’t even apply in that situation, so there was no need for church discipline.

  4. Esther says

    Stephen thank you for sharing. As I am now even more convinced that we somewhat “Grew up” together, it burdens my heart that you, Andrew, and your family has burdened so much pain. Thank you so much for your post and I will be praying for yours and Andrew’s healing.

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing Stephen. Same to you MPT for the rest of the story. I hope that some of the friends that Andrew developed over the past years will side with him on this journey he’s on.

  6. says

    Stephen, even though our church circumstances were different, I understand greatly about what control can do to your understanding of Christ and His love. My heart goes out to you and all of those that have to experience this. Thank you for sharing.

  7. kisekileia says

    Beautiful post. Thank you. People always come before principles. Principles exist to serve and help people, not the other way around. People are ends in themselves, not means to achieve principles. I’m glad Andrew has a brother like you.

  8. JD says

    Great post Stephen. Being the one who told you years ago to watch Dogville I feel I had a little part in it. ( or maybe it was you who told me about Dogville, I can’t remember).

  9. says

    Thank you for this, Stephen. Your words are both honest and poignant. (Plus, you used my favorite David Dark quote and quoted Buechner). I sincerely believe that things like this only have power when shrouded in darkness, and Andrew, Matthew, and you have brought it into the light.

  10. Anita says

    Beautiful post. Thank you!
    ““Faith is homesickness,” he wrote. “Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” Buechner

    And in that faith, that homesickness, that waiting, that hunch……He meets us. That is glory! (Not our climbing works)

    Thank you for your post.

  11. says

    This is for Matthew: Have you made any attempts to get hold of Mars Hill’s leadership to get their explanation or tell their side? I’d imagine they wouldn’t comment, but there’s a chance they might. I’m a big believer in fairness, and in the “trust but verify” policy.
    Just curious.

  12. says

    Love always trumps dogma. Always.
    It is beautiful to see a brother championing another brother. Life will move on. People will be attracted to another story. But the relationship that the two of you have is permanent. It really matters.

    The good news is never bad news.

    And to see this kind of freedom in action after what seems like abject bondage? Beautiful. Thanks for the good tears.

    If I can ever help in any way, do not hesitate to contact me.

  13. says

    I have rarely been so touched as I was in reading this beautifully written and loving analysis of such a truly tragic situation. I think it also illustrates that the hurt that one person experiences at the hands of a controlling leadership doesn’t only affect one person, but rather affects families, extended families, friends, and loved ones. The emotional wreckage left behind in this situation reverberates throughout the body of Christ, but also leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those outside the Body of Christ as they watch us feed on our own. Love is the only real vaccine that will heal hearts, and it while it should have been employed at the outset, thank you, Stephen, for reminding us all that love must win if we are to be light in a dark world.

  14. Sonya Harris says

    I’ve agreed with the submission aspect of church… If I have seen TRUE LOVE. Then I do it with Peace and Pride…But If It is a Human ‘Conditional’ Version, it is MORE that Natural and Right to reject it!

    Everyone submits for a while…but to continue to do it GENUINE LOVE/ VALUE HAS TO BE SHOWN.
    If it is not, then this ‘submission’ is nothing more than Slavery or Bondage.
    For your brother Andrew, to reject the Bondage that was intended to be inflicted on him,
    Is the perfect example of a ‘ pure Christ like RESPONSE ‘
    and totally authentic; rather then what those Leaders ‘Claimed’ to demonstrate.
    .
    I won’t pretend to know how hard this has affected your family, or cheapen your post w/ my own personal stories of hurt and woe from members/Leaders of the church. BUT I will say, Church is not a bad idea, but when people are finally ready to follow Jesus
    and NOT A culture…
    or Man …
    or friend…
    I think the change in God’s House is going to stand out, and will be a city on a hill.

  15. says

    I was raised in the Jehovah’s Witness religion, but I – along with my wife and our two children – left the it back in 2008.
    We were immediately cut off from everyone we’d ever known. My sister-in-law, and her family, have nothing to do with my wife (her sister). Family members literally walk past us on the street.

    This is done out of obedience to the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who set the doctrines and policies of the religion.

    After I left the Witnesses I was recommended Mark Driscoll because of his “faithful Bible teachings”, and it appealed to me for a while.

    Then I had my second awakening, this time to fundamental religion, and my eyes are open to spiritual abuse, of which I was very much a victim.

    I detest religion and the appealing to ancient books to control peoples’ lives.

    Freedom….it only comes when you’re prepared to open your mind and abandon fear of a deity.

    • says

      Here’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to do with family members who’ve left the religion:
      “Consider just one example of the good that can come when a family loyally upholds Jehovah’s decree not to associate with disfellowshipped relatives. A young man had been disfellowshipped for over ten years, during which time his father, mother, and four brothers “quit mixing in company” with him. At times, he tried to involve himself in their activities, but to their credit, each member of the family was steadfast in not having any contact with him.

      After he was reinstated, he said that he always missed the association with his family, especially at night when he was alone. But, he admitted, had the family associated with him even a little, that small dose would have satisfied him.

      However, because he did not receive even the slightest communication from any of his family, the burning desire to be with them became one motivating factor in his restoring his relationship with Jehovah. Think of that if you are ever tempted to violate God’s command not to associate with your disfellowshipped relatives.”

  16. John says

    I am sympathetic to Mathew and your reaction is understandable. I also respect people like yourself who are willing to step out and be heard and to defend a brother. I would only caution you on how you do it. I won’t offer suggestions, just that you consider the dissension and collateral damage that is increasing among brothers and sisters. There is a forum for this, but this should stay within the walls of our “home” and not be fodder for non believers.

      • A.E. Forest says

        It already is fodder. When believers go in hopeful and excited, and come out beaten down and damaged, the evidence is there. It can only be compounded by us not speaking up. Perhaps it should stay with the walls of our “home”, but many of us have been made homeless. I appreciate your desire to control fall-out and to protect and honor the church. I’ve felt it strongly, too. It’s why I didn’t tell my story for two years. Not to anyone in the church or outside, except for my counselor and my parents. I thought I was alone. I didn’t want to turn people away from the gospel or confuse new Christians. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I really thought what happened to me was an aberration. The thing is, Christians are the church. We each say something about the gospel, whether by our presence or our absence. We each say something about the gospel and the church, and when we are the isolated, walking wounded, that says something that comes through loud and clear. People are getting the message, wther we speak or not. In light of that, we must speak up. We must stand up and tell the truth about a gospel of love that refuses to do nothing when people are being attacked and abused. If we do nothing and say nothing, we nearing the perpetrators in culpability and helping establish a gospel that damages rather than heals. People who aren’t Christians know that these things happen, and they need to know that we stand up against it. The victims need to know that the message that they are outcasts and alone is a lie, and that we will do uncomfortable and difficult, even dangerous-feeling and embarrassing things, to stop abuse. If we believe the gospel and that we have benefitted from grace and forgiveness, we can do nothing less.

        • Margaret C says

          A.E. As I do most things backward, I wrote my reply to John, and then read your reply. I think we pretty much said the same thing. You just wrote with passion and emotion which I think deals with it more honestly than I do in my calculated reply. Thanks for telling your story. I have heard it said that one of evil’s biggest lies is “you are the only one”. I don’t know of any bad behavior on my part that didn’t come with that lie. Once the door is open, tho, the lie is exposed for what it is, a lie.

    • Margaret C says

      [Dang, I just lost about 5 minutes of typing. I hate when that happens. Oh well, maybe it is a reminder not to take myself too seriously.]
      John, in this age of the internet, I have no idea how you think this discussion can be contained within our “home”.

      I think the bigger issue is that I be careful not to judge anyone. That is not the same as calling out abuse, not to judge it but to help bring it to an end. Would I keep silent about physical abuse in the Body ? [Ask Penn State just how well that works out in the long run.] Why would I do that with emotional and mental abuse?
      I suggest we can talk about it in a way that is constructive not destructive. Since Mars Hill is an “independent” church, the church at large doesnt’ have much choice but to talk about the apparent wrongs.

      One way I see to use it for G–‘s glory is to express and demonstrate that G– is not the same as the G– seemingly expressed by the Church and I mean the whole Body, myself included. S/H is greater than anything we can ask or imagine. That, I as a Christian, cannot nor will not speak for G–. I can only tell my story of the impact of G– on my life.

      For a year after “Sept 11″, 9-11 kept coming to mind. After about a year, I felt like I knew what I was to take from it: Psalm 9 v 11: Sing praises to the LORD enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what [s/h] has done. ” NIV
      No one can argue with my experiences. And that is the good news I have to share, despite the behavior of my brothers and sisters.

  17. Tony Meman says

    There’s a few contradictions here:
    “God, my father said, had told him to kill her and us kids”

    “Love has precedence over knowledge as a basis for action.”

    The father was acting out of love. If you sincerely believe in an eternal afterlife, there could be no more loving act then to kill your children to make certain they end up in heaven instead of hell. To contradict that you must challenge his knowledge somehow.

    In other cases, there are plenty of examples of people who do kill their children indirectly when their love is untempered by knowledge. The ridiculous anti-vaccer crowd, for example, who kill their children with diseases out of an excess of love and a deficit of knowledge.

    “To pervert is to degrade, to cut down to size – and we do it to people in our minds. We devalue them. [But] the reductionism implicit in perversion doesn’t ultimately work. It doesn’t do justice to the fullness of what we are”

    “An outlook that recognizes the legitimacy of differences can only work through Christian charity,”

    Because anyone who isn’t Christian can’t possibly be tolerant, right? Come on. You try to speak against perversion, and isolating people into groups, but you’re perfectly happy to place yourself in an in-group and pervert everyone who’s outside that group. Heck, the statement contradicts /itself/ by saying the Christianity can’t accept the legitimacy of any view outside of itself. Haven’t stepped very far from your fundamentalist roots, indeed.

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