A guest post by Van Rue in the Seattle, Washington area that explores the problem of shepherding theology in the context of membership covenants and church discipline. This looks at these abusive problems, which are substantial issues in evangelical Christianity today.
“We will never find joy in church membership when we are constantly seeking things our way. But paradoxically, we will find the greatest joy when we choose to be last. That’s what Jesus meant when He said the last will be first. True joy means giving up our rights and preferences and serving everyone else.”
“For a Christian to be a Christian, he must first be a sinner. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for being a church member. The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership.”
And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:21 NLT
9 Marks Franconia Baptist in the Washington, D.C. area. This is led by Nick Roark
Mark Dever discusses 9 Marks and church discipline
This is the second of several posts that Van Rue from Seattle wrote about the shepherding movement. Van Rue was a part of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill. I am deeply thankful that he wrote this up and shared his thoughts. After going through Mars Hill and living under Mark Driscoll’s authority there is a lot of wisdom that can be said. The first post in this series was published a couple of weeks back. You can read that post in, “Guest Post: Van Rue, Former Member of Mars Hill Seattle Writes About Shepherding Theology.” With that stated I will turn over the rest of the post to a discussion on church membership and church discipline in the context of shepherding theology.
Membership Covenants and Church Discipline (MCCD)
• MCCD Shepherding heresy variant, Active: 1995 – Present
• Status: may affect 6000-9000 or more churches in the US, and is growing rapidly with no known public refutation.
• Proponents: CJ Mahaney, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Mark Driscoll, Mark Dever, 9 Marks Ministry, Acts 29 Church Planting Network, Matt Chandler, Brian Houston, Hillsong, many other among the Neo-Puritanism, Neo-Calvinism movements, et al
Right off the bat, there is nothing wrong nor does scripture prohibit for organizational or voting reasons to have or offer local church membership, or to be a member yourself. I have very carefully been a “member” myself. Although scripture doesn’t mention local church membership, it does expressly not prohibit it either. In the subtle range of errors Shepherding brings it’s in the extra-biblical value and the credit we assign to that “membership” where the theological issues really begin to arise. Additionally, a church that errs only in Membership is unlikely to be a Shepherding Church… a Shepherding church must have at least 2 errors that work push together across different but coordinated fronts, but always have in common an mis-use of leadership authority. But in most cases Shepherding churches rarely start out in heresy, they add those errors slowing one at a time, so it can be both subtle in execution and subtle in process. Extra-Biblical membership is one warning, but it’s never conclusive on its own that a church may practice a variation of Shepherding. In this case today, its Membership Covenants and Contracts combined with over-zealous Church Discipline that combines to form a new variety of this tireless and constantly morphing heresy.
My father traveled across Europe when he was in college and shared the story of visiting a country where he couldn’t read the language, and when parking his car he was charged by the smiling attendant. He found out later the parking was really free and he was grifted out of some change. This is not unlike how local “church membership” is sold to believers today in a repackaged modern version of Shepherding heresy, called Membership Covenants and Church Discipline.
An impromptu and legalistic form of Shepherding lodged itself in fundamental Baptist-like Churches during the 1980s. It surfacing occasionally to make the news, in the failures of the Great Commission (aka Blitz) movement, and the melt-down of Greater Grace World Outreach in Baltimore MD (thankfully, they repented and are thriving under new leadership today). A more formalized new version of Shepherding had already morphed quietly in the late 1990s and was rebranded by Calvinistic and Baptist churches as Membership Covenants and Church Discipline and found fertile ground in the growing Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritan movement. Among an assortment of false teaching by Mark Driscoll, this version appeared most visibly at former Mars Hill Church Inc. in Seattle WA (dissolved in Jan of 2015) and by CJ Mahaney and sexual crimes at Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches). Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church also picked it up in the early 2000s and ran with it when he founded 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. Since Mark Driscoll co-founded the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, thousands of churches were negatively influenced the “Mars Hill Model” and incorporated various aspects of this new type of the Shepherding heresy.
Ironically even though Neo-Cal/Neo-Puritanism emphasizes the sovereignty of God over Salvation, some currents on the Neo-Puritan side often in practice trade that belief with the sovereignty of man over everything else except salvation, first the family and then the church, then the sheep, and now that is expanding to other “mountains” as well. As a result some of these selectively Neo-Calvinist/Puritan churches are often the greatest proponents of this modern form of Shepherding, and are in essential conflict with the traditional Calvinist belief of the Sovereignty of God over everything.
Since Shepherding is an error if inches, distortion of local Membership exist on 2 common levels. One is a basic over-emphasis, by strongly encouraging Membership and calling it as “healthy and good” (the bible never offers this). For a great example of many churches sentiments on membership today, check out this article here, but you will notice one important thing is missing from that article… scripture. It contains zero supporting verses. It only alludes to one verse, and that verse is not quoted because it actually refutes the idea of a strong local church membership (see below). This article offers all the biblical authority of a greeting card. A healthy and loving community is a great and Biblical ideal, but we have nothing in scripture that offers local church membership as a path to that ideal. We must always not only test our goals, but ensure our means to those goals are fully biblical as well, so much of Christianity has failed on this simple precept.
Matt Chandler and Josh Patterson from The Village Church discuss church membership.
Biblically there is only one direct mention of “membership” in all of the New Testament… and church membership is given by Christ at the very moment of Salvation “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27, see also Eph 5:23, Col 1:18)! Church membership therefore is the possession of all Christians now through the work of Christ alone, it can never be really granted by any human. It’s already part of our basic Christian identity. It’s impossible to assign spiritual value to anything the Bible fails to even mention in passing. Every the Bible alludes to any idea of membership it’s in past/present tense of something ALL believers already possess fully in Christ. It’s no one’s possession to sell or control who gets.
Ironically many of the verses Shepherds use to defend their idea that local church Membership is healthy and good, actually refute that idea on a closer reading. The commonly used Acts 2:41 is one great example, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Although counting people is not wrong, the key there is words “that day” … their membership was accepted and counted fully the moment they were saved. There were no classes, no interviews, no approvals, no forms to fill-out or worse, sign… no hoops to jump through… the day they were saved was the day they became counted as “members”. Salvation = membership for the early church. Before the late 1500s the idea of local church membership was something that never existed, in the early church history membership in its entirety happened at salvation or in later cases “Confirmation”, which serves some churches as a public declaration of salvation. Historically membership was never really something the church did a separate process, it was included no charge with salvation or later its public profession of faith Confirmation…More on Confirmation later).
Another verse they use is also strangely, is Romans 16:1-16, where Paul offers a list of personal greetings to people he knows from previous encounters (Paul at this time had not yet come to Rome so everyone he knew Rome was from somewhere else first). But it’s important to understand the context, Rome at the time probably had 4 churches or more and Paul here treats them as all equal, he doesn’t mention single local church by name, even if he alludes they may be in separate locations “the church that meets in your house”, he treat’s these people as members of one church. Listing people is OK, but understand these names represented probably at least 4 churches and Paul is establishing his existing connections to all of them equally because he had not been there first hand, he is not calling out some “members” as better than others as people claim. Using this verse defend the idea of local church membership are doing so outside of its historical context.
Credit for Church Membership belongs to Christ alone and not the local church, elders, pastor or denomination. And it’s part of our eternal identity in Christ.
The second more involved level of local “membership” goes beyond “good and healthy” this to actually creating a signed business contract, they call a Membership Covenant.
Membership Covenants goes to the next level of requiring “Covenant Members” to sign a contract with the church. The first issue with Membership Covenants it alters the entire relationship away from biblical principles to business principles, just like giving vs. tithing we have ritualized and commoditized what should be a spontaneous expression of the heart and a response to the work of Christ alone. The Pastors are no longer a Servant-Leader but THE Authority who first has the power to grant such membership. Church leaders in this scenario escape the “submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ” (Literal translation from Greek, Eph 5:21). You will notice these “covenants” never include this verse. The second issue is that these membership agreements always mix commentary with selective scripture, and elevate that commentary to a level equal to or even above scripture. Much of that commentary is not biblical, like the frequent demand that members leaving a church notify the “elders” of their decision among many others. The fourth issue is these covenants rarely use or consider ALL the scripture on the topics they include, so they effectively err in context. The fifth issue is these covenant memberships are often conditional, either subtly or directly. You have to take “classes” (sometimes extensive) to get your membership, and you have to agree to their terms often in commentary, and even “tithe”, and if you don’t do as we say your “membership” and all your fellowship, is something we can take away from you. The sixth and most damaging is by re-selling and making conditional what is already given to every believer for free in Christ, we have effectively dethroned Christ as Head of the church. Like the smiling attendant in the free parking lot stealing a parking fee from foreigners, its stealing from God himself to resell as a privilege something every believer already possess through Christ alone.
Membership Covenants denies the sovereignty of God, Jesus as head of the church, alters the biblical call of a minister, and diminishes the power of the Cross, and creates commentary that is on a level with scriptures. Paul warns us “do not go beyond what is written,” (1 Cor 4:6). Jesus warns us even further…“But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all” (Matt 5:34).
Our Membership in Christ’s body is a key part of our basic identity in Christ, and an over emphasis on membership quickly distorts all areas of our true spiritual identity to grievous results.
Todd Wagner and Rick Smith from Watermark Community Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on membership covenant and church discipline
Often the most damaging aspect however is when these covenants/contracts lead to corrective Church Discipline which is always mentioned under their terms. Unlike local membership there are actually a few scriptures to defend the concept of church discipline. Where MCCD err is that they perform this discipline with over-emphasis and in extra-biblical ways for extra-biblical reasons. Shepherding is a heresy of inches, and this is often where a few feet are boldly taken. When we look the scriptures on church discipline in Matt 18:15-20 and 1 Cor 5:1-18, Titus 3:9-11 they are united in concept of progressive discipline that must begin with one believer approaching another in private (Matt 18:15) all for the purpose of reconciliation. If they don’t repent, the second step is to return with only 2 or 3 witnesses (v16), and only then if they refuse to listen to bring it to church (v 17a). If the believer at any one of these points repents, “yes, that was wrong” they are to be forgiven (Matt 18:21-22) and the process must immediately end, and the relationship publically and lovingly restored. Additionally, the first time these passages encourage people to avoid others is only a personal and not a corporate response of the church often referred to today as Shunning. In Matt 18:17b Jesus carefully uses the contextual singular in allowing one believer to ignore the other… “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v 17b), it doesn’t require anyone else to do the same. These crucial steps are often overlooked in MCCD churches and often church leadership getting involved is beginning to any issue any behavior or conflict, and brutal corporate shunning being the first response and not the last, is an enormous abuse of authority.
In addition to reordering the biblical process “Church Discipline” is frequently done for minor issues, which is also unbiblical. Paul gives a specific list of behaviors that may fall under Biblical church discipline: sexual immorality, greed, idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler (1 Cor 5:11). We can also add false teaching to this list (Romans 16:17 and Titus 3:9-11). This is why the signed “contract/covenant” is so important to them, “members/sheep” are effectively allowing the leaders to expand the scope of discipline beyond what scripture allows to anything the Shepherd/Pastor wants, and to punish them in ways greater than scripture allows. The ONLY specific biblical example of extreme discipline we have is Paul admonishing the Corinthians (5:2) to “remove from among you” a man who was boldy sleeping with his step mother. The fundamental principle is that biblical church discipline is to be progressive, be used only as a last resort, and only corporate only for the most grievous and public sins. In reality many Neo-Cal/Neo-Puritan churches use it as a first resort, and often for minor things.
A public example of this abuse of authority is the former Mars Hill Inc. here in Seattle, where hundreds of people were brought under church discipline often for very minor or even fabricated issues. One couple I know met in their small group, and began dating, however, they didn’t ask permission to date and as a result of they were immediately and brutally kicked out of Mars Hill and shunned (they later married). In 2007 MH Elders were asked to vote on new by-laws which they were not even allowed to SEE (which is actually illegal here in WA state), so one Elder found a copy and shared it with another, and both were brutally shunned… for just for reading the proposed by-laws. Every member, staff person and even their family was ordered not to ever speak with them ever again. Shockingly 23 other Elders at Mars Hill voted in by-laws that were completely unknown to them and were told just “trust your leadership”. Another staff member on the worship team privately and respectfully asked the Campus pastor a question about the biblical basis for something that was said. 2 weeks later he was fired without warning and then shunned to such a degree even his wife was ordered not to have contact with him. I have hundreds of stories or people brutally treated here at Mars Hill here for minor, and even fabricated issues (see Demon Trials in a future post, that will be fun).
More recently the at Village Church in Dallas TX a member of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network (which was cofounded by Mark Driscoll), recently married missionary Karen Hinkley found child porn on her husband’s laptop while on the mission field. But it was Karen not her husband who faced not only church discipline but was also then publicly shamed in a letter the church sent to 6k “covenant members”. After immense national public pressure, Matt Chandler humbly repented for how the VC treated Karen, however, they have never repented for the base false theology that lead to such utterly shameful leadership, their false theology and their non-biblical Membership Covenant remains enshrined. Would VC have repented if there wasn’t such a massive and public outcry? We will never know, I am concerned that the Village Church may be transitioning from victims of this heresy via Driscoll, to its proponent. More here on the tragic but revealing Karen Hinkley saga, and VC repentance for this issue (but not their theology) it’s a great lesson on how churches can turn discipline into abuse through a non-biblical Membership Covenant.
• Wondering Eagle: “The Explicit Gospel” at Matt Chandler’s “The Village” Includes Child Pornography, Church Discipline and Membership Covenants.”
• Watch Keep: “She Speaks, The Village Church protects confessed pedophile and disciplines his wife.”
• Baptist News: “Man confesses to child porn, Church disciplines his wife.”
• Christian Today: “Karen Hinkley reconciles with the Village Church.“
The fundamental message the Village Church sent was that ignoring church leaders reproach even when your actions are biblically grounded, is a far greater sin than child-pornography, and our authority is greater than scripture. Even worse, Karen was heartbroken and devastated, instead of ministering to her they stepped in to control her which only made her feel vastly worse! Thank God Karen is strong, with a deep understanding of scripture, and had the courage to tackle this issue head-on.
Improper church discipline is abuse no matter the outcome, but it get far worse when it leads to improper brutal shunning. Brutal Shunning means cutting off all contact, for all eternity, from all church members, friend and even family. For Mars Hill shunning was a quiet constant threat and their first response to a wide variety of even small issues. Marriages and families were broken apart, I still know parents who haven’t spoken to their children, and a wife who was told to shun her husband. But is that extreme response biblical? Let’s look at the biblical language closely. Even Paul 2 Timothy 2:14-26, in the process of dealing with false teachers urges him to be kind and gentle even during discipline… “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone…. Opponents must be gently instructed…” Jesus in states only after, “if he refused to listen… treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector “ This is said in a singular context of you, and it’s simply one person ignoring another and not casting them out. Paul in Romans 16:17 in addressing false teachers urges them to simply “…keep away from them” and to his list of 6 sins worthy of church discipline Paul again advised the individual believers (1 Cor 5:11) to “not associate with… not even to eat with such people.” Paul reflects this as progressive process in Titus. Notice the gentleness and lack of anger and malice, and personal not corporate behavior inherent in all of that language. The ONLY person in the entire New Testament Paul advised to be excluded from the corporate worship was the man who was boldly sleeping with his step-mother. Fundamentally, there is a biblical difference between personally dis-fellowshipping someone (ignoring someone) and complete shunning (corporately putting them out of the entire church, with no contact). Biblically putting someone out of the church is only reserved for the most grievous public sexual sins and a failure to repent, and did not accompany a command for all the members and their family, to have nothing to do with the person, ever again requiring ALL friends and family to break off all contact, forever, beyond eating and associating with someone is not biblical it’s from the Jehovah’s Witness and Scientology sects.
How can biblical reconciliation and repentance happen in such an utter and complete casting out? The purpose of church discipline is repentance and reconciliation (2 Cor 2:5-8) but too many Neo-Cal/Neo-Puritan churches, its capricious, arbitrary and even a threatening source of control, punishment and revenge, that is biased against the vulnerable…. and closes all doors to any reconciliation. And this false process often lacks the biblical response of the body if they repent: “you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him… So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:7-8a). At the best these people are often held at arm’s length with thinly disguised contempt.
Let’s recap, MCCD Shepherding practices “church discipline” that more often… 1) circumvents the biblical principle of a progressive process that must begin in private one person to another. 2) Is used for a greater variety of far more minor issues than the Bible allows. 3) …as a result, is far more frequent and involves more people than the bible allows. 4) With a goal that is geared more toward control, punishment and retribution. 5) and often ends in brutal corporate shunning that is in both frequency and severity, is far worse and goes beyond than the bible prescribes. 6)… And this is done in a way that often makes biblical restoration impossible and is 7) all practiced with a huge bias toward the most vulnerable. This is all made possible by non-biblical Membership Covenants and their contracts.
It’s worth noting that everyone is damaged by these leaders at their churches, not just those lucky few who endure a non-Biblical round of discipline. At the very least it stunts spiritual growth and destroys healthy fellowship and leads to an unhealthy dependence on leaders, short changing a relationship with Christ and the work of both Scripture and the Holy Spirit. It enormously distorts every believer’s basic identity in Christ which is crucial to spiritual health and true growth. Often these churches turn into brutal sniping grounds where believers are reporting each other behaviors behind their back, so they can curry favor. It utterly destroys trust and the ministry of believers have to each other. I have seen it first hand.
Mark Dever explains church discipline
You have to really appreciate the evil genius of the MCCD Shepherding heresy. Membership Covenants and Church Discipline is almost identical to the old Shepherding heresy from the early 1970s, except in the classic version the entire church is subject to this horrible system, in the modern version is used selectively, and taken off the shelf for “church discipline” keeping it more hidden. These issues may be fabricated, or like Karen Hinkley’s an issue that has been exaggerated and treated overbearingly, or ends in a horrible shunning for even minor issues. Since they discipline a wider variety of issues than the bible allows, and this list is a moving target of sorts, the Pastor/Shepherd can invoke Shepherding as their schedule allows or as the victims and the opportunity presents itself… its their choice… they are in control. They can change the criteria at any time. But here is the deep insidious genius, these victims are under some kind of imagined or real shame for having the issue exposed, so they are unlikely to tell or challenge the church in any way. These victims are deeply vulnerable. It’s very manipulative though unspoken quid pro quo: “if you reveal our spiritual abuse (which we call church discipline), we will also reveal your sin”.
This is the cruelty and secrecy of our enemy! Not a true function of the Christ. Instead of reaffirming the Grace and forgiveness of Christ that flows freely from the Cross for all, it become personalized ad hoc on-the-fly micro-legalism that leaves everyone in bondage to fear. Instead of receiving the love and ministry they need, they receive damaging control. These wolves can quietly eat from the flock where, when and who they choose. What is a few hundred broken hearts and damaged lives when we have mega-churches to fill? Offering plates to pass! And a performance to give! One of the tragic ironies is that these “leaders” who perform capricious discipline and brutal shunning actually commit far graver sin than that the people they discipline or shun!
The Jehovah’s Witness and Scientology sects are both notorious for their brutal shunning. In all ways the shunning done at Mars Hill here exceeded both in their frequency, severity and lack of “due process” used. For Mars Hill the speed and severity of their cruelty was a function of silencing dissent and enforcing control (more to be written on Mars Hill’s “Demon Trials” and “Auditing” later). Sociologists and psychologists have identified brutal shunning of this type as severely damaging control mechanism that uses fear to keep people from either leaving or silent. Even if someone is not shunned themselves just the implicit threat can create PTSD like symptoms only exceeded by those in real combat. When brutal shunning is combined with the cultish technique of “love bombing” it’s even more devastating. Victims have described shunning as emotionally devastating as having all your friends and family die on the very same day. Brutal shunning is primary evidence that a “sect” has crossed into being a “cult” in sociological terms. Such brutal and capricious “church discipline” is one of the largest causes of spiritual abuse in human history.
Some churches also offer privilege of ministry to members only, in one case I know only “members” would be able to meet with, be counselled by, or receive aid when in need by their local church. This is deeply disconcerting when they would throw their hands up at people in need. As well, I knew a few churches that required “Membership” before people could serve, but I would offer as a side note some content of “Membership” classes I like. At one church the 4 hour membership class was ALL sound basic doctrine of Salvation, Christian faith and the work of Christ on the Cross. It had ZERO qualifications, ZERO denominational distinctive, and was all about Jesus. But even in these best case membership scenarios it begins to closely resemble the Sacrament of Confirmation practiced by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and a few others. Membership classes have become a de facto version of Confirmation in many churches today. If you are uncomfortable with Catholic sacraments, it’s inconsistent to be against essentially a similar process practiced with blind impunity among Evangelicals. And the question of sacraments to me is one of “where does it stop”? Although I see the content as good and needed, I would prefer that content be placed in another concept besides membership class, however its great importance would have me conceded it’s better to be there than nowhere. But I have yet to hear any testimony of someone who was saved or blessed by these classes. See more on the Protestant Neo-Catholic Deformation to come.