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Ecclesiology Matters

For the past couple of months, Christianity Today has released a podcast called "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill". It is an illuminating expose about one of the most explosive churches in the 2000s and one of the most popular pastors. If you don't know, Mark Driscoll, is a pastor. And in the 2000s, he was the "guy". He could communicate the gospel well and he had edge, something well known pastors / preachers had lacked. In college, my friends loved listening to him. We even read his book "Doctrine" as a study.

When things seemed to be at the height, it all came crumbling down. It came out that he had been verbally and spiritually abusive. The culture at Mars Hill was revealed to be incredibly toxic. Mark left and the church collapsed in months.

Now, I'm not writing to discuss or dissect what went on at Mars Hills, Mike Cosper is doing a fantastic job on the podcast. The podcast got me thinking about ecclesiology and why ecclesiology matters.

Maybe you're wondering, "What is ecclesiology?" Ecclesiology is the study of the church; what makes up a true church; who are members; how do we understand the sacraments; how do congregations relate to one another; who should be a pastor; how do we worship. Many of us don't find this the most exciting part of theology. But it matters. And as I listen and reflect on "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill" I see two aspects of ecclesiology that are illuminated in this podcast.


Character Matters

One of the most stark aspects of the podcast is how Driscoll characters is revealed. One of the things that caused a lot of hurt and heartache was something Driscoll did in the early years of the church. Not long after the church formed, they had a blog. And in the blog, Driscoll wrote under the pen name William Wallace II and wrote aggressive and misogynistic comments. When it came out, there was some backlash and outrage.

The podcast also revealed the culture behind closed doors. Mark was known to dress down and belittle the staff. When the church was restructuring and reworking bylaws, the elders were given the new bylaws only a couple of days to read over and comment on the proposed changes before voting on them. Two elders had concerns so they submitted comments. That Sunday, Driscoll laid into them before firing them for not supporting the proposed changes. They were told they could resign their membership or go through a formal trial. The congregation was informed that the two elders were fired and told not to talk with them or their families. When questions were raised, Mars Hill put out a statement saying how the church was growing and people were coming to Christ. The implicit message: the good outweighs the bad.

That raises an important question, one Cosper raises himself: Does gifting in teaching, preaching, and growing outweigh character? As a culture, it seems we would say yes. We regularly put more weight on giftedness than we do character.

But what about the Bible? The Apostle Paul gives us several sets of instructions on what makes a good pastor. In 1 Tim. 3 he writes, "The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil."

Notice, Paul spills more ink talking about character than giftedness. The only gift Paul mentions in this is the ability to teach because elders are tasked with teaching God's word. The rest are all character issues. He is concerned that Timothy appoint elders who have a godly and Christ-like character. Character matters. It matters precisely because the gospel is about transformation of a person. The Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the good news transforms our hearts by making us fall in love with God. He takes broken, sinful people and makes them resemble Christ - something that won't be complete until Christ returns in glory. He transforms our character. The character of an elder is far more important that the giftedness of the elder.


How Congregations Relate to One Another

The fact that character matters means elders need to have a godly character. But who makes sure that elders have a godly character? This is why the main thrust of ecclesiology matters - we need to have a robust understanding of how congregations relate to one another. Mark Driscoll (and two others) planted Mars Hill. The narrative goes that they had no outside help. While that is not entirely true, a mother church did support them, it is true that they were an independent congregation. They did not belong to a presbytery or to a diocese. They were independent of denominations.

In several instances, Driscoll was told he needed older, wiser pastors to mentor him. In an early episode, his executive assistant suggested that he needed a more seasoned to mentor him. He fired her soon thereafter. Near the end of Mars Hill, someone again told Driscoll he needed to submit to someone like Piper. His response was he couldn't submit to someone who pastored a smaller church than the one he pastored.

This raises an important question: Who examines the character of a pastor? How are pastors held accountable?

A healthy church, whether it is presbyterian, episocopal, or even independent, will recognize they need others to help in making sure the pastor they have is godly and Christ-like.

I love going to presbytery. I tell people that and I get odd stares. People seem confused or befuddled that I would love to spend a day or two essentially in a church meeting. One of the reasons I love presbytery is because we are tasked with examining pastors. A lot of our examination is theological. But some of that examination is personal and character related, perhaps not enough. The PCA, a sister denomination to us, has two overtures before the presbyeries that essentially say: We need to do a better job examining the character of candidates for ministry and ministers themselves.

We need a robust ecclesiology where pastors are examined - not just in theology but in character. Pastors as the primary teacher of God's word in a congregation need to have a Christ-like character. They need to be gentle, faithful to their spouse, sober, self-controlled, and hospitable. We need people who examine their character of pastors to make sure they generally reflect those characteristics.

We need a more robust view of ecclesiology. We need to rethink how individual congregations relate to others. As Presbyterians, we ought to take presbytery seriously. We ought to be deeply invested in making sure that the pastors coming in are theologically sound but also sound in character. We ought to allow the presbytery to speak into us and help us grow in Christ-likeness so that the gospel resounds all the more loudly.

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