"Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." Groucho Marx link
The Deebs thank Todd Wilhelm and Steve 240 for drawing our attention to this 2013 post. We believe that it offers insight into how church discipline can be a cover for abuse and hierarchical control. It is our opinion that anyone considering membership in 9 Marks and other so inclined church conglomerates should carefully think about the potential ramifications, especially when it limits the rights of Christian conscience.
In a post, When Church Discipline Is Sin, Jason Harris looks at the troubling world of contemporary church discipline by focusing on Mark Dever and his 9 Marks churches in regards to church resignation while under church discipline. For readers of TWW, it will come as no surprise that we believe the 9 Marks process is arbitrary and occasionally abusive.
The rules surrounding church discipline are ill defined.
TWW objects to most churches which claim to practice "church discipline" because, unlike the laws in the United States (relevant to Leeman's response in this post), their system has virtually no definition for what constitutes a discipline worthy offense. For example, in the United States, you know that if you drive drunk and are caught, you will be subject to certain punishments and fines. The rules of the game have been predefined.
In 9 Marks and other such groups, the pastor (and his handpicked leaders) decide what they will, and will not enforce, without any predefined parameters. In other words, you could be punished for any old thing they please. This can be used by used by sinful men to control the flock and this is dangerous.
Preemptive church resignation is not allowed in 9 Marks churches.
They do have one defined rule. You are not allowed to leave the church without their permission. Do you think you should be allowed to resign from a church when, and if, you are "under" church discipline? What if the church discipline is pernicious, unfair, or inappropriate. If you have signed a 9 Marks membership contract (or is that covenant?), you have signed up for their ill-defined rules and discipline. Harris quotes from Mark Dever's constitution. It is Mark Dever's constitution because he is the one who set his church, Capital Hill Baptist Church and subsequent 9 Marks churches, on this road.
The church shall have authority to refuse a member’s voluntary resignation or transfer of membership to another church, either for the purpose of proceeding with a process of church discipline, or for any other biblical reason.
Although Harris supports church discipline (he has also not defined the parameters of discipline), he admits that it can rapidly progress from helpful to abusive. Church discipline should mean something to the recipient of said discipline. When a person chooses to reject the church, and continue to sin (if they are truly sinning which we will bring up in a minute), is making a big fat show of excommunicating them effective?
Adele and Adam have been married for 6 years and have been confessed Christians for about 3 years. Adele leaves Adam and shacks up with her new love and plans to divorce Adam.
Over the following weeks, there had been many meetings involving many within the church body begging Adele to turn things around. Finally, after many weeks of tears and prayers and visits, the elders sent an email to Adele notifying her that as the matter has been addressed many times privately and she has refused to listen, on the following Sunday evening she would be brought before the church to involve the whole congregation in seeking to draw her to repentance.
She resigns before the meeting. Keeping this in mind, Harris begins to look at church discipline.
9 Marks believes that NOT having a big, ol' excommunication meeting to turn her over to Satan is akin to "merrily sending her on her way."
Harris disagrees and I concur.
Adele has chosen to resign from membership in the church. He explains that the church needs to continue to pray for and reach out to Adele to try to draw her back to obedience to Christ, but sadly, for now, the church had done everything in its power/authority to restore her and the relationship had been severed.
In no possible sense could this be construed as “merrily sending [Adele] on [her] way.” She is no longer counted among the membership. There has been a clear break.
Harris says the Bible does not give authority for denying a resignation.
This is important because it indicates that much of what we accept as Biblical may simply be one guy's interpretation. And one must be aware that people who make up rules often do so to benefit their side of the story. In other words, most of these rules benefit the pastor and leadership.
The Bible says nothing explicitly about the procedures for membership in a local body.
Here is Harris' most compelling argument: Theology argues against denying resignation
Harris is singing from the same hymnal as TWW. He claims that church leaders are also prone to serious sin, something often diligently ignored by leaders and some of the flock.
There are many reasons why a person might legitimately need to resign and move to another church and in which it is unlikely that a letter of transfer would be granted. For instance, the church may have weak or false doctrine or an unbiblical leadership structure, there may be irreconcilable doctrinal disagreement, there may be philosophical differences, a church may be in sin (such as not handling a situation biblically), a pastor may go rogue or be in unrepentant sin, etc
TWW believes that both Mark Dever and John Folmar have presided over injustices in their churches and we shall discuss this momentarily.
History argues against denying resignation.
Again, recognizing abusive churches throughout history, Harris says
Jamieson( ed. note-another 9 Marks leader) argues that Baptists have long rejected voluntary resignation. Without entering that argument in depth, it seems odd to argue based on this point since church history is dominated by an almost unending succession of abuses and misuses of disciplinary power. The Roman church used prison, torture, and execution-by-fire among their “discipline” practices. The Protestants did the same at times. It was the Baptists themselves, ironically, who often argued against such abuse of Scripture and the church’s power.
If history teaches us anything about church discipline, it is that human leaders cannot be given absolute power without being corrupted.
Harassment of former members can lead to legal involvement and public attention.
Harris says Adele became so frazzled by the unending visits and phone calls after asking them to stop, that she contacted a lawyer to help her deal with the incessant badgering. Now, the public gets involved and many people outside of the church focus on what appears to be abusive behavior. In fact, let me add that many abused people are coming to blogs to tell their stories of intimidation, including former members of 9 Marks.
Adele is not going to be won over by this activity. In fact, she will be sure to avoid the church in the future. Lawyers, judges, police, neighbors and the PTA will pass around the story and you can be sure that many of them will stay away as well. Meanwhile, the pastors and members will likely pretend that they are being "persecuted for Christ."
Resignation and church discipline 9 Marks style
Here are two examples of how 9 Marks plays games with church discipline.
1. SGM leader, CJ Mahaney was given refuge at Mark Dever's Capital Hill Baptist Church when he bolted from his SGM church.
CJ Mahaney has long sucked up to Mark Dever, calling him "My Captain." His undying devotion earned him a perk from Mark Dever, who allowed Mahaney to hide out at Capital Hill Baptist Church when Mahaney stepped down from SGM due to sin (which he later recanted). Mahaney would never allow people to leave SGM while being involved in conflict. He agrees with Dever agreed on this point. However, it appears that such rules are only for the pew sitters, not for BFFs.
We wrote a post called Mark Dever-CJ Mahaney's BFF.
If you have been following the Sovereign Grace Ministries debacle, you have likely heard that C.J. Mahaney, who recently stepped down as SGM’s president, is no longer attending the “dearest place on earth” – Covenant Life Church – where he pastored for 27 years. Instead, C.J. and his wife Carolyn are worshiping at Capitol Hill Baptist Church where Mark Dever presides as senior pastor.
The lesson: if you suck up to Dever and give him plenty of speaking engagements, you are a BFF. Then you get a pass on following their version of discipline. So, are you willing to attend a church in which the rules apply only to those who are not leaders?
2. John Folmar, 9 Marks Dubai (UCCD), refused to recognize Todd Wilhelm's right of conscience.
In My, My Dubai: 9 Marks Played Hardball, we documented the story of Todd Wilhelm, a formerly dedicated member of John Folmar's UCCD/ 9Marks church in Dubai. John Folmar is a close friend and associate of Mark Dever. As we have said, CJ Mahaney's friendship with Mark Dever bought him all sorts of perks, including having Mahaney books pushed at the UCCD bookstore. Wilhelm objected due to his concern over the sex abuse lawsuits against SGM.
When Folmar refused to consider Wilhelm's request to stop selling those books, Wilhelm, in line to be a deacon, resigned. He was told he could not resign until he joined another "approved" church. Wilhelm said he wanted his resignation accepted based on his profound disagreement with 9 Marks.
Although Todd could have become a member of another church, he stood firm on the principle of the matter. After 6 months of writing letters, being defriended, having his emails ignored and seeing his name, week after week, appear on the membership rolls, Todd finally prevailed. You can read Movin On at his awesome blog, Thou Art the Man
"I have been told by friends who attended the membership meeting last night at the United Christian Church of Dubai that we have finally been removed from their membership roster. All good things come to those who wait. We have waited for 6.5 months!
That chapter in my life is now closed. Perhaps I will write about it in detail at some point, but for the present I am happy to move on. I now have some strong opinions on what a local church should not look like, I am still formulating what it should look like. I have some thoughts on this and am trusting God to lead me to other like-minded believers."
Jonathan Leeman, a 9 Marks spokesman, responds for 9 Marks and it's a doozy
You can read the whole letter at the post. I have chosen to look at some parts of the letter.
Leeman compares church membership with citizenship in a country or an athletic contract.
I expect you don’t apply this standard to other domains. A citizen cannot “opt out” of citizenship on the way to being arrested for committing a crime. A doctor cannot “opt out” of the medical licensing society when charges are brought for malpractice and still expect to practice medicine in some other office. An athlete cannot “opt out” of paying a fine for some penalty before the trial is complete and still expect to play. in the first example, the state would prevent him from leaving. In the second and third examples, the society would say, “Sure, you can leave, but we’re going to revoke your license/membership.” And I don’t think you would fault them for doing so, would you?
Your comparison to citizenship fails on two points. First, crime is unrelated to citizenship. A foreigner who commits a crime is just as liable to prosecution. Second, a crime against the state is not parallel to a crime against the church. Our “crimes” are against God and our relationship to God is not mediated through the church. That was the error of the Roman Church.
Your comparison to a doctor fails in that a medical licensing society is hierarchically superior to any particular doctors office. There is no parallel in the church unless you deny the autonomy of the local church. This is made clear when you change the scenario to a doctor leaving one office on bad terms and then going to work at another office.
Your comparison to membership on a sports team fails in that an athlete can indeed resign and walk away as long as the offenses are private matters (vs. civil or criminal wrong) and he is willing to give up the privileges of playing for that particular team.
Leeman says the church is not a voluntary society from the standpoint of Christ's kingdom.
This is a particularly shocking claim. For some reason, Leeman believes that you lose autonomy
You conceive of the local church as a voluntary society with no real authority.The state has no authority here. But it’s not a voluntary society from the standpoint of Christ’s kingdom The institutional church instituted by Jesus has an authority you and I as individual believers do not have (see Matt. 16 and 18).
membership in any particular local church is entirely voluntary.
A person can leave one local church and look for another one without in any way rejecting the authority of the local church.
According to Leeman, people act like unbelievers if they exempt themselves from church discipline.
So when a person acts like an unbeliever by prematurely exempting themselves from the processes of discipline, ironically, they force the church to make SOME declaration. To accept the resignation is to say, “Everything is fine with this person and their profession of faith.” To deny the resignation is to say, “Everything is not fine with this person and their profession of faith. In fact, since they are refusing to cooperate and show the signs of repentance
I think this is hogwash. Todd Wilhelm was not acting like a nonbeliever when he made a stand against the 9 Marks machine. He was acting like a man of honor and courage. Herein lies the danger with the 9 Marks way. You will be pegged as an unbeliever if you stand up to what you perceive to be an injustice. This is a travesty of the highest degree and negates this organization's claim to be gospel based. They have a rule and that rule is to be followed at all costs. How very sad and how very much like the Pharisees.
Leeman claims that by accepting a resignation, it is akin to saying everything is fine with said person's profession of faith.
To accept the resignation is to say, “Everything is fine with this person and their profession of faith.” To deny the resignation is to say, “Everything is not fine with this person and their profession of faith. In fact, since they are refusing to cooperate and show the signs of repentance, for integrity and honesty’s sake, we must remove our affirmation of their profession.” To choose the latter, as I see it, is not coercive; it’s just being honest. And the church doesn’t want to be in this situation;
To accept a resignation is not the same thing as saying everything is hunky dory. Resignations in every part of our society are often due to a disagreement with a company or an organization. It does not mean that the person was a great employee. It simply means the relationship is now severed. That person no longer represents that company in any fashion.
Also, a person who refuses to participate in church discipline does not mean that the person is not a Christian or even acting like a non-Christian. In fact, their actions could be considered the height of Christian bravery as they stand against injustice. Also, Leeman would have to label Mahaney and Dever as acting like non-Christians, since they avoided the very process that they claim to support. 9 Marks believes that they have the "authority" to declare who is, and is not, a member of God's kingdom link.
But, strictly speaking, I would argue that the exercise of the keys is the pronouncing of a judgment. It is a legal or judicial binding or loosing. It is a church’s decision about what constitutes a right confession and who is a true confessor.
In other words, the keys are put into practice whenever
a church decides upon a confession of faith that will bind all church members,
a church admits a member,
a church excludes a member.
The holder of the keys—the church—is being called upon to assess a person’s life and profession of faith and then to make a heavenly sanctioned and public pronouncement affirming or denying the person’s citizenship in the kingdom and inclusion in the church
Leeman thinks the word "persecution" is strange in regards to this process.
You used the language of “persecution,” and while I agree churches can, in principle, persecute, it strikes me as strange, perhaps overwrought, to quickly jump to such language. Might I compare this situation to my wife insisting on a divorce, my refusing, and her saying that I’m “persecuting” her by refusing?
Leeman is studiously ignoring the 9 Matks treatment of Todd Wilhelm's situation which was despicable and, in my opinion, a form of persecution. Go after Todd and protect Mahaney- what an example of a strange gospel™.
Leeman sticks his head in the sand and assumes his version of "the process" will restore an individual.
I fear you might be taking away the very tool that Jesus and Paul would give to the church so that it might do good for the sinner. Paul says to hand the man over to Satan so that his soul might be saved.
Leeman is making a jump. In fact, the very process could prevent a person from returning to the church for assistance. Back in the early church, survival was often dependent on the good works of the church. Christ followers shared food and shelter. To be removed from the fellowship was quite difficult. Today, it is quite the opposite. Disciplining a member will often have little effect on the life of that person. They can move on quite easily.
You seem to be suggesting that when someone runs from the church, we have to pull them back in and then throw them back out. The passage you quote (1 Cor 5) deals with someone in open sin who is “among you.” Paul tells them to throw him out because he wasn’t running! He was hanging out IN the church, in good standing, as if everything were ok. In that case, yes, you do have to throw them out. But to twist this to suggest that we have to run after them, pull them back in just so we can ceremonially throw them back out is deeply immature at best and abusive at worst.
I would propose that a quieter process could be far more effective. I saw that occur in the following true story which took place when I was a member of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship.
A man left his wife and moved in with his new love. He was told, quietly, he could no longer be a member of the church but that he was deeply cared about by the church. none of this was ever "made public." Decent elders and pastors spent time, visiting him off and on, with his permission, through the course of the year. A year later, the man decided he had made a mistake and began a process, with the help of the church which had maintained a kind relationship with him, of reconciliation with his wife. Two years later, they got up in front of the church and told their story. You could have heard a pin drop.
Let's see, which scenario was more effective in restoring the person into the church? Was it the haranguing of Adele or the careful approach of Bent Tree Bible?
Leeman claims you must go to another church if you think you church is abusive.
But don’t churches make mistakes, or become abusive and unhealthy? Of course they do (that’s why Jamieson does what he does); so do parents and teachers and courts and police officers. But each of these still have the ability to discipline. What protection is there against wrong decisions and genuinely abusive churches? You go to another church!
Let's take a look at Todd's situation. Todd resigned from the church in good conscience. He rejected the "9 Marks loves Mahaney club" because he cares deeply for the abused. He could not stay in the church any longer. He gave up his position in the church for something far greater. Todd is also a thinking man. He is not willing to willy nilly join another church just to be in a church so 9 Marks will "let him go." But he could no longer in good conscience attend UCCD.
Todd is one of my heroes. He is also a hero to those who have been hurt by the SGM system. I am fielding emails from people who want to meet him when he is in the States in order to thank him for making his stand half way around the world. 9 Marks lost a wonderful church member who truly cares about the "least of these."
Here are two comments on the post that are important as we close this discussion.
Thanks for writing this article Jason. I have lived through the abuse you have described. As a member of a 9Marks church in Dubai I chose to resign my membership for issues of conscience. 6 1/2 months after I submitted my email to the elders I was removed from their membership roster. Nobody in church leadership had the decency to tell me of this, although they had no problems badgering me in the interim!
Paul Petry (Former Mars Hill pastor who was thrown under the bus by Mark Driscoll link
“I believe this 9 Marks-promoted teaching on church discipline is dangerous and needs to be addressed.”
Unfortunately, the teaching has infected church organizations worldwide, and the persons in leadership who put those dangerous teachings into practice are in most cases not as mild-mannered and humble as Mark Dever – and there is the danger. His teachings, in the hands of ruthless CEO-type “lead pastors”, have left behind a trail of broken lives and wounded sheep – or as one well-known leader has boasted, “a pile of dead bodies” behind the bus.
Jason Harris' post is prophetic in light of the many instances of abusive church discipline with which we have been acquainted. Jonathan Leeman, albeit polite and kind in his response to Harris, is either naive about the potential for abusive legalism inherent in his system or is deliberately overlooking the documented problems because he believes that 9 Marks is playing by gospel™ rules.
Lydia's Corner: Amos 1:1-3:15 Revelation 2:1-17 Psalm 129:1-8 Proverbs 29:19-20