3 Lessons Learned from the Demise of Mars Hill Church

In twenty years Mars Hill Church (MHCC) went from a new plant out of Antioch Bible Church to a mega church with 15,000 people in 15 locations. Thousands of completely unchurched people received forgiveness and new life from Jesus through the ministry of the church and the leadership of Pastor Mark Driscoll. Many matured into amazing leaders both in MHCC and other churches. The Acts 29 church planting network facilitated establishment of many other churches. Then in three months MHCC imploded. In August, Paul Tripp announced his resignation from the Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) and Acts 29 delisted MHCC. Twenty one former pastor/elders filed formal charges. They were joined by nine current pastor/elders, all calling for Pastor Mark to step down from all ministry to get help for his self-confessed sins of pride, anger and a domineering spirit. Pastor Mark stepped down while the charges were investigated. In September, Pastor Sutton Turner resigned as executive elder. The board of seven elders lead by Pastor Matt Rogers, chair of the BOAA, investigated the charges. In October, they presented their findings to Pastor Mark and he resigned. At the end of the month, Pastor Dave Bruskas, the remaining Executive Elder, and the BOAA announced that MHCC would dissolve as of the end of the year, leaving assets and operations to the local Mars Hill churches.

What lessons can be drawn from this amazing saga? What can be learned from the demise of MHCC?

Every leader has a dark side to their character. Regeneration and the new heart imparted by the Spirit of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 5:17-21; Tit. 3:5-8) means that the deepest desires of a Christian are Christlike. Sanctification means that there is a growing Christlikeness and maturity of character necessary for leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). But Paul teaches that the sarx, the sinful desires or flesh, are a persistent reality (Gal. 5:16-26; Rom. 7:14-25). The brokenness of leaders must never be excused in light of their great strengths. Leaders must know those weaknesses, flaws, and sin things in them and call a team around them to overcome those. Leaders must invite trusted colleagues into the deepest parts of their lives, the slimiest realities, to bring the healing work of the Spirit. Leaders must have people who will listen well to them and invite them to say, “No” to their most cherished ideas and proposals, to alert them to the damage their sarx is threatening.

Power is important, but can be dangerous. Power, the capacity to act or get things done, the ability to execute change, is an essential part of leadership. It comes from spiritual, physical, economic, or personal sources. Power, like gasoline, is both advantageous and dangerous. It is beneficial when used biblically, in service of others (Matt. 20:25-28; Acts 20:28 Pet. 5:1-4). But power is also a seductive, addictive, delicious narcotic. The sarx in a leader wants more and more power, resisting checks and balances without which power becomes domineering and abusive in the name of efficiency and results.

Church leadership structures should be based upon biblical instruction. The prior two points demonstrate why ministry and leadership in the New Testament is always a team thing. The charges of favoritism in ministry in Acts 6 went to the Twelve, not to Peter. The huge controversy about the necessity of circumcision for salvation in Acts 15 did not go to Peter or James but to the apostles and elders with the whole church (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23). Elder is singular only in 1 Tim. 5:19 when it is about an accusation.

MHCC categorized leaders as Prophet, Priest, or King with a clear ordering of King, Prophet and then Priest. But those are not the biblical categories of leadership qualities for the church and certainly not with this ordering. Prioritizing King, the rightly criticized “Moses model” of leadership, often results in a domineering culture where results take priority over the soul care of the Priest. It tends to define unity as loyalty and agreement with the king. If this happens the danger of “group think” increases as disagreements are not stated lest they be judged as lack of submission or cowardice.

The Bible speaks of five types of leadership gifts: apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:12-14). This APEST model is five dimensions of a team of leaders not the common misinterpretation of five offices. As I understand it, all five dimensions are equally crucial and must be mutually submissive coming together in a true team where disagreement is stated first hand, respectfully, and constructively as in Acts 15 with the whole team or even the whole church coming to unity around the decision. That doesn’t mean there is no disagreement. Real unity comes on in the context of frank constructive disagreement. The few who still disagree submit to the decision of the team, supporting it fully.

Tomorrow: 5 More Lessons Learned from the Demise of Mars Hill

About Gerry Breshears

Dr. Breshears is a Professor of Systematic Theology and Chair of the Center for Biblical and Theological Studies at Western Seminary. In addition to his three decades of educational ministry at Western, Dr. Breshears has taught at numerous Bible colleges and seminaries around the world, such as Lebanon, Ukraine, Netherlands, Taiwan, Poland, Canada, and the Philippines. He has also been published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including the Journal of Psychology & Theology and Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Dr. Breshears is also the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society and continues to serve on the regional executive committee of that organization. Dr. Breshears serves as a preaching elder at Grace Community Church. He and his wife, Sherry, have been married since 1968, have two sons, one daughter, and are enjoying their season of life as grandparents.

4 thoughts on “3 Lessons Learned from the Demise of Mars Hill Church

  1. Gerry,

    While everything you’ve written is true, I have wondered about your personal take. You knew Mark better than most people and worked alongside him on several projects. As one who was personally helped by the ministry of Mars Hill and the books Driscoll wrote both with and without you, it has been hard for me to watch all this from afar. I have also wondered if you are one of the people Mark is going to for counsel. Not that you have to say so publicly, of course, but I hope that you are. I still love Mark and appreciate what God has done through him. And I am very thankful for the books you wrote together. When I read blogs and articles from others on this issue, I am always suspect of bias and misinformation. I trust your assessment over and above others because I know you. So thank you.

  2. Dr. Gerry,
    Thank you for your wise words about the leadership and church life. I have not been following the ministry of Mars Hill but grieve the loss of a great church in the Pacific Northwest. I just happen to come across your blog and found some excellent advise here for me. Thank you for taking the time to post it.

  3. Hi Dr. Gerry, thank you for your article. I have been tracking the church planting movement and have been hearing more of this “prophet, priest, king” leadership philosophy and am wondering if I might be able to talk with you about it how you see this taking root in the church planting movement? I would love to hear from you! Thanks so much, Emily

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