What does it mean to repent?
In the past few weeks, two different former members of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church have come forward with stories of their experience with church discipline and what they view as cult-like overreach by church leadership. This article in Slate summarizes the accusations, as well as Mars Hill’s defense of their church-discipline system. Many in the evangelical blogosphere are discussing this case, what it means to submit to church leadership and what Biblical church discipline should look like. These discussions are important, no doubt, but as I read the story of one member’s experience with discipline for his confessed sexual sin, I found myself asking, “What does it take for these people to decide someone has repented?”
It seemed to me that confessing a sin, apologizing to the individuals most hurt by it (in this case the member's betrayed fiance) and taking steps to avoid temptation to repeat the behavior was clear indication that he had already repented, and the Draconian steps required by the church seemed humiliating and targeted toward punishment rather than healing.
That led me to another question: what does it mean, really, to repent? What does it mean beyond confession? How can we tell if a person in our community has truly turned his or her heart? Of course, only God can know our hearts. How can a church leader, then, determine what repentance should look like, or how to go about it?
Perhaps what I yearned to see in the discipline documents that were made public was more evidence of grace.
I’m pretty torn about what I think of the restoration and discipline processes prescribed by Mars Hill in the cases that have been made public. I find myself arguing that repentance should include structure and accountability. Mars Hill certainly does this, but I was uncertain that the steps they prescribed would truly lead to humble restoration, instead of humiliated submission to human authority structures.
Perhaps what I yearned to see in the discipline documents that were made public was more evidence of grace. Certainly, above all else, the church is a club for sinners who were forgiven through the love of Jesus. The only payment that is ever needed for our sins is Christ’s blood, and if we lose sight of that, for each of us, we might start demanding more of each other than even God asks of us.
I think we should also be concerned about the corrupting tendencies of power. Trying to enforce submission quickly begins to look like abuse and manipulation, and giving any fallible human power over another creates the possibility that the power will be used to serve the ego, rather than to heal and restore others.
What Do You Think?
- How might we keep our leaders and our institutions accountable for the health of members who have confessed sins?
- How can we exercise authority in a way that does not seek only to protect and enforce itself?
- How can we guide each other toward repentance, but still display God’s grace?