Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 1 – Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery

Over 15 years ago, I took two week-long workshops on learning styles with Dr. Kathy Koch of Celebrate Kids, Inc. It was there that I finally understood some major ways that my brain processed information differently from how other people’s do. Turns out that my default setting on how my brain works best is when there’s a question asked or a problem to be solved. I truly don’t know what I think is AN answer – or THE answer –until I start talking aloud about the question or problem. And even then, it’s not the first thing that pops out of my mouth that is MY answer, it’s the last thing at the end of a trail of verbal processing, regardless of whether that took a long time or short.

There’s no easy predicting as to what questions capture my attention. It might be something mundane, or maybe something extraordinarily complex that will take me a few years of gathering information and reflecting on it before my brain is saturated enough with observations and analysis to yield a next-iteration interpretation or final opinion.

One of my favorite stories about how that works out comes from the last millennium. I was invited to give a guest lecture on culture to a seminary class in church planting. My professor friend introduced me and told a bit about my background in church planting and futurist studies and such, and then he said, “And Brad is someone who is working on answers to questions that no one else is asking yet.”

This post is about questions I’ve had that have emerged from the case study in allegations of spiritual abuse that Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and its co-founding pastor Mark Driscoll, have provided the U.S. Church. This is highly complex and grievous situation, and involves years of problematic leadership and labyrinthine organizational issues. I’ve been watching the situation especially since 2008 when I started research writing on spiritual abuse issues in depth.

Today also happens to be a day when some kind of important announcement is due from Mr. Driscoll. I’d been working on this particular series for a while and this seemed as good a day as any to begin posting. There are people in Mars Hill Church who may find help and hope from this series.

Here are short descriptions of the probable posts in this series. I’ll save extended descriptions for later, but thought I’d help to have an overview up front. Titles are tentative. (They’re kind of clunky, even if descriptive, so I’ll see if I can do better later.)

Series: Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse

Part 1. Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations. Real-world problems in discerning what constitutes a toxic organization, who is a spiritually abusive leader, and what to do about them and others who keep a harmful system going.

Part 2. The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Systems of Spiritual Abuse. When it comes to spiritual abuse, who has higher or lower responsibility/accountability and for what – whether they are leaders preaching from the pulpit, or people sitting in the pews, or outside individuals and organizations that keep a sick system propped up.

Part 3. Onlookers Aren’t Necessarily Innocent ~ Moving Toward a Theology of Complicity. This moves from questions and initial ideas of how to organize observations, to figuring out relevant biblical concepts about levels of responsibility when things turn malignant in a ministry. The issues I’ll be dealing with arise out of my own experiences of figuring out responsibilities I had for reconciliation and restitution as a result of involvement in several churches that turned out to be toxic.

There may be a Part 4, Current Case Studies from Abuse Survivor Communities ~ Looking for Larger Patterns. Several situations have dominated the focus of spiritual abuse survivor communities the past few years, and there are some patterns emerging on use of “digital dissent” and online documentation to push back on people/organizations who need to be accountable for the harm they inflict under a guise of righteousness.

Okay, now on to Part 1 …

Part 1. Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations.

I posted the following questions on my Facebook page a few weeks ago. Some questions are specifically with the Mars Hill Church situation in mind, others apply there but are also general issues that come up with any individual or organization that seems to have problems with abusiveness and toxicity.

This is the original list, with a question or two added, and minor edits to clarify things. I will not be answering these questions on my blog at this time, as I’m already addressing them in a forthcoming book to spiritual abuse and recovery that I’ve been working on since 2009. This is simply to show you what questions I’ve had, with the hope that they could perhaps spark some new thoughts for you.

[UPDATE 08-24-2014. I published this post earlier today, before the announcement by Mark Driscoll about his leave during investigations of the formal charges brought against him. I may write additional posts about the situation there, or include that in the tentative Part 4 of this series, as it is a case study I have been tracking since 2008. Meanwhile, I’ll suggest that even having the list of relevant questions here can be helpful in analyzing and interpreting the situation there.]

1. What factors and character issues make it easier or harder for someone to experience significant transformation when they’ve demonstrated deep-seated problems over a relatively long period of time, and have refused to heed a series of prior warnings?

2. What indicators help us discern whether an organization that’s become toxic can be repaired and renovated, might be partly salvaged if dismantled, or definitely needs to be shut-down?

3. Why are you writing about this about Mars Hill when you don’t go there?

4. Is the Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll situation really as simple – or as complicated – as some people seem to think?

5. What’s happened that could/should disqualify Mark Driscoll from public roles of leadership at this time?

6. He’s a gifted guy and done a lot of good. Shouldn’t that be taken into account?

7. Why are people outside of Mars Hill “jumping on the bandwagon” against him at this time, and doesn’t that ultimately hurt how the world views the Church?

8. When it comes to removing a leader who is abusing his power/authority, you talk about documentation, verification, and reconciliation. What is that about, and what do you mean by those terms?

9. Is Mars Hill sound, organizationally speaking?

10. Mars Hill is a member of ECFA (Evangelical Council for Fiscal Accountability). Doesn’t that count for something?

11. What about other organizations connected somehow with Mars Hill – do you think they should dissociate themselves from Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, and why or why not?

12. Is Mars Hill a “cult” – and what constitutes a cult anyway?

13. From your outsider perspective as a student of both abuse of power and toxic organizational systems, what sources would you recommend for getting a perspective on this that’s as balanced as possible?

14. If these problems have supposedly been going on for a long time, why does all this push-back seem to be happening now?

15. What are the standards of evidence for figuring out spiritual abuse – for churches and for non-profits?

16. What can a congregation do if they do not wish to be subject to governmental regulations?

17. If Mark Driscoll and his other two executive elders end up no longer at Mars Hill, will that fix the organizational problems? Or, would there be more to do then, and if so, what?

18. In a personal or organizational transformation process, what exactly needs to be adjusted, and how?

19. Mark Driscoll co-founded the Acts29 Network, which recently removed all Mars Hill Churches from membership. Does that action mean they’ve done enough to clear their organization of responsibility?

20. Seems like a lot more people are distancing themselves from Mark Driscoll these days, and even talking about how it was supposedly obvious that he had problems years back, perhaps even enough to disqualify him from ministry leadership. If these people apparently knew that back then, why weren’t they being so vocal? Whether they challenged him in person privately back then or not, aren’t they partially responsible for his continuing to inflict harm on people during all the years in between? What would they need to do to make things right?

Note: Just so you know, I’ve already worked out one- to two-paragraph responses to almost all of these questions. I may post those at some future point, but not for a while at least, so you have a chance to wrestle through them yourself. I wouldn’t want to remove the learning experience of your doing this very practical “homework” to practice being a Berean!

Questions from Friends

The following questions come from friends of mine and they are presented here with their permission. These are very astute people, and I appreciate the hearts and minds for the Kingdom that I know undergird their concerns.

From “Celtic Son,” who is active in leading a church in Australia:

1. IF indicators do lead us to discern that an organization that’s become toxic CAN be repaired and renovated, what processes are there that can be engaged to redeem the organisation?

2. The church should operate in certain areas on a different set of moral values from the general society that the church is located in – how do we determine what those values are? What measures should the church engage to determine what aspects of behaviour or attitude from a leader in a church compromises church moral values, even if it complies with a society’s standards?

3. How could outsiders, particularly Christians who have genuine concern about the reputation of “the church” in the wider community, contribute meaningfully to this discussion with a redemptive outcome in mind?

4. It’s regularly said that “hurt people hurt people,” in what ways might we consider understanding and support for leaders who are abusive as the consequence of themselves being victims of abuse?

5. What could a reinstatement process look like for someone who has been removed from leadership of a Christian church or organisation, because of their abusive use of power?

6. What level of personal and corporate responsibility applies to co-leaders who fail to voice concerns about abuse of power when it is happening – and particularly in the case of people who appear to “jump on the bandwagon” after the fact?

7. What level of personal responsibility applies to people in a church congregation who fail to voice concerns about abuse of power when it is happening – and particularly in the case of people who appear to “jump on the bandwagon” after the fact?

8. With such a wide ranging understanding of Biblical teaching and published Christian materials, who has the right to make the significant point of accusing another of “heresy” and how should that be determined?

From Rachel Collinson:

9. Is there anything one can do to assist in the redemptive process of a leader about whom they are concerned?

Concluding Notes …

Thanks for your interest. I may respond to comments as time allows … but cannot guarantee doing so, due to an intense writing schedule and deadlines. For details on how I run my comments section, see the Comment Policies page.

[UPDATES: This post has been edited to correct minor mistakes, update the probable titles of subsequent posts, add a few notes, and insert (with their permission) questions posed by some friends of mine.]

Here are links to the entire series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse:

2 thoughts on “Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 1 – Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery

  1. Pingback: Mark Driscoll Stepping Down for 6 Weeks While Charges Investigated | Spiritual Sounding Board

  2. Pingback: Mark Driscoll’s Announcement at Mars Hill | Tall Skinny Kiwi

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