Introducing My Post
This post presents my case for a civil suit against Mars Hill as a biblically reasonable move to halt the corporate shut-down and (hopefully) bring about justice for those treated unrighteously, give relief for abuse survivors, and reinfuse integrity into a Christian witness in the public square.
I have studied Mars Hill Church intensively off and on for months now. I’ve concluded the organizational and spiritual situation there is dire. So, when it comes to writing capstone articles based on my research into Mars Hill Church, this is one of several posts that I’ve felt the most “fear and trembling” about. Their paradigm is excruciatingly complicated and the meltdown extremely messy. And so, I really have felt the weight of responsibility to consider various angles carefully when evaluating whether a civil suit against Mars Hill is warranted. I have concluded that it is.
In laying out my rationale, I knew I needed to encompass what the New Testament says about lawsuits between believers, while also dealing with civil and legal requirements that churches are mandated to follow as non-profits constituted for the public benefit and not for private gain. I could not downplay the role of biblical mandates and/or wisdom, but also needed to play up the responsibility of those in Mars Hill for discernment, especially for those who may inherit legal responsibility if unresolved issues remain and follow them to their new places of ministry.
Final introductory notes: I am not a lawyer or an accountant. My primary training is as a linguist, which is mostly about pattern recognition. My secondary trainings include strategic foresight and futurist skills, which are about identifying possibilities for action in the face of change and consequences, and finding concrete indicators of qualitative impact from efforts in social transformation. Also, I have worked for and volunteered at Christian and community non-profit organizations and churches since 1972, and done research writing about toxic organizational systems since 2008. I have brought all that I can to this task, both personally and professionally.
Key Problem: Significant “Unfinished Business” – With Both Insiders and Outsiders
The current leadership at Mars Hill Church seems hell-bent on dissolving by the end of 2014 what had once been a $28 million organization with 15 campuses. Multiple spin-offs from former Mars Hill campuses will go independent, or merge with existing churches, or cease to exist and former members and attenders find somewhere else to go. All of this is set to be accomplished by January 1, 2015.
The key problem with their plan is that Mars Hill still has a series of crucial unresolved issues. Also, the undue haste of this shutdown gives the impression of current leaders rushing in order to avoid taking responsibility for a system they’ve benefited from. But the absence of this corporate entity will not absolve them of responsibility.
While the impending shut-down plans may sound appropriate, there is a massive amount of very specific “unfinished business” that should be attended to in three different areas, as I noted in detail a full four weeks ago in my critique of the three official options for dissolution of Mars Hill Church.
- Mars Hill has failed to show robust transparency and accountability about significant financial issues, meeting relatively minimal standards.
- Mars Hill has failed in its governance and organizational systems through misusing its by-laws and by exerting authoritarian dictates.
- Mars Hill created a long track record of untrustworthy communications through “spin,” issuance of conflicting statements, revision or deletion of online materials without notice, etc.
Basically, nothing has changed in a month since I posted that article. At least, nothing apparent has been resolved; all the news has been of shut-downs and spin-offs. So, the longer the silence continues on the substantive issues remaining, the more my overall distrust increases for those responsible – but who continue acting irresponsibly.
I realize that, as an outside observer, in some ways I have no standing to criticize. I also realize that Mars Hill insiders have a far more nuanced understanding of the depth of the personal damage done and the breadth of the system toxicity. However, what other standing do I need? I am both a member of the public who has witnessed the destructive impact Mars Hill has inflicted, and part of the larger Body of Christ whose witness is tied to theirs. And my message is stark:
I have come to believe that there are weighty spiritual, organizational, and legal issues still incumbent on Mars Hill Church leaders to resolve. These are not trivial disputes or mere differences of opinion among disciples of Jesus. They are major responsibilities to complete as both a ministry and as a tax-exempt non-profit corporation. However, no word or actions of resolution have been forthcoming.
Therefore, it is a legitimate endeavor for Christians directly affected by the actions of Mars Hill Church representatives to file a civil lawsuit against those responsible. That includes the current (and potentially past) corporate officers, executive elders, Board of Advisors and Accountability, and staff of Mars Hill Church. May such action serve to redress their victims’ grievances and restore some semblance of positive public reputation for Christianity that has been degraded by actions of Mars Hill Church leaders past and present.
Since you’re reading this post, I assume you have enough background information to navigate the historical concerns about Mars Hill. So, I’m not going to write an in-depth analysis of all the charges, or re-document evidences, which I’ve already covered in the Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Research Guide series. Basically, I have two main issues to contend with here. First is to consider the biblical mandates in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. Second are the issues inherent in tax-exempt non-profit American churches as “hybrid organizations,” by being inescapably a spiritual + organizational + legal entity.
1. Do Biblical Mandates of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 Apply to Dismantling of Mars Hill Church or Not?
1 CORINTHIANS 6:1-8. If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. (NIV, from Bible Gateway. Emphasis added.)
In how I read this passage, it is speaking about differences of opinions, disputes, and agreements gone wrong between Christians. Paul may be using exaggeration to emphasize his point by calling the issues “trivial cases,” but it is clear that wisdom is needed to judge between the sides in such disputes. In my understanding, a wisdom decision is a non-moral issue. That means it is not an absolute sin issue of black-or-white, right-or-wrong, obey-or-disobey. Instead, it is about coming up with a relevant solution that is relatively wise, not foolish; which leans toward the good to best possible options, not the poorest to worst.
True, when it comes to Mars Hill Church, there are a few unresolved issues are among believers – but only a very few, in comparison to those with outside authorities. Remaining issues with believers include the following – none of which are exactly “trivial” matters:
- The rebuffed appeals for reconciliation with those who were spiritually harmed by leaders and/or teachings, or wrongly or harshly disciplined.
- The exoneration of Paul Petry and Bent Meyer for wrongful termination, church discipline, and shunning.
- Issuance of the promised investigation report about Mark Driscoll’s character issues and disqualification from ministry.
However, the other allegations/issues are between those responsible for the organizational and legal entity of Mars Hill Church and the IRS; and the state of Washington and any other states where there were/are campuses; and any other relevant city or county entities, or regulatory agencies; and all creditors. These potential issues with outside authorities – which have overriding legal jurisdiction and/or fiduciary connections with Mars Hill Church – include:
- Inurement through (1) use of tax-exempt non-profit funds for the personal and financial benefit of Mark and Grace Driscoll via the Real Marriage contract with ResultSource to make it a New York Times best-seller, and (2) through excessive benefits to executive staff.
- Organizational conflicts of interest on the part of past and present executive elders, Board of Elders, and Board of Advisors and Accountability.
- Misappropriation of funds that were designated by Mars Hill and solicited for specific purposes, but were not so used (e.g., the Global Fund and the Jesus Festival.)
- Compliance with laws and regulations relating to tax-exempt non-profits; for-profit corporations, companies, and partnerships; trusts, CRUTs, and other financial entities with connections to Mars Hill Church.
Some of these actions may have involved fellow believers from Mars Hill Church, but the dispute is overwhelmingly with outside civil authorities. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 does not give Christians license to disobey our government and its laws, does it? This is so, even if some authoritarian groups have apparently relied on misapplications of that passage to manipulate subordinates into leaving all matters of conflict to the church’s leaders so they can “police our own” and even to discourage them from reporting to civil authorities issues of known/suspected law-breaking by church leaders or attenders. And Romans 13:1-7 declares that civil authorities are ordained of God, and are to be obeyed by those who follow Jesus Christ.
ROMANS 13:1-7. Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (NIV, Bible Gateway)
So, failure to be responsive to the civil authorities would be sin/evil in terms of spiritual consequences, but also could have legal consequences. Again, there is nothing in-house about these four issues, and nothing trivial in how they may involve other believers.
2. American “Churches” are Hybrid Organizations
An American “church” these days really isn’t what it was in Bible times. Then, they were organic groups of local people. Nowadays, churches are typically a three-fold organizational hybrid of virtual parts:
- A spiritual entity with relational-pastoral responsibilities as mandated by the New Testament.
- A tax-exempt organizational entity with administrative responsibilities as mandated by IRS codes for transparency, accountability, no conflicts of interest, no excessive financial or personal benefits to insiders, etc.
- A legal entity with other civic responsibilities as mandated by laws regarding corporations, property owners, zoning ordinances, etc.
Remaining Mars Hill leaders give every evidence of failing on all three facets of this sort of hybrid organization, as demonstrated by the serious internal and external issues listed in section #1 on biblical mandates. If they claim that non-disclosure agreements prevent them from talking, that means that they are using organizational and legal tactics to trump the spiritual strategy of telling the truth and taking responsibility.
At any rate, it appears that a legal discovery process via a civil lawsuit is the only action left to stop the potential raiding of $20M-plus in corporate assets and to pry open its chamber of secrets. Access to financial records, correspondence, and corporate documents may lead to confirming evidence of illegal and otherwise harmful activities – many of which have already been listed/suggested above. And so, a civil suit might at least offer some kind of redress so people know the truth of what happened. For instance, a forced forensic accounting would track who had charge of various Mars Hill corporate assets and what they did with the funds people gave in good faith that they would be well stewarded.
In short, a civil suit could provide some form of JUSTICE, in shining the light of truth into the darkness of that corporation; and RELIEF, in confirming abuse survivors’ sanity in the face of shunning, gaslighting, and misrepresentation of events; and SERVICE, by filling out the story of what truly happened in order to help prevent other churches from falling into such traps in the future.
Also, if nothing is attempted at the legal level, then there is a very strong probability that leaders of all Mars Hill spin-offs will simply carry the same toxic organizational DNA and cultures of fear and spiritual bullying into their own new entities. That means the drama will be repeated and the number of post-Mars-Hill victims will be multiplied. And I find that especially troublesome, as one who has served on eight church planting teams and in a number of other non-profit organizations and social enterprises.
In Conclusion …
Finally, I would remind us that non-profit organizations like Mars Hill Church are authorized to be tax-exempt strictly on the basis of serving in the public’s interest – and not for private benefit of insiders. Mars Hill Church leaders at the end of 2014 seem to me to be continuing their toxic story of apparently feeding private interests, sadly, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, there has been no public disclosure as to any impending actions to be taken by the Washington State Attorney General’s office in regard to the dismantling of Mars Hill Church. Legal action by them is still a possibility – but why should our pursuit of truth and resolution to sin depend upon a political entity? And what kind of public witness to righteousness would it be for Christians to do what we can ourselves to confront actions of our own fellow believers who have harmed the public interests? This, I believe, is the harder road in the short run but the wiser one for the long run.
I had hoped Mars Hill Church leaders would take this road themselves after the resignations of Mark Driscoll and Sutton Turner; to their shame, they have not. So, if a civil suit is filed by those with legal standing, I wish them well in their pursuit of a just cause. And I hope the demise and dismantling of Mars Hill will stand as a watchword and a warning against misusing Christ’s name and His people for enhancement of power, influence, and wealth.
Summary of My Rationale, For People Who Process Best With Lists
This post details why I believe a civil suit does NOT contradict biblical mandates given us in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 for the church, and why it potentially addresses key unresolved issues for Mars Hill Church as a tax-exempt organization with legal and regulatory responsibilities to the public.
For those who process information best with lists, here is my rationale, in brief, for why filing a lawsuit against Mars Hill Church is legitimate.
- Mark Driscoll, through Mars Hill Church, sought to wield significant influence in the Body of Christ and also in culture, which he/they did.
- However, this was done at the high cost of damaging disciples and also creating a terrible name for Christ and Christianity in the community, through the Mars Hill culture of contempt, money-mongering, and idolizing of power.
- There are numerous allegations of misconduct outstanding, some of which may have involved activities that are illegal for tax-exempt, non-profit organizations. These are issues of law and ethics we are bound to obey (Romans 13:1-7), not mere opinion differences or trivial disputes between fellow believers as highlighted in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
- Also, there is an apparent rush to dismantle what was once a multi-campus entity valued at multiple millions of dollars, while maintaining silence about unresolved organizational questions and issues about the current entities that make up Mars Hill Church.
- Dissolution of the related 501(c)3 non-profit, LLCs, for-profit companies, etc., will not absolve current leaders of their responsibilities for past problems.
- There has been no public disclosure of any impending actions to be taken by the Washington State Attorney General’s office in regard to the dismantling of Mars Hill Church, and the IRS has not been requiring churches to give full disclosure of “excessive benefits” and conflicts of interest, nor investigating churches on possible violations of regulations, for approximately the past five years.
- Therefore, I believe a lawsuit may be the only way left to (1) attempt forcing disclosure of critical information under oath, (2) delay the closure of Mars Hill Church in what appears to be an attempt by remaining leadership to remove their responsibility, and hopefully (3) repair and restore a more positive reputation in the public eye.
In my opinion, to deny the validity of a lawsuit against the agents in charge of the demise and damages of Mars Hill Church, we must do one or more of the following:
- Negate the reality that certain alleged actions by Mars Hill’s directors and staff involve matters of law and regulatory requirements, not merely “spiritual matters.”
- Deny that Christians have responsibilities to God for fulfilling civic duties to obey governmental leaders and laws.
- Minimize the damages done by Mars Hill personnel to fellow Christians and to the reputation of Christ in surrounding communities and in society.
- Refuse the truth that repeated warnings to Mars Hill leaders about their need for transparency and accountability were warranted.
Former Executive Elders of Mars Hill Church May Face RICO Lawsuit, by Warren Throckmorton.
Mars Hill leaders may face racketeering charges, by Mark Woods, Christian Today.
Also see Warren Throckmorton’s blog and his tags on:
- RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) lawsuit.
- Brian Fahling. (The lawyer for those filing a civil suit.)
- ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which may be named in a separate but related case).
UPDATE August 17, 2015. An official website detailing the RICO lawsuit against Mars Hill Church was launched approximately August 15th. See Mars Hill Lawsuit.