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Psychoneurologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Denise Buchanan, right, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on the second day of a summit called by Pope Francis at the Vatican on sex abuse in the Catholic Church on Feb. 22, 2019. Pope Francis has issued 21 proposals to stem the clergy sex abuse around the world, calling for specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops and for lay experts to be involved in abuse investigations. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

These scandals stand alongside abuses by prominent male church officials that have occurred in independent Christian communities, such as Harvest Bible ChapelWillow Creek Community Churchand Mars Hill Church.

Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.

Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.

Traitors during Christian persecution

Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.

The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.

While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.

Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”

Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.

Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.

The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.

In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.

The Donatist schism

Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.

They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.

They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.

In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.

Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.

Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.

In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.

Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.

Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”

By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.

Donatist beliefs

The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.

“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.

In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.

Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.

What can be learned today

Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.

This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.

Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.

However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities…

For the rest of the post…

The high-profile resignation points to new realities for leadership.

In light of this week’s events, the PARSE editors are lifting our longstanding ban on the discussion of Mark Driscoll to share this piece from William Vanderbloemen. – Paul

This week, amidst mounting pressure, Pastor Mark Driscoll resigned his position as Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church, which he founded in 1996 and grew to14,000 in weekly attendance over 15 campuses. His resignation was sudden, would have been unforeseen by most even a year ago. There was no sexual scandal. His board took over 1000 hours to review his work and decided that while Pastor Driscoll had made mistakes, he was not unfit for ministry and they had not called for his resignation.

This high profile a resignation as a voluntary act of a founding pastor is unprecedented. It has created a firestorm of online speculation.

Regardless of what opinion people have on Pastor Driscoll or Mars Hill Church, this resignation signals a new day in pastoral leadership, and a shift in how leadership is both validated or invalidated in at least three critical ways:

1. Social media has impacted church leadership even more than it has businesses.

There’s an undeniable pattern in church history: every major church growth breakthrough happens on the heels of a communication breakthrough.

Every major church growth breakthrough happens on the heels of a communication breakthrough.

Rome built roads, and then Paul planted churches. Alexander conquered the then known world and gave it one common language, and the New Testament was canonized in his Koine Greek. The printing press was invented, and Martin Luther put a Bible in the hands of anyone who wanted one. Now, as we sit on the heels of the most seminal communication breakthrough ever, the church is poised for enormous growth and expansion.

Mars Hill Church was one of the first churches to leverage social media to help grow a platform and a congregation (Pastor Driscoll has nearly half a million Twitter followers alone). Many other churches followed suit, and now, evangelical pastors are viewed by Twitter as powerhouses. Enough so that some time back, Twitter moved a key executive to Atlanta just to be close to the high number of evangelical pastors in the area.

But with that opportunity comes danger as well. Just as social media and the hyper connected internet age helped catapult Mars Hill onto a national scene, they also played a key role in the turbulence at the church that led to Pastor Driscoll’s resignation. Daily blogs from across the country criticized the church, the board, and/or Pastor Driscoll. Some of the most popular posts were from people who have never even attended Mars Hill.

For the rest of the post…

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