The Sun Sets on the Driscoll Dynasty: Why the Shift from Centralisation to Autonomous Local Churches might be both a good and a bad thing.

So, the Empire is over. Driscoll’s last book was eerily like some sort of proleptic irony. A picture of Driscoll, dressed in black, running from a hearse – the title Resurgence: Will Christianity have funeral or a future? , has, strangely been turned on its head. The media question over the last few months has not been “will Christianity have a future?”, but will “Mars Hill have a future?” We now have the answer to that question, no.

Mars Hill, as a centralised organisation that was built upon a one man multi-site corporate model is scheduled to be dissolved.

Shortly after Driscoll’s resignation, the leadership at Mars Hill have announced[1]:

Following much prayer and lengthy discussion with Mars Hill’s leadership, the board of Mars Hill has concluded that rather than remaining a centralized multi-site church with video-led teaching distributed to multiple locations, the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous self-governed entities. This means that each of our locations has an opportunity to become a new church, rooted in the best of what Mars Hill has been in the past, and independently led and run by its own local elder teams.

There are a number of encouraging aspects to that statement. If this goes ahead, it is clear that Mars Hill leaders are literally renouncing some of the crucial unhealthy elements of Mars Hill. The shift from centralisation to autonomous local churches is a sign that the idol of the empire has been surrendered and exchanged for a desire to preserve what is a really important – local church. The    shift from a board of executives governed by a CEO has been replaced by local churches which are governed by their “own local elder teams” is also encouraging as it shows that the celebrity evangelical pope model has been replaced by a more biblical elder-led model. These are encouraging and healthy signs. They demonstrate that the leaders have identified some of the worst elements of Marsh Hill and also some of the needed biblical corrections. Kudos.

However, the leaders have also acknowledged that this is only one possibility. There are a few other options for local Mars Hill existing campuses.  

Please be in prayer for your local elder teams as they contemplate the following options in the next few weeks: (1) becoming an independent, self-governed church; (2) merging with an existing church to create one independent, self-governed church; or (3) disbanding as a church and shepherding current members to find other local church homes. This decision will be made by your local church’s Lead Pastor and elder team.

Since options one and two are very similar, it is really the third option which is a sharp contrast. Option three would suggest not just an end to the Empire; it would be an end to the legacy of the Emperor. None of the Mars Hill church plants would exist; they would all be wiped off the map.

Which option Mars Hill campuses will take remains to be seen, and which option is better, is question which could be debated. Paul Tripp, former BoAA member at Mars Hill, upon resigning, declared that Mars Hill was “the most abusive and coercive” church he has ever worked with. Since this is something that seems to have been proven – the question needs to be asked, would campuses evolving into independent churches be a healthy move? Would it not be healthier for all members and leaders to be re-directed towards more established churches which do not have an ecclesiastical DNA of abuse and coercion?

While it is clear that the present Mars Hill leadership are striking at the root of the unhealthy culture (an unbiblical government) there is a possibility that the model they are looking to replace it with, Independence, may not actually help the campuses in the long-run. While it is true, that an elder-led autonomous model is a much better option than the corporate model, there are still inherent weaknesses within that model. Many good churches exist as independent churches, but bearing in mind that Mars Hill is a church in turmoil, independency may actually lead to a continuation of unhealthy church values and culture. While many independent churches have ‘eldership teams’, in reality they are often led by one senior leader who leads a team of middle management. In other words, the shift to independency may simply be the means by which Mars Hill moves from having one pope, to many popes.

The great revivalist, Jonathan Edwards, himself a pastor of an independent church, was once asked about his opinion about the Westminster Confession and Independency. Here is what he said:

“You are pleased, dear sir, very kindly to ask me, whether I could sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, and submit to the Presbyterian Form of Government. As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty; and as to Presbyterian Government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of Church government in this land, and the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the word of God, and the reason and nature of things.”

Edwards said: “I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of Church government in this land.” In other words, he recognised the weaknesses of independency. Independency can have the tendency to create a culture of conceit, confusion and instability. This is evidently true. All we need to do is look at the modern evangelical landscape which is littered with monuments of independency. All around we see churches led by leaders who simply do what is right in their own eyes.

However, given the culture of Mars Hill, Presbyterianism would not work either. “Mars Hill” churches need corrective input from outside. They need a broader accountability than that which they can provide for themselves. From this perspective, I have a tendency to lean towards option three as being the better option for the churches and their leaders. When a person has been in an unhealthy church, the best cure is a complete detox.

Given the history of Mars Hill, perhaps the disbanding of all campuses and transitioning the members into more orthodox and healthy churches is the best option. Maybe it is time for the new Calvinist campuses to read the rest of Calvin’s Institutes and to realise that independency is inconsistent with Calvinism. Maybe the best thing for the members is not to continue building the crumbling ruins which are the remnants of an empire of narcissism and egotism – maybe integration into a historic, established and Christ-centred denomination would prove to be the better option.