Red Flags & Smart Moves

Below is an excerpt of The Wartburg Watch's analysis of our story,  It was originally published on their blog as "Run Baby Run: Personal Insights on Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll".  You can read it (in full) here.

So many of our readers picked up on various aspects of Sophia’s near escape from the jaws of Mars Hill. We wanted to add our own thoughts to the mix. TWW thanks Sophia for providing up with an excellent insight on how not how to do an end run around a legalistic church.
Each bold statement is a lesson, which is followed up by a quote from her post. This list is by no means exhaustive.
If you have been a member of a good church in the past, use that experience to judge the new church. “For five years, that town and church brought a lot of healing and freedom for each of us”
Beware of new church plants. These are often used as training grounds for inexperienced pastors who will readily imitate, to a tee, their boss pastor. “We ended up moving to one of the towns in which Mars Hill would be planting a church.”
A church that gets a lot of press and hype usually does so by publicity stunts and /or a charismatic, authoritarian leader. Remember this mantra: hype does not usually equate to loving and supportive. “I had heard all the hype about Mars Hill from my Reformed friends.”
If you are new to an area and are seeking friends, be aware that you are emotionally vulnerable. Church is a good place to make friends. But, you want them to be normal friends, not “friends with an agenda. “I was moving to a town where I knew NOBODY, and I liked that Mars Hill had community groups, as most of my friends back home were from church and I knew this would be the main way I would make new friends.”
Red Flag: Care groups/study groups which discuss theology and sermons, rarely the Bible. This is a way to control the agenda of the pastor.The Bible can get people riled up with all that talk about the Holy Spirit, priesthood of the believer and kings and priests that did evil in the sight of the Lord. “There was a lot of “theological sword play”, and not a whole lot of Bible. People would discuss doctrine and concepts, and I would find myself trying to figure out what they were talking about.”
Do not assume that you can change things. Most likely, the agenda you see is the agenda you get. Use an old axiom that I learned in business school. If I knew nothing would ever change, would I still work here? Understand that the leaders of these groups are reflecting the “rules” of the church. That is why they were chosen as leaders. “We could reason that these were believers from many different churches coming together to be a part of a new church plant, and that it would take time for everyone to get on the same page. We were determined to be the “salt and light” and would try to bring it back to the Word.” “We thought perhaps we could bring balance."
Red Flag: Young, inexperienced men are chosen to be leaders (either in care groups, as elders, deacons, etc.) Many pastors with authoritarian issues stack their leadership groups, elders, etc. with young men who tend to be idealistic, prone to hero worship, and easy to mold. If you see guys in their 20s getting appointed to key leadership positions, you can assume an agenda is in play. “This guy (new care group leader) was no more than 25 years old!
Do not assume that “care groups” have been formed as a place for Bible study and support. In fact, in many churches, these groups are used as a way to keep tabs on the flock. We have seen this in many other groups, such as reported by former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries. (Hmmm, maybe Driscoll dd learn something from ol’ CJ). “It was later revealed to us by other group members that our original community group leader was actually the “keeper of the gate”. He would report back to the two head pastors about the people in the group and whether or not he thought they were fit for leadership!
Red Flag: All activities and friendships revolve around the church. It is a calculated way to make the person feel that their life is dependent on the church, ensuring loyalty. “Over time it seemed that being involved with Mars Hill took over our lives. I found myself with the women of my community group up to 4 days per week. If there was an event or 3 day weekend, there was something to go to, all in the name of building “community” and “doing life” together”
Smart Move: Pull back when you are unsure. It is time for reassessment. “It began to take its toll, and I felt like I needed to establish some “margin”. I pulled out of children’s ministry, took a break from play dates and bible studies, and spent A LOT of time in the Word. In the next week, all the troubling pieces of the puzzle began to come together.”
Red Flag: Doctrine trumps grace and Holy Spirit. Doctrine can be used as a means to control the flock. Be especially aware of doctrine that stresses sinfulness over forgiveness and grace. This is often used as a means to control a member who gets out of line. For example, if you have a suggestion for the pastor, he can then tell you that you are sinful and a dumb sheep and need to repent. (See SGM Survivors). “It is not balanced with the LOVE of God, the GRACE of God, and there is very little emphasis (if any) on living a Spirit led life. Whenever I bring up the Holy Spirit more than once, it seems to make people uncomfortable.
Red Flag: Our church and its members are right; other Christians are not. This is one of the markers of cult groups. “There is a definite sense of ELITISM. Pride in Mars Hill, and it is clear that we have the “perfect” doctrine. There is much talk of Christians who think they are saved but really aren't or sleepy Christians who need to be woken up (which leaves the unstated concept that if they switched over to MH then their doctrine would be right and they would really be saved or that we are the ones to help wake them with our doctrine."
Red Flag: Overemphasis of one or two secondary doctrines. This represents a lopsided agenda and indicates the pastor is not interested in the overall story of faith.“The distinctive of complementarianism seems innocent enough on the surface. But it is a constant thing (almost like reminding a woman of her place), and it seems like the church feels a need to "beat" us over the head with this." 
Smart assessment: Just because a church encourages certain freedoms (alcohol consumption, etc) does not mean they are not extremely legalistic in other areas. (Major applause for this observation).“MH preaches freedom…freedom to drink beer or wine or go to the pub, etc However, I feel that there is a legalistic overtone to MH. You are free to do those things but there does not seem to be a freedom in worship, freedom to operate in the gifts, or freedom to hold the elders accountable."
Red Flag: Only that church’s music selection is doctrinally correct.“MH has basically said that it does not embrace most mainstream Christian music but prefers to use its own music and revamped traditional hymns.”
Red Flag: The leaders of the church are not accountable to the members.
“The membership covenant emphasized submission to elder authority and being held accountable and church discipline. There is no provision for how one can hold a leader or elder accountable or question them in regards to inappropriate behavior. Read it here.” 
Red Flag: Membership covenants with requirements for behavior-including monitoring of monetary giving and sins! Both of these items can be used to control members.
  • “You did a membership interview. In that interview they talked with you.“
  • “I believe you made your giving pledge,. At some point we were told that your community group leader would “hold you accountable” (aka question you) if you were not meeting your pledge.”
  • "You had to confess a sin that you still struggle with"
Smart, yet painful, Move: Both Sophia and her husband wisely assessed the issues even with the understanding that they might lose friends.  “I finally (reluctantly) asked my husband if he had any concerns/red flags about Mars Hill. I say reluctantly because I knew he would, and I knew that these were irreconcilable and that we would probably leave over them. I feared that I would lose the only friends I had."
Smart Move: They decided to leave without discussing their concerns. They demonstrated a savvy understanding that their reasons would not be well received. In fact, sharing any problems with the church will be looked upon as divisive and could be used as a means to “discipline” you or even chase you to another church which happened to your glamorous blog queen.Such things can be easily dispatched but it ain't pleasant-speaking from personal experience. “Due to the whole “will not be divisive” clause in their documents, we both decided that we wanted to keep our reasons private and not cause division among our community group by raising questions on “secondary” or “open handed” issues.“
Smart Move: They sent exact copies of their resignation emails to everyone in the church that they felt should know. It was also wise to not talk to them.“We sent an email (cut and paste so there was no confusion and everyone got the same story) to our leaders and anyone whom we felt we owed at least a goodbye because of the “close” relationships we had built in community group.”
Smart move: They gave no explanation other than “being called elsewhere.” The church will have to work hard to come up with a way to control their departure.”Our email was kind, we said that we felt we were being called elsewhere (we had not found another church yet), and that we loved them and wished them well. We were optimistic in thinking that the church is universal and that we would maintain the friendships we had built.”
Red Flag: Supposed friends exhibit irritation and asked for reasons. Smart Move: Sophia refused. “A few friends responded passionately and immediately, wanting reasons. We did not feel it was wise to share reasons so we said that we disagreed on some of what Mars Hill considered “open handed” issues and for us they were held tightly in our “closed hand”. We were trying very hard to leave well.”
Smart move: Do not meet with a care group leader or pastor who claims to want to send you off well. They don't! “Our community group leader emailed my husband and asked/pushed that my husband call him so they could talk Based on the leader’s personality, we knew that it would not end well. My husband informed the leader that he was welcome to email him his questions, but that we both felt resolute in our decision.”
Red Flag: Total silence from “friends” in church. Remember, your leave-taking is interpreted (rightly so) of problems with their church. They cannot deal with that because they believe their church to be “the best.” Also, during this period of silence, the “leadership” is trying to figure out how to deal with you. In this instance, silence is NOT golden. It is merely a temporary ceasefire. “The silence from the leadership, and some of the people I considered friends, was deafening. I was crushed! This was my only group of friends in this town, and I felt like everything was being taken from me, and I was having to start all over again.”
Smart Move: They realized that they are not required to ask permission to leave, give a reason for leaving, or meet with anyone regarding the departure. The church leadership tries to impose meetings, judgments and requirements on the leave takers. When the couple refuses to respond, they will become more insulting as they desperately try to control the couple and save face at the same time.    “About a week later, my husband and I finally received an absolutely horrible email from our community group leader. Although we never became members, they were trying to require us to explain so they could “bless us and send us out joyfully”. Based on previous interactions, we knew it would be a very bad idea to attend our community group under these circumstances.
In a nutshell, our community group leader questioned our ability to discern God’s leading, suggested that it might be our own motives (huh?), and if so, we were endangering our family and hurting the church. It was apparent in the email that all of the community group members (our friends) had compared notes on their interactions with us. We had not found a new church (we were new to the area and had only attended Mars Hill), and were told that not having a church was isolation from God’s people (because I have no other Christian friends?). My husband’s ability to lead our family was questioned. It was implied that we were “consumer Christians” and although we had not become members, we still needed to answer to them since we were regular attenders.
We were then accused of causing division (by talking to our friends), fleeing community, and hiding from leadership. We were informed that we were being removed from the community group and “The City” (MH internal facebook-like website). After that email, our community group leader wanted my husband to call him so they could sit down and discuss the matter together.”
Smart move: Looking for the good in the midst of the bad.
“We have never again heard from any of our friends in that group. I have maintained one friendship with someone from Mars Hill, and she is the saving grace that reminds me that most of the people are just victims of a controlling system.”

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