“Turn or Burn”
“Repent for your sin”
“God hates fags”
Go to any deceased soldier’s funeral in the proximity of Topeka, Kansas and further afield you will no doubt see signs with words like those above plastered on placards thanks to the Westboro Baptist Church. Or go to a porn convention and you will hear people shouting similar slogans through bullhorns from outside aimed at everyone inside. It even seems bands like Switchfoot aren’t safe from the hate these messages spout.
Over the weekend reports of the near death of Fred Phelps; the former leader of the aforementioned “religious” group the Westboro Baptist Church; ranged from him being on the ‘edge of death’ to already having passed away. (As of print it seems the former are more accurate).
Nevertheless it has started people preparing for what it seems a now more closer inevitable death than we thought. Many of the tweets and facebook messages have been extremely gracious to Fred and his church. Choosing to send love in the fact of so much hate. For a church that has spent it’s entire existence making it’s goal to tell widowers, and children whose parents have died, the LGBT community and pretty much everyone else that they are going to spend eternity in Hell this kind of response is actually quite surprising. Surprising, yet hopeful.
When someone devotes their lives to such disgusting hate and ensuring that message is spread, it is hopeful for humanity that we can rise above it and simply show grace to those people who themselves refuse to show any. To return hate with love is more than rising above it but is to be fully human and to offer the person full of hate the chance to also experience being fully human. To experience love and peace for maybe the first time in their life.
For some, there is even hope that even at this late stage, there may be time for Fred Phelps to repent just as he has called so many to do over the years.
Another story of repentance this week arose with a letter from Mars Hill Seattle church, Mark Driscoll, appearing on reddit. Mark Driscoll has millions of followers. His books sell well (although maybe not as well as we thought), he has helped to plant thousands of churches worldwide through Acts 29, his podcasts certainly receive millions of downloads and he has encouraged many, many people in their faith.
There is another group of people who have questioned many of his practices and theology, claiming it constitutes spiritual abuse and over the last several months an increasing number of former staff and church members have come forward claiming how they have been mistreated with stories of the control that Mars Hill exerts over their members.
With Mark Driscoll’s recent letter there has been hope from many quarters that He is finally owning some of his own sin and from others a quiet weariness and hesitancy.
I am further than anything close to being a Mark Driscoll fan but to be honest I can see both sides.
Most of us reading this and most of us who have heard of Mark Driscoll have never met him. Most of us don’t know him. We may have heard his sermons, we may have read his books, we may follow him on twitter but we don’t know Mark Driscoll. Does this mean that when he claims things like this or when he does something unethical we should keep quiet about? Not at all. But more often than not the problems we have with people can be very quickly dissipated if we spent some time with them.
When we begin to realize that we’re not that different.
They may have sin that is visible to the world, but we still have sin. The agenda we place on some people like Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell may not be true at all. In fact, I would guess that it hardly ever is. But yet it is easier to assume that Mark Driscoll’s intention was to sell more books so to make more money for Himself or his church than to see it (as misjudged as it may have been) as a way to increase Mars Hill capacity to spread Jesus’ love. Or to decide that Rob Bell is trying to lead people astray and away from Jesus just because some of his theology looks different to yours rather than to see that He cares an incredible amount for those who have been hurt by the church and is trying to reclaim the freeing message of Jesus.
That levels the playing field. How different would grace look if we began there?
It should, hopefully make us stop and take stock.
Often, when a high profile leader makes a public apology our initial reaction is to treat it with a slight stand backish weariness.
Some might hear their words and think yeah but what if they don’t mean it, or what if nothing changes, or what about all the people that they have hurt? We all in different ways want to control repentance and grace and make it fit the mould we ourselves have designed. Yet, Jesus himself in Matthew 7 tells us that we will know the true spirit of someone by the fruit they grow. If we want to see whether someone has really changed, watch them.
If we want to see whether Mark Driscoll will really change watch him.
But this can never be the end because if at once they revert to old behaviors do they suddenly become exempt from grace and restoration in the future? Do we believe, just because Paul says that we shouldn’t keep sinning in order to receive more grace, that grace has a limit?
Or do we really enjoy having someone to vilify because it makes us feels better about ourselves? Our trash is piled neatly away behind the house rather than out front for the neighbors to see.
Do we let sin that causes pain and damage to peoples lives, go unstopped? Well no. That would be ridiculous. Should we get angry if we see a leader acting in a way that is abusive? Of course we should. If you don’t then you are cut off from what it means to feel alive. It this simple? Very rarely. Should we treat someone who lies to someone as the same as someone who traffics people? Obviously not.
We should always stand up for injustice and the poor. We can never let the evils that carry on every single day often on our doorstep go unnoticed or blatantly ignored. We should always and unequivocally counter them with love. There should be repercussions for some people because occasionally that is the only way that they can be prevented from continuing their abuse and subsequently bring healing to their own lives.
Yet if we do this and don’t question the places in our own lives that we cause hurt everyday, then we are the ones being fooled. WBC may cause deep anguish and fear in the many people they confront but if I single them out without acknowledging or diminishing the very real hurt that my wife feels if I lie to her, then I am blind. In that moment my wife isn’t too concerned with WBC. I will have hurt her and that will be her reality.
A case in point. Last week I wrote a blog on views held by John Piper that I almost completely disagreed with. Do I still believe his views are damaging and should be drastically rethought? Yes. Did I probably let my anger come out too much in the post? Also, yes. So for that I am sorry.
Which is another reason I welcome Mark Driscoll’s apology. Our individualistic Western version of Christianity has made confession all about the person confessing. It is about us making ourselves feel better, but confession at it’s heart is about restoration for all. In his letter Mark Driscoll wrote about opening up to his wife,
When we recently discussed this plan to reset our life together, late at night on the couch, she started crying tears of joy. She did not know how to make our life more sustainable, and did not want to discourage me, but had been praying that God would reveal to me a way to reset our life. Her prayer was answered, and for that we are both relieved at what a sustainable, joyful, and fruitful future could be. As an anniversary present, I want to give her more of her best friend.
Confession not only brings healing to the sinner but it breathes new life mysteriously and beautifully into the community they live in. Their wife, their kids, their church community, people they don’t even know. It’s about bringing back the fullness of life to everyone.
This is why we should accept Mark Driscoll’s apology at face value. Forgiveness is a crucial part for full restoration to take place but you don’t have to wait until someone is truly sorry to forgive them. If we do we are only allowing ourselves to continue in bitterness and we may never be free.
Is our aim truly to see all things restored including all people or do we still like the comfort of the divisions that all of our pain has caused? We have a choice. Do we join the party and welcome someone home who has decided to let their pretense down and turned around or do we behave like the older brother and complain that we have never messed up like that and argue against why it should be so easy for our brother to be accepted again.
If Mark Driscoll’s apology achieves one thing let it be this. That we can be encouraged that owning our own sin can not only free us but others. That when our “enemy” lets down their guard then in a strange ironic way we can love them even more because it can break down the barriers which block out our own sins. That it challenges our own perceptions of who is worthy of grace and who is not. (Hint: the latter group is empty). That it challenges us to be more and more like Jesus every day.
So, and I never thought I would ever write this, I will leave the last word to Mark Driscoll.
Thank you Mark.
Personally, I find this all relieving. The pressure and pace has increased every year since I started in 1996. I don’t want to be burned out or angry, and I want to become more like Jesus every year.