An Ecclesiological Thought on Mars Hill’s Dissolving

Mars Hill LogoMany things have been changing in Seattle over the past several months with the challenges presented to Mars Hill Church. With the resignation of Pastor Mark Driscoll, it has been an important time to pay attention to what is going on ecclesiologically with their church. Since Mars Hill was such a significant model for many churches inside and outside the Acts 29 network, particularly with details about eldership and polity, any shift in this mega-ministry will have reverberations throughout evangelicalism.

Today, the leadership board of Mars Hill made the decision to dissolve the church and allow the various multi-sites to create either regional units or autonomous local congregations. You can read about this decision over at the ChristianPost.com site.

This decision is significant and historic. Having just completed my dissertation on the role of local church autonomy in the first two centuries, seeing this kind of shift, as sudden as it has happened, is poignant. As the leadership board of Mars Hill Church has made this move to dissolution and approved a plan to create autonomous churches, they are opting to reinforce a more mindful New Testament model of church that values the nature of the church in the first century. It is an important and helpful moment.

Mars Hill has been a major influencer, on the level of Saddleback, Willow Creek, Northpoint, and some others, on the contemporary ecclesial environment of evangelicalism. It can be said the Pastor Mark Driscoll has been as much an ecclesiological influence as other aspects of his theological ministry. With Mars Hill deciding to dissolve corporately and allow the remaining campuses to take on their own, independent identities, this marks one answer to a lingering question about the multi-site model in contemporary evangelicalism.

Mars Hill’s situation was unique; it was a church with 15 campuses across 5 states. It existed as an autonomous (or free) church ecclesiologically but did not accord that same autonomy to its multi-sites in these ranging locations. One question that seemed to always exist for Mars Hill, and that exists for other multi-site churches, is: what happens with the leader, or major figure, leaves the church? Mars Hill has provided a poignant answer.

For those who fall into a free church, or independent, model of NT ecclesiology, each local church is networksunderstood as an independent congregation that is to be free from external pressure and influence in all matters of governance, finances, and even theological decisions. While associations and networks are free to disfellowship local churches who fall out of accord with them, they are not permitted to have authority in that local congregation. Instead, the members of that local congregation are the ultimate decision makers for all these matters related to their, and only their, local church. (My particular concern is not to address all multi-site churches, indeed many are well within the NT model, but instead to point out that when a local church creates campuses outside of a natural region (where they could easily assemble as one body) they step into a dangerous area ecclesiologically.)

Many multi-site churches, specifically those with campuses outside of their local region, tread a fine line of violating local church autonomy for their extended campuses when they deny these aspects of local governance. These churches end up resembling more of an episcopal parish system than a congregational ecclesiology.

Of course it is also notable that many multi-site churches are personality driven and assemble many followers and members based on the senior pastor who is the primary communicator. Mars Hill was one of these kinds of churches. Their decision is, as a result, notable.

I am thankful that Mars Hill has made the theologically, and ecclesiologically, bold step of releasing their campuses to go off on their own. May we remember to pray for this larger corporate body of Mars Hill and then also for the, now, independent congregations that used to be part of this church. May we also continue to pray for the restoration of Pastor Mark Driscoll to ministry, surely he deserves this and we are better for it. This is a significant move that will, prayerfully, have an impact on how local congregations throughout Christianity better understand and apply the NT model of congregational (or free) church polity. We are stronger as we accurately reflect a proper NT model.