Six Reflections After Mars Hill

The wreckage that’s caused when the role of the law is misunderstood in the life of the church.

David Zahl / 12.7.21

When I try to hold together both the beautiful and the sad, I confess I feel a deep melancholy. And I kind of think that’s right. That’s how it’s supposed to be when we hold together goodness and brokenness.”

Mike Cosper offers that admission in the closing minutes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, and I have a hunch his feeling is shared by many. I know I share it, not only when it comes to church but life itself. So much love, so much pain. It’s too much sometimes.

I felt this melancholy particularly strongly after finishing the podcast. The sadness had to do with the individual suffering that Mike uncovered, yes, but it also had to do with the strange mixture of vindication, regret, and exhaustion it conjured in me.

People will say that Mars Hill is a cautionary tale about narcissism in the church.[1] About what happens when narcissism meets high anthropology meets demoralized young men meets the Internet. Or you could hear it as a tragic argument in favor of denominational hierarchies. And it is those things. But it is more than that.

I almost hate to say it: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill may first and foremost be a cautionary tale about what happens when law and gospel get confused in Christian ministry. I’ve grown sheepish about wielding that critique in recent years, mainly out of fear of sounding like a broken record or, worse, uncreative. A person gets tired of banging the same drum, especially one that so routinely gets dismissed as a Lutheran eccentricity. But it is unavoidable here, and illustrates the stakes of our Mockingbird project better than I would have ever wished.

In one sense, Mike and his team took us on a 20-hour long journey into the wreckage caused when the role of the law is misunderstood in the life of the church — something Mockingbird was founded in large part to address. (Probably why I was invited to weigh in).

The gist of the confusion is this: Before conversion, a person is presumed powerless to fulfill the commands of God. The law serves (rightly) to highlight our hypocrisy and frailty, to reveal how self-serving even our best deeds tend to be, how much in need of forgiveness we all are. After conversion, however, believers adopt a selectively high anthropology, claiming that Christians hear the law differently than they once did. They now hear it instructively, albeit less like a strict elementary school teacher and more like good advice from a friend.

It sounds reasonable, but like a job review where you remember the one criticism and not the twenty praises, soon the law is all that’s left. A gentle guideline for living out one’s faith turns into a roadmap — or worse, a battle plan — for redeeming the city, or redeeming the family, or masculinity, or America. “You suck, do better” is how one Mars Hill refugee summed up the operating theology.

When our problems don’t go away, and temptation continues to hold us captive, the legalistic preacher’s response is often to yell the law more loudly at his audience. Inwardly, we in the audience start to wonder: What is wrong with me that I still can’t get it together? Maybe God lied. Maybe the whole thing is a lie.

So the confusion, as I see it, has to do with how we understand human nature (anthropology) when it comes to Christians. Someone really ought to write a book.

The selectively high anthropology described above is not just hogwash, it is dangerous. In the short term, using the law this way can produce staggering results, especially when married to serious charisma — as people witnessed in Seattle. In the long term, however, this approach produces meltdown, despair, and all manner of bad feeling. It does harm. It pits people against themselves and short-circuits compassion, opening up a wellspring of resentment, unbelief, and despair.

Yet we gravitate toward the law because we love it. At least, we love the control it offers. Do this, don’t do that – and good things will follow. We love the butts in the seats and the dollars in the coffers. We much prefer it to the open-endedness of the Gospel, which is not a means to some different end but an end in itself. Genuinely good news, too. For more, go here.

In the early days of Mockingbird, we would hear from fellow believers fairly regularly that we were making too much of this distinction between the law and the gospel. Overdoing it and not providing “balance.” Looking back, we were underdoing it. We were underselling the urgency — probably out of an apprehension of adopting the same tools as those we were critiquing.

Of course, it feels icky to leverage stories of other people’s pain for your own justification. I suppose you have to “balance”(!) that tendency with the many stories of people experiencing this distinction as a lifeboat from toxic semi-pelagianism.

Along Those Lines, Six Reflections:

  1. We are not so different from those we find off-putting, and that includes Mark Driscoll. When we started Mockingbird, for example, we were just as idealistic as those guys in Seattle. We were simply idealistic about different things. They wanted to transform their city and create an army of Christian subversives. We wanted to transform the entire religious landscape away from… talking about transformation so much. But make no mistake: we had our own kind of hubris, and it wreaked its own kind of havoc. Listening to all those sweet people I felt convicted, not just of a failure of nerve, but of humility. Lord have mercy.
  2. The age-old conundrum of ecclesiology remains as pressing as ever. What I mean is that the difference between conceiving of church as a hospital for sinners vs a schoolhouse for saints is often the difference between hope and hurt. I know this sometimes sounds like a false dichotomy — why can’t church be both a place for the wounded to find healing and the healthy to be trained in providing that healing? — but the contrast feels more concrete to me with each passing year. Which is to say, if growth is to be incorporated as a virtue into our designs for church, it must be radically de-emphasized in favor of relief, so as not to become primary. Such is our fatal attraction to the law.
  3. When it comes to ministry, disposition isn’t incidental. It is essential. You cannot convey a message of grace in a non-gracious or overbearing way. Maybe the tone of this post attests as much. The circuits simply don’t match up. This is not a matter of “should” or “shouldn’t” but “can’t,” not dissimilar to what Marilynn Robinson meant when she quipped that “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.” (The ‘people are ______’ word association told us pretty much all we needed to know…). There is no such thing as a gospel-centered bully.
  4. The distinction between the law and gospel cannot be understated. When these things get confused, religion invariably reduces to some form of the law or “glawspel”. And law divorced from gospel devastates, full stop. The liberal end of this can produce anxiety (am I doing enough?) but the conservative end, because it ties obedience to eternal destinations, will wreck people. That wreckage is not theoretical. Nor is it confined to Ivory Tower squabbling. It looks like estrangement, unemployment, divorce, panic attacks, nihilism, and self-harm.
  5. One of my favorite moments in the final episode came when counselor Colleen Ramser confided that the trauma from these situations often runs so deep that “recovery looks like not pressuring a person to have a relationship with God (period).” I have found this to be true in my own encounters with refugees from similarly toxic churches. As well as much, much easier said than done. Allowing a sufferer space to walk away from what you hold dear is an act of faith, albeit one that runs counter to so much religious programming. It is nonetheless deeply in line with the grace of God. The fruit of this posture — what has often felt like a reckless endorsement of self — never ceases to amaze me.
  6. Alongside the melancholy, I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to some gratitude. Not just that Mike was inspired to tell this story with such care, and that so many people have heard their experience acknowledged. I am grateful Mbird has never experienced that degree of “success,” as I doubt I’d fare too much better with the attendant curses. I am also grateful that my own father devoted his adult life to identifying and healing the damage done when law is taken as gospel — and painting a picture of God’s grace so compelling that, results or no, everything else pales in its light. Most of all, I am grateful that God uses broken things (and churches) in the lives of broken people, and that Jesus is in the business of redeeming traumatic experiences, even religious ones. Especially religious ones.
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