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Spiritual Abuse at 9Marks Churches




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[This is the seventh in a series on improper submission: The first article ( link) covered the similarities between Roman Catholicism and Islam, and mandatory submission. The second article ( link) introduced improper submission that often occurs in evangelical churches. The third article ( link) discussed the role of integrity (or lack thereof) in submitting to fallible creeds. The fourth article ( link) warned about making rash oaths in submitting to church membership. The fifth article ( link) described the problem of elders acting as overlords rather than as loving teachers. The sixth article ( link) was a case study involving spiritual abuse related to a signed church covenant.

My Journey Out of 9Marks

It is funny how one's perspective can change over time. For example, from childhood to age 34 I trusted in the teachings of the Roman Catholic religion. I was convinced that it was through its sacramental system (receiving infusions of righteousness) that I would eventually get to heaven. Now I am certain that Rome's system is an Improper Religious Structure (I.R.S.)  I had a 180 degree change of mind. I have had a similar perspective change in relation to the teachings of Mark Dever and 9Marks. This is the story of my experiences with 9Marks churches and my changing perspectives.

Best Church Ever!

When I first attended a 9Marks church (July, 2003), I was sure I had discovered a loving church home. The pastor was an effective communicator and expository preacher. It appeared to me that he was sound in his theology. He defended the gospel. My perception was that this was a great local church. I met people whom I knew from my former church, and that made me even more comfortable. One friend (I'll call him "John") told me how much he liked the church, and that he was contemplating membership. Several months later, I also became member.

A Pastor's Serious Sin

My friend "John" and I worshiped together for about three months at which time he stopped attending. Six months later (April, 2004) he was brought up on charges and eventually excommunicated. We were advised by the pastor not to associate with "John." In June of 2005 I was in the process of  creating a website for ministry, so I invited "John" to lunch to ask for his advice. During our discussions I asked,  "What happened that caused you to be excommunicated?" He shared his story. He had received marital counseling from our pastor, and when he received conflicting counsel from outside pastors and Christian friends he decided to find another church. He shared with me his letter of excommunication. He was charged with refusing to attend a meeting with men from the church to discuss his "sin."

I approached my pastor to discuss this unfortunate matter. My perception at the time was that my pastor committed a serious sin, but that a meeting to discuss this could clear things up so that my friend's reputation would be restored.

A Rogue Pastor                 

Two fruitless private meetings later, the Pastor asked what my next step would be. I told him that I would quietly leave the church since my friend "John" did not want to get involved and I had no other witnesses. But he insisted that we "handle this biblically" and I was snookered. On August 14, 2005 I received a registered letter stating that I was being brought up on charges: I had brought an accusation against an elder without witnesses; I had acted with pride and insolence; and I had become a false witness and slanderer. My perception at the time was that I was dealing with a rogue pastor.

A Spiritually Abusive Church      

Surely the church would see the injustices being committed by the pastor. But I was convicted by the judge and jury (the pastor was the only elder at the time). Friends (with whom I had spent the better part of two years) bombarded me with phone calls and emails calling me to repentance. After my conviction, they were advised to shun me. My perception at the time was that I had become entangled in a spiritually abusive church.

A Too Narrow Statement of Faith             

Fast forward to February, 2008. I received a phone call from a friend at the church that had excommunicated me. We met for coffee, and he apologized for being one of the three "witnesses" who charged me with sin. He escaped the church and was part of a new church plant. The pastor was a recent graduate of The Masters Seminary, and the church plant affiliated itself with 9Marks. I began attending and again believed I had found a good church home. I became a member. Then in March, 2010 I met a couple visiting our church who would soon become my dearest friends.

But there was a problem. I discovered from my pastor that in order to teach at our church, one must hold to dispensational eschatology. Furthermore, he pointed out that the church could never support my best friend's ministry because he was not dispensational. I checked the "fine print" of the church's statement of faith which I had agreed to when I became a member. Yep, it required that one be "dispensational."   My perception at the time was that this was a church with a too restrictive statement of faith. I felt forced to resign my membership. I shared my concerns with my friend, and he and his wife also stopped attending.

Unloving and Disingenuous Church Leaders       

My close friend shared with me how he came to Charlotte. He had been living in the D.C. area and was attending Capitol Hill Baptist. His wife was ready to retire, and they were looking to move. He was encouraged to relocate to Charlotte by a local 9Marks church. Based upon pledges and guarantees made to him from the leadership, he sold his home in Virginia. His ministry would be supported financially. There would be ample opportunity to teach the Bible. The leadership would undertake to make room for office space. In reality all expectations vanished into thin air as a misleading and disingenuous leadership failed to follow through on what was assured. My friend, looking back on what happened, told me:
There is much that gets in the way of actually being a good servant leader.  Pride and arrogance along with monetary security certainly lead the list.  No doubt mini megalomaniacs, who so dot the evangelical landscape, have hurt many unsuspecting Christians.  The Bible teaches us that there ought to be a plurality of leaders in the local church.  Any hint of a one man show or a so-called anointed one is to be avoided.  The marks of a good Church are many but certainly the marks of a good man must begin with humility, love, compassion, truth and kindness.  And may I add that this is never at the expense of faithful teaching of the Word. The best leaders exhibit these qualities while being faithful to the Word of God.

My perception at the time was that these were devious elders who lacked love and integrity.

A Doctrine that is Insensitive to Visitors               

After leaving my Dispensational church, I began attending a PCA church near my home. [Yes, it is now a 9Marks church.] The pastor moonlighted as a seminary professor at RTS-Charlotte. One issue that I encountered while attending was the fencing of the Lord's Table. Every time we had communion, I was fenced out due to the fact that I was not currently a member of a church. My perception at the time was that this was an error and that they were not being sensitive to visitors such as me.

A Cult of Membership                   

Now we move to September, 2015. There was a new church replant (revitalization of an existing church) that was being co-sponsored by a large Baptist Church in Charlotte and Capitol Hill Baptist in DC (home church of Mark Dever). I was attracted to this church for several reasons. I knew that Mark Dever was dead set against making eschatology a litmus test; I hold to believer's baptism and it was a Baptist church; and many of my friends from former churches were going to attend. The first thing I noticed was that even at this Baptist church the Lord's Table was being fenced based on church membership. 

After our pastor was officially "installed" as Lead Pastor by Mark Dever, the congregation had an opportunity to attend a Q & A session with Mr. Dever. When the meeting started, our pastor stood up and said: "Now is an opportunity for our members to ask Mark questions." Even though the church had only formally been in existence several weeks, I was again being fenced out! I mustn't even ask questions! My perception was that 9Marks churches were unfriendly to visitors and had an inappropriate cult of membership.

A Serious Lack of Integrity          

I decided to attend the church's membership class. To become a member, one must attend a three hour class, pass an elder interview, sign the church's Statement of Faith and Church Covenant, and be received by the congregation. I studied the church's statement of faith and the church covenant prior to attending. I had some concerns. The first hour of the class was devoted to the statement of faith, which was derived from the New Hampshire Confession.  A chart outlining the church's statement of faith was handed out. It stated in part: "The leadership of [the church] has modernized the language, removed articles regarding the sabbath and the harmony of the law and gospel, consolidated two other articles into one, and added an article regarding marriage and the church." As the elder reviewed each section of the confession, we were given an opportunity to ask questions. I had a copy of the original New Hampshire Confession on my cell phone, and was comparing it with their updated version. Much to my surprise, when they got to the section on "Baptism and the Lord's Supper" I discovered an omission. The original New Hampshire Confession stated that baptism is the prerequisite to the Lord's Supper. This wording in the New Hampshire Confession was removed from the church's statement of faith. I inquired as to why it was the church's policy to accept members of any evangelical church to the Lord's Supper, but deny participation to Baptists who were not currently members of a church. I was told by the Lead Pastor that "this was not a theological question, and they were very comfortable with their policy." I also noticed that as a member church of the Southern Baptist Convention, we were to submit to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM). But baptism is the prerequisite for participation in the Lord's Supper according to the BFM! My perception was that the church leadership lacked integrity in modifying the section on Baptism without telling the prospective members. They also required submission to two confessions that contradicted one another.

Authoritarianism and Errant Teaching    

As I delved further into the notion of signing mandatory Statements of Faith and Church Covenants, I had an epiphany. Here I was, attending a church that effectively had been in existence for only two months, and they were requiring prospective members to sign a statement of faith, a church covenant and submit to the authority of the elders. These requirements suddenly appeared ludicrous to me. How could a church where we barely knew one other require such submission to authority?
Regarding the statement of faith, not only can perceptions change over time, but beliefs do as well. Therefore, to require adherence to a man-made confession of faith seemed dangerous. It seemed to contradict the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Many of those attending the new members class were college age or twenty-somethings. It was expected of them to completely understand the New Hampshire Confession (as amended) in a one-hour course and submit to it. I think this turns Matthew 28 and the Great Commission on its head. It places the cart before the horse. "Go and bind consciences; then after they are bound teach them and disciple them." What student is required to master the subject before he receives adequate instruction?

I saw the recklessness of church covenants. I now see them as violating Scripture's warning regarding improper oath taking. Especially disturbing is the practice at many 9Marks churches of reciting the Church Covenant during the New Covenant meal.
I learned about problems with church covenants at other churches, such as the Village Church and Karen Hinkley. I thought back on my church experiences and my problems at the 9Marks churches that I attended. I considered the lack of hospitality towards visitors. I thought about the divisions that were brought about by the 9Marks teaching. I saw the lack of integrity of many 9Marks elders. I saw the danger of inflexible accountability structures and unbiblical excommunications. I saw the legalistic usurpation of the New Covenant by the Church Covenant. I saw the likelihood that the Holy Spirit would be "quenched" in such a legalistic environment. I discovered that spiritual abuse and authoritarianism were an epidemic in 9Marks churches.

I considered sharing my concerns with the leadership. My perception was that they would not listen to my concerns, see me as a troublemaker, and urge me to leave.

A Dangerous and Divisive Religious Structure                   

Still, my friends were attending. I had recommended the church to a friend's daughter and son-in-law. I felt obligated to do something. Thus, I drafted a letter to the elders. This led to a private meeting at the home of the elder who taught the Statement of Faith at the new members class. A second meeting occurred at the church. I shared my concerns with the Lead Pastor (who was a pastoral intern under Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist). This meeting did not go well.

As the meeting was about to conclude, the Lead Pastor pointed at my wedding ring and questioned the appropriateness of my praying with two single women in the church. He asked, "Did you ask them out to lunch?" I was flabbergasted. At the time, my sister was dying of Glioblastoma Multiforme, a virulent brain tumor. A week earlier, I met two women who were sitting in the row in front of me. After service, I shared about my sister's disease and it turned out that one of their best friends was dying of the same disease. They asked me if they could pray with me, and we sat down in the fellowship hall to pray together. [Apparently I had violated some unwritten church guideline by praying with the opposite sex in church.] I asked the pastor, "Who gossiped about me?" and he refused to tell me who my accuser was. [I assume it was one of the elders].

When I arrived at church the following Sunday, one of the elders physically attempted to bar me from entering the church building. After a brief discussion with another elder, I left. Later that week, the Lead Pastor phoned to warn me that if I ever set foot on the church property again, the police would be contacted. For the next nine months I attempted to resolve the issue. I first went to the large Baptist church that co-sponsored the church plant. They were not willing to get involved. In God's providence I met an acquaintance of the Lead Pastor who is a pastor at another local 9Marks church. He was helping one of my friends move. I asked for his assistance in resolving the matter. He met with the Lead Pastor for lunch. Nothing came of it. I sent an email to the church, requesting  a meeting where a more peaceful handling of the matter could be attempted. I received silence. My perception now? 9Marks churches are very dangerous places to attend church. The one's I have attended lacked love and integrity, the two true marks of a congregation of worshipers (John 4:24).

This is the end of part 1. In part 2, I will answer the question, "Why are 9Marks Churches So Unhealthy?" In part 3, I will discuss what I think needs to be done concerning 9Marks.

In Christ,