I addressed this topic once before using Bob Bixby’s notes on Hebrews 12. I want to again consider the root of bitterness from Hebrews 12 in the context of the ongoing, long term struggle at Mars Hill Church. I have relied heavily on Bob’s exposition for this post.
The “Bitter Card” has trump power. Pop that baby out and you can dismiss the criticism. It’s played this way: person A has a grievance that he/she does not feel is being understood. Eventually Person A vents too often, too emotionally, or even sinfully, …. At this point, play the “Bitter Card.” This puts them on the defensive and, in the minds of the clueless, guts the bitter person’s argument …. Often people who play the “Bitter Card” employ Hebrews 12:15 and warn that the bitterness could result in the defilement of many.
The bitter card has been used for years in Seattle against those with growing concerns about Mars Hill Church. I personally have feared speaking at times because of this common criticism and the shame of being possibly labeled a gossip or, worse yet, a contentious woman. A careful examination of Hebrews 12:15 has been helpful to me.
Hebrews 12:14-15 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
Why would Scripture here warn against a “root of bitterness” rather than simply bitterness itself? Most agree that bitterness is a bad trait. Ephesians 4:31 teaches us to put away bitterness. Wrath, anger, clamor, bitterness – all of these are unhealthy and unhelpful forms of human speech. Yet Hebrews 12:15 is different. It isn’t bitterness that is addressed but the ROOT of bitterness that defiles many. This is a darkly sinful core from which many others are defiled. When you hear bitter, angry speech among many different people, this root is what you find when you take one step back to see what they are all bitter about. Widespread public bitterness is an indicator of a root problem that is defiling many.
The context of Hebrews 12 is the slog of Christian faith after the excitement wears off as you continue enduring for the long haul. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that has gone on before us and cheers us from the sidelines. We are also being discipled/disciplined by the Lord, as He roots out sin and transforms us into His image. Our heads droop as we endure for the long haul. Limbs are out of joint, but we are to set them straight. And we must STRIVE for peace and holiness, because without those, no one will see the Lord.
Many of the folks standing up publicly against the institutional sin at Mars Hill Church recognize the serious exhortation and warning of Hebrews 12:14-15. They may not always be obeying Ephesians 4:31, but they are obeying Hebrews 12:14’s instruction to strive for peace. The word strive in this passage indicates an active fighting for something. Fighting for peace?! It is a paradox worth considering. What’s clear about verses 14-15 is that you can’t fight for peace AND retain the root of bitterness. That root and such peace don’t coexist.
As we fight for peace, we are to guard ourselves and others against failing to obtain the grace of God. That is a phrase beyond my ability to totally understand, but whatever it is, I don’t want that failure for myself or others. And the connected thought is to be diligent against the root of bitterness! This failure of grace is linked to the springing up of this root of bitterness that goes on to defile many. This root must be addressed!
The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 could more aptly be applied to the scourge of immorality and its abuses than to the wounded, spiteful, angry, and sometimes over-the-top venting of those who have been “defiled” by it. In other words, friends, the disgruntled are more likely the “many” who have been defiled by the “root of bitterness” … than bitter souls who ought to be dismissed for having a bad attitude.
… While too many people get defensive and circle the wagons trying to point out the excesses of accusers, instead he/she should “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (v. 12-13). Again, this is all plural and directed to the community of faith. It simply says, “Fix the problem. Straighten the path.”
Conclusion: Please do not project sin onto all of those publicly calling Mark Driscoll and the Executive Elders at Mars Hill to repentance. Do some people sin in calling Mark to repentance? Absolutely! Are some people bitter and angry? Most certainly. If you know those people personally, should you walk with them to see the sin in their tone? I think that could be really helpful when done in love and understanding of the duress they have been under. But understand too that there is a root problem underneath the anger and bitterness of such people, and the author of Hebrews says that the Church must face that defiling root head on and address it.
Mark Driscoll has led and influenced many with serious unaddressed sins in his own life, including deep anger and bitterness. He acknowledged it publicly in Real Marriage, but the fact that 20 elders with issues from the last 2 years have newly accused him reveals that this sinful anger problem from 2007 is ongoing. He has repeatedly at various times in his ministry spoken publicly in ways that have revealed a heart that despised his church members and fellow elders. Jesus taught that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Understand that Mark’s public words weren’t slip ups. They reveal his heart, and the result of these unaddressed and undisciplined sins in his life is that many, many, MANY under his care have been defiled. It is good and right that those in his community, tending to the very wounded that Mark himself joked of running over, call for his repentance and resignation. This call and confrontation can and should be done privately. But Paul teaches in I Timothy 5 that there comes a point when it can and should be done publicly as well.
God LOVED His Church, His precious bride, when He inspired Paul to write about elders in I Timothy 3 and 5. He protects His Church when He tells us that an elder must be habitually gentle, that he must have his strength under control. God is protecting His Church when He says that elders shouldn’t be verbally or physically violent. God is loving His Church when He says that elders should be above reproach and respected by outsiders. He’s loving His Church when He says that two or three witnesses establish the truth of an accusation against an elder. He’s loving His Church when He says that elders who don’t repent must be publicly rebuked.
This root of bitterness at Mars Hill through which many have been defiled MUST be addressed. Please note also my conviction that there is much grace and forgiveness for those who face their sins head on and lay down defensiveness. Jesus has paid for these things, and He can redeem and restore. I wouldn’t post any of this if I didn’t have this hope for both offenders and those offended through Mars Hill leadership! Repentance is a beautiful gift from God that blesses both the offender and the one offended.
I have read public letters of repentance from 5 former Mars Hill elders and heard countless stories of private weeping and restoration as others repent privately to those they harmed by their actions. An elder and his wife came to me in repentance, confessing their sins for adopting Mark’s heavy handed manner and cutting off relationship for fear of reprisal at Mars Hill, and it was BEAUTIFUL. It was the glory of Jesus’ death and resurrection poured out in front of me. I didn’t exactly see a dove or hear an audible voice, but I clearly sensed Jesus’ “It is finished” whispered around me in the wind.
God is disciplining Mars Hill leadership right now for their good. Do not believe the lie of Satan that this is persecution. No, it is discipline. God is using the larger Body of Christ as hands and feet calling Mars Hill leadership to repent. A root sprang up, and many have been defiled. It must be addressed. But do not fear repentance or despise those who call for it. Because Jesus died and rose again, we can face head on that which once would have condemned us. We can walk out on the other side cleansed and purified. Understand though that this incredible grace from God does not come cheaply.
Shall we continue in sin that grace abound? God forbid. Romans 6:1-2