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Church Culture

Mars Hill Executive Elder Issues Public Apology

Sutton Turner said he “operated in a sinful way” and is reaching out to people he hurt

One of the three Executive Elders at the recently dissolved Mars Hill Church has publicly apologized for his behavior there.

In a series of blog posts published over the past few weeks, Sutton Turner has taken responsibility for not his role in a book-buying scandal, as well as to helping perpetuate a culture of fear and intimidation at the Seattle megachurch that dissolved earlier this year.

Turner wrote, “Early in my time at Mars Hill, I unfortunately operated in a sinful way that was consistent with the existing church culture that had grown and been cultivated since the early years of the church.”  In a separate email interview with WORLD, Turner clarified that statement: “I don’t want people to think I blame the culture.  I take responsibility for my own actions.” 

Turner does not mention Driscoll by name in this or subsequent posts detailing his time at Mars Hill.  When I asked Turner specifically about Driscoll, Turner responded, “I would prefer to answer questions about me and what Jesus has taught me through my experiences.”

Turner wrote his posts – three so far – “to help other leaders like me.  I pray that someone – even just one person – can be spared the consequences of his/her own mistakes by paying careful attention to mine beforehand.  I also pray that my public confession of sin and admission of mistakes will further enhance opportunity for reconciliation and restoration among those whom I have experienced conflict.”

Critics of Mars Hill Church have so far praised Turner’s public confession.  “Sutton Turner’s comments are welcome,” said Rob Smith, a former deacon at Mars Hill Church who has been a vocal and long-time critic of Mark Driscoll and the church.  “They were not as personal or specific as I would have liked, but they are a fantastic step in the right direction.”

Turner told me, though, that personal communication with individuals was taking place, and the repentance and reconciliation process actually began last year.  “Since March of 2014,” Turner said in an email, “I have reached out to 25 people with whom I had a relationship where there had been issues.  I have had meetings or phone calls with 21 of them.  The remaining have yet to meet with me after multiple requests on my part.”

Smith said he had reached out to Turner personally, and that Turner had “responded positively.”  Smith said he was hopeful that Turner’s “willingness to admit error” would be the beginnings of “healing and reconciliation that could be a powerful testimony to Seattle and to the world.”

Smith also said “lots of churches have formed out of the ashes of Mars Hill.”  When Mars Hill imploded late last year, it operated 15 “campuses” in five states.  Most of these campuses now exist as independent churches.  A new church with the understated name “A Seattle Church” is led by a former Mars Hill pastor Tim Gaydos, who left Mars Hill in 2013.  A Seattle Church now has 200 to 300 people worshipping on Sunday mornings, and continues to grow.

Sutton Turner sums up the feelings of many who are picking up the pieces in the post-Mars Hill era in Seattle.  He wrote: “I look back on 2011 and 2012 with a lot of regret, but I’m also very thankful for the Holy Spirit and his ability to grow us all to be more like Jesus.”

Still, many questions remain unanswered.  Smith said, for example, that “others in the leadership of Mars Hill, including Mark Driscoll himself, have failed to take the kinds of steps that Sutton Turner has taken.  I’m disappointed that he is the only one.”

Smith is also concerned about the millions of dollars in assets that Mars Hill Church still has, and where that money is going.  That’s one reason Brian Jacobsen, a former Mars Hill deacon, is using a crowdsourcing web-site to raise $70,000 in order to file a lawsuit against leaders of Mars Hill Church.  Jacobsen says they are about $21,000 short of the goal, but the lawsuit itself will be ready to file as soon as the funds are raised.  Sutton Turner and Mark Driscoll will be among the defendants in the suit.

The suit takes advantage of a provision of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law.  That law allows private citizens to take civil action against leaders of organizations engaged in criminal activity.  The lawsuit, if filed and successful, would allow Jacobsen and three other plaintiffs to recover triple the amount of the donations they made to Mars Hill Church.  Even with the triple damages provision, Jacobsen said, “The amount of money we would recover is small.  But we’re interested in the truth.  A lawsuit seems to be the only way to get the truth out about what really happened to the money at Mars Hill.  So far, the money trail has been hidden.” Among the questions the lawsuit will ask:  What happened to the more than $10-million donated to Mars Hill Global, and who got the royalty money from Mark Driscoll’s books, especially those that were purchased with church funds?

While all this is going on, Mark Driscoll has kept a low profile.  He refused a request for an interview.  His home in a Seattle suburb is now on the market for $1.6-million.  He has emerged a few times in recent months to speak at churches and conferences, and on at least one occasion he was met by protesters.  Australia’s Pentecostal mega-church Hillsong invited him to speak at a conference there this summer.  However, Hillsong’s pastor Brian Houston rescinded the invitation in the wake of unfavorable media accounts and on-line protests.  Houston told Australia media, “The teachings of Christ are about love and forgiveness, and I will not write off Mark as a person simply because of the things that people have said about him.  However, I do not want unnecessary distractions during our conference.”

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.