“There is nothing new under the sun.”
These famous words from the book of Ecclesiastes (1:9b) are so universally relevant that they tend to pop into my head whenever I find human behavior once again failing to provide any real element of surprise, despite the apparent contextual differences. Over the last couple days, I have been thinking about them once again.
It all started when I made a visit to that website that everyone seems to use even though no one appears to like it: Facebook. I was scrolling through my “news feed”, which in actuality is a concoction of approximately 20% advertisements, 20% baby and/or pet pictures, 20% people posting quotes or verses that they want their friends to read, 20% people saying “X number of years ago today…” someone got married or was born, and 20% people complaining about something. (No judgment here – I’m pretty sure I’ve done all of those things on Facebook.)
In due course, a headline jumped out at me from a website I had “liked” once upon a time, saying something along the lines of “Acts 29 Network Kicks out Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church”.
A number of thoughts flew across my mental radar screen at this moment. On the one hand, I was not surprised at all that Driscoll, hardly a stranger to controversy, had managed to offend someone (or in this case, someones). For those who do not know, Mark Driscoll (a.k.a. William Wallace II – more on that later) is the founder and main teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area – not to be confused with the very different Mars Hill in the Grand Rapids area – which has in its 17 years of existence spawned a number of daughter churches. Well, since this is Driscoll we’re talking about, I guess I’ll call them “son” churches.
In addition to the many branches of Mars Hill, Driscoll and his church also started the Acts 29 church network, a group of like-minded churches and pastors. This organization places a major emphasis on church planting, leadership development, and the like. Both Driscoll and Mars Hill have always been an integral part of the organization they started.
Therefore, while I was not surprised that Driscoll, who is known for his rather brash style and sometimes controversial doctrinal stances, would have rubbed someone the wrong way, it was a bit surprising that a network which traces its lineage back to Mars Hill would take this step.
As it is not too long, I am including the entire text of the announcement by the Acts 29 Board, minus the ending salutation, to make sure that I do not mischaracterize anything:
It is with deep sorrow that the Acts 29 Network announces its decision to remove Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church from membership in the network. Mark and the Elders of Mars Hill have been informed of the decision, along with the reasons for removal. It is our conviction that the nature of the accusations against Mark, most of which have been confirmed by him, make it untenable and unhelpful to keep Mark and Mars Hill in our network. In taking this action, our prayer is that it will encourage the leadership of Mars Hill to respond in a distinctive and godly manner so that the name of Christ will not continue to be dishonored.
Naturally, the Board of Advisors and Accountability at Mars Hill disagrees with Acts 29’s assessment. They say they did not receive advance notice that this decision was going to be taken, emphasizing that Driscoll himself only learned of it when the public did. They also state that the accusations mentioned in the statement by Acts 29, while serious, are issues that were dealt with a long time ago.
This is really a case of “he said – he said”, and given my degree of distance from the events in question, I do not consider myself to be an effective judge of which picture is more accurate, or indeed whether either of them is accurate at all. Clearly, there has been a breakdown at some level for such a split to occur. However, I cannot say that it matters to me whose version of events is correct. What concerns me most is another thought that zipped through my head when I saw that headline.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
“Here we go again.”
This was my thought at that moment, as I was witnessing yet another high flying Evangelical superstar become the subject of controversy and set off a raging social media debate. There are a great number of oddities about the evangelical Christian subculture, but in one way it is very much like every other slice of humanity: it is intensely political.
Forget that truism about prostitution being the oldest profession. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would be forced to admit that politics, the conflict of man against man for greater advantage one over the other, is an essential characteristic of all human behavior – yes, even in churches.
Much as politicians have their (often blindly) loyal supporters and enhance
themselves their message by touring the country making speeches and selling books, so certain members of the Evangelical community are raised up as shining examples for their words of wisdom, successful church building, and perceived godliness.
Their supporters and detractors engage in debates just as furious as what one might see in the halls of Congress. As with politicians, the message can sometimes become subservient to the man himself (or rarely, the woman), and as with politicians, they are destined to disappoint the hopes of their most ardent disciples.
I seldom utter these words, but allow me to quote from the film Spider-man, the one that came out in 2002. No, not “with great power comes great responsibility”, though that quote is also applicable to this situation, but rather this little nugget from the film’s villain, the Green Goblin: “The one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying. In spite of everything you have done for them, eventually they will hate you.”
The Green Goblin was referring to the fickleness of the crowd, that phenomenon that caused Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to turn against the citizens he had fought for and instead embark on his quest for revenge. Yet, the truth is that most leaders, both heroic and not, are perfectly capable of making mistakes and creating enemies without needing an ungrateful public to help them. Sadly, this is also the truth with Christian leaders.
There are few Evangelical “celebrities” who have not at one point or another found themselves embroiled in a variety of scandals. For some, the problem is of a sexual nature, as it was with Ted Haggard, one time pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and head of the National Association of Evangelicals.
For others, some form of financial misdeed or mismanagement ends up coming back to bite them, and this seems to be one of the problems troubling Mars Hill over the past few years, though the details are a bit murky (and I would not rely on the Huffington Post – linked to here – as my sole source of Christianity-related news).
A more subtle but equally destructive flaw is undue pride, which can manifest itself in high-handed and arrogant behavior. There was a fairly good article published by Christianity Today a few years back that took a good look at this phenomenon in relation to the difficulties faced by Sovereign Grace Ministries and its most prominent leader, C.J. Mahaney, as well as one of the most influential writers in the Evangelical sphere, John Piper.
The author of that piece even went so far as to say that members of the so-called “New Calvinism” movement (of which Driscoll is considered to be a member) are uniquely vulnerable to the problem of undue pride, but I do not agree with that. I think that anyone, regardless of ideological persuasion, is capable of succumbing to this all-too-human flaw. Based on what I know of Driscoll, and I admit my knowledge is limited, I would have guessed that this would be the trap in which he would be most likely to fall.
But don’t just take my word for it: Mark Driscoll actually agrees with me. He addressed the subject of pride in a sermon he gave on November 4, 2007 entitled “The Rebel’s Guide to Joy in Humility”. I am including a couple paragraphs here, but the full transcript can be found at this link.
Let me say this, that in all honesty, having reflected on this, I believe that humility is the great omission and failure in my 11 years of preaching. I believe that this is my greatest oversight, both in my example and in my instruction. I therefore do not claim to be humble. I do not claim to have been humble. I’m convicted of my pride and I am a man who is by God’s grace pursuing humility. And so in many ways, this is a sermon that I’m preaching at myself. This is a sermon that you’re welcome to listen in on as I preach to myself. But I truly believe that were there one thing I could do over in the history of Mars Hill, it would be in my attitude and in my actions and in my words, to not only emphasize sound doctrine and courage and strength and commitment and conviction, but to add in addition to that, humility as a virtue.
And so I’ll start by your forgiveness and sincerely acknowledging that this has been a great failure. And I believe that it is showing up in our church in the lives of men and women who have sound doctrine, but not sound attitude – that they may contend for good things, but their motives are bad, and their methods are bad, and their tone is bad, and their tactics are bad, and their actions are bad because their attitude is bad, even though their objectives sometimes is good. I see this in particular with the men. I see this with men young and old – men who have known Jesus for a long time and should know better, and men who are new to Jesus and are learning sometimes the hard way. I will take some responsibility for this.
Driscoll has not been above apologizing to people he has hurt or offended, though there are certainly some who feel he has a lot more apologizing yet to do before he can truly make amends. I cannot say that he has done as much of it as he should, nor that he has not: only God can know that. However, I will tell you that he has at times been unnecessarily offensive. Yes, I think “unnecessarily” is the key word here.
No Offense, But…
One of the things for which Driscoll often receives criticism both inside and outside the Church would be his opinions regarding women and their roles in marriage, church, and society. As my husband and I were discussing this issue recently, he asked me if I thought Mark Driscoll was sexist.
That’s a somewhat unhelpful term: “sexist”. Much like the word “racist”, I have a feeling that, were we to view ourselves clearly, we would find that all of us are somewhat guilty. Yet, our society tends to group people into two groups: those who are racist and those who are not, or those who are sexist and those who are not.
But is it a fair term when we are talking about Mark Driscoll? If you sift through his sermons and writings, you can find quotes that seem to both support and refute the idea that he is sexist. Of course, if you believe that the Apostle Paul was a sexist, then Driscoll’s dependence on his writings will surely place him in the same boat.
The biblical definition of sexist is typically different than that of American society. I am not suggesting that the Bible teaches a negative view of women, but simply that our modern American society tends to place a high emphasis on things that scripture diminishes, and vice versa.
Therefore, when considering whether or not Mark Driscoll is a sexist, my chief concern is whether he has either taught or behaved in a way that is not in line with the level of respect accorded to women in the Christian scriptures. With this in mind, allow me to show you a video which has made the rounds on social media and drawn significant criticism from Driscoll’s detractors.
When I first saw this video, in which Driscoll was interviewed by Desiring God Ministries back in 2006, I was definitely offended. I did not have a problem with his statement that Christians should take steps to attempt to get more young men to come to church. In fact, I think Christians should take steps to get people of all kinds to attend church, not because it will swell membership numbers or get them brownie points in heaven, but because I believe that regular church attendance can lead to a better understanding of God, stronger relationships with fellow Christians, greater accountability and encouragement in one’s Christian life, and let’s face it…quite a few more yummy casseroles.
However, there are some other assertions in this video that are troubling. Driscoll states his belief that a primary reason men are not coming to church is that the American church today is overly feminized. As evidence of this, he mentions the fact that some men who go to church wear sweater vests, churches are often painted with colors like seafoam green, and worship songs tend to be “kind of emotional and feminine”. Furthermore, he argues that young men are the ones who often have great ideas and possess an entrepreneurial spirit, but because the church does not accept their ideas and is overly feminized, they would rather stay home and watch football.
Never mind that most churches are headed by males and not females. Never mind that most of the American churches I have ever been in were painted in neutral colors, and that Protestant churches in America tend to be free of the kind of decorations and flourishes that characterized Christian architecture for centuries – a Puritan holdover. Never mind that a majority of the songs played most often in American churches are written by men and not women (Check out this site if you don’t believe me.), and that many of those “feminine” lyrics are either direct quotations or paraphrases of scripture.
Yes, I could just as easily conclude that it is the women who are faithful, continuing to attend church and bring their children along while their husband gets to stay home and lounge the day away. After all, it was women who stuck with Jesus at the cross and it was women who watched over his tomb and were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Instead of gaining respect for that, they get blamed for scaring some of the men away and turning the rest of them into “chickified church boys”.
“60% of Christians are chicks, and the 40% that are dudes are still sort of chicks.” Now, there is a biblical conclusion if ever I have heard one! Should I be more offended that he refers to women in a somewhat derogatory fashion as “chicks”, that he dismisses all churchgoing men in America in the same manner, or that he would find being compared in some way to a woman an insult for a man to receive? There is plenty of offense to go around in that statement.
What is a man who is not a “chick” like? Apparently, he spends Sunday mornings out shooting or working on hi truck rather than wasting his time at church…well, except for Mark Driscoll’s church. A real man is made in the mold of David, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul, men who were “heterosexual, punch you in the nose, win a fight dudes”. In other words, none of them wore sweater vests.
(As a side note, if you happen to be a Christian man who is more like David in the love he had for Jonathan than in his “ability to slaughter other men”, I would not recommend going to Mark Driscoll for advice or compassion.)
I am not digging into this video and dissecting each wrongheaded statement to prove that Mark Driscoll is a terrible person. I think it is safe to say that the comments contained within it – which were not the product of a late night Internet post, but rather of a knowingly recorded statement meant to be broadcast to the world – are both sexist and stupid in equal measures.
However, the real point here is that they offended me personally. It has been eight years since the video was made, and since then he seems to have learned and changed to a certain extent, but I think it is still a good example of a point I think it is important to make.
My husband said something which I thought was very wise while we were discussing the Driscoll situation: “Isn’t the cross of Christ offensive enough?” In other words, the simple gospel explained clearly and boldly, without any additions made by man, is capable of provoking strong anger and rejection from many people.
The teachings of Christ and the apostles offended many, for when the gospel is properly understood, the listener is both convicted of their own utterly sinful condition and commanded to surrender everything they are to God. Furthermore, the concept that a perfect God would die for man, and that man would require such a sacrifice, was described as a “to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” by the Apostle Paul. (1 Corinthians 1:23)
While Paul was insistent that he was “not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16), he also had a practical view of ministry in which he would “become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) in order to bring as many as possible to salvation. He described his method thus: “giving no cause for offense in anything, so that the ministry will not be discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God”. (2 Corinthians 2:3-4a)
This is why I was referring earlier to “unnecessary offense”. Driscoll has a confrontational style that is capable of lighting a fire of conviction in some while lighting the fire of resentment in others. He has stated that he believes his primary ministry is to men, and that men respond better to this kind of tough communication (scroll about halfway down on that page for the reference).
However, even the church that he pastors is made up of both men and women, and while it may not have the age diversity that I find to be most beneficial in a group of believers, it is important for any Christian teacher to be cognizant of how their words will sound to everyone who is listening, and as much as possible to avoid giving unnecessary offense.
We All Fall Down
Given everything I have said about Mark Driscoll so far, you may have concluded that I think he is a worthless bastard. (Yes, I know that last one is a swear word, but according to Driscoll it is ok to use “vulgar” language, or something like that.) You might even suspect that I would take pleasure in his demise: that his chickens are coming home to roost, he is reaping what he sowed, etc. You might be wondering why I titled this essay “I Love Mark Driscoll”, even suspecting that it is meant as an ironic comment, the way one might say, “I just love it when my boss gives me all this work to do on the weekend.”
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. First of all, Driscoll is certainly a sinner, but he is not worthless. To assume such a thing is a great crime to commit against a fellow human being – to dismiss them, write them off, or believe them to be irredeemable. I have great faith not only in the intrinsic value of every person on this earth, but in the power of redemption even for those who seem to be the most hopeless cases.
This past Sunday at my church, we sang an old favorite hymn entitled “To God Be the Glory”. Of course, the fact that we sang a hymn probably means that our male worship leader is a “chickified church boy”, but that is beside the point. There is a wonderful line in that song that really stood out to me: “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” That is really the heart of the Christian message, isn’t it? The belief that no offense is too great to be covered by the blood of Christ, and that no sheep is too far gone to be brought back to the fold.
Second, while Driscoll may well be reaping what he sowed in regard to the way he has conducted his ministry over the years, I take no pleasure whatsoever in his current troubles. Any division in the body of Christ is a terrible tragedy, and we ought to regard it as such. What makes this one even worse is that it is so high profile, a matter of public knowledge not only within the limited circles of evangelical Christianity, but even beyond. For those on the outside looking in, it serves as proof that the Church is not something with which they want to get involved. The name of Christ gets dragged through the mud.
I am not faulting the media outlets that are reporting on what is happening at Mars Hill, nor am I suggesting that when something is seriously wrong in a church, we should just ignore it so as not to make anyone look bad. I am not unhappy about these stories because of anything the media has done: their job is to look for compelling stories and shine a light on them. They have an interest in increasing perceived conflict and focusing on the most salacious details, however true they might be. It may not be good, but it is to be expected. It is what they are.
The challenge for a church is not so much to avoid letting our disagreements receive public attention, but rather to find a way to deal with them before they reach that level. Once the Huffington Post is talking about us, we have already lost the battle.
With each Christian leader who is exposed as the sinner that we all ought to have known they were to begin with – after all, we supposedly require a person to admit they’re a sinner in order to become one of our members – I do feel a sense of sorrow. With each church that splits and each movement that collapses, I believe that Christ must be shedding a tear. I know that he is not wondering if it was worth it for him to die for us and start this whole Church thing, but sometimes I do.
Thirdly and finally, I am not being ironic when I say I love Mark Driscoll. Obviously, I do not love him in the same way that I love my husband, my relatives, or my friends. It is not a love that comes from knowing him personally or appreciating what he has done or can do for me. Rather, as I said before, I believe him to be my brother in Christ, and I am commanded to love him, no matter how offensive he may be.
In one sense, it is simple to say that the root cause of any problem between Christians is that we do not love each other properly, as if love were a simple panacea that could cure us of everything that ails us. (Love Wins! Or not…) The command to “love one another” was not just the most important of all of Christ’s teachings, but also the most difficult to practically achieve.
This kind of love is not about good feelings, but neither can it be carried out in bitterness. (e.g. “Ok, I’ll love them, but I don’t have to like them.) It requires one to sacrifice what is most dear: pride, ambition, and the “right” to be right. And since we are all hopelessly flawed, love is of necessity based on forgiveness, which is the hardest thing that God requires of us.
I am commanded to love Mark Driscoll, and in truth it is not that difficult for me, for when I consider the wealth of grace that I have received both from God and from my fellow Christians, I would be a great hypocrite indeed if I did not extend a small portion of that to those who have offended me in some way. Had I been directly wounded by him in a more serious way, that would make things harder, but it would not make forgiveness any less necessary. My strongest feeling toward Driscoll is one of pity – not a dismissive pity, but a sincere one.
A while ago, in another discussion with my husband, I asked him something which was truly bothering me. I have attended several different churches and observed countless others, and despite their many redeeming features, I have found each one to possess at least the seeds, if not the fruit, of discord. I actually believed discord to be so inevitable that I had become like the person who is afraid to get married after seeing the national divorce rate. And so I asked him, “Is it really possible for a Christian community to stay together for the long-term?”
The history of Christianity, sadly, is as often one of disunity as it is of unity. There is a tendency for people in the West to think that the Protestant movement began with Martin Luther in the 1500s, but if we define “Protestant” as any group that is in disagreement with the established hierarchy, there has not been a single century since Christ in which there has not been a Protestant movement. You can see the divisions already forming in the letters left behind by the Apostles, and they have continued down to the present day.
If you know how a nuclear bomb works, then you can understand what a lack of love and an inability to cooperate and compromise within the Church does. Assuming you are using a nuclear fission device, it goes like this: one atom is divided, sending the two halves to slam into other atoms which are then themselves divided, and so the chain reaction continues. What started as a fairly small division affecting just one atom ends up causing the fiercest man-made destruction in history, and it all happens in the space of one breath. Trust me, readers, unresolved tension does not come to an end just because it switches zip codes.
So it has been with Christianity since the beginning. One disagreement causes a split, and eventually those groups split into smaller groups, which split into smaller groups, until we have 5,000 denominations (not to mention the churches of no denomination) and yet are still unsatisfied. I accept that there are some things so essential to the Christian faith that they must be defended, even if it causes division. But are not most of these divisions the result of a lack of love? No, not the minimum amount of “love” required to pacify God, but the kind of love capable of moving more than mountains – for friends, it is easier to move a mountain than it is to change the human heart.
Paul tells us marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church, but it is also a picture of the Church itself. In order to stay together, a Christian community must be willing to make the kind of sacrifices and, yes, even compromises that married couples must take in order to stay together. Speaking from personal experience, you sometimes have to agree to disagree. “Compromise” is not a dirty word. You know who hated compromise? The Pharisees, that’s who.
So Who Was Right?
So was the Acts 29 Network wrong to kick out Mars Hill? I could not possibly say, for I do not know what has occurred behind closed doors, nor am I aware of the exact offenses which are supposed to have been committed. Surely, there was some point along the way in which such a split could have been avoided, at which repentance and forgiveness did not occur or in which there was a destructive lack of love.
If Driscoll is as monstrous as his critics suggest, then the calls for him to step away from pastoral ministry entirely would be justified. If he is as innocent and apologetic as the people at Mars Hill would have us believe, then this is really a bit of a unfortunate witch hunt. In general, my suspicion in such cases is that the truth is somewhere in the middle, and I think that both I and anyone else not directly involved in this affair ought to exercise caution before coming to a final conclusion.
One thing I can say with at least minimal authority is that the timing of some of these events has been rather…interesting. For example, Driscoll posted inflammatory comments on an online forum fourteen years ago under the pseudonym “William Wallace II” which suddenly came to light this summer, despite the fact that he had already offered a mea culpa for them back in 2006 in his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev.
I admit that, having read the excerpts of those online comments contained in news articles on the subject, they are really quite offensive and downright unbiblical. I am not going to quote them hear for this reason: I would not want to be judged based on some stupid web comments I made more than a decade ago, and I think I should extend that courtesy to others. I realize they are concerning, but as I said earlier, he has apologized for them and I think it is far more relevant to take into account things which he has said more recently and which reflect his current thinking.
[Brief digression here: Why do evangelical men seem to be obsessed with Braveheart? That it is a well produced film, I’ll grant you. That it both entertains and inspires, I have no wish to deny. But that William Wallace is a good Christian role model – to this I most firmly object. His life is characterized by violence, not only in a defensive manner, but in an “I’m going to enjoy watching you suffer” kind of way. He carries on an affair with a (admittedly unhappily) married woman and enjoys displaying his genitals for the world to see. He often seems to be motivated by revenge rather than any kind of higher principle.
Oh, and did I mention that he is also a fictional creation that bears little resemblance to the William Wallace of history, who was actually a member of the Scottish aristocracy and did not wear a kilt? Honestly, it makes me think of the time one of my Bible professors referred to Maximus from the movie Gladiator as a “great Christian man”, only to have one of the students point out that Maximus worshipped his ancestors. “Well, he would have been a great Christian man…” was his reply. Ok, digression over.]
Also a bit odd is the timing of this decision by the Acts 29 board, which came just days after the leak of those old Driscoll comments. Once again, I do not know the full details, but I think Driscoll did make a very positive step in March of this year when he accepted blame and apologized for several of the criticisms that have been leveled at him and committed to stay off of social media for a year, decrease his national speaking engagements in the interest of focusing more on pastoring his home church and avoiding the “evangelical celebrity” trap, significantly curtailing media interviews, and continuing to submit himself to his Board of Advisors and Accountability.
I cannot vouch for Driscoll’s sincerity, of course, but it seems to me like he was taking the right steps at that point. Evidently, the people at Acts 29 feel that he and the church he pastors have not gone far enough in dealing with some of these painful issues. If they kicked Driscoll out solely for those old William Wallace comments, which he apologized for eight years ago, I would say that was rather lame, even though I admit that the bad press generated by the comments is hurtful. My guess is that there is a lot more to the story than any of us can know from our perusal of the Internet.
At the end of the day, none of us are in a good position to judge this sort of thing. We all bring with us our own biases and our own partially sanctified natures. Certainly, there are some things that we can rightly judge, but only God can know what is really in a person’s heart.
What does that mean? It means that when we face discord within the Church, we must start by removing the plank from our own eye and thus taking the first step toward reconciliation. After all, Christ took the first step toward reconciling with us when he was getting no repentance whatsoever from the other side; and as we have continued to stumble and fall, he has continued to take that first step, calling us back to himself again.
Perhaps it seems inevitable that Christian leaders will fall. Perhaps it seems equally inevitable that Christian communities will be torn apart. Perhaps I will always be forced to revert back to that saying, “There is nothing new under the sun,” for there is nothing in human nature which enables us to reach that degree of love which is necessary for discord to be avoided, nor that kind of self-sacrifice which is necessary time and time again.
Not in ourselves, but in one thing alone might the remedy lie: there is nothing new under the sun, but perhaps there is something new under the Son.
All Bible quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation