With Christians facing unspeakable persecution in the Middle East right now, it seems utterly trivial to write about the fall of a megachurch pastor in America. Indeed, that consideration adds to the sadness of this event: Christians are facing horrors beyond our imagination in Iraq, and America gets to see yet another Christian scandal. Great.
The current scandal involves Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and he is no stranger to controversy. This controversy, however, is far more serious than his past ones, or rather, the accusations have piled onto past grievances so much so that nobody is ignoring them anymore. The denomination 😉 church-planting network he helped found, Acts 29, just recently removed him and his church from membership, telling him to step down from the pastorate and seek help. One of the co-signers of that letter was none other than his friend and current Acts 29 president Matt Chandler (perhaps that will make for awkward dinner conversations later). In addition, Lifeway just decided to remove all of his books from their stores. Driscoll is under more fire than he has ever seen.
The allegations are numerous. To summarize:
-Mars Hill hired a marketing firm, paying them over $200,000, to ensure Driscoll’s book Real Marriage made it into the New York Times Bestseller list by buying copies of the book at select locations, a rather under-handed way to artificially inflate book sales just for publicity.
-Money that was collected for the purpose of charity was used for “general church expenses” instead. Some accuse Mars Hill of sending only a fraction of the money they were supposed to towards those charities.
-Recently, Driscoll was accused of plagiarism, though he apologized for it and tried to amend the offending part of his book.
-Fourteen year-old comments of Driscoll, under the username William Wallace II, trolling the Mars Hill message boards were made public. Driscoll made several inappropriate remarks many describe as crude, homophobic, and misogynistic.
-More testimonies from both ex-members and especially ex-staff members are emerging about the toxic, bullying culture of Mars Hill that stems from the bullying character of Driscoll. Some of these testimonies are actually a few years old, but more have surfaced recently.
Approaching this issue
Many who know me or who have read my writings know that I have been a frequent critic of Mark Driscoll. His jokes or strong language have actually never bothered me; maybe that’s an indictment on me, I don’t know, but I am not easily offended, and I just laughed those off or ignored them. My issues with him were mostly about his teaching, interpretation, logic, and church structure. Still, regardless of my criticisms of Driscoll, I never attacked his qualifications as a pastor and tried to affirm him as a preacher of the Gospel. Thus, despite being critical of him for the better part of a decade, I do not feel vindicated at all, as it is sad to see someone so visible for the Church fall so badly.
There are several angles one can go about analyzing this situation. One is perhaps an “I told you so” approach, and no doubt that phrase has crossed the mind of John MacArthur. This way could focus on the biblical qualifications for leaders, Driscoll’s character or teaching failures, and also on the failures of the men around him who did not truly hold him accountable and were too afraid to do anything (ironic, given Driscoll’s insistence that he’s trying to raise manly men). Another way to approach this topic is to relate the problems with Driscoll to the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd. The criticism here would not be so much about theology but about the common and oft criticized characteristics of many YRR’s that were exemplified in Driscoll, characteristics of arrogance, tribalism, hero worship, and the inability to handle disagreement. YRR’s may be scrambling to distance themselves from Driscoll right now, but one can argue that nobody quite epitomized the movement like he did. Yet another way could be to focus on the failure of Mars Hill’s church structure and philosophy regarding its ill-fated changes to the bylaws in 2007, its heavy contextualization, and its curious practice of creating satellite campuses even in different states to stream Driscoll’s messages rather than planting brand new churches. What, did Driscoll feel like his face needed to be in churches even in California and New Mexico?
There is something legitimate to be said in all of these angles, but I’ll take a slightly different route (though it still may overlap with these). Rather than focusing solely on Driscoll, I will take this as a reminder that for ministers of God’s word, power, celebrity, and wealth are dangerous temptations that always must be guarded against. The second we think we are immune is the second we become targets for Satan’s deception of our own self-importance.
Pride cometh before the fall
Driscoll is a rather easy punching bag right now, but I honestly feel bad for him in many respects. I don’t even agree with all the criticism that is lobbed at him: Sometimes, his critics take his jokes out of context just to make him look bad, which strikes me as rather petty and thin-skinned. In addition, while I agree that his forum posts from fourteen years ago were very immature, he already mentioned those comments in a 2006 book and admitted that it was sinful of him to write those things. On the internet, people say dumb things (I know I have), and many people would look pretty bad if we dug up 14 year old comments that came in a period of foolishness (in fairness, he was still a pastor 14 years ago). Furthermore, I can potentially see how the plagiarism mess was a simple mistake, and he did apologize for it and tried to fix it.
However, the most concerning aspect to me in all of this, in addition to the money issues, was Driscoll’s handling of his staff and church discipline at Mars Hill. I encourage the reader to find testimonies of former friends and staff members of him because they are absolutely staggering. Given that these people worked with him, have supporting documentation, and agree in testimony, I do not think that we can dismiss them as people who were justly disciplined and are simply bitter about it. In fact, I even discussed the heavy-handed church discipline given to a guy named Andrew, and while I agreed that Mars Hill messed up, I did not hold Driscoll responsible because it seemed like the work of some out of control church leaders who were already removed. In hindsight, it is easy to see now that the cause of this toxic culture of power trips came from Driscoll himself.
To summarize just one story, back in 2007, Driscoll and a few elders moved to change the bylaws of the church to consolidate more power in his hands. Two elders stood against him, and they both were ultimately fired and shunned. Both received brutal tongue lashings from Driscoll, and their families were not spared from his wrath either. One of the elders was given a mockery of a trial, where his accusers were also the judges. When one deacon pointed out the inherit unfairness in this, he too was disciplined and eventually driven out of the church. There are other stories like this one that basically tell the same tale: Some people stood in Driscoll’s way, and he moved to crush them verbally and with the power he had in the church. People were put in financially difficult situations, people lost friends, and most importantly, people were spiritually harmed. Some people on staff admitted that they saw this happen to others first and did nothing, only to see it happen to them. Driscoll himself even said that “there is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re finished; you either get on the bus or get run over by the bus.” His way, or the highway. No doubt this attitude carried the dubious presumption that his way was always Jesus’ way, who assuredly never worked to teach even stubborn people the right path (not).
At some point (maybe even from the beginning), Driscoll began to view Mars Hill and himself as a brand that needed to be furthered. Things needed to go his way. He needed to be on screen in out-of-city and out-of-state church campuses. He needed more exclusive decision-making power. His particular views on doctrine needed to be pressed without objection. When such things were challenged, he lashed out even on his staff and friends in shocking ways.
One pastor I know cited a verse to me:
Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall. -Prov. 16:18
That’s fairly self-explanatory.
Under-shepherds should be wary
One of the most important texts for church leadership is found in 1 Peter 5:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (emphasis mine)
Driscoll no doubt violated 1 Peter 5 in his pursuit of gain and his domineering approach to ministry. His behavior obviously deserves criticism and rebuke, but if we in ministry are honest with ourselves, there is a danger for all of us to fall into this. When I discussed this incident with my father, he of course agreed that Driscoll was out of control, but he cautioned against self-righteous condemnation of him. He gave the example of how Jimmy Swaggert harshly condemned another pastor who had fallen into adultery but then fell into serious sexual sin himself. Likewise, the temptations of power, status, and personal gain are not just Driscoll’s problems but potential issues for us all.
As a preacher/teacher/leader, it’s nice to have people who follow you and look up to you. It’s nice to see growth and for people to credit your leadership and teaching for this growth. It’s nice to feel appreciated, both in word and in pay, for the hard work you do for God’s kingdom. On the flip side, it’s hard when you do not see growth, appreciation, or respect. I’ve experienced all of this. Now imagine if you were to grow in popularity like Driscoll, where lay Christians know your name, listen to your podcasts, watch your sermons online, and read your books. This is evidence that you know what you’re doing in ministry, right? This is God’s vindication of your methods, teachings, and vision, right? And now, so rightly confident, it is clear that those people who disagree with you simply have no clue what they’re talking about and can either be safely ignored or kicked out without hesitation and remorse. Furthermore, you can start setting standards for others that you do not need to follow yourself because your level of wisdom is that much higher than everyone else’s. Suffice it so say, all of these are dangerous assumptions, and basking in the glow of one’s own glory is a quick way to fall into sexual, financial, or administrative sin. Though leaders do need to set a vision and lead the people to it, there are firm yet humble ways of doing that without resorting to unbiblical authoritarianism.
Evidently, Matt Chandler signed away all the profits of his book to go directly to The Village Church. He sometimes wonders if that was a good idea, but he did that to protect himself from getting too big of a head and falling into sin. While it is of course no sin to gain profits from one’s own book (ultimately our responsibility is how we use our money and not so much how much we make), it seems like Chandler knows something about himself such that he just avoided the whole situation from the beginning. This is a good display of wisdom and humility that is an example for all church leaders. Am I hard enough on myself? Do I put enough checks in place to keep myself accountable? Am I self-reflective enough about my own sin and my own weaknesses? Do I allow others to challenge me in ways that do not make comfortable?
1 Peter 5 is such a great text because it spells out quite clearly that being a Christian leader is not about yourself; we do what we do for the Chief Shepherd, Jesus. Driscoll clearly lost his way and made his ministry about him, and I hope he realizes that, repents, and is restored in his church. But those church leaders who so swiftly condemned him should also be self-reflective; we too can elevate ourselves in power and greed and thus do enormous damage to the witness of Christ. We too our sinners who can be deceived. For myself, a young person in ministry, I hope I take this warning episode to heart so that I do not embarrass the ministry of Christ if God’s longsuffering reaches its limit and he blows me up in public. Christ is the king, the head, and the shepherd. We do well to remember that at all times and not just give such truths lip-service.