UPDATE This morning Driscoll read a prepared statement announcing that he will be stepping aside as lead pastor of Mars Hill for at least six weeks while charges filed against him by 21 former pastors are investigated. Warren Throckmorton provides full audio of the announcement. Morgan Lee at Christianity Today provides an extensive write-up.
Today I wish to direct to your attention to an item which came across my news feed a couple of days back because it was liked by a Facebook friend. In a piece entitled “Hip-Hip-Horray, Driscoll’s Going Down!“, pastor Tony Warriner critiques all of the negative publicity surrounding Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church which seems to be coming to a head lately.
I have not said much about what is happening at Mars Hill. First, because I am observing the situation from three thousand plus miles away, and that probably does not make me the most qualified person to speak on what is happening out there. Second, because others have already said a lot about the situation, and piling on is never good form.
Still, there are significant issues with Driscoll and Mars Hill, and it does no one any good to keep quiet and pretend it’s all good and there’s nothing to see here.
I have no wish to “sit in judgment from afar” or to traffic in opinion or slander or innuendo. Instead I will stick to what is objectively verifiable and has been objectively verified.
The troubles at Mars Hill apparently started back in 2007 when Driscoll sought to change the church constitution. Two high-ranking staffers who disagreed with the changes were fired.
Fast-forward to early 2014, when World Magazine reported that Driscoll paid a California-based marketing company to put his 2011 book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list for one week. There are ways in which this can be done by gaming the system. Though this practice is not illegal, it is strongly frowned upon in the publishing industry.
And then there have been ongoing allegations of plagiarism. In November 2013 Driscoll was accused of plagiarizing the work of Dr. Peter Jones in his book A Call to Resurgence. Additional allegations surfaced shortly after concerning some Driscoll commentaries on New Testament books. In early 2014 several publishers began to review several of Driscoll’s works for plagiarism.
Then there are questions about Mars Hill’s finances. Earlier this year Mars Hill announced a “Jesus Festival” which was to have been a community outreach/evangelism event. They abruptly and quietly cancelled it, despite having raised more than what they were hoping to raise to put it on.
Also there are charges that Driscoll’s leadership style has alienated many and been a toxic influence at Mars Hill. Here we venture into the realm of opinion, but there is enough out there that it should at least give us pause. For instance, there is this candid confessional piece from former Mars Hill staffer Mike Anderson who left back in 2012. Wenatchee The Hatchet has done a thorough job of documenting the goings-on in this era of Mars Hill’s history. Matthew Paul Turner, Warren Throckmorton, and The Wartburg Watch are also committed to telling the story and giving space for those affected to share their stories.
Even Jared Wilson of The Gospel Coalition has sought to confront Driscoll via the blogosphere. This is significant, because Wilson has been among Driscoll’s most vociferous supporters.
The latest developments: Last month Mars Hill was removed from the Acts 29 church network. And just this past week, 21 former Mars Hill pastors filed charges against Mark Driscoll alleging abusive conduct. The New York Times has published a synopsis of the Mars Hill saga entitled “A Brash Style That Filled Pews, Until Followers Had Their Fill“.
You can click the links, read for yourselves, and form your own conclusions. But I think there is enough evidence here to safely conclude that there are serious issues here, and that what is happening with Driscoll at Mars Hill is something that needs to happen.
Now there is a certain segment of the population that seems to be gleeful that Driscoll is in as much hot water as he is currently in. These range from progressive Christians who have been offended by his statements about gays and women, to more conservative types who were offended by his and Mars Hill’s style of doing church.
That is not right. And Warriner is right to express concern about that.
Driscoll started Mars Hill in Seattle back in the late 1990s, and quickly became one of evangelicalism’s greatest success stories. In one of the most unchurched places in the entire country, Mars Hill was experiencing spectacular growth. Driscoll connected with young men, a demographic that has been largely AWOL in American evangelicalism.
Driscoll was widely seen as emerging/emergent. At the very least, his ways of doing church flew in the face of many people’s ideas of what the “Calvinists on the corner” are supposed to look like. He cussed. A lot. And that rankled a lot of people–in my opinion, people who needed to be rankled.
But Driscoll was fiercely Calvinistic, at a time when Calvinism was surging back to prominence in the world of American evangelicalism. That gained him a great deal of respect from the most prominent names in American evangelicalism, and it made him one of those names as well.
It is a tragedy that Driscoll and Mars Hill have become what they are now. But what is happening at Mars Hill now is something that needs to happen. In light of what I have documented above, I feel pretty safe making that statement.
I disagree with the tone of Warriner’s piece, that any criticism of Driscoll or Mars Hill is nothing more than “passing of judgment,” “petty accusations and cheap shots, with many people actually sounding glee-ish over his struggles”. It is not right to reduce criticism of Driscoll or Mars Hill to that, and so I felt the need to respond.
More appropriate, and I hope more in line with the tone I have taken here, are the words of Wenatchee The Hatchet in response to progressive Christians who have used the opportunity afforded by the plagiarism scandals to jump on the bandwagon of trashing Driscoll for his offensive statements about women and gays:
What we could attempt to do at this point is not continue the echo-chamber reinforcement of our respective teams, whether left or right, whether mainline or evangelical, whether theist or atheist, but to look at how and why entities like Mars Hill come into existence. Getting to the bottom of what the facts are regardless of whether they go where we want them to go or not should be more important than a particular partisan commitment. Just because in the last year progressive Christian writers have all but completely missed the boat on news of controversy with Driscoll doesn’t mean they don’t have things to contribute. But if they’re going to contribute they have to contribute something besides self-congratulatory bromides and the same can be said about the anti-charismatics who have sounded off on Driscoll in the past. We’re dealing with a community that has a history that is not strictly reduceable to a bullet-pointed list of ideological or doctrinal talking points. Even if everyone could possibly agree that Mars Hill displays a cult of personality merely noting that in a Captain Obvious moment does nothing to further conversation about how a personality cult can be impeded or diminished or prevented. Phillip Zimbardo’s proposal that the continual appeal of cults and their popularity in the United States should not be seen as signs that Kool-aid drinkers will always drink Kool-aid but that cults appeal to genuine social desires and needs in ways that “normal” society doesn’t.
Let’s look at the drum Mark Driscoll has kept beating, get the young men and get them to man up and become husbands and fathers who live for a legacy. By appealing directly to young men who have anxieties about their, uh, let’s just call it socio-economic utility to whatever place they find themselves in society, Driscoll and company offer a social meaning for individuals that extant individualism has been incapable of providing. Let’s face it, if individual agency alone were good enough young guys wouldn’t join athletic teams or go on dates. The question is not if there is someone who won’t drink the proverbial Kool-aid, absolutely everyone will drink gallons of Kool-aid for the cause or person they find suitable. As Wenatchee has written in the past, if you cannot diagnose within yourself how you are yourself a symptom or capable of being a symptom then it is imprudent to diagnose the disease you presume to be in someone else. It’s not just people inside Mars Hill who can have this problem, it’s a problem we all have, every last one of us.
What will happen to Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll remains to be seen but if we don’t ask questions that go beyond just Driscoll and Mars Hill that also go into how star systems work in our culture and what things we’ll condone or condemn in our stars if they embody the ideals we admire then we won’t get very far in understanding Mars Hill or Driscoll–this is a case study not simply of a particular type of hero-worship, but an opportunity to explore the apparatus through which such a hero or public figure has taken shape. It would be wrong to assume that there isn’t a progressive Christian equivalent of a Mark Driscoll, whose foibles and flaws are as forgiven by the religious left as they are condemned by the religious right. We should consider reaching for the point where we don’t just consider the heroes of the “other” team capable of being monsters but of “our” team as well whatever our team may be.
So what do we do with all of this? Warriner says pray. Absolutely. Pray for Driscoll, that he would get the help he needs, in some form or fashion. And pray for all those who have been adversely affected by the goings-on at Mars Hill, from Paul Petry and Bent Meyer all the way to the ordinary person in the pew whose story will never make CNN or the New York Times or the Christian blogosphere.
But more than that, let us observe. Let us look closely at what is happening at Mars Hill–as closely as we can from three thousand plus miles away. Not to take joy and glee in the downfall of one who is not on our theological team, but instead to learn to ask the same questions about all the other star systems that are so pervasive in American evangelicalism, and in American society at large. Let us learn to recognize how heroes such as Driscoll are made and how environments such as Mars Hill develop. Let us recognize that the development of star systems such as Driscoll/Mars Hill does not happen because people are progressive or conservative or the opposite of whatever theological team you happen to be on, but because this is the very nature of American evangelicalism and American society at large, and it cuts across ALL theological/cultural/political boundaries. Let us use that knowledge to recognize when the same things are happening closer to home, and to speak out and speak up for those who are affected.