Friday, August 15, 2014

Mark Driscoll, Contemporary Christianity and Presbyterianism

I've been quietly keeping tabs on the issues surrounding Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill over the last few months. Ever since Driscoll crashed John MacArthur's strange fire conference things seem to have gone from bad to worse for him. He gets called out for immaturity, he then gets accused of plagiarism, he gets exposed for buying his way into the New York Times Best Seller list with church funds and to top it off the trickling exit of members and leaders from Mars Hill have snowballed into something of an avalanche resulting in several websites devoted solely to exposing, rebuking and calling for the removal of Mark Driscoll from leadership. And if all that wasn't bad enough Acts 29, the church planting network which Driscoll co-founded, have excommunicated him and all Mars Hill churches.

I've resisted weighing into the Mark Driscoll controversy for several reasons. The main reason being that I'm saddened by the whole thing. Driscoll has been an amazing influence in many Christians' lives, not least my own. Consequently, I'm not overly enthusiastic about weighing in on the latest Christian blogosphere melodrama. On a similar vein, I don't intend to write in-depth or for an extended period of time. David Robertson has written an excellent article on many of the major issues surrounding the Driscoll controversy, and he has expressed many of my own thoughts far more effectively than I ever could. I do however, want to pick up and expand on some of the key things that he highlighted.

His article seeks to address What the Church can learn from Pastor Mark's Fall from Grace. He highlights five important principles to learn from the Driscoll and Mars Hill scenario, four of them, directly relate to Mark and one of them is directed towards his critics, particularly those who are revelling in his downfall. The five points are as follows:

Lesson 1 – We don't need Protestant Popes
Lesson 2 – We don't need Protestant Pop Stars
Lesson 3 – We don't need Protestant Professionals
Lesson 4  – We don't need Protestant Pharisees
Lesson 5 – We do need Protestant Pastors

His points really amount to one key issue, and it is this issue that I have felt is the major issue in the present Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll crisis: church government. Mars Hill is in crisis largely because the church and Mark's ministry are not built upon a more biblical framework.

A number of years ago, when I was at the height of my Driscoll excitement, my wife bought me a book(let), written by Driscoll  on church leadership: A book on Church Leadership You'll Actually Read. I've always had an interest in church government, and not just a theoretical interest, thanks to my first few years as a Christian with the brethren movement, I've always had an understanding that ecclesiology is important. Yet, it was exactly at this point that Driscoll's book jarred with me. At the end of the book Driscoll deals with the question: What should I do if I disagree with how my church is organised? This was an essential question for me, at this time in my walk I had spent many years in the independent charismatic church scene and I was deeply aware of the problems caused by poor church government and fellowships which were built upon the personality and authority of one man. So, here was Driscoll, my theological hero, the guy who would contend ferociously for biblical truth about to answer a question which I desperately needed answered. What did he have to say about church organisation? Well after a few sentences about checking the scriptures, checking your motives, respectfully speaking to the elders, and giving the options of respectfully stay and submit or peacefully leave the church, he concluded by saying:

"I offer one final word of caution for the idealistic neatniks who may read this: every church is filled with imperfect people like you who are led by imperfect leaders like me and governed by imperfect systems like the ones outlined in this book. The goal for yourself, your church and its leaders must be faithfulness and not perfection, so it behoves you to start drinking decaf and to lighten up in Jesus' name."

 And that was it. Simply put, if we are unsure about the government of our church, we need to put up or shut up-- and if we are concerned about church government, we really need to chill out-- it's not all that important because all the systems of church government are imperfect anyway.

Of course, it's true, there is no perfect system, but it is possible that some are less perfect than others. In fact, it is certainly the case. It's also no accident that Driscoll wrote this book in 2008 because it was in 2007 that Driscoll changed the bylaws of Marshill which shifted the church from an elder-led model to a CEO model which gave Driscoll more authority. This decision was rolled through despite opposition from key leaders, a stance which caused two of the leaders to be fired.*

The shift from being an elder-led church to a CEO model has led to internal division, misuse of power, and a culture of spiritual abuse, it is also this new leadership structure that is hindering the church from moving on from its present struggles. The old adage is true, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mark Driscoll is man of God, but he, like the rest of us, is a sinner. Sinful men in imperfect systems are likely to cause problems, sinful men in really bad systems are guaranteed to wreak havoc. I wholeheartedly agree with David Robertson when he says:

"How I wish that Driscoll had belonged to an established denomination with suitable accountability and liberty for him to develop and use his undoubted gifts. How I hate the 'machine' that eats up preachers, and the Christian sub-culture that rejoices in shooting its own wounded."

This, for me, is the key truth to take out of the whole Driscoll and Mars Hill crisis. Why? Because it's not just Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. The whole modern evangelical movement is infected with the same issues that are emerging in Mars Hill. David Robertson expresses this well: "We have lots of small churches that have Protestant popes – the only difference with Driscoll is one of scale and thus able to do greater damage."

Presbyterianism, and other established denominations are not perfect, but they do have accountability structures in place. For many years, as a charismatic, I prided myself in the 'fact' (myth) that the churches I belonged to had rediscovered apostolic and team ministry, whereas the traditional churches were stuck in a one-man ministry model. The tragic irony was the fact that the new apostolic model and 'team ministry' model was actually more of a 'one-man ministry' than the Presbyterian churches I was critiquing. Within Presbyterianism, there is no room for the super-apostle, the celebrity or the one-man show. Ministers are held accountable to the Kirk Session and the Presbytery. There are procedures. Stuffy, painful, laborious, yet  gloriously liberating procedures. Perhaps the New Calvinism, that Driscoll helped to spread globally needs to evolve into the old Calvinism. Perhaps it's time we read the other books in Calvin's institutes, he did not only write about soteriology, he had a heck of a lot to say about the church and how it should be governed. Perhaps the Radical Reformission needs to become more radical, so radical that it rejects the
market driven church model and rediscovers the church of the reformation, the church led by shepherds of the flock of Christ.

Edit 17/8/04
* An alternative reading of the events in 2007 which led to the firing of two elders can be found in the following document which was released by Mars Hill and includes a letter from Mark Driscoll


  1. There are only two traditions today that can really claim to have true apostolicity, historical continuity to the early church in its creeds, liturgy, ecclesiology etc: And that
    s the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church. Take your pick. Yes, each have had their pitfalls in church history -- but they at least know who they are, and what they stand for.

  2. Hi Dan, I'd say the reformed Presbyterian church has true apostolicity. The real demise set in with the radical reformers, i.e. independents and Anabaptists.