The Mark Driscoll Controversy: Why We're Allowed To Talk About It

I don’t know about you, but I’ve followed the recent dustup at Mars Hill church in Seattle with great interest.
Quick background: Mars Hill is a mega-church with many satellite plants, headed by a pastor named Mark Driscoll. If you know anything at all about the evangelical blogosphere these days, you’ve probably heard of Driscoll’s many controversial statements and actions.
 I could literally spend a baker's dozen blog posts going over Driscoll's mistakes. But I won’t, because other people already have (the former list is a drop in the Jupiter-sized ocean, I assure you). Suffice it to say that Driscoll has been accused of having a gender theology that devalues women; of promoting an overly-authoritarian type of leadership; of being a bully; of being arrogant and self-seeking; and, most recently, of buying his book Real Marriage onto the NYT best-seller list and then pretending he earned that prestige honestly.

This last event sparked a new round of criticism aimed at Driscoll by secular and religious media alike. It only got worse when 20 former pastors of Mars Hill came forward to state that they are seeking mediation for problems with Driscoll that have occurred over the last several years.

Through it all, Driscoll’s supporters have spoken against those who criticize him, saying that the church should not become involved in in-fighting and ganging-up, because it will make us look bad and slow down the work of the Gospel. (For an example of these views, see this recent article at Those who call attention to Driscoll’s gaffes have been labeled divisive, mean-spirited, bitter, grudge holders, and a slew of other vague terms that people often reach for when they don’t feel like engaging an actual conversation.

Then, of course, there are also lots of level-headed Driscoll defenders, people who just think their pastor has gotten a raw deal. They’re worried that critics who are angry about Driscoll’s past offenses are simply ganging up now for a little un-Christlike revenge. And let’s be honest: who among us would feel warm and fuzzy if we saw people doing that to our favorite pastor?

Add to the mix a long (albeit hit-and-miss) history of apologies from Driscoll, and the situation gets more complicated. If the dude is apologizing for (at least some of) his missteps, should we give him a break and just drop it?

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I’ve had deep concerns about Driscoll, and the culture of Mars Hill, for about three years. As former elders, more former elders, and former members come forward with disturbing stories of Driscoll’s behavior and the church’s operation, it gets harder for me to assume that Driscoll’s apologies are fixing his mistakes. On the whole, I’m a supporter of the widespread critique Driscoll’s ministry is now receiving, because I believe there are some problems at Mars Hill that Driscoll helped create and that have hurt people.

Please notice what I’m not saying. I’m not saying Driscoll is a big fake. I’m not saying Driscoll has never had anything good to say. I’m not saying that I want to see Driscoll’s life ruined or his marriage fall apart. I’m not saying that I delight in seeing a man crash-and-burn in embarrassing ways. I'm not even saying that I know for sure Driscoll's apologies have been disingenuous.

Driscoll and I believe in the same Jesus, the same salvation, the same Kingdom. But some of the things we disagree on (such as church authority and gender theology) seem to have become so harmful to his teaching and the people under his ministry, that I believe it’s only right to call it out. This means inviting him into a healthier set of beliefs.

This is the motive many of Driscoll’s critics have—not a motive driven by hatred or bitterness, but a real concern for real damage being done.

Although we can’t know the inner state of Driscoll’s heart (only God can), I believe everyone’s concern is validated by the sheer number of incidents that have come to light over the years, and the fact that he tends to make the same kinds of mistakes (arrogance, misogyny, sweeping generalizations of those who disagree with him) over and over. For anyone willing to do a few minutes of research, it’s evident that Driscoll’s offensive behavior is both widespread and repetitive.

With that in mind, I’d like to address a couple of criticisms that have been lobbed at religious and secular whistle-blowers, showing why the work they’re doing is completely appropriate.

Is it appropriate to talk about these issues publicly, especially since those in the media (and those of us who blog) don’t know Driscoll personally?

Yes, it is appropriate.

Driscoll has intentionally put himself out there as a public teacher. He did not have to take his ministry beyond the doors of Mars Hill—or the city of Seattle. He did not have to start writing books and promoting podcasts. And, if he felt called to church plants and involvement in a large network like Acts 29, he had to know that his teaching was going into the public eye, like it or not.

He’s also gotten votes of confidence by other high-profile pastors like John Piper, who have massive followings.

Driscoll’s ministry is. not. private. It is not. His teaching is high-profile, it is seen as setting a trend for the Neo-Reformed movement of the next generation in North America, and it has affected the very nature and structure of every Acts 29 church out there (of which there are about 500 worldwide).
I defy anyone to argue that the man’s ministry is private.

Now, if a ministry is high-profile, and it engages a network of literally thousands of people, isn’t it downright dangerous to say that, no matter how unhealthy it gets, we’re never allowed to let the public know that something fishy is up and needs to be fixed? What about everyone who has read his books and listened to his podcasts? What about everyone who attends an Acts 29 church? That’s an awful lot of people he’s reaching out to, and if some of what he’s offering is unhealthy, why shouldn’t he be called onto the carpet for that—and his followers made aware?

As for whether the media and networks of random bloggers are the right people to do that, I want to make two points. First, many of the alarms are coming from people who personally experienced Mars Hill, and many knew or know Driscoll (look at Joyful Exiles and Mars Hill Refuge, already linked above). So you can hardly say that all the talk against Mars Hill has been drummed up by an army of anonymous persons who have no business speaking to it.

And secondly, it has become obvious (again, for anyone who will do five minutes of research into those links) that there are victims coming out of that church network who did try to address the problems within the network first, but had no luck. Yes, in a perfect world, any problems of Driscoll’s would be handled by Mars Hill. But eyewitnesses are testifying that the environment around Driscoll is not properly filling that role, that it is in fact letting him get away with too much, driving victims out into the world to search for help.

So let me put it to you this way. If we in the wider church culture see that people are being hurt and silenced, and that the people who are “supposed” to help them won’t offer help—do we just turn our backs and say “Well, not my problem” ?

If Jesus were standing in the room with us right now, do you really think you could say, “But Lord, these hurting people aren’t my problem.”

Really? Really now. I’ll give you another minute to think about it.

The misfire here is assuming that all ministries work the way they’re supposed to, that all pastors submit to a process of checks and balances with other believers, and that all problems can be caught at the local or regional church level. Yes, often that best-case scenario happens. But sometimes, it doesn’t. In this instance, it most glaringly has not. At such time, I believe it is appropriate for the wider church culture to step in—for the sake of hurt victims, and for the sake of the leaders who may be wrecking their private lives by being drunk on power. There’s no way to know for sure unless we confront and call out.

Now obviously, you don’t want to do this without plenty of evidence. But folks, we have that. 

But doesn’t it weaken the body of Christ for the world to see such infighting?

If some form of abuse truly is happening within the culture of Mars Hill (and many watchdog bloggers and ex members think it is), then God will not excuse us for staying silent just because we didn’t want to feel sheepish in front of secular culture.

And the wider world is more astute than many Christians seem to give it credit for. The sex scandal in the Catholic Church should have taught us that. The wider world was shocked that the church, which is supposed to stand for loving and protecting the weak, covered up child abuse. It didn't call that behavior "understandable" because the church "wanted to look good."

If we call out unhealthy behavior, the secular world won’t think we’re infighting. It will see that we’re serious about being loving and fair, to the point of lovingly chastising our poster boys and favorite celebrities. It will see that when innocent people get hurt, the church comes running. It will see that when people teach something harmful, the church gets up and says “No. This is not what we stand for.”

If, on the other hand, the church does nothing in the face of unhealthy behavior, the secular world will have one of two options to consider; either that we agree with the unhealthy behavior, or that we just don’t care.

Frankly, I don’t want anyone to think either of those things about the church. 

But Mark Driscoll has repeatedly apologized for his arrogance and some of his most visible mistakes. Why are we still talking about this if the man has apologized? And look, he even apologized for his arrogance to his church as recently as last week!

Psychology professor and blogger Warren Throckmorten recently featured this article on his blog. The article itself is just a summation of the rumbles around Mars Hill lately. But I want to draw your attention to the included excerpt from former Mars Hill member Bryan Zug. At the end of his first two bullet points, Zug states the following: 

“While repentance of this specific incident may or may not have occurred, the culture that begat it is still bearing deadly fruit.”

The above sentence could be a thesis statement of everything that has worried me about Mark Driscoll’s ministry for the last three years. I believe the culture that admires Driscoll has continued to look the other way as long as Driscoll will say he repented for something, leaving the underlying cause of the damage unexplored. That tendency is allowing him to keep hurting people, and himself, and it needs to stop.

For example. In my 13-link sentence, I included the now-famous story of Driscoll’s comments about feminine-looking worship leaders. It was hurtful to men (for implying there’s something wrong if you aren’t “manly” like Driscoll), to women (for using femininity as an insult) and to gay people (I hope I don’t have to explain to you that ridiculing girly men has historically been tied to cruelty against the gay community).

Driscoll apologized for the incident and took the quote down. Okay. Those are good things to do. But then, everyone said, “It’s over. Leave the man alone. Can’t a guy make one mistake?” And Driscoll went on his way, continuing a ministry trajectory that paints all men one way and uses femininity as an insult.

He apologized for the specific incident, but was the underlying cause (his beliefs about masculinity/femininity) ever dealt with?

Another example. Driscoll was often criticized for being sex-o-centric in his view of marriage. When Real Marriage came out, Driscoll surprised many by saying that he’d been sexually frustrated for much of his marriage, and that this impacted his teaching in that area. Some saw this as a step in the right direction, a sign of maturity. “See?” they said. “Driscoll is recognizing and admitting his fault, and being open with us.”

Ironically, the very book Driscoll used to confess this was also an apologetic for the very same sexual obsession he’d been demonstrating up until that point. Other reviewers have demonstrated how this book kept sex as the main focus of marriage (and, for that matter, why it betrayed his still-unfair views of women and his anger problems), so I won’t go into that here.

Suffice it to say that, once again, people pointed to a specific statement of repentance but did not watch to see if the underlying cause of the problem was being addressed.

“While repentance of this specific incident may or may not have occurred, the culture that begat it is still bearing deadly fruit.”

Therefore, even if Driscoll is truly, deeply sorry for an event, he may keep repeating it in other ways, because he is still ensnared in a mindset that believes unhealthy things. Until he actually takes large steps to address underlying theological problems, these problems will keep recurring in new and ever-more-inventive ways, like the Whack-A-Mole popping up from different holes and always evading the club. Except this will be “Whack-An-Arrogance” or “Whack-A-Sex” or “Whack-A-GayBashing” or “Whack-A-Bullying” or “Whack-A-I-Insulted-All-Dress-Wearing-Anglicans” or “Whack-A-Stay-At-Home-Dads-Suck” or “Whack-A-Sit-Down-And-Shut-Up.” My arms are already tired from all that head-bopping, and I’ve only been following this story for three years! And when you consider that all of those problems will keep on affecting everyone who reads, listens to, ministers with, or attends a church affiliated with Mark Driscoll, it becomes clear that the stakes are high for him to get himself in order.

Part of the reason I like Zug’s quote so much is that it used the word “culture.” I think that’s the perfect word, because it reminds us that Driscoll himself is ensnared in a certain type of environment feedback loop that drives him to a lot of the decisions he makes. That mindset is what helped create Mars Hill, but I’m willing to bet that the culture of Mars Hill took on a life of its own and fed back into Driscoll’s life. It’s an attitude, and a culture, that believes church should be authoritarian for its members’ own good. It’s an attitude, and a culture, that believes men count for more than women. It’s an attitude, and a culture, that reacts against instead of dialoguing with the gay community. It’s an attitude, and a culture, that believes asking questions to be an act of rebellion.

He didn’t just wake up one day deciding to hurt people, and he’s probably still not entirely cognizant of the hurt that he’s caused—because to him, most of the things he believes are okay and workable, and his environment reinforces that. (Which brings me back to an earlier point—if no one at Mars Hill is willing to tell him he’s wrong about that, the buck gets passed to the wider church culture).

I suspect that this environment allowed Driscoll to continue on in ministry when really, he probably should have taken a break to reevaluate the state of his heart. I’m not saying that the man should never again pastor, but when red flags reach a certain point, it definitely behooves someone to back down and make sure the things they’re doing don’t keep hurting people. It alarms me that Driscoll apparently realizes he has long struggled with arrogance, but thinks that the realization alone will suddenly heal him of it to the point where his ministry can continue in a healthier way. Sometimes we have to remove ourselves from a situation and take long stretches of time to address our underlying beliefs and heal.
At the very least, if he knows his arrogance tainted what he was trying to do, he needs to go to work double-time repealing messages he sent out into the world earlier. He needs to widely and publicly correct himself, and ask people to forgive the angrier parts of his early ministry rather than just passing them off as the natural outworking of an “angry young prophet.”

One Final Disclaimer

I hope I have said all the right things here. I am not God. I can’t see inside Mark Driscoll’s heart. But I firmly believe that if this were another pastor—say, a pastor who had not been the only young, hip poster boy for the next generation of a growing movement—that people would have been comfortable asking him to make changes a long time ago.

What I ultimately want is for the hurt to stop happening, for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill to be healthier and happier, and for the rest of us to be safe from yet another sketchy sermon or sudden public blow-up of offensive words.

I realize that it’s easy for someone like me, who is not a mega-church pastor embroiled in a controversy, to sit here and point fingers at one who is. But again, I don’t think that’s a good excuse for saying nothing when bad things are obviously happening to real people in the real world.

[**Edit: It's been reported by Throckmorton and others that some of Driscoll's material (sermons, etc.) is starting to disappear off the Mars Hill site. Whether this is a cleanup crew doing scrub work, or whether Driscoll/the church has decided that they need to take another look at, and possibly rescind, some of his earlier material, remains to be seen. Believe it or not, my snarky self is not immediately jumping to the more cynical of those two conclusions**]

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