The New York Times Magazine published an article last weekend about Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll and his increasingly popular megachurch, Mars Hill. While various aspects of Mr. Driscoll’s theology and his seemingly uncritical embrace of American popular culture are disturbing, nothing is more troubling than his intolerance for dissent, an attitude that seems to border on despotism and is, frankly, unchristian. As the article reports:
Nowhere is the connection between Driscoll’s hypermasculinity and his Calvinist theology clearer than in his refusal to tolerate opposition at Mars Hill. The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. Mars Hill is not 16th-century Geneva, but Driscoll has little patience for dissent. In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a “mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy” who attends Mars Hill. “His answer was brilliant,” Driscoll reported. “He said, ‘I break their nose.’ ” When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. “They are sinning through questioning,” Driscoll preached.
One could begin a critique by pointing out Mr. Driscoll’s jejune understanding of masculinity, but this observation wouldn’t begin to plumb the depths of his misguided theology. Please. “I break their nose”? If this were the proper way to handle stubborn subordinates, all of Jesus’ disciples would have needed reconstructive surgery on their faces.
But Mr. Driscoll isn’t Jesus, and his biggest problem seems to be that he thinks he can speak for God nonetheless. Molly Worthen, the author of the Times piece, displays more theological understanding in the final line of her article than Mr. Driscoll does in any of the excerpts she quotes: “Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.”
The biggest problem I have with Mr. Driscoll’s ministry is the megalomaniacal self-assurance that leads him to expel dissenters and disguise his own cowardice with a cloak of virile rhetoric. In contrast to his infantile posturing, a proper Christian epistemology begins with an understanding of human fallibility and ends with gentle humility.
First, let us consider what Paul had to say about human knowledge. In 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds the church that human knowledge is inherently limited and that it must only be exercised through love. Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2-3). He later adds:
[W]here there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:8-13)
Consider Paul’s analogy: When we were children, we thought and believed many silly things that we now consider laughable, even embarrassing. Paul is telling us that many things that we now think we know, we do not. We will look back upon our misguided understandings and we will consider them elementary or simply wrong. The best of our current knowledge is but a dim reflection, and we are incapable of knowing fully.
Second, we should be humbled by Peter’s example. Peter was one of Jesus’ three closest disciples during his entire ministry and the disciple whom Jesus declared would be the rock upon which the church would be built (Matt. 16:18). Obviously, Peter understood the gospel and Jesus’ teachings, right? No. Peter continually “didn’t get it,” but he was humble enough to listen to others and to learn from his mistakes.
Consider just two examples. When Jesus was being arrested in Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword (a very “manly” act, to be sure) and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus rebuked Peter, telling him that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52). He then chided him, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26:53-54). Despite the fact that for three years, Jesus had been telling Peter and the other disciples that he would die for their sins, Peter did not understand. If Peter could spend three entire years with the Lord and yet not comprehend this simple fact, how can Mr. Driscoll be so sure of himself?
As a second example, recall the dispute between Peter and Paul at Antioch, recorded in Galatians 2:11-14. Paul writes that he opposed Peter “to his face” in front of the entire congregation because Peter was siding with those who said that the Gentiles should be circumcised. The scene must have been shocking: Peter, the rock of the church and one of Jesus’ original disciples, was being boldly opposed by the new convert, Paul. Imagine how easy it would have been for Peter to become defensive and quash the opposition. But Peter didn’t do that because he found his identity not in some questionable definition of manliness, but in Christ. In fact, Peter displayed more confidence by allowing Paul to rebuke him than he would have had he followed Mr. Driscoll’s advice and broken Paul’s nose. Was Paul “sinning through questioning”? Hardly.
Finally, let us look at the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. The book of Proverbs tells us that wise men love rebuke but that foolish men resent it. Consider: “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (9:8); “A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise” (15:12); or “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool” (17:10). Likewise, Psalm 141 praises correction from the wise, “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it” (Ps. 141:5).
Proverbs also teaches that knowledge is difficult to acquire and that no one should regard himself as wise: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter” (25:2); “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (26:12). Ecclesiastes echoes both of these teachings: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it” (8:17).
Mr. Driscoll’s intolerance for dissent is closer to the behavior of a cult leader than it is to a minister of the gospel.