Sinning through Questioning? The Ministry of Mark Driscoll

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

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.

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15 thoughts on “Sinning through Questioning? The Ministry of Mark Driscoll

  1. I’m glad you’re bringing attention to this article, John. Your focus on knowledge and humility is a very effective way of cutting through specific doctrinal issues of Reformed Christianity, though I am left at the end of this post wondering what you really think about predestined election — an essential aspect of Driscoll’s gospel as well as a focus of the article.

    While I agree that an understanding of our essential ignorance should lead us to accept and indeed embrace questioning, I disagree with you that Driscoll’s intolerance for dissent is in any way cultish. The despotism and charisma of a cult leader is, in my mind, characterized by his absolute control over the lives of cult members and the often associated ability to prevent them from leaving the cult. This is not Mars Hill. Nor is authoritarianism itself historically un-Christian. The Roman Catholic Church’s demand for unquestioning belief before Vatican II, to say nothing of its ruthlessness in ancient and pre-modern times, comes immediately to mind.

    (p.s. working on a reply to your letter…)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Clara. You are correct that the article spoke a lot about predestined election, but I chose to focus only on Mr. Driscoll’s intolerance for dissent. I am afraid that a response to your question would require another post of even greater length and even that would do an inadequate job of addressing the issue.

    I do not mean to imply that I think Mars Hill Church is a cult or Mr. Driscoll a cult leader. He is not. But, if the article is accurate in its description of him, he is an egomaniac, and I think this attitude is not befitting a Christian leader.

    And, yes, historically speaking (as Ms. Worthen points out), authoritarianism has been closely tied to some church leaders. But I think there a difference between pointing out that Christians killed heretics during the Inquisition and saying that Christianity sanctions this behavior. It does not.

  3. This is a very important difference, you’re right, but it’s a mistake to consider authoritarianism in Christianity an infrequent or aberrant phenomenon; on the contrary, it has for the most part been the norm. This doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t refashion the expression of our faith over time, only that we need to acknowledge the burden of history as we do so. I think your scriptural argumentation goes a long way toward proving Driscoll wrong, I just wanted to point out that as much as “Christianity” is also constructed by the precedent of history, he has a lot of tradition on his side.

  4. This was an excellent post, John. I think it’s interesting that you chose to focus on his intolerance for dissent, and hardly on the doctrines he teaches. Doctrines are crucial to the well-being of a Christian body, no doubt, but simply knowing and teaching the doctrines should not replace the change of one’s heart as reflected in Christ’s image. And in that sense I agree with you that his attitude is contrary to that of what a Christian leader should have. But as much as I dislike his behavior, it’s nonetheless encouraging to see him being used by God to bring people to Christ. All things are used for his glory, even this man who very much comes off as an egomaniac.

  5. I have a soft spot for Mark Driscoll, actually.

    Driscoll has the tendency to shoot off his mouth — and pay for it. As Worthen says, Driscoll’s critics have characterized the reorganization of the church as a power grab: there are other interpretations too. It doesn’t mention the shunning.

    And, while Driscoll is provocative and somewhat impulsive, from what I’ve seen he’s not a rhetorical lummox. While I don’t agree with a lot of his core views (his no women in leadership policy and his macho Jesus, for starters), they are nuanced and fully articulated, which I can respect.

    So, until I can find that sermon and read the context of his statements about breaking an elder’s nose or “sinning through questioning,” I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  6. I read that article when it came out, and I read an article that somewhat defends Mark Driscoll: maybe you’d be interested in it.

    I also have appreciate much of how God has used Mark Driscoll’s sermons to bring clarity into my life. He definitely is pretty controversial, but I think the article fails to be well-rounded in its examination of Mars Hill and Driscoll.

  7. Oh, and I may say a few more things about the article…

    I’ve been listening to Mark Driscoll for about a year now, and honestly, the article seems very unfair and very dated. It’s very difficult to understand a church and a person/pastor in a short amount of time and write about it in an article.

  8. Thanks to Laura and Steven for providing some other perspectives on the leadership controversy at Mars Hill Church. I think Laura makes a fair point that Mr. Driscoll should be given the benefit of the doubt. And if his behavior doesn’t actually mirror his rhetoric, perhaps this instance provides the rare example in which it’s actually good that a pastor is not practicing what he preaches. But he should stop preaching it nonetheless.

  9. That, I agree with. If he is in fact preaching what you’re critiquing. (I mean, he may be, I’m not a Marshead, so don’t quote me…).

    But, yeah, I seriously doubt Risky Drisky is punching anyone in the face. Not with that five-o-clock-shadowed baby-face of his and his sweaters with hoods.

  10. Clara said, “I disagree with you that Driscoll’s intolerance for dissent is in any way cultish.”

    Perhaps “ruthless” is a beter description.

    Worthen’s article barely scratched the surface, given these public pronouncements:

  11. Hey John, thanks for your thoughts, but I’d like to caution against buying everything that a non-Christian has to say about a Christian pastor. While I have my own reservations about Driscoll, we don’t know really what happened besides the spin that the New York times threw on the story. And it seems a bit unwise to me to jump all over Driscoll on the testimony of only one witness (one that understands and sympathizes with Christian theology, history, and practice so well like the New York Times!).

    It’s fine to use the situation illustrated as an object lesson (and I appreciate your look at the Biblical model of correction), but to criticize Driscoll himself immediately is dangerous. We run high risk of slandering a brother in the Lord, and tarnishing the good name of a church and a minister of the Word unfairly.

  12. I have been doing much research on MHC, spiritual/church abuse, controlling and Narcissistic leaders in the church, etc… I am putting it all together so that people can see at a glance either what they’re getting into at MHC as they begin attending or consider joining as members. Also, I hope my blog will be a place of validation and healing for those who have escaped the abuse of such an over-controlling system and leader at MHC.

    Freedom4captives.wordpress.com is my blog exclusively about Mars Hill Church Abuse, yet general enough in some of my posts to be relevant to anyone who has been spiritually and psychologically abused.

    As a mental health counselor and a survivor of spiritual abuse, I perceive many signs of cult like control/spiritual abuse: Controlling Pastor with “Yes Men” Elders; No Talk Rule; No Dissent; Emphasis on Submission/Obedience; Shunning of “Unrepentant” Former Members; Dis-fellowshipping Questioners/Critical Thinkers; By-Laws Removing Accountability of Pastor/Elders; Mind/Thought Control; Membership Covenant and Financial Giving Pledge Required; “Biblical” Counseling Only, if Referred Out, Must Sign Release Form (no confidentiality allowed); Kangaroo Court Firing of Two Elders Who Dared to Question; Extreme Gender Role Enforcement; Members Must Attend Accountability/”Community” Groups… Scary!

    Preaching the Gospel is one thing, but abusing God’s sheep is NEVER acceptable, (see Ezek 34), despite some occasional good preaching (I say occasional because MD is very good at “beating the sheep,” laying heavy burdens on them that he himself, like the Pharisees of old, is unwilling to lift with his smallest finger!)

    In Him Always,
    Freedom4Captives

  13. Thank you for addressing this issue! My wife and I have been listening to Mark Driscoll for several years. We both have no doubt that he is a CULT LEADER in every sense of the word.

    How can people listen to his ego-driven, Hulk Hogan view of Jesus? I really believe this man needs serious help. His put downs and disdain for women is incredibly insensitive and chauvenistic. What is this philosophy doing to the young men in his church and what kind of marriage are they modeling?

    Was he exalted too early in ministry? He was only “born again” for a relatively short time before being lifted to such a high profile. The fact that seasoned and well-reasoned leaders like MacArthur have furthered his influence by joining him at conferences and discussion panels baffles me and causes me to shake my head in disbelief and wonder if they have an ounce of discernment.

    God needs to open the eyes of leaders who are promoting/endorsing his views and blogs have a unique way of bringing these types of issues front and center for the protection of blind followers who don’t see the error in this.

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