It was a somewhat dreary day in Glasgow in the year 2008. I was there, as editor of a Christian magazine, to interview the latest sensation from the USA, a young firebrand, reformed charismatic called Mark Driscoll. His star continued to rise until earlier this year and now it seems that everyone wants a piece of Mr Driscoll. We all knew he was in trouble when the organisation he co-founded, Acts29, removed him and his church from their network.
Accusations of a bullying culture, plagiarism, and seeking to buy his way onto the New York Times Bestsellers list had led to a series of protests and complaints. Perhaps the most damaging and moving was his former colleague, Ron Wheeler's, blog entitled 'I am not anonymous'. The Christian blogosphere has gone into meltdown. A man whose ministry was greatly assisted by social media and the Internet looks as though he is going to be brought down by those same methods. It's a classic case of those who live by the sword, die by the sword. But in the midst of all the schadenfrude, accusation, rumour and discouragement is there anything that we can learn?
I enjoyed meeting Driscoll – but even then he seemed tired and overwhelmed and several danger signs were already present. I wrote at the time "we have a lot to learn from him if we are willing to listen". I still think we can learn.
Lesson 1 – We don't need Protestant Popes
I wrote in that 2008 article: "I asked Mark whether there was a danger that the church would be based around his personality and gifts rather than Jesus Christ. His response was interesting. He argued that to some extent every church has a cult of personality and that that danger is open to us all. His aim was to teach and proclaim Jesus but he realised that as a sinful human being he had a real problem with humility. (Ironically, the Sunday before he came to Scotland he had preached a stunning sermon on humility, during which he confessed his own pride and weakness.)"
The problem is that Driscoll has been apologising for years and yet the same pattern seems to keep re-emerging. The trouble with Protestant independency, where each man starts his own church and does what seems right in his own eyes, is that while it is strong on creativity, and creating and riding the wave, it is poor on accountability. Once you become 'big' and popular, there is a whole mechanism that comes around you and despite the constant repeating of the mantra that the church is about Jesus, not you, in reality the organisation does become about the main man – the protestant 'vicar of Christ'.
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. His interview with Justin Brierley on Premier was 'unbelievable'. His arrogance, temper and huffiness in that interview was matched only by his ignorance of the British church. Likewise, his attempt to make a prophecy/instruction at the New Frontiers conference in Brighton was embarrassing. If Driscoll had stuck to teaching the Word of God, and not wandered down his macho 'my church is bigger than yours' route, he would have avoided doing himself, and us, a lot of harm.
Lesson 2 – We don't need Protestant Pop Stars
I have no reason to doubt that, like all of us who are pastors, Driscoll's motivations are often mixed, including a genuine desire to see Christ glorified. In 2008 I observed: "Given Mark's current popularity and the commercialisation of the American church 'market', there are enormous temptations: lucrative publishing deals, conference fees, and the sense that everyone wants a piece of you. It remains to be seen whether he and Mars Hill can avoid the McDonaldisation of the Church and the branding that goes along with that."
Often (but thankfully not always) when I watch Christian TV I see the same process at work – a commercialised Christianity based upon the capitalist market system and the entertainment industry; crass, manipulative and exploitative. Capitalism and entertainment may be fine and necessary things in their proper spheres, but the Church is neither a corporation nor an entertainment business.
In my interview with Driscoll I was intrigued by his obsession with Redeemer Church (Tim Keller's church) charging for downloads of Keller's sermons in order to fund their social ministry in New York. Driscoll seemed attracted to the idea of being bigger, having more money and being able to do more stuff. I understand that. Although I don't want to build an empire, I do want to be part of a growing church. Although I don't want to get rich through my books, I still sneak a peek at the Amazon charts to see how well they are doing. The old temptations of pride rooted in power, money and popularity are there for all of us, but especially for those who have them!
Lesson 3 – We don't need Protestant Professionals
Driscoll is a great communicator. He studied stand-up comedians in order to learn how to communicate to the modern generation and he succeeded. His performance is slick, passionate and entertaining. And he does communicate the Bible – it is not just the typical tele-evangelist styles of a few homespun stories, mixed in with some Bible verses and a bit of prophetic/pathetic shouting. I know many people who have been helped through his teaching of God's Word – and I include myself in that number. For several years I subscribed to his podcast, although for the past three I have stopped listening, maybe because I felt I knew more about his family and church than I did my own! It also gets tiring to listen to someone who takes an hour and 15 minutes to say what could be said in 15. And what's with the schoolboy obsession with sex? Anyone who preaches three lengthy series on the Song of Solomon as a sex manual for Christians has got things a wee bit out of sync! Most of us grow out of 'the shock jock' tactic of 'Look how freely I can speak about sex'. Those of my female friends who complained about his misogyny were not being too 'sensitive' – they were right. I say that as someone who shares Driscoll's complementarian theology but not his mistaken cultural application of that theology.
Driscoll was desperate to be an author. But he just isn't. He can preach, inspire and motivate, but he is not a writer. He told me that a US Christian publishing company had offered him a seven-figure sum to have a series of books ghost-written in his name. He resisted that temptation then, although sadly he seems to have succumbed to something similar later. If what he told me about the Christian publishing company was true, then we need to repent at setting up a system that just apes the world – complete with our own charts, publicity machines and commercialised insanity.
Lesson 4 – We don't need Protestant Pharisees
The German word 'schadenfreude' is a great word. It means 'rejoicing in another's misfortune',and literally translates as 'harm-joy'. There have been plenty of kill-joys who have indulged in 'harm-joy' over Mark Driscoll. I think of one conservative radio host who seemed to be obsessed with Driscoll, tweeting constantly and even urging people to turn up and protest at his church. I recall listening to her speaking to another 'reformed' minister, the two of them waxing eloquent in their praise of one another's courage and how they admired each other. It was nauseatingly smug.
I have a sneaking suspicion that some of those who are most critical of Driscoll's popularity have a yearning to be popular themselves. Jealousy is always a powerful motive. Any reactions we have to Driscoll's woes should be ones of sorrow, self-examination and repentance, not schadenfreude.
Lesson 5 – We do need Protestant Pastors
I just can't bring myself to join in the dissing of Driscoll, nor can I say 'I told you so'. I believe that he has done a great deal of good as an evangelist in communicating the gospel to many thousands who would otherwise not have heard it. I wanted to believe that it would last, but I have been too long in the ministry to be surprised that it has not. 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.
The crying need of the hour is not for Christian celebrities bringing the latest 'fix-it' for the Christian church, but rather for pastors who will faithfully communicate the Word of God and humbly and lovingly shepherd the flock which Jesus bought with his own blood. I hate the way that the term 'pastor' has even been turned into some kind of sinister power title, 'Pastor Mark says this', 'Pastor Jerry is so great', 'Pastor John wants this'. Whatever happened to 'call no man Father'?
Let's pray for Mark Driscoll, that the Lord will restore him to a greater usefulness. And let's learn not to turn fallible human beings into functional saviours. Thank the Lord there is only one Saviour – Him. We are His servants, messengers and children. That is more than enough.