Fast-tracked restoration: Why is Mark Driscoll already back in church leadership?

So Mark Driscoll is back. The former leader of Seattle megachurch Mars Hill, who resigned in 2014 amid accusations of bullying, plagiarism and manipulation, will launch his new church on Easter Sunday – a somewhat theatrical bit of timing that attaches extra significance to his own personal resurrection. Driscoll is now the Senior and Founding Pastor of The Trinity Church, Scottsdale, Arizona, and while the first service won't immediately lead to regular weekly meetings, these should follow soon afterwards. Mark Driscoll will be Pastor Mark again, returned from the wilderness to rebuild his ministry and his reputation.

If you're thinking this all sounds a little too soon, you're not alone. Barely 18 months have passed since Driscoll stepped down as pastor of Mars Hill, after years of controversy and public criticism escalated into formal complaints from former staff and congregants. Acts 29 – the church-planting network he founded – removed him from ministry and asked him to resign; he stepped down from his role at Mars Hill in October 2014; his church dissolved itself at the end of that year.

Driscoll's transgressions were varied and manifold. He'd been able to weather criticism for perceived misogyny (he described women as 'penis homes') and homophobic (he criticised 'effeminate, anatomically male worship leaders'); he'd simply become divisive with his trashy, testosterone-fuelled approach to public discourse. However, when 21 former Mars Hill pastors brought accusations of workplace bullying and other 'disqualifying behaviour' to the church's elders, one of America's most high-profile celebrity pastors could no longer just shrug off the complaints.

For several months, a storm escalated around Driscoll. It emerged that his church engineered the presence of his own book on the New York Times bestseller list by paying a marketing company to manipulate sales numbers (they got Mars Hill Church to purchase 11,000 copies, at an estimated cost of $210,000). He was accused of various counts of plagiarism in his books. A blog written by four of Mars Hill's former elders appeared, in which they publicly repented for how they'd hurt people under Driscoll's leadership. Petitions arose and gathered momentum. Even the conservative voices who'd turned a blind eye to Driscoll's past indiscretions disowned him. Eventually his position became untenable.

For the past 18 months, Driscoll has kept a relatively low profile as the furore around him naturally died down and the world moved on. His invitation to appear at Hillsong's UK and Australia conferences in 2015 was downgraded to an taped on-screen interview; Driscoll mainly restricted his ministry activity to online resources. Many of the people profoundly hurt by the man and his church came forward tell their stories, but in a culture with an increasingly short memory, they were soon forgotten. The announcement of his Arizona relocation barely caused a ripple of dissent, and the launch of the church was even sponsored by several megachurch pastors, including Perry Noble, who said he was going to "choose to believe in Pastor Mark and Grace as they set out on this endeavour," before adding "I just want to say that I support him 100 percent."

Not everyone is so convinced. Gender equality campaigner Natalie Collins organised a petition against Driscoll's proposed Hillsong London appearance which gathered over 3,000 online signatures. She says it's of "great concern" that Driscoll is launching a new church, and moreover that the new venture is being supported by high profile Christian leaders. "In the church we love a redemption narrative," she says, "even though this narrative often prioritises the offender over the person or people they have hurt. The Gospel insists that Mark Driscoll can be forgiven by God for his bullying and abusive behaviour, it does not state that his life will continue unaltered, or that he should continue as a leader."

Collins points to Paul's words in 1 Timothy 3, in a passage commonly titled 'qualifications for overseers'. Verses 2 and 3 of that passage say that a church leader should be "above reproach", "self-controlled", "respectable", "gentle" and "not quarrelsome", all tests which arguably Driscoll did not pass during his time at Mars Hill. "Though we are forgiven by Jesus for our sins," Collins adds, "the Bible never suggests we will be immune from the earthly consequences of our hurtful and damaging behaviour."

As he returns to church leadership then, I think there are three key questions we need to ask:

What evidence is there that Mark Driscoll has repented and been restored?

The main focus of Driscoll's wilderness period seems – according to correspondence with his supporters – to have been on "seeking wise counsel", spending time with leaders, and discerning the voice of God on his next move. A line on the new church's website states that Driscoll "took over a year off from local pastoral ministry to learn, repent, grow, heal, and meet with many people involved". What hasn't been publicly seen from Driscoll however, is any show of heartfelt brokenness at, or apology for, mistakes made. I'd argue that as a public figure, any repentance and restoration has to be seen publicly too. Driscoll's absence from public ministry isn't about him – it's about the many, many people who were seriously hurt and even traumatised by his approach at Mars Hill. If he truly was sorry for his behaviour, if he really did believe that he had taken actions which at least temporarily disqualified him from leadership, why did he not simply disappear for a while into obscurity? Crucially, there hasn't been one big moment of confession and unreserved apology; we've never seen the man humble himself and demonstrate any Damascene moment of realisation. His alleged meetings with hurt parties smack of a politician on a campaign trail to win hearts and minds. Whatever repentance and restoration has happened, it seems this end was always in mind.

Why has Mark Driscoll's restoration been fast-tracked?

I wrote previously about three key signs of repentance and restoration to look out for when leaders fall. The first two, contrition and character change, were subjective – and while I might have my suspicions in those areas, I don't know Mark Driscoll personally and can't pass comment. The third sign however is immovable: time. There's an undefined period after a moral or pastoral failure during which it is simply too soon to return to public ministry. 18 months seems very short to me; arguably the shortest possible amount of time that Driscoll's 'market' would bear. I'm not sure of any other explanation for why his return has to be quite so rapid, and this is significant because of the implication for those who were profoundly hurt under his leadership, and who might reasonably have expected any return to that role to be quiet, slow, and full of humility. 

Why does this man get held up as a great example of leadership?

Here's the really big question, and one which turns a spotlight onto the church and the platform culture which enables Christian leaders to grotesquely bloat into minor celebrities. What exactly is it that makes Pastor Mark so special that we should hold him up as a great leader; as one who many would want to see return not only to local church ministry, but inevitably to the world of conference platforms, book deals and media interviews? Is he a great preacher and writer? Sure, but so are thousands of others. I'd argue that we're all a bit complicit in any comeback because however divisive he might be, we're fascinated by him; by his unsettling combination of brutish attitude and biblical depth; that he can so brilliantly unlock Scripture yet apply it to his own lifestyle with such apparent inaccuracy. At the height of his fame at Mars Hill, his legions of twitter followers had no idea if they were next going to read an incisive piece of exegesis or a crude joke. He's pure Box Office, and until we're prepared to drop our rather worldly obsession with celebrity pastors, there will always be space for Mark Driscoll.

The website of The Trinity Church states that the leadership felt they "did not want to pass up this historic opportunity to gather for the first time on the 50-year anniversary of the landmark building". It's certainly opportunistic to launch a Resurrected pastor's new ministry on Easter Sunday; I think the other anniversary is simply convenient. Mark Driscoll has cast himself as a returning messiah, back from the dead at Easter; the question is, has that really been preceded by a 'Good Friday' at which his sin was confronted?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders