Was Mark Driscoll right? Did Jesus make mistakes?

Would Jesus have made the mistake of getting a dodgy tattoo?Photo: Stephen Sawyer/Art4God.com

US megapastor Mark Driscoll has once again found himself at the heart of controversy as allegations that Mars Hill deleted some of his "questionable" sermon material from its website surfaced this week.

On May 4 the love-him-or-hate-him Seattle-based preacher spoke from Acts chapter 6, but the video subsequently posted online by his church omits a six-minute segment from the original talk in which he differentiates between sin and making mistakes, and suggests that Jesus himself made errors while on earth.

Though Mars Hill have since responded to the accusations in an email to the Christian Post, in which the executive pastor of media and communications Anthony Ianniciello states it is "standard operating procedure" to edit talks, Driscoll's words have none the less been causing waves across the internet.

"Did he [Jesus] ever make a mistake? Not a sin; a mistake. Did he ever have to do something twice because he didn't get it right the first time?" Driscoll asked his congregation according to Patheos, which posted the original transcript and video in a blog on May 19.

"When he was learning as a little kid how to write his letters, was it like, 'I can do this, mom, I made the Heavens and the Earth. Watch, I can do cursive too'. Or, or, did he have to, 'Ok, this is how you make, oh, ah, ok, I got it right the second time.'

"What do you think?" Driscoll continued. "It says in Luke that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favour with men and God. He grew. What that means is that he had to learn how to do things; you're going to need to learn how to do things. One of the ways we learn how to do things is we don't get it right the first time. We fail. So then we learn from it and we figure out how to do it.

"Some of you are paralyzed by religious perfectionism. I need to get it all right, I need to get it all right the first time. You're not Jesus. And you know what? Jesus may have learned how to do things by figuring it out, maybe not always getting it 100 per cent right the first time," Driscoll suggested.

Though he made sure to note that "sometimes it's a sin to be repented of, but sometimes it's a mistake to be learned from," Driscoll has received criticism for his candid sermon, which he himself admitted "might be heresy. I'm not sure. We'll see."

"I'll just say that, so that if it is, I have an out, ok?" he joked before making his controversial remarks.

Pastor Mark Driscoll

Former Mars Hill pastor Dave Kraft and author of 'Mistakes leaders make', who has slammed Driscoll's leadership in the past, has responded apparently directly to his former colleague's points in a critical blog.

"Recently I became aware of some teaching which was suggesting that some things are mistakes we can learn from but that don't necessarily need confession or repentance; whereas other behaviours, attitudes or thoughts are sinful and need to be confessed, repented of and followed up with reconciliation and restoration, where called for. 'Yes I made some mistakes, but they were not really sinful, so I don't need to confess or repent,'" Kraft writes.

"Quite frankly, I was disturbed by what I was hearing," he adds.

Kraft goes on to argue that it is dangerous to confuse sin and mistakes, arguing that he'd "rather be wrong in calling a mistake a sin than be wrong in calling a sin a mistake".

"If you're going to err, err on the side of calling your behaviour, thoughts, attitudes sinful; then, confess, repent and be reconciled (if your sin was against another or others)," he suggests, indicating that Driscoll – who was recently forced to apologise for his heavy-handed leadership – would do well to take the advice.

However, blogger Zack Hunt, who has been vocal in criticising Driscoll's "inconsistent" and even "terrible" teaching in the past, has responded by, to his own surprise, agreeing with the Mars Hill leader's words.

In a blog entitled "That time I agreed with Mark Driscoll", Hunt asserts that Driscoll is "raising a critical point about our understanding of who Jesus was, what it means for God to be incarnated, and why the incarnation matters at all.

"To put it simply, if, as Christian orthodoxy unequivocally affirms, Jesus was fully human, then Jesus committed mistakes. Not sin. Mistakes. That's a critical difference that, to his credit, Driscoll tries to emphasize," Hunt writes.

He argues that making mistakes is "at the heart of what it means to be a human," and Jesus making them offers a way by which to make an "unrelatable God relatable and thereby opens the door to our salvation".

"Salvation itself, the full reconciliation of humanity with its Creator is not possible without God fully taking part in our lives so that we can fully take part in God's life for eternity," Hunt concludes.

"Which means Jesus of Nazareth was not just God masquerading as man. He was a real, fleshy, mistake (not sin) prone person just like you and me."

So, did Jesus really make mistakes? Does that change the way we worship him?

Conrad Gempf, New Testament lecturer at the London School of Theology, believes not. He argues that Driscoll and Hunt are approaching the issue from the wrong perspective.

"The problem is going to be not with our understanding of Jesus, but with our understanding of mistakes," he tells Christian Today.

"In order to judge whether a mistake has been made or not, we have to judge what the person is supposed to be doing. And when that person also happens to be God, it's difficult!"

Gempf uses the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10 and the parable of the mustard seed as examples. The young ruler walks away from Jesus without choosing to follow him, and Jesus says a mustard seed is "the smallest of all seeds on earth"; which, Gempf notes, botanically isn't true.

"Did Jesus say the wrong thing? Did he make some tactical mistake with the ruler that caused him to fail?

"He failed if his job was convincing people; but that wasn't Jesus' job. His job was to provoke people to make a decision. Rather than giving convincing arguments, Jesus told stories and asked questions. If Jesus sees his role as provoking people to make a decision, then he doesn't make a mistake here, he doesn't fail; he accomplished what he was meant to do.

"Clearly the mustard seed is not the smallest plant seed in the world, so was Jesus mistaken?" Gempf continues.

"He will have encountered smaller seeds while on earth, so it's unlikely he is convinced of something that's wrong, but he loves to tell his parables with exaggerations. So he's not saying that the mustard seed is biologically the smallest, but he's just talking, and so like with the rich young ruler, it depends what he's looking to do. He's not aiming to be mechanically precise."

Like Driscoll and Hunt, Gempf also points to Luke 2:52 where it says Jesus "grew in stature and in favour with God and men", but he doesn't believe this necessarily indicates that God incarnate made mistakes.

"'Growing in stature' is very like that passage in Genesis [where God say's "it is not good for man to be alone"]; there's room for improvement, which is different from a mistake.

"For me, a mistake implies to do something wrongly, to err in some way, and I don't think that's the case with Jesus," Gempf explains.

"In Mark 13:22, the disciples ask when the end of the universe will be and Jesus surprises them by saying "I don't know!". Even though it is knowable, Jesus doesn't know, so we think he emptied himself of his omniscience, which follows Philippians 2:7. Jesus emptied himself to be the Word. He wasn't born knowing how to spell; knowing Aramaic Greek, Hebrew, Latin or even how to play softball; he had to learn.

"But while we do learn from making mistakes, I'm not sure that's the only way to learn. We don't have any record of Jesus making a mistake that we can be clear definitely is one, even though the Gospels are willing to say the things that he didn't know.

"If a learner says with confidence: 'I know how to spell that word; it is spelled skool,' that's a mistake. If the learner says: 'I don't know how it's spelled, but it sounds like it might be skool,' that's not a mistake; that's an experiment or a guess. I think Jesus might have guessed and experinented, but I don't think that he will have been convinced of the truth of something that was not true."

As for Hunt's assertion that allowing Jesus to make mistakes helps us to relate to an all-powerful, all-knowing God, Gempf isn't sure that argument lines up.

"There are things about the incarnation that can do that without being a mistake," Gempf says.

"I'm sure there were times when Jesus was a baby and the cloth got over his face and he did that thing where babies kind of wave their arms around ineffectively. But I don't think that's a mistake; that's an attempt. To call it a mistake seems to be putting it in the wrong category.

"As much as we want to relate to him, as much as we like to say "since he's fully human he makes mistakes"; it's not the core of humanness that causes us to make mistakes, it's our fallenness. And Jesus doesn't share that, and it's right that he doesn't.

"He took on our limitations without taking on our errors; he was tempted as everyone is tempted, but he didn't give in, so I think he experienced the kind of things we experience when we make mistakes but without actually having erred himself."

Whether one sides with Driscoll or Gempf on this one, it's an interesting debate, and one that is no doubt valuable in its call to look at the person of Jesus more closely.

But the next time you get your granddad's birthday wrong, set the oven too high and burn the lasagne, or take up the scissors and comb, confident that you can be your own hairdresser (all of which I've done in the past month), maybe it's not worth trying to claim that Jesus would have done the same thing.

Related, watch Conrad Gempf's talk on why we shouldn't be like Jesus.