It almost seems like hate-watching Mark Driscoll has become the evangelical church’s version of a national pastime. Even those of us who aren’t actively rooting for his eventual comeuppance can find ourselves rolling our eyes, scrolling our mouse wheels furiously as we read in vast detail the nature of each new apparent screw-up coming out of the church called Mars Hill.
In an era of podcasts, blogs, and entire outlets built on the personality and lifestyle of individual men, we had better hope they are up to the task of leading an entire universal church.The first time I caught wind of Driscoll was on the heels of a controversy surrounding teachings based on the Song of Songs, in which he made a case for “biblical oral sex” in such a way that seemed to border on legalism. From there, I watched in increasing frustration as he declared videogames “stupid” while praising MMA as a sport that lets “men be men,” while other “fat, lazy men sit around and criticize them while watching.” Then there was his defensiveness in response to sincere and concerned criticism of his book Real Marriage. And then there was the plagiarism, the Strange Fire incident, the misguided and theologically questionable publicity stunt used to hype an upcoming book, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And now we’re made aware of a disturbing, hateful online invective Driscoll doled out when he was a young pastor, which was not actually much of a surprise, and for which Driscoll has now apologized.
You can mark me down on your list of people who have, in some way, gawked and marveled with morbid interest at the inward and outward controversies surrounding that infamous Seattle pastor and his church. For those invested in the broader evangelical landscape–and any parachurch organization or outlet must be, these events are inescapable. Driscoll’s missteps inevitably reflect not just on his own church, but on the evangelical church as a whole.
But really, that goes for any pastor. Any time any pastor of a church is caught in controversy or scandal, those happenings are reported breathlessly by local news outlets, and then–if they’re just scandalous enough–by national news outlets. And it’s not like we can blame them. After all, the moment “Christian Pastor Acts UnChristianly” ceases to be news-worthy, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with than a bad reputation.
The real question is whether we, as Christians, ought to be exacerbating the repercussions of a local pastor’s missteps. After all, as Protestants, we’ve grown accustomed to a splintered landscape of various types of churches and denominations, each with its own tone, ministerial focus, and pet doctrine. If the vast expanse of evangelical churches share any one tenet, it’s the simple request that we be left alone to do church however we please, thank you very much.
Remember that blessed gap in time before the mainstream use of the internet, when pastors and churches could commit all sorts of sins and make all sorts of bad decisions and we outsiders would be none the wiser? I remember growing up in youth group hearing second-hand stories of youth pastors caught in unsavory situations with their youth, and pastors stealing from their churches, processing them like urban legends. These were cautionary tales that had no real effect on my life. What really mattered was what happened at my local church.
Now, I talk to guys at my local church who “love Driscoll.” I find myself forced to engage not just with the arguments that Driscoll makes, but with those subtle cultural echoes that can so often reverberate from the words and deeds of any popular pastor. In an era of podcasts, blogs, and entire outlets built on the personality and lifestyle of individual men, we had better hope those chosen few men are up to the task of leading an entire varied and diverse universal church.
Even those who balk at the idea of the celebrity pastor–myself included–will find themselves directly influenced by a culture of celebrity. It’s not really an option anymore; it’s our reality. These few pastors are framing the conversation; we’re just conversing in it. God has declared that it is so.
In many ways, the universal church has benefitted from the likes of present-day giants like Piper, Mohler, Moore, Keller, Warren, and so on. But as the opportunities for pastoral influence increase, so do the stakes. The more popular a pastor becomes, the more influential he is in his own church. He’s become a clear “success” in his church’s eyes, and most of them are there because of him anyway.
There is simply no pastor, and no local church body for that matter, that is exempt from the need for accountability and exhortation from the outside. This was the case in the early church, and it is even more so in an age when an unassuming Sunday morning sermon can set the world on fire. Evangelicals have determined that unlike the Catholic church, a single unified head of the universal church is unbiblical and unwise. As a result the responsibility is now all of ours.
Christ and Pop Culture has always been about acknowledging the reality that we are always engaging culture, no matter how conscious of that fact we may be. This principle applies to church culture as much as it does anything else. Whether we reject the notion of Christian celebrity or buy into the purpose and vision of our favorite personality, our actions or lack thereof have real consequences.
No single person is obligated to call out every single misstep that is brought to light in the life of a pastor. Even we at Christ and Pop Culture were forced to take a break from our constant stream of nuanced but staunch rejoinders to Mark Driscoll’s various pastoral transgressions. Even while Driscoll remained a huge influence on the evangelical church, writing about him became too tiring and tiresome a task.
It became too easy for our hearts to harden toward the man, and that just seemed wrong. The last thing we wanted to be was a website known for its take-no-prisoners hit-pieces, determined to take down what’s wrong with the evangelical world. Our goal has always been to edify the church, not to lob bombs at it.
Jonathan Merritt is right to remind us that it is right and good to accept Driscoll’s apologies, numerous and tepid as they may be. But that forgiveness is only the first step to healing. What must follow is accountability and general tough love, because Mark Driscoll isn’t the only human being in the picture here. His ministry affects the lives of several hundreds directly and millions only slightly less directly. Most importantly: as a pastor of our Lord Jesus Christ, he is held to a higher standard, a standard which he has managed to systematically lower over time.
Now I find myself reading headlines that declare, “Christian Pastor Acts UnChristianly” and rolling my eyes with boredom, far from surprised at the antics of a popular Seattle pastor, asking myself, “How is this news?”
Now removed from those cursed doldrums, I realize that the evangelical church has much bigger problems than a bad reputation.
image via timsamoff