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Harboring Rotten Eggs

October 28, 2014
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This blog is a hard place to follow breaking news. With a fixed update schedule (that I frequently don’t quite hit) it’s hard to respond immediately to a piece of news that I think is worth commenting on. However, there have been some interesting changes in the world of American Evangelical Protestantism in the last few months. These changes involve a pastor named Mark Driscoll. Driscoll founded the Acts 29 church-planting network, a network that kicked him and his church out in early August. He was also the founder and senior pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, a position that he no longer holds as of October 14th.

What makes Driscoll’s fall more interesting than the usual sort of fall from grace is how it occurred. Often when a celebrity pastor is fired or forced to resign it is directly linked to a specific incident – adultery, a financial scandal, or something of the sort. The incident becomes news and in direct reaction the pastor is disciplined. However, in Driscoll’s case there is no clear incident. Yes, Driscoll was accused of plagiarism (without, apparently, much effect) in late 2013. Yes, he weathered a storm earlier this year when it became clear that his church spent a lot of money to get his new book on a bestseller list. However, these incidents were over for months by the time Acts 29 acted against Driscoll. What appears to have actually brought him down were complaints about his abusive, autocratic leadership style. However, there have been complaints about this for years.

I suspect that within a few months Driscoll will have more or less fallen off the edge of the evangelical world. Already a number of evangelical leaders and groups seem to have decided that the “neutral” position on Driscoll is to dissociate from him. As more scrutiny has been brought to bear on his church more unpleasant things are turning up (including what may be the start of some major financial scandals) and I suspect that there is simply no fast turn-around for Driscoll after this. However, the people who have disowned Driscoll now will have trouble answering why they didn’t disown him last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. There’s no sharp line between now and then, just a slowly-cracking dam of public opinion that has finally let go.

This is what makes Driscoll an interesting case. (Disclaimer: I also find Driscoll interesting because I once attended a church that thought he was pretty cool. This is one reason I left that church. However, I’m interested in a lot of random things that don’t become articles on this blog.) It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many evangelical leaders supported a bad leader for a long time. Many, many people (including myself) are entirely unsurprised that Driscoll ended up this way. We’ve been predicting this for years and see it as a natural conclusion to a ministry marked by arrogance, condescension, and just generally acting more like a schoolyard bully than a pastor. Why, given all of this, was Driscoll tolerated for so long? Can we learn anything useful from this to avoid giving safe harbor to another such leader? Can we figure out rules that let us figure out when the naysayers have a case and when they don’t?

Why was Driscoll tolerated for so long? The first reason is Christian charity. Few Christians want to believe that other Christians are unpleasant people without good evidence. Even when (as was the case for Driscoll) some of the incidents of unpleasantness are extremely public Christians often embrace the possibility of reform. Indeed, Driscoll was supposedly undergoing a period in which he was supposed to be working on his issues. Acts 29 claimed that insufficient progress had been made when they separated themselves from him but there’s reason to think that lots of people wanted to see Driscoll work through these issues. For a lot of groups at the fringe of this conflict this is probably a fine reason. Does a Christian bookstore want to refuse to sell the books of a pastor just because they bring about some controversy? Probably not – everyone interesting stirs up controversy. However, there are some real limits to how charitable people are willing to be in the face of repeated offenses.

The second reason is a siege mentality. The people who clung on to Driscoll the longest (besides the groups he had actually founded) were the people closest to his theology. Now, it’s common enough that if someone shares your views but acts like a jerk that you take pains to distance yourself from them. This changes, though, when you are hard-pressed and need every ally you can find. Driscoll was happy to ally himself to both Calvinist and complementarian camps and it’s hard for anyone to turn aside a willing ally. Complementarians, especially, tend to feel under intellectual siege (not without warrant). However, the power of Christianity comes from doing right. If Christians embrace wrongdoers as allies of convenience (something that happens almost inevitably when Christians get into politics) we lose much of our power.

The third reason is the most interesting to me – a vast oversimplification of Christianity and the church. This oversimplification comes about in part through the sorts of mechanisms I discussed in my last article where the church absorbs ideas from its environment without really processing them. In fact, Driscoll or one of his assistants appears to have directly borrowed a number of corporate buzzwords to discuss running the church.

The simplification runs like this: Christianity exists to spread itself. The core of Christianity is the gospel, which consists of a few short sentences about Jesus saving you by dying for your sins. The purpose of the church is to facilitate the spread of Christianity. The outcome of this simplification is simple: if someone is saying the correct few sentences about Jesus dying for your sins they are preaching the gospel (which is tantamount to saying that they can’t be accused of teaching bizarre fallacies – to do so would be to focus on “non-essential matters” when said teacher is getting the core issues right). If someone is saying the correct sentences and their church is growing they are doing the Lord’s work and the Lord’s work is even more or less measurable by doing a headcount of the congregation (with some awareness that demographic factors play into congregation size).

This simplification worked really well for Driscoll. He said the correct sentences and his church grew very large very fast. There’s also something to be said for part of the simplification – we don’t want to allow ourselves to get too bogged down in non-essentials. However, there’s a lot wrong with this simplification.

There’s another thing in the news that exists only to spread itself: Ebola. Is Christianity just a viral idea? Under this simplification it more or less is. Like real viruses once one has caught Christianity the rest seems to happen by itself. Unlike Ebola “the rest” doesn’t seem to involve a lot of life change. However, that’s not Christianity in any orthodox sense. Christianity is supposed to change your life. The Church is supposed to be the place where that happens. It’s actually unclear in the New Testament whether evangelism is a church activity or the activity of solo Christians who are supported by the church. What is clear is that spiritual growth is supposed to happen within the church. Indeed, spiritual growth is essential to good evangelism – the next set of evangelists will need to have “grown up” spiritually. Most Christian can think of large churches that don’t teach correct doctrine and so are in theory aware that proper spiritual development is a necessary follow-up on conversion. This leads naturally to the next issue – is it actually sufficient to preach a short “core” gospel?

The short answer is “no”. Mark wrote the shortest of the gospels and it’s sixteen chapters. None of the Epistles manages to give only the “core” gospel. This whole idea appears to be modern marketing applied to the Bible – and the “core” is often phrased in such a way that it actually draws on some specifically Protestant ideas about the mechanics of salvation. However, leaving aside the fact that it is not sufficient to preach this core and this core alone (and that it’s not really the core anyway but parts of the core with some additional speculation about divine mechanics thrown in) would preaching this core be a sufficient defense against charges of doctrinal weirdness? Of course not. If I preached this core and also sacrificial worship to the old Aztec gods the presence of these core beliefs would not make this entire message the gospel. Much of the worry about Driscoll’s teaching takes this form. For instance, Driscoll made being a Godly man (emphasis on “man”) a major focus of his teaching. (He also pulled ideas of what it means to be a man from an era centuries after the New Testament – would that all I had to criticize was his terrible scholarship.) One primary objection to this teaching was that Driscoll’s idea of a Godly man was actually just a macho misogynist. However, many people attempted to claim that as long as Driscoll was also teaching “the gospel” it was effectively unfair to bring this up.

Of all the reasons Christians can harbor bad leaders it’s this last one – simplifying the life out of our theology and ecclesiology – that worries me the most. Sure, we need to think about who we’re being charitable to when we are charitable to leaders to make sure that we aren’t simultaneously uncharitable to the badly-led. And yes, the Christian siege mentality and the willingness to accept offers of aid from all sorts of bad characters is a real problem. However, if we fundamentally rewrite what it means to be the Church and to preach God’s word so that it allows bad leaders to flourish and claim to be doing good work then the rest hardly matters. There won’t be anything to rescue from the other problems.

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