The Rise and Fall of Mark Driscoll
Mark Driscoll was, until very recently, the head of a very large church in Seattle, called Mars Hill. Priding itself on reaching out to Men (with a capital M), the church has been in a very public catastrophe for over a year, and is now headed for closure. But when did that disintegration begin?
Seattle is at the heart of the USA’s lowest church-attending region. Young men between 18 and 30 are least likely to attend church. Eventually someone was going to connect the two together and go for the jugular: the lowest attending group in the lowest attending area – the creme de la creme of secularism. Enter Mark Driscoll.
In 1996, Driscoll got the blessing of his then-church to begin founding a new ministry in his own flat. This isn’t unusual, or even unhealthy, and fits with many church stories down the ages. By 2007, it was attracting 4,000 to services and by its peak in 2013, that figure had tripled. Since then, it has plummeted so fast that 3 of the church’s Seattle locations merged.
At the heart of Mars Hill all was an odd mix of ultra-conservative social attitudes and what some see as a very ‘up to date’ set of cultural attitudes. Driscoll’s presentation style for ‘teaching’ the church mixed lad-talk with TED talk. What he preached, aside from strict Calvinism, was male submission to God’s discipline, and female submission to men. What that increasingly looked like was power abuse and border-line cult behaviour, with members instructed to shun those who had fallen from grace. Driscoll went far further than ‘no sex before marriage’, talking about the importance of wives being available to their husbands, and turning blame on them when husbands went astray.
Inevitably, people look backwards at what has happened and take a look at the circumstances surrounding the falling apart to try to figure what went wrong. In 2007, Driscoll and henchman Jamie Munson, rewrote the bylaws of the church, removing many of the checks and balances that had previously existed. Where Driscoll once proclaimed that he could be fired on a whim for doing something “goofy”, now he was surrounded by ‘Yes Men’ who wouldn’t bat an eyelid if he spent millions on a new building without consultation. Pretty nearly every piece of writing I’ve read seems to pick a date around this point (this being one example).
I want to call into question pretty much any ‘turning point’ that people want to cite. Its obvious why those who were attracted to Driscoll’s ‘Muscular Christianity’ would try to salvage something from the scrap heap. But to name a moment between the rise and the fall would be to separate the two. The whole premise of the church, whilst deeply attractive to a layer of society, was deeply problematic. Driscoll had, perhaps, merely wrapped up an abusive theology in popular wrapping.
No one who saw this coming should take any pleasure from such wisdom and foresight. Neither should it distract from more subtle spiritual abuse. In fact, we can be thankful that it ended as quickly as it did, and with relatively few attempts to make excuses, other than from Driscoll himself. We can only pray that the legal cases that are to come will be quick and that Driscoll himself won’t be able to use them to further harm his victims.
Mars Hill Church might seem like its half a world away – because it pretty much is. But talk of Christianity for ‘Real Men’ has been going round some British churches over the last decade; Driscoll has often been seen as a success case for those wishing to overcome the supposedly effeminate image of Christianity in the UK. Driscoll is far from alone with his hyper-gendered theology (which I would say goes far beyond most definitions of Complimentarianism). To say that Driscoll himself was a bad apple, or that he ‘went astray’, would be to ignore the underlying problem. The theology itself was toxic, and despite its claim to be ‘counter-cultural’, reinforces the misogyny of our Western culture.
My hope and prayer is that all victims, both men and women, receive appropriate support and that Driscoll would own the damage he’s created. But beyond that, I hope and pray that all church leaders and theologians will take time to draw out the deeper lessons from Mars Hill, and be prepared to call out disasters-in-waiting much sooner.