Thinking More About Authority

The whole Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill thing sparked a bit of conversation on my Facebook page the other day. You can read a bit of my starting thoughts, and find the link to some of Driscoll’s more outrageous statements about gender relations here.

Of course, it’s easier and more fun to focus the discussion on Driscoll’s apparent fixation on sex. That is, of course, what brings the most negative attention–sexual misbehavior on the part of a Christian pastor. Even though it doesn’t seem as though Driscoll was accused of having sex that isn’t approved by the evangelical establishment, it seems like the main problem his former admirers have with him is the fascination with sex, and using language about sex to shock people with religious sensibilities (or to bring people into the church who think Christians are prudes who never talk or think about sex or any bodily functions). You can read a great deal of the vitriol here. Theft of goods and services, as well as plagiarism, are concerns, but no concern is as big as the one about Driscoll’s adolescent preoccupation with human genitalia.

Even more balanced media with less of an agenda to get Driscoll removed from his pastorate focus on this. You’d think it’s the biggest issue for Christians of all stripes

Except, there is a bigger concern. How did supposedly thinking people sign over their brains to this guy?

It isn’t just that the kind of evangelical who is attracted to a theologically conservative megachurch and its outrageous pastor is more prone to obeying someone in authority in the church than a more progressive Christian. The problem is that Driscoll was successful: his crazy brand of the gospel of shock built a multi-campus following in one of the most secular regions of North America. And in a time when all Christian denominations are in a decline so long that middle-aged people weren’t born when it began, anything that gets people in the doors is welcome.

It doesn’t matter how–so long as we bring them in, it must be good. It reminds me a lot of the stories of the Nine O’Clock Service in the Church of England: another grand initiative at numbers-building where the “leaders” were at the center of a personality cult which could turn abusive when their positions were in any way threatened. (Nine O’Clock service perhaps was more inexcusable, given that a strong ecclesial hierarchy was in place but chose to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the complaints of those who suffered at the hands of those in charge.)

Driscoll’s actions may be inexcusable, but those of the Acts 29 group which he founded were perhaps worse in failing to expel him despite complaints, until it was clear that further association with Driscoll was going to be damaging to the Acts 29 “brand”. So long as people are in the pews, and money is coming into the bank accounts, nothing much matters. Very much the same as the Nine O’Clock service. When the allegations of financial and sexual malfeasance were too overwhelming, the leader was removed and disciplined. But until then, no investigations about complaints.

So, what happened in an independent evangelical megachurch in the US also happened (albeit at a much more modest level) in the rigidly structured Church of England. Christians–lay and ordained, at all levels of their respective ecclesial structures–tend to accept authority because the person exercising it is doing something “right”.

But are we using the right measure of “right”?

In something like Mars Hill, it’s easier to get away with, because without a strong denominational structure, there is little accountability, few standards of what is required to be a “pastor”. Educational requirements or peer review may be nonexistent. But even in strongly hierarchical churches, where numerical decline has led to desperation that can be smelled, it’s easy to be blinded to massive flaws or violations of standards if the person in question brings in the bodies and the bucks.

Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll may be, for the moment, objects of pity and ridicule. But all churches need to be aware that a charismatic leader who brings numerical “results” to their congregations, can run afoul of the church’s mission to realize the vision of the Kingdom on earth.

And perhaps, we need to be more skeptical, rather than less, of those who bring huge numerical results.


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