Mark Driscoll’s Brash Style Drives Off Followers He Once Attracted

Mark Driscoll, who founded the Mars Hill church, preached during an evening service in Seattle in 2007. Credit Scott Cohen/Associated Press
Mark Driscoll, who founded the Mars Hill church, preached during an evening service in Seattle in 2007. Credit Scott Cohen/Associated Press

Mark Driscoll has long been an evangelical bad boy, a gifted orator and charismatic leader who built one of the nation’s most influential mega-churches despite, or perhaps fueled by, a foul mouth, a sharp temper and frank talk about sex.

The church he founded, Mars Hill, enjoyed rapid growth in the Pacific Northwest — one of the most secular regions of the nation — and it claims 15,000 members worshiping at 15 campuses in five Western states, and 200,000 more people watching its services online every week. Mr. Driscoll became a celebrity in conservative Christianity, a sought-after speaker and prolific author known for a celebration of masculinity that helped Mars Hill attract young men, a demographic noted in church life mostly for its absence.

But now Mr. Driscoll’s empire appears to be imploding. He has been accused of creating a culture of fear at the church, of plagiarizing, of inappropriately using church funds and of consolidating power to such a degree that it has become difficult for anyone to challenge or even question him. A flood of former Mars Hill staff members and congregants have come forward, primarily on the Internet but also at a protest in front of the church, to share stories of what they describe as bullying or “spiritual abuse,” and 21 former pastors have filed a formal complaint in which they call for Mr. Driscoll’s removal as the church’s leader.

Mr. Driscoll is rapidly becoming a pariah in the world that once cheered him.

Two weeks ago, Acts 29, a church-building organization co-founded by Mr. Driscoll, said it was removing him as a member and urged him “to please step down from ministry for an extended time and seek help.” LifeWay Christian Resources, an evangelical book publisher owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, removed a book by Mr. Driscoll from its network of stores, saying the sales were being suspended “as we monitor developments with Pastor Driscoll’s ministry,” according to a spokesman for the company, Marty King.

Mars Hill has canceled its annual Resurgence conference, citing “unforeseen changes to our speaker lineup and other challenges.” And there are reports that Mr. Driscoll’s speaking invitations are being withdrawn, that staff turnover at his church is high and that worshipers are departing.

“He was really important — in the Internet age, Mark Driscoll definitely built up the evangelical movement enormously,” said Timothy Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and one of the most widely respected evangelical intellectuals in the United States. “But the brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships — which he himself has confessed repeatedly — was obvious to many from the earliest days, and he has definitely now disillusioned quite a lot of people.”

Mr. Driscoll rose to prominence in two important strains of contemporary evangelicalism. He was one of the early success stories of the “emerging church” movement, which critiqued the consumer-friendly nature of mainstream evangelicalism and sought to create what it described as a postmodern form of Christian worship. And he is one of the leading champions of “New Calvinism,” a theological orientation that embraces predestination, the idea that God has determined who will be saved and who will not.

His theology is in many ways at odds with contemporary culture, including an unapologetic belief in complementarianism — the idea that men and women have different roles to play — which in practice has meant that women do not serve as pastors or elders at Mars Hill, and he urges husbands to lead their wives and wives to submit to their husbands. He has objected to chauvinism, as well as feminism, but his critics say that, at his worst, he has had a tendency to objectify women and denigrate gays.

Over the years, Mr. Driscoll has weathered steady criticism from the left: His theological views, and disparaging comments, about femininity and homosexuality have provoked anger from more liberal Christians. But the criticism he is now facing, much of it first chronicled by a blogging psychology professor, Warren Throckmorton, is more damaging because it is coming from other conservative Christians — many of them his onetime friends, allies and supporters — concerned by his management of his church and his behavior toward subordinates.

“It’s almost unfathomable that it’s transitioned into what it is — it’s as if Che Guevara ended up as a New York stockbroker,” Ron Wheeler, a Seattle firefighter who for seven years was a protégé and friend of Mr. Driscoll, said in an interview. Mr. Wheeler, like many others who broke with Mr. Driscoll years ago, stayed silent for a long time, but several weeks ago he posted an open letter to Mr. Driscoll online, saying that the pastor had threatened and slandered him, and writing, “I thought you were my brother and you treated me like scum.”

Mr. Driscoll’s critics trace the church’s troubles to 2007, when the pastor demanded a revision of the church’s bylaws to reduce the authority of most of the church’s elders. Two elders who objected were fired, and the church then ordered one of them shunned, meaning that all Mars Hill members were to cease contact with him, his wife and his children, effectively eliminating their social world.

“It was devastating,” said Paul A. Petry, a lawyer who was one of the two fired elders. Rob Smith, a deacon who quit to protest the bylaw changes, recalled that Mr. Driscoll became abusively irate with him. “He said, ‘I will destroy you, and I will destroy your ministry.’  ” In the months that followed, Mars Hill members en masse stopped contributing to a foundation Mr. Smith was running to help orphans in southern Africa, eliminating a major source of the organization’s funding, he said.

Mr. Driscoll declined to be interviewed for this article, but has promised to update his church when he returns from vacation on Sunday. In a written statement, Anthony Ianniciello, Mars Hill’s executive pastor of media and communications, said, “We take any complaint or allegation against Pastor Mark and Mars Hill very seriously, and everything is and will be examined by several governing bodies.” He also pointed to a statement the church’s board issued last week, saying, “The attitudes and behaviors attributed to Mark in the charges are not a part and have not been a part of Mark’s life for some time now.”

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times – Michael Paulson

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