A Hard-Edged Gospel: The Rise and Fall of Mark Driscoll

Mark_Driscoll,_during_the_ABC_Nightline_Face_Off_debateby Seth Dowland

On a recent Sunday morning, the former home of Tacoma (Wash.) First Congregational Church reverberated with loud worship music. The smell of coffee filled the narthex, where parishioners could register their desire to “connect” on a pair of computers. The 107-year-old sanctuary appeared much as it has for decades, save for a projection screen, a concert-lighting system, and speaker stacks that hung from the ceiling. An old pulpit looked incongruous in the midst of seven loudly amplified musicians, including one who toggled between a keyboard and a laptop.

The new occupants of the building are Resurrection Church, a name the congregation adopted in January. A year earlier the church had launched as Mars Hill-Tacoma, the fifteenth campus of the 19-year-old Mars Hill Church. With five services on opening Sunday, Mars Hill-Tacoma replicated the incredibly successful model that the multisite Mars Hill megachurch had employed in cities across the Pacific Northwest, the least religious region of the nation. Young evangelicals flocked to Mars Hill campuses to worship, pray, and listen to the video-recorded sermons of Mark Driscoll, a 44-year-old pastor who had become one of the most successful and controversial preachers in America.

Mars Hill-Tacoma’s first year of existence, however, coincided with Driscoll’s downfall. The church-planting network that he launched, Acts 29, removed Mars Hill from membership in August. Driscoll resigned his position as pastor and lead elder in October. As membership plummeted, Mars Hill closed four of its campuses and spun off the remaining 11. Launched as one arm of the tight-knit Mars Hill body, Resurrection Church is now on its own.

Here’s the backstory.

Driscoll founded Mars Hill in 1995 and quickly made it into one of the largest churches in the nation. His charismatic preaching style resembled that of other megachurch ministers, but his gritty aesthetic, hard-edged Calvinism, and penchant for controversy made him stand out. As Mars Hill grew, he attracted attention from the New York Times Magazine and Time. And whenever he preached something controversial, which he did regularly, the videos went viral.

Thousands flooded into his church. Mars Hill moved out of members’ houses and into its first building in 2001. Two years later, the church bought a bigger building for $4.8 million. By 2006, Mars Hill was holding five services each Sunday. To relieve the pressure on their building, church leaders decided to open a branch campus in the nearby city of Shoreline. Other branches soon followed. At its height, Mars Hill operated branches in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. The typical Sunday morning at a Mars Hill campus included live worship music and a video recording of Driscoll’s sermon that he had preached the previous week from his home pulpit in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard.

Ballard was a fitting home for Driscoll. Once a Norwegian fishing village, it now featured a population of hipsters and upwardly mobile urbanites. Occupying the 40,000-square-foot former Fremont Dock Company warehouse, Mars Hill screamed industrial chic.

The children’s ministry operated in the old auto parts store. The worshipers sported tattoos, beards, and piercings — the going aesthetic of the urban Northwest.

But if Mars Hill’s aesthetic was thoroughly postmodern, its theology was late medieval. Driscoll stood among a number of young evangelicals who had embraced 16th-century reformer John Calvin’s teaching that belief in God’s omnipotence requires belief in predestination. If nothing could happen outside of God’s willing it to happen, how could humans have any role in electing their salvation? Only God’s gracious choice could effect salvation. Whether humans went to heaven or hell was completely out of their control.

This hard-edged doctrine has long struck many Americans as perverse. Thomas Jefferson called belief in predestination “demonism” and wrote, “If ever a man worshiped a false god, [Calvin] did.” Though Jefferson’s liberal deism didn’t win over too many American Christians, the evangelical groups that grew fastest in the United States shared Jefferson’s discomfort with Calvinism.

Methodist itinerant preachers made hay by disparaging predestination. Evangelists like Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham asked people to “make decisions for Christ,” a formulation that puts agency in the hands of humans. The Calvinist (or Reformed) tradition lived on in the United States, but many of its contemporary leaders preached a softer Calvinism, telling people that God’s control and humans’ free will could coexist. By the late 20th century, hard-edged predestination seemed like a dying doctrine.

But Calvinism staged a comeback in the 1990s. The spiritual home of its revival was Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1993, conservative leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention gave its presidency to a 33-year-old Calvinist named Albert Mohler. Mohler argued that the Reformed tradition of Calvin was the only Christian philosophy that could resist the secularizing and relativist forces in modern America. He trained hundreds of young ministers to preach Calvinist doctrines – and to work for the redemption of secular America.

Calvinists’ belief in God’s sovereignty has made them more comfortable with political roles than some Christians, including many of Mohler’s fellow Southern Baptists. Early-20th-century Baptists emphasized “soul competency,” or the belief that each individual Christian is responsible to God for his or her salvation. In 2000, Calvinist Baptists attempted to remove the phrase from the Baptist Faith & Message, only to back down after loud protests. Non-Calvinist Baptists argued that “soul competency” is one of the most important doctrines in Baptist history. Their Calvinist opponents also said it was one of the most dangerous, as it could undermine belief in God’s sovereignty and lead to relativism.

Instead, Calvinists want to emphasize God’s competency and control over all creation. They argue that their stress on God’s authority enabled them to resist the individualism and secularism that pervade American society, even many American churches. Calvinism reminds Christians that God is in control, and that they must work to enact the plans for creation that God had laid out in scripture.

Beginning in the 1970s, second-wave feminism filtered into churches, leading some evangelicals to argue that the Bible sanctioned women’s ordination and rejected strict gender roles. Mohler thought these evangelical feminists were flat wrong. He argued that God’s plans included distinct roles for men and women, and made opposition to women’s ordination a requirement for faculty members at SBTS – a move that contributed to a 90 percent faculty turnover in the decade after his appointment.

He also provided a home for the (non-Baptist) Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on the SBTS campus. The CBMW launched in 1995 and became a clearinghouse for complementarianism, or the belief that God created men and women to fill complementary roles. For Mohler – as for many young Calvinist evangelicals – believing the Bible required rejecting feminism.

Driscoll agreed. Though his unchurched hipster Seattle context was thousands of miles away from Mohler’s Baptist Kentucky, he echoed much of what Mohler taught about gender roles. “Egalitarianism is a myth invented,” he told journalist Collin Hansen. “It is not a doctrine found. I get shot on that, and that’s cool, man. I love those who disagree with me. But yep, I see the complementarianism issue as a watershed issue.”

Driscoll’s hard line on gender roles became one of his most important and controversial teachings. Followers heard him curse and tell off-color jokes, but they also heard him preach patriarchy. Driscoll believed the Bible commanded men to lead and women to follow.

“The root issue in postmodern society is authority,” he told Hansen. Arguing that the church needed to stand for truth, he preached in black and white, even on subjects many pastors colored in shades of grey. Biblical inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement, heaven and hell, and homosexuality demanded straight answers for this generation. The Bible taught clearly on each: One had to believe the Bible was without error, that Christ died as a substitute for the punishment humans rightly deserved, that heaven and hell were real places, and that homosexuality was sinful.

Driscoll’s willingness to preach so plainly on these issues, alongside his ability to portray his position as self-evidently biblical, attracted thousands of followers. David Webber, a Microsoft employee who began attending Mars Hill-Ballard with his wife in 2007, told me that Driscoll’s notoriety didn’t bother him. “If he’s controversial because he’s standing for inerrancy, standing for truth,” said Webber, “then that’s okay.” Webber said he avoided coverage of Mars Hill because he appreciated Driscoll’s biblical teaching, and he didn’t worry too much about outsiders’ views of the church.

Like John Calvin 450 years earlier, Driscoll framed his preaching as a proper reading of the Bible. He became convinced of God’s sovereignty while reading Exodus’ account of God controlling the actions of Pharaoh. His views on predestination clarified when he was preaching through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The basic message, which he got from a “plain literal reading of Romans 9-11,” was that “people suck and God saves us from ourselves,” he wrote in Confessions of a Reformission Rev. Other views of salvation were, he implied, unbiblical.

This my-way-or-the-highway style of preaching ensured that Driscoll courted controversy throughout his career. He attracted attention when he and his wife, Grace, published Real Marriage in 2012. The book took stock of all facets of Christian marriage, but nearly every reviewer fixated on Chapter 10, “Can We ___?” The Driscolls began, as usual, with the Bible, recounting the Song of Songs’ explicitly sexual references. Then they catalogued a host of sexual practices, including oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation, using a rubric to determine if married Christians could participate in each.

Evangelicals have rarely been so frank about sexuality, but Driscoll’s teaching in this instance aligned with his overall philosophy. He believed Christians needed to hear “hard words” from a pastor with authority. He thought ministers erred too often on the side of metaphor and euphemism, which could lead to relativism and weakness. He insisted that pastors needed to take a stand in a secular culture.

He also insisted on controlling the message of Mars Hill. The most frequent source of controversy in the church’s history was Driscoll’s unwillingness to entertain dissent. Although he preached often about his own pride and shortcomings, he brooked no disagreement from his associate pastors or lay elders. As Driscoll’s star grew in the mid-2000s, Mars Hill leaders who resisted his teaching found themselves castigated from the pulpit and removed from leadership.

Driscoll called the process of removing doubting leaders “blessed subtraction.” In one of his more intemperate remarks, given the day after firing two elders in 2007, he said, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” He likened the process of removing dissenters to the Apostle Paul’s “putting somebody in the woodchipper.”

His unwillingness to entertain doubt or uncertainty struck outsiders as the hallmark of an abusive environment, but insiders insisted that their message was “all about Jesus.” The theological rationale for silencing dissent came from his belief in the importance of authority and the inevitable unpopularity of truth. He frequently told both fellow church leaders and the congregation that a war against relativism and secularism would produce casualties.

This hostile stance towards dissent eventually caught up with him. In an open letter to the congregation last October, Pastor Steve Tompkins of Mars Hill-Shoreline called the process of dismissing dissenters “the darkest, most destructive and most hurtful aspect of Mars Hill’s ministry culture.” Tompkins said the leadership of Mars Hill, himself included, had been “arrogant.” He publicly apologized to the many pastors and elders whom Mars Hill had dismissed.

It didn’t help that Driscoll had other sins.

A firestorm had erupted in November 2013, when Driscoll published A Call to Resurgence. The book paraphrased material from a 2009 Mars Hill Bible Study Guide, which had plagiarized an InterVarsity Press commentary on the books 1 and 2 Peter. Although ghostwriters had written both the study guide and A Call to Resurgence, it was Driscoll’s name that appeared on the title pages; only the study guide named the ghostwriters.

Some critics blasted Driscoll for plagiarism. Others – including the neo-Calvinist superstar John Piper – denounced the practice of using ghostwriters.

Then there were all those readers who gobbled up enough copies of Real Marriage to put it on the New York Times bestseller list. In March 2014, the evangelical magazine World broke the story that many of the readers were fake. Mars Hill had paid the marketing company ResultSource Inc. at least $210,000 to make sure that Real Marriage ended up on the Times list. Much of that money went to purchasing copies of the book.

In Confessions of a Reformission Rev., Driscoll wrote that during the church’s early years, he had become frustrated with “emerging-church type feminists and liberals” who were trying to shape the discussions on Mars Hill’s online message boards.

In 2000, one “William Wallace II” started a thread on the “Midrash” message board titled “Pussified Nation.” Wallace castigated any American man who has “lost his rocks and completed the process of remaining biologically male but become female in all other ways.” He believed the evangelical church was full of “pussified James Dobson knock-off crying Promise Keeping homoerotic worship loving mama’s boys.”

In June 2014, a pseudonymous Mars Hill gadfly called “Wenatchee the Hatchet” revealed that Wallace was none other than Driscoll himself. Driscoll apologized and said he had changed.

But by the middle of 2014, Mars Hill was in crisis. Acts 29 removed Mars Hill from membership and asked Driscoll to step down on August 8. Two days later, LifeWay Christian Stores announced it would stop selling his books. By the end of the month, Driscoll announced that he had “requested a break for processing, healing, and growth for a minimum of six weeks while [Mars Hill leaders] conduct a thorough examination of accusations against me.” Church membership declined rapidly. Other congregations around Seattle began advertising themselves as places for people to recover from Mars Hill.

As a result, the church leadership decided to spin off the remaining 11 branches as independent churches, and each had taken a new name by January 2015. Megachurch leader Rick Warren, whom Driscoll had come to admire after criticizing him in the early years of his ministry, preached the final video-recorded sermon at Mars Hill on December 28. He exhorted church members to avoid blame, show grace to their leaders, and be grateful for the ways God had used Mark Driscoll.

Warren is perhaps the most famous of evangelical “seeker sensitive” ministers, who strive to preach the gospel in plain, non-theological language in order to attract new followers of the faith. Driscoll, conversely, called himself “seeker insensitive,” preaching a hard gospel that brooked no compromise with secularism.

In Tacoma, Resurrection Church carries the DNA of Mars Hill into its new existence as an independent congregation. Lead pastor Bubba Jennings was part of Driscoll’s inner circle at Mars Hill, serving as executive elder at Mars Hill-Ballard and playing a role in the 2007 dismissal of pastors Bent Meyer and Paul Petry, the most controversial firings in the church’s history. Resurrection Church’s belief statement includes affirmations of predestination and complementarianism.

But on other Mars Hill campuses, change is afoot.

In February, Mars Hill sold the Ballard campus to Quest Church, which describes itself as an “urban, multiethnic, multi-generational Church” and whose executive pastor is a woman. Quest’s masthead features language designed to appeal to a younger generation: community, reconciliation, compassion, and justice. The church’s theology strikes a chord with evangelicals who have tired of infighting and antagonistic faith.

Mark Driscoll prided himself on an unflinching message that won him thousands of followers and at least as many critics. But preaching an authoritarian gospel in a culturally relevant church ultimately proved too hard for him to sustain.

He avoided the temptations of money and flesh that have snared many ministers. He managed to build a thriving megachurch in a region full of the spiritually apathetic. In the end, though, his sins caught up with him, and his hard gospel claimed one last member of Mars Hill’s leadership: himself.

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