I don’t get it. More to the point, I don’t get him. Mark Driscoll, that is. I simply do not understand the Seattle pastor’s mesmerizing hold over large swaths of conservative Evangelicals, including many Southern Baptists, both young and old. In the last few years, Driscoll’s influence has continued to expand, both through the church he pastors, Mars Hill, and through the Reformed church planting network he founded, Acts 29. Driscoll also served as President of Acts 29 until he unexpectedly announced his resignation just nine days after a former Mars Hill elder, Paul Petry, and his wife, Jonna, went public with explosive and credible allegations of spiritual abuse at Mars Hill. Some might chalk that up to one big coincidence, but as one who believes in the sovereignty of God over all things, I don’t really believe in coincidences, luck, or happenstance.
It’s hard to believe that people can be so overpowered by a leader’s charisma that they would be unable to clearly see the manipulation and spiritual abuse taking place all around them. Of course, by their own admission, that is exactly what happened to the Petrys and their relationship with Mark Driscoll:
Not as an excuse, but the fact is, while we were at Mars Hill Church there was a lot we did not see. Many things were kept secret. And we did not have clear vision then. We were in the ether, under a kind of “delusion.” I have come to believe that when idolatry is at play, it often creates and allows for an unreality to take hold of those who participate, as if under a spell, unable to see or hear the truth because it is all filtered through a projected “reality.” But it is a false reality – a delusion. I believe this dynamic is often true in cults where there is one dominant, charismatic, controlling leader. As I look back, this “delusion” aspect makes sense to me and helps to explain why the abuse is allowed and continues, while so many people are unaware and/or unwilling to confront. At some point though, a circumstance with leadership arises that invariably places you in the fray. You either bow and submit, or resist and face searing retribution. (“My Story,” by Jonna Petry)
It would be easy to dismiss or downplay the mesmerizing influence that charismatic leaders like Driscoll and other celebrity pastors have on their legion of followers. But, the Petrys offer a cautionary tale about what can happen in churches and religious organizations — including Christian institutions like Liberty University — when Biblical servant leadership is diminished or rejected (by words and actions) in favor of an unBiblical, charismatic leadership model which trades on celebrity, power, and a misuse (and oftentimes, abuse) of Scripture to retain control of the church or religious institution.
What has been lost in the recent kerfuffle regarding Peter Lumpkins’ reporting on the LU Trustees’ apparent vote to express their displeasure at the invitation extended to Mark Driscoll to speak on the Lynchburg, VA campus and to hold his “Real Marriage” Conference there (here, here and here), is the question, “Why would Liberty University invite Mark Driscoll to speak to impressionable young students on their campus?” Of course, that’s the same question that could be asked of Southern Baptist institutions which have invited Driscoll to speak to their students. One might also question why some SBC leaders have held Acts 29 — founded by Driscoll and at the time the statements were made, led by him — up as a model for church planting? If the answer to that last question is because of the outward success that Acts 29 seems to have had, then we could also hold up Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church as a model for how to have a “profitable” Christian ministry.
Liberty has a history of inviting controversial speakers — Ted Kennedy and Glenn Beck among them — to address their students. While I would personally not have invited a Mormon-convert like Beck to speak at a Christian school, no one could reasonably conclude that Beck — and certainly not Kennedy — would have any lasting influence on the spiritual faith and practice of Liberty’s students. That’s simply not the case with Driscoll. He has tremendous influence in conservative Evangelical life, particularly among those who could be described as “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” His growing influence among Southern Baptists — including at the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia-affiliated Liberty University — should be cause for concern for those who view Driscoll’s brand of Christianity as a perversion (in more than one way) of the Biblical model of servant leadership within the church and home.
But, why does Mark Driscoll seem to get a pass, particularly on issues which non-conservative pastors would most certainly not be allowed to skate by? One answer might be because of his Reformed/Calvinistic theology. I don’t know how many times I have read something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t agree with everything that Pastor Mark preaches, but he preaches the Gospel.” That in itself gives me pause to question what they mean by “Gospel.” I didn’t realize that preaching the “Gospel” automatically exempted leaders from the Biblical standard of “being above reproach,” including with those outside the church. As one who is an inconsistent Calvinist in my theology, surely we can find better Reformed role models for students in our colleges, universities, and seminaries to emulate than Mark Driscoll.
What of Liberty University, that bastion of Reformed thought and theology? Of course, anyone who knows anything about LU knows that it is about as far from Reformed as one could get in Baptist life (unless you believe that Southern Baptists are automatically “Reformed” in their theology). How to explain not only LU’s invitation to Driscoll to speak at Convocation and hold his “Real Marriage” Conference, but LU’s heavy-handed, clumsy, and poorly written response to Lumpkins’ initial reporting of the Trustees’ vote? (here and here) Are the leaders at Liberty so mesmerized with Driscoll that they are willing to place themselves at odds with their own Board of Trustees? Do Liberty’s leaders — who attempted to leave the impression that not only was the Trustees’ vote “against” Driscoll not unanimous, but that there was no vote at all — really want to be seen trying to obfuscate and pull a “Clinton” in an effort to redefine “unanimous”, “not welcome,” and “vote?”
I have to hand it to Mark Driscoll. He is at the center of a storm, the culmination of a series of events, which has placed one of our nation’s premier conservative Christian universities in a pickle. If the reporting is accurate (and I believe it is), then Liberty University’s Trustees have voted (unanimously or at least what could be categorized as such) that Mark Driscoll should not have been invited to speak on campus. Liberty’s leaders, including their legal counsel, have left the impression that there was no Trustee vote on Mark Driscoll’s upcoming appearance. What is true? What is false? If it turns out that Mr. Lumpkins’ original story was truthful, then not only will Liberty University have some “splainin to do,” but their reputation and credibility will be tarnished.
“At some point though, a circumstance with leadership arises that invariably places you in the fray. You either bow and submit, or resist and face searing retribution.” The Trustees have apparently entered the fray. Some may even face retribution. How will LU’s leaders respond? If, by their response (or lack thereof) it’s proven that Mark Driscoll has a mesmerizing hold on the leaders at Liberty University, then the Southern Baptist Convention and Evangelicalism is on a greater downgrade than anyone could have imagined!