Mark Driscoll’s Mesmerizing Hold on LU & Evangelicalism

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!

25 comments for “Mark Driscoll’s Mesmerizing Hold on LU & Evangelicalism

  1. Rick Patrick
    April 12, 2012 at 6:32 AM

    Well written, as usual. The Driscoll phenomenon really is something of a magical, mesmerizing spell, hard to explain. His dismissive comments about Thomas Kinkade prints (we have three!) came to mind recently with the artist’s untimely passing. In our near obsession with this man, I believe we have too favorably misjudged him, and are clearly missing the “Mark.” Thanks for being a voice of reason.

    • April 12, 2012 at 7:52 AM

      Rick,

      I have not heard what Driscoll said about Thomas Kinkade, but I can only imagine 🙂 I truly do not understand the fascination that many Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals have with Driscoll. Are we so enamored with contextualizing the Gospel that we give Driscoll a pass that just about any other pastor would not get? I think we are in for a bumpy ride ahead as Southern Baptists when it comes to issues like this. Thanks for the kind words. Hope you are doing well. God bless,

      Howell

  2. April 12, 2012 at 6:48 AM

    It is rare that I will forward a blog post to my Facebook friends, but this line of reason is worthy. You ask questions that aware Christians should consider.

    My prayer is that those brothers who are close to Mark will be talking with him seriously.

    I just shake my head slowly (and with grief) at the clumsy Liberty University response.

    • April 12, 2012 at 7:55 AM

      Jerry,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I hope I am bringing some reason to this rather sad and perplexing situation. Other than the Trustees, is there no one in a position of leadership at LU that thought having Driscoll speak on campus and conduct his Real Marriage Conference was a bad idea to begin with or that the response to Peter’s reporting was clumsy and heavy-handed? It will be interesting to see how this story plays itself out this month. Thanks again for stopping by and God bless,

      Howell

  3. Lydia
    April 12, 2012 at 7:11 AM

    “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:”

    I do think that is the case. There have been a ton of red flags for many years that many explained away or rebuked someone for questioning about him.

    There might be other reasons for the SBC leadership obsession with Mark besides a mezmerizing hold. One might be that so many young people have been “mesmerized” by him early on that the SBC leadership saw an opportunity to hijack the Driscoll train by partnering with him so as not to lose followers but gain more. Sort of a case of leaders not leading but running to be in front of something bigger than themselves.

    Another reason could be that once you have partnered and promoted someone as sound by inviting them to speak, partnering with them, promoting books, etc, it is embarassing and could even be dangerous to your credibility to admit you were wrong. So downplay it and try to make it go away. And the best way to do that is to call discussing this: Gossip.

    • April 12, 2012 at 8:04 AM

      Lydia,

      The “gossip” weapon is getting rather stale in these types of discussion. Many of our top SBC leaders did not seem to have a problem “gossiping” about Rob Bell’s book before it even hit the shelves. The double-standard in all this is quite amazing to watch. Many of the same folks who blasted LU for having someone like Ergun Caner as President of the School of Theology have bent over backwards to defend LU. I would daresay that this is the first time that many of the Reformed folk have come to the defense of LU. Politics and theology sure do make strange bedfellows 🙂 The evidence of both hatred for the messenger who reported this story — Peter Lumpkins — and the mesmerizing love for the message of Mark Driscoll, is truly baffling. On one level, I simply do not understand it. On another level, it makes perfect sense. I think both LU leaders and SBC leaders are “all in” on Driscoll. I’m not sure they have much of a choice but to hope Driscoll quietly fades away and stays in Seattle. But, I think it will prove to be harder and harder to contain the mess. Thanks for the comment. Hope you have a great day and God bless,

      Howell

  4. Milton Robins
    April 12, 2012 at 7:32 AM

    And I’m extremely concerned about this seemingly cavalier attitude amongst some evangelicals surrounding the troubling allegations of spiritual abuse at Mars Hill.

    I think it is important that believers take any allegations of spiritual abuse seriously, and some of the dismissive comments I’ve read in the evangelical community about the recent developments at Mars Hill comes across as strikingly callous.

    • April 12, 2012 at 8:08 AM

      Milton,

      I think that there is clear and credible evidence of a pattern of spiritual abuse at Mars Hill. I suppose that the Petrys and all the other victims who have spoken out could be mistaken, but I highly doubt it at this point. It is one thing to try to be cautious and reserve judgment — although at some point people have to get off the fence — but to outright dismiss the allegations of abuse or to not take them seriously is a huge mistake. Of course, when it’s “your guy” who has been accused — whether in the world of politics or religion — there is a tendency to continue to defend him, even when it has become clear that a defense is no longer reasonable or tenable. Thanks for the observations. Hope you have a great day and God bless,

      Howell

  5. Max
    April 12, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    Howell writes “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.”

    From my vantage point, I would agree that both “young” and “old” within SBC ranks have been influenced by Driscoll. However, I would qualify the “old” as only those Southern Baptist reformed leaders now controlling certain SBC entities. They endorse Driscoll for various reasons: he attracts students to SBTS and SEBTS, he sells books at LifeWay, he is a church-planting model for NAMB, he has championed the reformed cause when the old-guard mission to “take us back to our roots” had stalled out. Bottom-line, they need each other. Lord help us if SWBTS, NOBTS, and LU also fall to this agenda.

    The most disturbing item in this post is the insider perspective written by a former elder at Driscoll’s church “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.”

    Now, folks, if that doesn’t raise the Holy Spirit hair on the back of your neck, nothing will! Driscoll is living proof that if you lower the price (in message and method), people will come to church. It’s high time for Southern Baptists to start “seeing things”! If this is what being culturally-relevant means, it would be best to be culturally-irrelevant (in the world, but not of the world). We’ve become so open-minded about Driscoll, his Acts 29 network, and associated “ministries”, that our spiritual brains have fallen out.

    • April 12, 2012 at 8:27 AM

      Max,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate and agree with your “clarification” about my “young and old” line. When I wrote it, I knew that “old” (and I’m not going to define what age that starts at 🙂 ) was not as precise, but it sounded better than the alternatives that were in my head at the time. I think you are right that the “old” Southern Baptists who support Driscoll are more second generation leaders who are in the 40s or early 50s. I don’t know of any first generation CR leaders who have been openly supportive of Driscoll or Acts 29.

      I do think that Jonna Petry hit the nail on the head in the quote that you shared. I think that every Southern Baptist should read her story. People might come to different conclusions, but I found her to be credible and consistent with other stories that we have heard of alleged spiritual abuse at Mars Hill. With Matt Chandler taking over as Acts 29 President and the church planting network seemingly poised to have even great influence in Southern Baptist life, particularly in new church plants being supported — directly and indirectly — by the new NAMB, I think it’s far past time for conservative, cooperating Southern Baptists to enter the fray. If not, the SBC will look very different in five years. And, that will not be a good thing. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great day and God bless,

      Howell

  6. April 12, 2012 at 8:49 AM

    These are truly interesting times. It would appear that contemporary Christians need more experience with discerning right and wrong. The basic discernment of right and wrong should not be taken for granted.

    The brothers in the New Testament had some difficult things to say about Judas, Alexander the metalworker, and others. Yet they also had more dramatic things to say about gossip and Biblical slander.

    “they learn to be…gossips…saying what they should not. …For some have already strayed after Satan.” 1 Timothy 5:13, 15 ESV (lifted accurately out of context)

    “..a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness,…They are gossips, slanderers,….Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Romans 1:28, 29, 30, 32 ESV (accurately abbreviated and lifted accurately out of context)

    A whole lot more could be quoted. It seems like we are appalled at religious groups who denounce other religious groups who are too timid to be decisive about ministerial pedophilia or the ordination of lesbian bishops; but cannot see our own wickedness.

    While we may each view Baptist life from our own preference regarding “us” and “them”, conspiracy theories, and personal annoyances; I think it is important to remember that we can sin in the way we talk of others. I doubt it is a good idea to ignore what God says is sin, and call all cautions about gossip simply political distractions.

    Surely it is possible to gossip about, and Biblically slander Mark Driscoll. Surely it is possible to gossip about, and slander even Judas or Alexander the metalworker.

    I find it impossible to believe that those who do so are led by the Holy Spirit.

    Woe is me. Woe is we.

    • April 12, 2012 at 1:43 PM

      “Surely it is possible to gossip about, and Biblically slander Mark Driscoll. Surely it is possible to gossip about, and slander even Judas or Alexander the metalworker.”

      Jerry,

      What you state is obviously true. I think the problem lies in the fact that some are quick to label something “gossip” while others are more hesitant to do so. Some of that is because of our own biases. If a story is written by someone we like about someone we don’t like, some are not as quick to pull out the gossip card. If a story is written by someone we don’t like about someone we like, some are quicker to pull out the gossip card. Whenever you interact with doctrine, theology, methodology, etc., you will inevitably have to address personalities. Depending on the person, that may seem more “personal” because of the specific situation. In the case of Liberty and their invitation, Mark Driscoll, the person, is a central aspect in the story. Even so, there are limits that we could all agree on as to what should not be said. It’s the grey areas that are more problematic. Thanks again for your insight. God bless,

      Howell

    • Robert I Masters
      April 12, 2012 at 5:10 PM

      Jerry,
      Who is the person doing the gossip and slandering here?

      “Dear Robert,

      I was just alerted to your comment on Ed Stetzer’s recent post. I am not sure how the comment was approved, but I have now deleted it. Because your comment represents both a personal attack on several men in your church and engages in gossip and possibly slander, I have determined it is inappropriate for publication on our blog.

      Robert, virtually every time you comment at Between the Times you make accusations and attempt to sow discord. As someone who has been blogging for almost five years, I have seen you do this on many other Southern Baptist blogs. I believe your attitude is neither charitable nor productive. Though I regret doing so, I am asking you to refrain from commenting at BtT in the future. If you do attempt to leave a comment, we will not publish it.

      I hope you will reconsider the manner in which you choose to engage issues, particularly in a public forum such as a blog. I also hope you will reconsider how your speak of fellow members of your local church, whether in public or private.

      Sincerely in Christ,

      NAF

      Nathan A. Finn, PhD”

      Dear Dr Finn,
      In your first email to me you accused me of two things;gossip and possible slander. These are actionable words my friend! I ask you to explain how I was doing those things.
      I am not and have not been under any church discipline from my elders at Grace Community Church. In fact one of my elders has frequently posted on various SBC blogs. You know him as Louis.
      The elders have not asked for me to repent or desist from blogging so I do not understand why you insist on something they themselves are not asking me to do.
      In fact if I had agreed to the guidlines set forth by the elders I believe I could have even attended the convention. I was simply not allowed to attend the convention and present that particular motion.
      As far as the banning on BetweentheTimes that is your right to ban anyone for any reason. I have not even asked to be unbanned.

      Dr Finn you have charged me with at least one charge that I have repeatedly attempted to make right between us. I have have attempted to enlist your elder at FBC, Andy Winn, and my elder at Grace Community Church,Marshall Albritton.Unfortunately they are both are unwilling to do anything to settle the dispute.

      Lastly Ed Stetzer made the statement that everyone was free to attend the convention and vote their convictions that was simply not my experience. So was stating the truth wrong or somehow gossip or slander?

      I ask with a sincere desire to be be obedient to God.

      Have a wonderful 4th of July
      In Christ
      Robert I Masters

      Some things to keep in mind

      1)the first letter was on the blog, Between the Times. ie it was a public comment!

      2)the first post was Sept 15, 2009

      3)I have repeatedly attempted to discus this accusation with Nathan Finn, Andy Davis, Andy Winn all to no avail. They refuse any attempt to discuss.

      So again I ask whom is gossip and slandering whom?

      • April 12, 2012 at 6:16 PM

        Hello Robert,

        I’m not sure I know what you are asking of me.

        Do you want me to pass judgement on people I don’t know (I only know Ed) from a context I don’t know in front of an audience I don’t know?

        I’m not capable of doing that.

        If you do not think the accusations against you are true, I would urge you to urge Howell to delete your comment. Why spread what you consider to be false even further?

        • Robert I Masters
          April 12, 2012 at 6:55 PM

          Jerry,
          My reason for posting that comment and asking you the question is to illustrate the point that Howell and others have made in response to your comment about gossip and slander.

          Between the Times is a public blog of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. As I understand Lifeway/Ed Stetzer had some part in either hosting or setup or running of this blog.

          Nathan Finn is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

          Andy Davis and Andy Winn are elders at FBC Durham who wrote and preached this message. http://tinyurl.com/7txusm6

          I was simply posting this here to illustrate how easily many in the blog world want to cry “Gossip and Slander” as a tool to silence those whom they opposse.

          • April 13, 2012 at 3:16 AM

            Thanks Robert.
            False accusation is as evil as gossip and slander. It is not a reason to ignore gossip and slander.
            I am familiar with Between the Times.

  7. April 12, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    Howell,

    “Riveting” is the default descriptor I employed in linking to this piece. Very insightful. Indeed you’re almost always insightful even when we disagree! :^)

    Grace, brother.
    With that, I am…
    Peter

    • April 12, 2012 at 1:45 PM

      Peter,

      Thanks for the kind words. Even though I fall far short many times, I hope that I write in such a way that is riveting, or at least interesting 🙂 Thanks for the link and the summary that you posted on your sight. I look forward to what LU’s leaders do — if anything — regarding the Driscoll invitation. Their actions or inactions will tell us a lot about the direction of the University. Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

  8. April 12, 2012 at 11:05 AM

    Howell, GREAT post.

    I “get it”. And the hard part is swallowing what I get. Thankfully, more and more folks are waking up to find themselves in Oz and my prayer is they will do whatever it takes to get back to Kansas. Winds are blowing through the grasslands. While some were sleeping in the poppy-fields, others were making their way down the yellow-brick road to expose what stands behind the curtain is but a man–not God. There is no place like home…and home is where the heart is, and the mouth shows us the real “heart” of matters.

    Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” Mt 15:18 We are seeing that which comes from some mouths defile others. Therefore “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Proverbs 4:23 “Train up the child in the way he should go…” We must train up our children…we must. Every wind of doctrine is blowing. The day of the Lord is at hand and we must watch and pray…and seek God’s face. Not man’s. But God’s. selahV

  9. Pawel
    April 12, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    “How will LU’s leaders respond?”

    Perhaps they will ask Mark Driscoll’s advice on how to respond.
    Here is what Mr. Driscoll thinks of attorneys who ask questions:

  10. April 13, 2012 at 11:05 PM

    I read this blog post and the thread comments. LOL.

    If you are a “Hater” of Mark Driscoll, just say it. But it is funny, unless I missed it, no mentioned a theological problem except a few “Reformed” references. So are we saying if you’re Reformed you are not in or welcome in the SBC? Or to be partners in kingdom work? That leaves out David Platt.

    Driscoll will influence the students at LU or any other seminary regardless if he goes to that campus. So that argument seems to me to be flat and futile.

    Whether we like Driscoll’s philosophy or theology or not, he is a brother in the Lord and, AND, a fellow pastor. If he has a problem in his church, we should let his spiritual leaders deal with it.

    The difference between Osteen and Driscoll? Are we you serious? THEOLOGY. Bible.

    So, I’m not seeing the “beef” except “I do not like Driscoll.”

    • April 14, 2012 at 12:42 AM

      Alan,

      Perhaps we should have lunch and discuss this in person. That might help with understanding what I did and did not say. Don’t think I said that Reformed folk “are not in or welcome in the SBC.” That would actually exclude me. I probably wouldn’t use David Platt in any kind of comparison — direct or indirect — with Mark Driscoll, but that’s just me. When Driscoll, who is not a Southern Baptist, has major influence within the the SBC through his theology, methodololgy and Acts 29 church planting network, then it cannot be left to “his spiritual leaders” to deal with it (whatever “it” might be). And, of course Driscoll and Osteen are different in theology. I didn’t argue otherwise. What I said is that if folks want to point to numbers as the barometer of a successful ministry, then by that standard Osteen would have a very “profitable” ministry. Do I like the influence that Driscoll seems to have in some quarters of the SBC? No. Do I think that influence, even if his theology might be right, is poisonous? Yes. Just as I think that Joel Osteen has a negative influence within Evangelical Christianity, I think that Driscoll, nothwithstanding his Reformed theology, likewise has a negative effect. And, it is to that negative effect and influence that I wrote about. But, I’m glad that I could make you LOL. That should count for something 🙂 Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

  11. April 14, 2012 at 8:25 PM

    Howell:

    Fair enough response. And I didn’t know you were reformed. Saweeeet.

    I would be interested in knowing what the negative influence he has with SBC leaders is. What would that list look like?

    I have heard people dis Driscoll. It is all good. I just think he is actually helping the church. How? Let me give a list of what I think are good things he influences for the kingdom. It will be good discussion. Kill them 🙂 if you needed.

    Mars Hill:

    1. MH has a great ministry of expositional preaching.

    2. MH is reaching a lot of people in a tough field.

    3. MH is committed to disciple making in small groups.

    4. Besides MD’s style on peripheral doctrinal issues (sex, alcohol, cussing pastor), mostly ethical in nature, he is a conservative. And on peripheral issues, he has toned it down in the last few years.

    5. MH has leadership standards that would make even your average Baptist church blush.

    What do you think?

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