The collapse of Mark Driscoll’s empire should give us plenty to reflect on. The dubious wisdom of megachurches functioning as mini-empires. The unhealthy influence wielded by celebrity pastors in our culture (and our willingness to let them wield it). The connection that seems to exist between certain theological perspectives and authoritarian (and sometimes abusive) forms of church governance.
But we should also consider what it took to finally hold Mark Driscoll accountable. There was a time not that long ago when criticizing his behavior would get you labeled a “hater” in many circles. In the end, even some of Driscoll’s allies wound up speaking out, but not always for the right reasons.
There are good and bad reasons to speak out against authoritarian leaders like Mark Driscoll.
Bad reason: self-preservation
The tipping point probably came when the Acts 29 church network revoked Mars Hill’s membership and called on Driscoll to step down. Suddenly, dismissing all of his critics as “haters” didn’t work anymore. Mark Driscoll was one of the founders of Acts 29. The leadership of Acts 29 were among his closest allies. When even your friends start telling you to “seek help,” the game is pretty much over.
Still, Acts 29 made no secret of their motivation for speaking out: self-preservation. From their letter to Driscoll:
Over the past three years, our board and network have been the recipients of countless shots and dozens of fires directly linked to you and what we consider ungodly and disqualifying behavior. We have both publicly and internally tried to support and give you the benefit of the doubt, even when multiple pastors in our network confirmed this behavior.
Because you are the founder of Acts 29 and a member, we are naturally associated with you and feel that this association discredits the network…
In other words: You’re making us look bad.
Their letter acknowledged that Acts 29 had allowed Driscoll’s behavior to go unchecked—that they had essentially looked the other way—even after several of their own members confirmed the accusations to be true.
Acts 29 was right to urge Driscoll to step down, but it’s hard to read their statement as much more than throwing a former ally under the bus.
There was not one word about those who were spiritually abused.
Not one word about Mars Hill members who were subjected to coercive forms of “church discipline.”
Not one word about church leaders who were fired for questioning Driscoll’s power grab in 2007.
Not one word about those whom Driscoll berated, threatened, and verbally abused over the years.
If Acts 29 acted out of genuine concern for Mark Driscoll’s victims, why did they fail to even mention them their letter to Driscoll or in the public statement on their website?
Good reason: standing up for the abused
It wasn’t Acts 29 who brought Driscoll’s misdeeds to light. It was Stephanie Drury, whose online community offers safe haven for those who’ve endured spiritual abuse, including a number of Mars Hill refugees. It was Warren Throckmorton, whose relentless coverage kept more traditional media outlets playing catch-up. It was Matthew Paul Turner, who shared first-person accounts of spiritual abuse and bizarre exorcisms at Mars Hill. It was Dee Parsons at the Wartburg Watch. It was former Mars Hill leaders like Paul Petry and Bent Meyer who stood up to Driscoll when he consolidated his power in 2007—and were fired for doing so. It was Ron Wheeler.
There’s a big difference between Acts 29 and these individuals. One group acted out of self-preservation, the other on behalf of those who’ve been abused and marginalized by Mark Driscoll.
By their own admission, Acts 29 looked the other way for years while Driscoll consolidated power and perpetuated destructive patterns of behavior. Meanwhile, those who spoke out were labeled “cynics,” “vipers,” and worse by Driscoll’s defenders. Those who’d been abused were dismissed as little more than an angry mob. Driscoll’s critics were told they were simply using him to build their own platforms or sell more books.
To be sure, there are plenty of bad reasons to criticize someone like Mark Driscoll. And there’s a great chasm of difference between criticizing them and celebrating their downfall. But standing up for the abused means speaking out against their abusers. It means bringing their abusive ways into the light.
That’s just what the so-called “cynics” and “haters” did with Mark Driscoll.
There are people out there who will not suffer spiritual abuse at the hands of Mark Driscoll anymore because of the work of Stephanie Drury, Matthew Paul Turner, and Warren Throckmorton, and others. Whether or not Driscoll continues as pastor of Mars Hill, he’ll never get the free pass he once had. People will go into his church with their eyes open (or at least with no excuse for not having them open).
That’s why I think we should be very, very careful about using the label “cynic” to silence public dissent.
Speaking out against abuse is more important than protecting the church’s reputation. It’s more important than preserving some artificial sense of “Christian unity.” It’s more important than self-preservation.
I hope we’ll remember that with the next Mark Driscoll.
Image: Surrender Magazine