Changing the Culture that Enabled Mark Driscoll: 6 Ways Forward

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’m not interested in rehashing the recent events and disclosures that led to the near-collapse of Mars Hill Church Seattle and the (temporary?) resignation of pastor Mark Driscoll.  The Seattle Times summed it up well with this article by Craig Welch and with this informative timeline. I’m also not interested in piling on as Driscoll faces the consequences of his actions.  I’ve spoken out against his bullying in the past, and though I stand by my critiques, I don’t feel the need to rehash them. I truly wish Driscoll well and hope this difficult time proves to be a refining fire that leads him down a healthier, grace-lit path. 

That said, to treat this as an isolated incident that no one saw coming and that will never happen again is misguided and dangerous. As Christians, we have to own up to the reality that we helped create a culture that enabled Driscoll’s behavior, (and sometimes rewarded it), and that this culture has to change. I don’t have all the answers on how to make such change happen, but I’ve got a few ideas: 

1.  We must educate Christians about abuse, bullying, and misuse of power in church settings. 

Paul David Tripp called Mars Hill Church, “the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with” and person after person has come forward to say the same. Once held back by fear (and in some cases, nondisclosure agreements), these former pastors and church members are sharing stories of decades of pervasive bullying, shaming, abuse of power, and mismanagement of funds. Questions were routinely treated as threats and stomped out. Challenges to authority were met with public shaming. Disagreements were dismissed as “gossip” and a “threat to Christian unity.” 

To those educated in the dynamics of spiritual abuse, Mars Hill Church has been setting off alarm bells for years, and yet for the many good, godly people involved in the church, the problems went unaddressed until recently.  So why didn’t more people recognize these unhealthy, abusive dynamics? Why didn’t they address them sooner?   

Well, I think it’s because far too many Christians just don’t know how to spot and respond to the signs of abuse—be it spiritual abuse, abuse of authority, or even the physical/emotional/sexual abuse of women and children.  And I believe the impetus is on denominational leaders and on the media (religious and mainstream) to better educate the Christian public on these matters and to better hold church leaders accountable when they abuse. 

For those new to the topic, a really good place to start is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, a book I wish I could mail to every churchgoer in the world. Evangelicals may want to check out the fantastic organization G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) and Catholics, S.N.A.P. (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests). We did a series here on the blog on abuse in the Church called “Into the Light,” which also includes a long list of additional resources, and we will continue to address this important issue in the future.

2. We must value and preserve accountability. 

In 2007 Mars Hill changed its bylaws to limit power to a very small group, effectively giving Driscoll unfettered free reign over the church. When two pastors objected to this structure, they were fired and subjected to a church trial where members were encouraged to shun one of them. For many, this move marked “the beginning of the end” of Mars Hill Church as Driscoll faced little accountability in his decision-making. 

While churches associated with denominations often have structures in place to hold pastors accountable, non-denominational evangelical churches sometimes do not. Preserving some form of accountability is absolutely crucial to maintaining a healthy, non-abusive church, so I would urge all churchgoers to become familiar with how your church leadership is structured and to watch out for authoritarian leaders who seek to consolidate power to their office. If your pastor has little to no accountability, and if your questions about accountability are met with hostility, leave.   Groups that organize national pastor conferences should consider not inviting as speakers pastors who refuse accountability.  Christian media, too, must do a better job of reporting on the organization structure and finances of evangelical mega-churches. Christian reporters are not obligated to paint rosy pictures of churches; they’re obligated to paint accurate ones.  (See also: “Why Mark Driscoll Needs A Bishop” by Erik Parker.) 

3.   We must take misogyny and homophobia seriously.

Throughout his 18 years in ministry, Mark Driscoll was well-known for making crude, demeaning comments about women and for mocking men he deemed effeminate or “pussies.” In online rants, he raged against feminism and the “pussification of culture” and referred to women as “penis homes.” From the pulpit, he taught that women owed their husbands oral sex. When evangelist Ted Haggard was caught with male prostitutes, Driscoll blamed Haggard’s wife for letting herself go. 

Driscoll routinely trashed advocates of nonviolence as “pansies,” the emerging church as “homo-evangelicals” who worship a “Richard Simmons hippie queer Christ,” and churches with women in leadership as “chickified,” warning that “if Christian males do not man up soon, the Episcopalians may vote a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He often used the term “gay” pejoratively, and in 2011 issued a call on Facebook for his followers to share stories about and publicly ridicule what he deemed “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders.”  Recently unearthed online rants from Driscoll’s early days as a pastor give us a glimpse of the inner thoughts of a man who throughout his 18 years as a pastor routinely characterizes all the things he detested most in the world as feminine or gay. 

This is blatant, unapologetic misogyny and homophobia, and for more than a decade, the evangelical culture turned a blind eye, inviting Driscoll to headline conferences, publish books, and speak as an “expert” on marriage and gender roles.  Why? Because the evangelical culture doesn’t take misogyny and homophobia seriously.  

“Oh he’s a little rough around the edges,” people would often say to me. “But he’s doing so much good. He’s getting men to go to church! Don’t take it so personally. What are you, the PC police?”  

This is an enormous blind spot within the evangelical culture, one I also see reflected in its ongoing love affair with the Duck Dynasty cast, even after patriarch Phil Robertson has made, racist, homophobic, and (most recently) violently Islamaphobic remarks . Even after I invited several black and gay Christians to the blog to explain just how hurtful the “I Stand With Phil” movement was to them, many evangelical readers brushed it off as no big deal. 

But racism, misogyny and homophobia do not simply offend the “PC Police.” They offend the heart of God. They are sins that damage our relationships with our neighbors and our witness to the world. And if we are going to change the culture that enabled the bullying and abuses of Mark Driscoll, we have to start treating them as such.  As blogger Tyler Clark put it, “When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack ‘effeminate anatomically male’ men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.”

How can this possibly be the gospel? How can this possibly be good news if it makes someone feel like they’ve been shoved against a locker, bullied and demeaned?  How we treat our fellow human beings is not a peripheral issue, sidelined by supposedly “good theology.” It’s central. It’s everything. I don’t care whether you are Calvinist or Arminian, charismatic or Catholic, you can’t demean women or bully the marginalized and still have “good theology.”  Misogyny is bad theology. Bullying is bad theology.  And it's time we start identifying them as such. 

4.  We must measure “success” by fruit of the Spirit, not numbers. 

Whenever Driscoll’s bullying behavior was challenged, the response from many in the Christian culture was to say, “Yes, but he’s doing so much good! Look at how his church just keeps growing and growing! He’s even convinced MEN to go to church!”  No doubt this results-based culture influenced Driscoll’s decision to use church funds to pay for a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and to vow to “destroy” other area churches “brick by brick.” 

When Christians measure a church’s “success” by numbers rather than the fruit of the Spirit, we create a culture that looks nothing like the Kingdom Jesus preached. But Scripture does not teach us that the fruit of the Spirit is satellite campuses, book sales, and market share. Scripture teaches us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Jesus said that we identify false preachers, not by their position on obscure theological matters, but by the degree to which their lives exhibit this type fruit.  In other words, getting men to go to church is not the same as making disciples of Jesus, and we best not confuse the two. 

All across the world, there are thousands and thousands of pastors laboring faithfully to help grow and nurture the fruit of the Spirit within their congregations. Some of these congregations are growing and others are dwindling.  Perhaps we should do a better job of honoring such pastors—by thanking them, encouraging them, and  maybe listening to them for a change at our pastors conferences. When Christians measure church success by the standards of American culture—money, power, prestige, numbers—we set ourselves up for scandal, discouragement, and abuse of authority/funds/people. Jesus never promised us success by worldly standards. He only asked that we remain faithful. And far too many pastors are getting the message that faithfulness isn’t enough. 

Character matters.  Integrity matters. Kindness matters. How we do things in the Church matters. All of this is is part of our testimony and when it is compromised in the name of “success,” we loose the very saltiness that is supposed to set us apart. 

5.   We must protect people over reputations. 

Perhaps the most effective silencing technique in Christian culture is telling those who challenge abusive or bullying behavior among church leaders that their objections are “gossip” and “slander” contributing to  “disunity in the Church.” I’ve spoken with many, many victims of sexual abuse who say this was the very language church leaders used to urge them not to report their abuse in a church environment to the authorities. “You don’t want to damage Christ’s reputation in the world, do you?” they were asked.  And indeed, the public response to the Sovereign Grace Ministries child abuse scandal revealed that far too many Christian leaders seem more concerned with protecting the reputations of their denominations, ministries, and pastors than with protecting victims of abuse. 

In an interview on the bog, Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E., put it this way:

“The greatest failure of the church/Christian organizations when it comes to responding to abuse is institutional self-protection.   Too often Christian institutions have been willing to sacrifice the individual human soul in exchange for the protection of their own reputation.   What makes such responses even more heinous is that they are often justified in the name of ‘protecting the name of Christ.’   Such a justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection.  It may come as a surprise to some but Jesus does not need us to protect His name!  In fact, it was Jesus who sacrificed Himself for the soul of the individual.  Tragically, in all of its attempts at self-protection, the Church too often completely misses this beautiful truth.  As a result, many abuse survivors in the Church are pushed away from the arms of Jesus and prevented from experiencing glorious Gospel love.”

Another common refrain is, “What will the world think if it sees Christians disagreeing with one another?”  But when it comes to identifying and stopping abusive and bullying behavior, when it comes to naming racism, misogyny, and homophobia sins, my question is: what will the world think if it doesn’t see us addressing these things? How much more does our reputation suffer when we shrug off or cover up this sort of behavior? 

If we are to change the culture that far too often prioritizes the reputation of the bully/abuser over the health and safety of the bullied/abused, we have to stop shaming victims who come forward with their stories as “gossips” and dismissing Christians who call for accountability as “divisive.” We also have to ensure that our churches are prepared to respond to bullying and abuse when it happens. (For more on that, please check out G.R.A.C.E. and the list of resources from our “Into the Light” series.)

6.   We must treat our pastors and church leaders as human beings—flawed, complex, and beloved by God. 

I’m often asked what ought to be done about “celebrity culture” within American Christianity, and having benefitted a bit from that very culture myself, I honestly don’t know if I’m the best person to respond. However, I have noticed that there is a tendency within the culture to see Christian leaders (and writers and activists) as either wholly good—and worth defending at every turn—or wholly evil—and worth opposing at every turn. I am guilty of this myself. Tribal alliances built around shared theological distinctives have exacerbated the problem, and I often find myself succumbing to a “team” mentality wherein those who share my theological or political viewpoints always get the benefit of the doubt while those who do not are demonized.

 I wrote more about this in an article for Relevant entitled, “When Jesus meets TMZ,” but my main point is that our pastors are human. Glorifying them, demonizing them, and placing unrealistic expectations on them is bad not only for the pastors but for the whole Church. As much as I oppose Driscoll’s bullying behavior, I sincerely hope that this brother in Christ—who is beloved by God and with whom I would break the bread of communion in a heartbeat—will find his way. 

But first, we have to work together to create a culture that nurtures and celebrates healthy pastors and healthy people, and that holds unhealthy ones accountable. 


Some concrete, actionable steps: 

- Educate yourself about abuse in a church environment (see resources under #1) and share your findings with fellow Christians and on social media. Email your favorite religion reporter or Christian publication to request that they increase coverage of church abuse—not just after it happens, but before. Ask your church leaders about possibly taking advantage of training and resources offered by G.R.A.C.E. 

- Learn about the accountability structure and financial policies of your church. If your questions are met with hostility or shaming, leave. 

-If you help plan national conferences for pastors, please consider inviting, celebrating, and learning from pastors whose work produces the fruit of the Spirit rather than basing speaking invitations on attendance, books sales, and fame. Avoid featuring pastors whose churches do not include built-in accountability. And if you attend such conferences, urge organizers to think outside of the box so that presentations better reflect the reality of most pastors’ lives and experiences.  (For more on this, check out J.R. Briggs’ excellent book, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure.)  

- Christians, don’t let racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments “slide.” Stand up for the bullied, not the bullies. Advocate for the oppressed, not the oppressors. And don’t let anyone shame you as “divisive” when you do so. 


Other thoughts? Ideas? 

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