It hasn’t been a great couple of weeks for my past mentor/heroes.
First, there was Mark Driscoll. About 10 years ago he emerged onto the scene as a brash, unabashed Calvinistic young preacher. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Driscoll rode the wave of the neo-Calvinist resurgence, and was at least to me an inspiring figure in looking into this recapturing of reformed theology. I count myself firmly on the reformed side of things thanks in part to his ministry.
But then it unravelled. His megachurch grew and grew, but so did the body count. A rising number of people were hurt by his church and ministry, and concerns rose. It came to head with some incidences that revealed a strange pattern of ministry/theology. Here are, from my perspective, some of the worrying moments:
- The Elephant Room. Back in late 2011, Driscoll was a part of an interview in which he grilled concerning teacher TD Jakes. The subject remained firmly on the Trinity – so no discussion on his prosperity gospel preaching took place. The transcript reveals essentially nothing new, and you could boil it down to this: TD Jakes remains relatively vague on affirming the creeds and prefers heretical modalist language concerning the Trinity. That Driscoll (and James McDonald) could then embrace Jakes as a brother in Christ was concerning.
- Strange Fire. John MacArthur is no friend of charismatic theology. In 2013 he held a conference titled ‘Strange Fire’ which took aim at unhelpful charismatic theology regarding the Holy Spirit and aimed at some specific false teachers (Benny Hinn in particular). Driscoll showed up at the conference with a squad and a bunch of his new, at the time, book ‘A Call to Resurgence’. The book itself takes aim at reformed folks who have problems with charismatic theology (and reveals the beginnings of a theological trajectory we’ll see in a moment). So, armed with this book and his friends he turned up outside the conference and was talking to delegates and passing out copies of his book. Security eventually got involved and reportedly confiscated his books and asked him to leave. Then there was a bunch of ‘he said, she said’ about the whole incident which was… strange.
- Real Marriage. In 2012 Driscoll wrote another book ‘Real Marriage’ with his wife Grace. In 2014 it was revealed that Mars Hill Church had used some of its substantial church budget to purchase thousands of copies of the book in order to puff up its sales and make it onto the ‘New York Times bestsellers’ list – which would then give it the right to print ‘NY Times Bestseller’ on the cover and further increase the promotion of the book. Driscoll was never implicated in this, but it did strike a worrying note on the ministry culture of Mars Hill.
- Mars Hill meltdown. Shortly after the Real Marriage controversy, there was another book controversy – this time plagiarism accusations were levelled and stuck. A few weeks later Driscoll tearfully told his congregation that he was going to take a leave of absence to deal with the negative fallout as well as address concerns about his (bullying) personality and how it had hurt people. That break turned into a resignation two months later. By October 2014 Mars Hill was shut down. It left a tidal wave of hurt.
- New Church. Around 18 months later an announcement was made by the Driscoll’s that they were moving from Seattle to Arizona and starting a new church. Driscoll gave a teary and humbling interview with Brian Houston and appeared repentant. But…
- Repenting… of Calvinism? In a recent interview the theological trajectory hinted at in his book ‘A Call to Resurgence’ has flowered into some ugly weed. In that interview Driscoll recants his former Calvinism (so what is he now?), and labelled those in the ‘young, restless, reformed’ camp (which he was willingly a part of) as young guys with daddy issues who love dead writers as mentors (because they won’t be like real fathers) and they love Jesus because he’s a brother and not a father figure.
I’m an optimist-realist and I’ll be honest and say that I was hoping for the best. Not just for Driscoll but ultimately for the Kingdom of God. I can now see that my hopes were misplaced. I had previously written to encourage caution and prayer and noted ‘Things went bad once. If they go bad again then we’re seeing really bad fruit that comes from a really bad place.’ Well, the smell of bad fruit is really beginning to waft – and it’s unsurprisingly disappointing.
The second fall has been less dramatic, but no less disappointing.
I became a Christian in 2001 at the rising fame of a guy called Joshua Harris. Harris had written a book a few years earlier, at the tender age of 21, on dating. Tim Challies has a helpful review on why this book took off the way it did – but basically, the Christian publishing machine was ripe for something like this book. And I jumped onto it. For various life reasons, I found his writing timely and helpful – modelling my own relationship and courtship on his.
[Some have questioned why we listened to a 21-year old on dating in the first place? In hindsight, it, of course, looks unwise and even foolish. Speaking from my own perspective I’d say that we listened to him because there was no other mentor figure who could help us navigate relationships in a Christian manner. Josh’s voice was speaking at the right time and engaging at our level. At a time before the internet made more voices, and better voices, readily available this was the best we could get.]
In the years since I was encouraged by where his ministry went. He understudied under CJ Mahaney, eventually became senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, and was a board member of The Gospel Coalition. For someone who had no theological training, or even an undergraduate degree, it was encouraging to see his trajectory into reformed theology from a distance.
And then things started changing.
In 2015 he made an announcement to step down as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in order to pursue theological studies. He enrolled at Regent College, Vancouver and I thought this was going to be a good step. Some time to study, some time to grow and rejuvenate ready to pastor again.
A couple of years later there were murmurings that his views on his bestseller, and book that thrust him onto the scene, ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, were changing. Shortly after a documentary came out re-evaluating his book’s main thrust, he contacted his publisher to stop printing it and released a statement online basically apologising for the hurt his book had caused. I thought this was a good step, and by now had not really promoted it as a good relationship book to read.
Around about the same time Harris made another move. I’m unsure whether he graduated from Regents College (it doesn’t look like it?), but he decided to step away from pastoring and into a new business venture as a marketing consultant. I felt saddened by this move – mostly that the Kingdom had lost another pastor to shepherd the flock, but I understood that sometimes life changes and people move onto different things. Hoping and wishing the best for him and his family.
Then a few days ago he announced with that he and his wife Shannon were separating. The announcement on Instagram is carefully worded, with all the right language you would expect of a crafted statement. This was deeply saddening. The reasons for the separation are vague – that ‘significant changes have taken place in both of us.’ But reading between the lines and noticing some posts on Shannon’s own Instagram profile – I think we’re going to hear of their deconversion stories soon enough.
It’s been a tough few days processing how these men have journeyed. There’s something about the public ministry of people that you feel connected with. Their teaching and lives weren’t just on paper. They were mentors when I didn’t have any, they were older men I looked up to and respected. And now I can’t help but feel a disappointment for them.
So how do we respond when the heroes and mentors we looked up to let us down?
Pray for Them
Pray for Driscoll to be truly humbled, and for the Spirit to work in him to awaken him to his error and call him to true repentance. Pray for the members of his church to be led well towards Christ. Pray that any future error would remain contained.
Pray for Josh, his wife Shannon, and his family. Pray for the Spirit to reconcile their lives not only to each other but also to Jesus faithfully. Pray that their past hurts would be healed by the gospel taking deep roots into their lives, and the Spirit would prevent them from swinging too far in the opposite direction of the perceived fundamentalism they are seeking to escape.
Pray for Yourself
Prayerfully reflect on your own weaknesses and failings. I don’t presently have a platform as big as Driscoll or Harris, but I am within my own limitations capable of failing as badly. So, I thank God’s grace in keeping me, and I pray to never presume upon his grace but to keep persevering in growing my own holiness and faithfulness in my life as a husband, father, and pastor.
The same can be said for us all as we look in on this situation.
Remember God is Sovereign
While God does gift his church with leaders and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, God is not solely dependent upon them. The fall of Christian leaders has happened far too often, and yet God’s church has never been threatened because of it.
This isn’t to say that people aren’t hurt or aren’t going to be hurt. That is a profoundly sad reality when Christian leaders fall or walk away. But we must be reminded that God is sovereign, he remains in control, and so it is appropriate to pray that He would be at work in and through these circumstances to bring fresh healing and gospel-hope to his people.
Don’t Quit Church
When Mars Hill Church folded there were many people who scattered and didn’t return to church. Some stayed on at the various campuses. Some of the campuses closed and no doubt other churches were grown by the transfer of affected members.
With the divorce of Josh and Shannon Harris, I’ve already seen people commenting that they’ve had enough of evangelicalism.
But please, don’t give up on church. It is imperfect – sometimes profoundly imperfect – and yet it is the gathering that Christ gave his life for. God loves you, warts and all, and he loves his church warts and all as well. In His wisdom, He has set out a plan to demonstrate His glory through gathering imperfect people to love and serve each other. The sometimes failure of his leaders is a powerful reminder that everyone who steps into a church gathering needs His grace.
Feet of Clay
I think these sorts of failings also need to remind us all that even the best men and women have feet of clay. My other heroes and mentors have all been and are imperfect in various ways. That’s not a bad thing! All our heroes have feet of clay. Let’s not expect more of them than we expect of ourselves.
It’s also a reminder that the only hero who will never let you down is Jesus. Having recently finished preaching through the Gospel of Mark I was unsurprised and gently reminded that everyone around Jesus failed him. Peter, probably the one with the greatest potential, failed spectacularly in the final moments. Yet through the story, there was one steadfast figure: Jesus himself.
So, it’s not bad to have hero and mentor figures in our lives. And it’s also good to remember they are imperfect as well.
Keep Trusting the Gospel
The failure of some does not mean the failure of the message.
We’re presently walking through the letter of 1 John at SLE Church. I’ve come to see that a major pastoral issue in this letter is that a group of people had upped and left the church and had fallen into error and false teaching. The remaining Christians were being tempted to pursue after them – partly because they looked so impressive on the outside.
In response, John points out the façade of the false teacher’s exteriors and exhorts his readers not to abandon the gospel they first heard, and for which he and the other apostles were eyewitnesses. Cling onto it because not only is the gospel true, but it is also where comfort, life and eternity are found. Jesus offers real hope. To walk away from that is to abandon hope. So keep trusting what you heard from the beginning – it will be worth holding onto in the end.