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Megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was an evangelical rock star. Here's how he fell from grace.

Pastor Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church Seattle.
Pastor Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church Seattle.
(Will Foster/flickr)

Megapastor Mark Driscoll has resigned from his pastor position at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. In August, Driscoll announced that he was taking a hiatus from his responsibilites for at least six weeks, according to the Religion News Service. During that time, the church's board of elders were to review the charges brought against him.

Long before Driscoll's announcement in August, the Christian blogosphere had buzzed with news about Driscoll. But who is he, and why are some people so angry with him?

Here's a brief explainer to bring you up to speed.

1) Who is Mark Driscoll?

Mark Driscoll is an American pastor and founder of Mars Hill Church, a megachurch in Seattle, Washington, that boasts 15,000 members in attendance throughout 15 campuses across five states. Driscoll started the congregation in 1996, when he was 25, with only a handful of Christians, who met for worship in his house. (Driscoll has said that he wasn't yet ready to found the church at such an early age.) By 1997, Mars Hill had graduated from Driscoll's home.

Also in 1997, Driscoll was invited to give a lecture at Leadership Network's annual conference, where he discussed Generation X and its relationship with Christianity. That lecture was what launched Driscoll to rock star pastordom. Pretty soon, there were profiles written about him in the New York Times and Mother Jones, and media outlets were reaching out to him for comment on current issues of the day. Christian leaders looked to him to carry on their legacy for the emerging generation of young Christians — those who, when they weren't thumbing Bibles, were making their own microbrews. On the one hand, he was theologically conservative; on the other hand, socially liberal (at least for evangelical Christians). His ability to bridge the divide between both demographics made his appeal widespread and his church unique.

But as Michael Paulson notes in the New York Times, "Driscoll is rapidly becoming a pariah in the world that once cheered him on."

2) How did he go from rock star to pariah?

Driscoll's career has spanned almost two decades. Reconstructing exactly what happened and in what order is challenging, especially since many of the details have slowly surfaced over time via firsthand accounts from former Mars Hill members. With that said, many of the people who have been watching Driscoll for years agree that 2007 was a major turning point for Driscoll.

One of the reasons that Driscoll appealed to so many people was the emphasis he placed on accountability. He assured people that even he, as the pastor, was under the authority of a board of elders. If at any time the board disapproved of his behavior, it had every right to fire him. Jim Henderson, a pastor who's been watching Driscoll for 10 years, dug up this statement by Driscoll made back in 2006:

… your primary and ultimate allegiance is not to me, and it is not to the pastors in this church. I will say this publicly: I am one of the pastors. They can out-vote me and fire me. They have total freedom to do so.

And if at any time in the history of this church the elders discipline me, do not be loyal to me. Be loyal to them; be loyal to Jesus. And if at any point — God forbid — I should say or do something that would disqualify me from being your pastor — and I have no intentions of, and I do live a life above reproach. And I'm not a sinless man, but I do love Jesus and I do love my family and I do love you. And if by - I just shudder to say this, but if I should ever say or do anything that the elders would need to fire me, do not be loyal to me. Be loyal to Jesus; be loyal to your elders.

Not long after Driscoll preached these words to his church, he began what The Stranger's Brendan Kiley calls a consolidation of power. Until this time, Mars Hill was run with the principle of distributed authority, according to Paul Petry, a former pastor there, who granted Kiley an interview. Decisions were put to a council of 24 elders, which included Driscoll, but which was supposed to ensure that his was "just one voice among 24."

When Driscoll convinced some elders to resign, Petry and another elder protested. As a result, Driscoll fired them both and made them take part in one of the church's secretive ecclesiastical trials. Driscoll's actions left some members feeling betrayed, since, as Petry explained to Kiley, "Mars Hill was a magnet for people coming from abusive churches. They were looking for a place with some accountability."

According to Henderson, Driscoll's power-grab highlights the "organizing sentiment" of Driscoll's career: that is, that he's a bully. Says Henderson: "My principal reason for getting involved with this is that Driscoll is popularizing and legitimating spiritual bullying for young men, and is infecting thousands of young men" with his ideological machismo. The way Henderson sees it, the hierarchical system of Driscoll's church has provided a good cover to his bullying, essentially making it all right for him to speak disapprovingly or condescendingly to anyone he sees behaving out of step with his particular brand of theology.

Mark and Grace Driscoll

Pastor Mark Driscoll and wife Grace,authors of 'Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together,' are guests on 'THE VIEW' of March 7, 2012. (Donna Svennevick/Getty)

3) What was the tipping point?

William Wallace.

At one point in 2000, Driscoll posted messages anonymously on an online church message board, under the pseudonym "William Wallace." Driscoll wrote about the pseudonym in his book Confessions of a Reformation Rev:

At this time, our church also started an unmoderated discussion board on our website, called Midrash, and it was being inundated with postings by emerging-church type feminists and liberals. I went onto the site and posted as William Wallace II, after the great Scottish man portrayed in the movie Braveheart, and attacked those who were posting. It got insane, and thousands of posts were being made each day until it was discovered that it was me raging like a madman under the guise of a movie character.

As Wallace, Driscoll's main battle cry seemed to be that Christian men were becoming a "pussified nation," by which he meant that they'd become "sensitive" and "emasculated." Since Christianity, he said, was building a new nation, Driscoll invented new words for them to use. Here are a few of them.

  • male lesbian — any man that thinks and acts like a woman because he thinks that makes him a better man
  • feman — a woman who thinks and acts like a man because she believes it makes her equal to men
  • rock free — any man who attends a church with a woman pastor
  • mixed nuts — any man who claims Christ but is actively involved in homosexual activity
  • homoerotic huddle — any men's group where the men cry inordinately and hug each other with deep affection

4) That was 14 years ago. Did he ever apologize?

In a letter provided to Christianity Today, Driscoll apologized for the posting as William Wallace, saying he was "embarrassed" by his words. "The content of my postings to that discussion board does not reflect how I feel, or how I would conduct myself today," said Driscoll. As Christian blogger Matthew Paul Turner notes, this is not the first time Driscoll has had to issue an apology.

Responses to Driscoll's apology were mixed. Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College, wrote at his blog on Patheos that while the apology was "commendable," Driscoll still has work to do. Throckmorton, who has been following Driscoll closely on his blog, noted that the William Wallace comments were not an isolated incident: "I have conducted numerous interviews with former Mars Hill pastors and ex-members and they often disclose instances of similar crude language and intimidation in public settings more recently."

5) What about the plagiarism controversy?

Last fall, as Slate writes, Driscoll was a guest on an evangelical radio show hosted by Janet Mefferd. The radio host confronted Driscoll about 14 pages in his writing that she believed were plagiarized. Driscoll questioned Mefferd's intentions, which he claimed were "not very Christ-like." He also seemed to imply that his interviewer was behaving unbiblically. After that, Driscoll's line seemed to go dead, to which Mefferd said she guessed he'd "opted out" of the remaining discussion. However, a raw audio file obtained by Relevant Magazine "showed that Driscoll did not hang up," writes the magazine.

As Christianity Today reported, Mefferd later issued an apology for how she handled the allegations, saying she should have gone to Driscoll's publisher first and should not have confronted Driscoll in front of her listeners. (Driscoll's publisher, meanwhile, said it was "stunned … by the belligerent tone of Ms. Mefferd's questioning," according to Relevant.) Notably, shortly after Mefferd's apology, one of her producers resigned, giving the following explanation:

All I can share is that there is an evangelical celebrity machine that is more powerful than anyone realizes. You may not go up against the machine. That is all. Mark Driscoll clearly plagiarized and those who could have underscored the seriousness of it and demanded accountability did not. That is the reality of the evangelical industrial complex.

Earlier this year, Throckmorton offered a chart outlining some of Driscoll's "citation errors," comparing passages in Driscoll's books to passages published by other authors.

In addition to accusations of plagiarism, reports surfaced that Driscoll used funds from his church to essentially ensure that his book Real Marriage made it on to the competitive New York Times Bestseller List. A report obtained by the conservative Christian WORLD magazine documented that "Mars Hill Church paid a California-based marketing company at least $210,000 in 2011 and 2012 ... to conduct a bestseller campaign for [Driscoll's] book, Real Marriage, on the week of January 2, 2012." In a statement on the church's website, Mars Hill's Board of Advisors & Accountability said paying off RSI was not illegal, but that it was an "unwise strategy … and not one we will use again."

6) He talks about sex a lot, right?

The way Kiley put it to me was, "The guy can't stop talking about his dick."

Henderson told me that he thinks Driscoll has an "unusual addiction" to talking about sex. "There's something about power and sex that are particularly interesting to him that he can't escape," said Henderson, who is careful to note that no reports of infidelity or sexual misconduct have surfaced about Driscoll over the last decade that Henderson's been watching him.

In a sermon from 2007, Driscoll told the men in his congregation that he was happy to inform them that "oral sex on the husband is biblical. … Ladies, your husbands appreciate oral sex. They do. So, serve them; love them well. It's biblical. " (Here is a transcript of the sermon.) In a blogpost titled "Driscoll's oral fixation," Christian author Christian Platt spelled out what he thinks are the problems with Driscoll's comments on fellatio:

… there's nothing in his teaching about reciprocating said oral favors. Apparently either he hasn't found the Biblical basis for such an act or perhaps (more likely) he hasn't worked nearly as hard on that bit. So despite the vague rhetoric about men and women being equals, he uses the Bible to promote sexual subjugation.

Driscoll has also spoken about heterosexual anal sex in a way that is seen as controversial to many evangelicals.

7) Driscoll talks a lot about masculinity, too.

Kiley says that several former members of Mars Hill told him that Driscoll is "obsessed" with Palahniuk's cult classic Fight Club. "He talks about it all the fucking time," one ex-member said. If you've read Fight Club, then you know how central a theme masculinity-in-crisis is. Here's how Tom Fordy recently described the book in The Telegraph:

[The book is] a stylised, brutal critique of how the modern, capitalist-driven world had erased men's sense of masculinity, leaving them feeling directionless and impotent. Palahniuk's protagonists set out to rediscover what it means to be a man through good old-fashioned violence and nihilism.

The parallels between the masculinity on display in Palahniuk's book and Driscoll's theology are palpable. Though his comments on masculinity are not always as vulgar as his "pussified nation" exchange, a continued refrain throughout his ministry has been for men to "man up," notes Kiley. "I cannot overstate how important masculinity is to him, and his rhetoric, and the general position of his church," he said.

Christianity Today summarized one of Driscoll's sermons on its website like this:

… "real men" avoid the church because it projects a "Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ" that "is no one to live for [and] is no one to die for." Driscoll explains, "Jesus was not a long-haired ... effeminate-looking dude"; rather, he had "callused hands and big biceps." This is the sort of Christ men are drawn to-what Driscoll calls "Ultimate Fighting Jesus."

Not only does such sermonizing misrepresent the historical Jesus, but it also reinforces the kinds of negative hyper-machismo that leads to misogyny and homophobia — Driscoll has been accused of both.

In an interesting piece at the New York Times Magazine, Molly Worthen explores the connection between Driscoll's notions of masculinity, and his Calvinist theology.

Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll was one student voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school. (Cheryl Hammond)

8) Has he gotten into any trouble?

Driscoll hasn't been fired from his church, but there certainly have been repercussions because of the recent revelations about him. As Christianity Today reports, Driscoll's annual Resurgence conference was canceled due to "unforeseen changes in the line-up of speakers, some of whom have recently distanced themselves from the controversial preacher." And earlier this month, the Seattle Times reported that Acts 29, a global network of more than 500 churches that Driscoll co-founded, kicked both Driscoll and Mars Hill out of the organization.

Additionally, the Christian retailer LifeWay has temporarily halted sale of Driscoll's books while it can "assess the situation regarding his ministry," reports the Los Angeles Times.

Last week, twenty-one former Mars Hill pastors brought "formal charges" against Driscoll. In a letter addressed to the church's Board of Advisors and Accountability, and first obtained by Throckmorton, the former pastors presented what they thought was evidence that Driscoll should be "disqualified" from holding his pastoral position any longer. Among the many charges brought against Driscoll include his insistence that an elder — described as "not thin" — not be promoted to a more prominent leadership position because, said Driscoll, "his fat ass is not the image we want for our church." The letter also accused Driscoll of being "verbally assaulting," and provided several examples of "bullying" and "shaming" behavior.

9) What's next for him?

Driscoll originally said that he had no intentions of giving up his position. On August 3, he was quoted in the Seattle Times as saying, "I am not going anywhere, I am where I am supposed to be, and doing what I am supposed to be doing." According to Kiley, Driscoll was away from Mars Hill on a long vacation this summer. The week before Driscoll was to return to his church, SeattlePI discovered the following message about Driscoll's return from a Facebook account affiliated with Driscoll supporters:

Next Sunday, our message to Pastor Mark isn't just that we're supporting him because he's been a blessing to us, but because we're like him — totally dependent on Jesus.

"Our message isn't that we don't care about sins — his or ours — but rather we know Christian growth does not happen apart from the words of God.

In a follow-up announcement, Mars Hill Church said that there would be an important statement made on Sunday, August 24 regarding Driscoll and the Church's "next steps." One commenter, according to Throckmorton, wrote that he knew Driscoll was stepping down from his role "for an indeterminate period of time while the board of elders review the formal charges against him."

Yasmine Hafiz reported that Driscoll was planning to fund an as-yet undefined reconciliation program for critics and former church members.

On October 15, RNS reported that Driscoll officially resigned from his pastoral responsibilities.

10) Why does any of this matter?

According to Kiley, Driscoll's steady "fall from grace" provides an illustration about how power can corrupt even the best of us. Kiley was loaned a copy of Driscoll's high school yearbook, which was a testament to how charismatic and likable he was: his many accolades included Most Likely to Succeed and Nicest Guy. "He wasn't always this macho, chest-thumping, I'm-gonna-kick-the-shit-out-of-you guy," said Kiley. There was a time, he said, when Driscoll genuinely seemed to want to help people.

And Henderson agrees: "Clearly, if you talk to insiders, they have some good memories of this guy."

To Kiley, the arc of Driscoll's life offers the "lesson that no matter how star-fucker-y a person is, we need to make sure he does not have too much power. Because power itself can fuck you up. And if that powerful person is responsible for a large community of vulnerable people, then that responsibility is even greater."

Update: Here is a video of Driscoll announcing that he's taking a hiatus for at least six weeks while Mars Hill leadership investigates the charges brought against him. Driscoll said he requested the six-week break to give him time for "processing, healing, and growth."

Update: Driscoll officially resigned from Mars Hill on Wednesday, according to a document obtained by RNS. In a letter addressed to Michael Van Skaik, Chairman of Mars Hill's Board of Advisors and Accountability, Driscoll decided, "after seeking the face and will of God," that stepping down was the right thing to do, both for the health of the church and his family. You can read his resignation letter here.