More than Mega-church Collapse, 3: On Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill and what we need to learn before it’s too late

This week, Seattle mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll was forced to resign after a investigations into his leadership. I am surprised by how much it affected me. Driscoll’s downfall should make us all renew our questions about who a Pastor is and what a church should be. In this final part,  I take a look at how Theology played a role.


Driscoll and Mars Hill should get a lot of credit for ushering the church into what’s been deemed the “post-modern” era. Critically and Philosophically, I take issue with the term “post-modern”, but it’s the one we’re working with. This refers to American culture after collapse of 1980s prosperity and the Cold War, when a deconstructed worldview takes over and shatters our culture beyond any recognizable and comprehensive story. Our evangelism and church-building strategy had to change because we were dealing with something new and different for the first time in 50 years. (Some would argue that the era began in Annus Terriblis, 1968, the Church only turned to face it the late 1990s) While Driscoll best and first faced post-modern communication challenges, he answered the wrong questions of this era wrongly. He responded to the ambiguity, moral relativism, and the smorgasbord spirituality  of this era with rigid Calvinist doctrine. But Christianity filtered through the Enlightenment process doesn’t effectively speak to a culture that’s more and more defining “enlightenment” in the Eastern sense. Worse, this kind of judiciary and pre-destination theology leaves little room for conversation and transformation–for healing and wholeness that doesn’t come from correct thinking, but only from a radical encounter with God’s love. Whatever you think about the tenets of Calvinism and whether they’re right, the system only tells a partial story of how God works in our lives. What’s missing from it is a game-changer.

Until now, we can identify the problems with the Driscoll model as mainly relational and organizational.  But their cause might be theological.

Those problems might be symptomatic of the arrogance disease that feeds on the stance-taking required by Driscoll’s particular strain of Neo-Calvinism. (easily found in his book on Doctrine or his 9 Misconceptions book) The stance-taking and the drawn lines in the sand make relationships and unity very difficult.

It’s theology as ideology, and it’s killing us.

lines in the sand 

It’s not what the theology is as much as how it was built and how we use it. A theological set of ideas set out by John Calvin in the 18th century (which addressed theology with Englightenment philosophical sensibilities) was systematized and ratified by today’s evangelicals to be a litmus test for “true Christianity”. We are calling that the Gospel and the Truth. This fails us in a few ways.

  • The Truth is not a system of ideas. Setting aside all the ways I find it hard to live in this theological system, I know the Truth is Jesus, a Person, with all the mystery and complexity of a person—Mind, heart, and Spirit.  It’s true that ordering the mind and heart brings us a sense of calm and stability; a system will do that.  But if we’re not careful, we’ll settle for the false peace of our own correctness and neglect that which only a deep, gut-level knowing of the Prince of Peace can bring.
  • A theology built so fundamentally on reason and cognitive certainty is deeply flawed—just as flawed as one built on sentiment. We make errors in reason just as often as we make errors when responding to un-tempered emotion. While the Bible is supposed to stand apart as perfect revelation, our ability to interpret it is far from inerrant. Our personal histories, lack of comprehension, emotions, woundedness, brokenness, and pride cloud our perception in ways we don’t even realize. We need a higher and deeper revelation achieved through prayer and conversation, and even then, we need to speak in great humility.This Neo-Calvinism acts like a shortcut to all that, with a system that has all the questions pre-answered.  It doesn’t acknowledge our limitations, and it informed the beliefs of a pastor who never acknowledged his. Over time, the voice of our own reason becomes louder than the voice of God, who, in the very nature of His death & Resurrection, defied reason and logic. The ability to generate cognitive certainty is not the best or only way to experience the revelation of God. We became prisoners behind the walls of our own logical fortresses.
  • We limit our ability to evangelize. Very, very few people are turned to Jesus because they are beaten by superior logic. When we think we have the best logic, that logic becomes our go-to to introduce people to their Savior. For most of us, rhetoric and dogma are a poor introduction to Christ.  Furthermore, rhetoric and dogma of this gospel don’t answer the questions of a culture more preoccupied with mystery, creativity, human authenticity, community, and most of all—a culture that has no problem detonating your carefully constructed “case” with a “Whatever, man. That’s cool for you.

systematic theology

Driscoll is not exclusively to blame for instituting a protestant Dogma that’s hard to live in, one that is buttressed by injudicious and superficial excerpts from Calvin. (My smug problem with the whole thing is that the TULIP people who quote Calvin the most often have often read the least of his writing.) The Gospel is not equally Truth and Love, Justice and Mercy; we are not  trying to strike some sort of “balance” probably only Jesus could do anyway. It is not a system of salvation that decides who’s in and out.  It is a person. And this Person is Love first—a love so big that it contains both Truth and Justice in a way that is huge and mysterious and isn’t subject to our systems.

This paradigm disparity means EVERYTHING.

Of all the Driscoll Machinery that may need to be dismantled in this generation of church planters, I fear the lockdown neo-Calvinism will be the hardest and we will be the least willing.


As we witness the crumbling of the Mars Hill empire, (as all Empires do), it’s time to take inventory. It’s time to weigh our inheritance from a powerful leader and movement. As ministers, it’s time to prayerfully examine our own hearts and practices, our own understanding of what it means to be in church leadership. As congregants, it’s time to examine our church and boldly ask the hard questions. It’s time, again, to reexamine our lives and relationships and consider if we’re serving enough and if we’re accountable enough. It’s time for us to confess where we’ve enthroned the idols of power, glory, and approval.

It’s time for us to pray for our brothers and sisters at Mars Hill who have lost the chance to do all of that voluntarily.

Take a look at the rest of the conversation, here:

Why We Care About Mars Hill, Pulpit Mistakes, and Gender Stereotypes

How poor relational habits destroy transparency, accountability, and ultimately a church


Add yours →

  1. MD has read Calvin, long time ago. I gave him my copy of the Institues. MD is not a theologian.

    • Thanks for the correction. I read his book on Doctrine, and I would say MD has read them, too. Driscoll is hardly a man I would accuse of not having read. I was more speaking of those in our churches who quoted Driscoll & Breshears quoting Calvin, and didn’t read for themselves.

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