Mark Driscoll resigned on October 14, and I’m trying to decide how I feel about it.
Christians have strong feelings about Driscoll, and indeed, he’s a polarizing figure. As the poster boy of neo-Calvinism, he personifies the allure and threat of an entire movement, while also brandishing a modern incarnation of masculinized Christianity. Lately he’s been surrounded by accusations, some fact, some fiction, and most inspired by his domineering, tough guy leadership style.
A lot of Mennonite Church and Mennonite Brethren Christians don’t like Driscoll, and not only for his Calvinist leanings. Then again, Driscoll is somewhat of a hero to a whole generation of young men (myself included), who spent their teens searching for a tough male role model in the church, and found one in the Seattle pastor. The church, as a whole has never been good at attracting young men, but Driscoll recorded amazing amounts of success in bringing that demographic into the congregation. He offered what we were all searching for: a challenge to overcome and an elite community of brothers in arms to be part of.
I’m a military history guy. I’ve read a lot of literature on how historical and contemporary societies train civilians to fight wars, and I can assert with some confidence that there are sociological and psychological reasons why young men are the best material from which to craft soldiers. Stupidity and aggression play obvious roles, but so do a natural male inclination to martial ritual and rigid hierarchy. An 18-year-old male is one of the most eligible recruits around because, in many ways, he wants to be challenged, stretched, and even verbally and physically assaulted. In the right environment, surrounded by older, charismatic male figure, he’s convinced that he wants what they have, and the trauma of basic training is the process by which he will be transformed from the wretch he is (for so they have labeled him) into a soldier-brother.
Mark Driscoll brought a little bit of that toughness into the church, and a generation of young men loved him for it. He told them what they already knew, that they were lazy, unmotivated, unworthy of the love of a woman, and challenged them to do something about it. He gave a cause to a generation of drifters by stressing that an all-loving God can still be an all-demanding God, and that, just like in the army, it was our struggle to meet those demands that would create men out of boys.
Of course he was ostracized for it by those he condescendingly labeled the ‘effeminate males’ of the ‘emerging church,” as well as by an increasing number of individuals from the moderate middle and from his own church. After taking a six-week sabbatical in August, Driscoll attempted to return and then resigned permanently. For some it’s a victory, but for those of us who felt that Driscoll was speaking to us directly during our turbulent adolescent years, the celebration rings a little hollow.
I’ve talked before about how most of humanity’s great leaders are moderately sociopathic, as well as pondered whether the trait might be an essential prerequisite of leadership. Driscoll, who built Mars Hill to an attendance high of 14,000 after starting it in someone’s house in 1996, is undoubtedly a great leader, which means that I also expect from him a certain edge and arrogance. Hubris is the dark side of charisma after all, and even our best pastors are not immune to it. The glamour of a potent, dynamic individual is seductive to the masses (Bonhoeffer spoke of it as the “Fuhrer Principle” in 1933 Germany), and generally destructive to the individual as well. We are not gods, only men, and the more power we accrue the more alone and terrified we become.
Driscoll was no Lenin or Mao, no Churchill or Kennedy. He maintained to the end a remarkable awareness of his own shortcomings, and (in public at least) an interest in collaborating with his Christian brothers and sisters. His resignation letter is poignant and honest, and I hope he continues teaching so that people may continue listening. This is a tough chapter in his life, but hopefully it will continue to polish his rough edges and bring him wisdom.
I looked up to Driscoll; I think I still do. To be honest we (at least the young men I knew) all looked up to Driscoll, because we all wanted to be Christians who accomplished, who overcame difficulty and strove generously, and not impotent spiritualists content to await the second coming. In an academic culture that insists on discussing the definition of ‘feminine’ in mostly positive terms, and ‘masculine’ in mostly negative terms, Driscoll offered a blueprint to Christian men everywhere. He argued that there was still a place for traditional manhood in 21st century life, and we all wanted to believe him.
It is unfortunate to see a pastor forced to resign by charges that, on the whole, are confusingly inconsequential. Hopefully, the true crux of the matter is that Driscoll is simply too domineering for a mega-church atmosphere, and not that Driscoll made silly comments on an internet forum more than a decade ago. Otherwise we are simply seeing another example of a church community becoming petty and vicious in the name of God.
Because Driscoll, for all his faults, has been a darn good leader over the years, and he’s part of the spectrum that makes Protestant Christianity so compellingly vibrant. I admit, I don’t agree with all his theology, but few people have ever made me sit up and listen on a Sunday morning the way Driscoll could.