As the story of Mars Hill Church and the Rev. Mark Driscoll continues to unfold, I want to flash back to the very important New York Times story that yanked this drama onto the national front burner (other than for evangelical insiders).
This story was quite good, with few examples of usual jarring advocacy language pointing readers toward the progressive social doctrines advocated by the Times. In particular, note that this story often featured the views of conservative Christians who are now critical of Driscoll's leadership style and some of the actions that may or may not have grown out of it. Even though this story travels into moral and cultural issues, there are very few traces of "Kellerism" in it.
However, this report does have one major problem, from my point of view. It is clear that Driscoll is facing the judgment of evangelical Protestant leaders from coast to coast. However, the story never really states the degree to which Mars Hill Church is, itself, an independent body that has few ties binding it to any denomination or tradition.
In other words, if Mars Hill is a kind of mini-denomination of its own, who has the legal, as well as the doctrinal, right to investigate and then pass judgment on its founder? You can see hints at this confusion at several points in the Times report. Let's start with one of those almost meaningless evangelical buzz words -- "emerging."
Mr. Driscoll rose to prominence in two important strains of contemporary evangelicalism. He was one of the early success stories of the “emerging church” movement, which critiqued the consumer-friendly nature of mainstream evangelicalism and sought to create what it described as a postmodern form of Christian worship. And he is one of the leading champions of “New Calvinism,” a theological orientation that embraces predestination, the idea that God has determined who will be saved and who will not.
His theology is in many ways at odds with contemporary culture, including an unapologetic belief in complementarianism -- the idea that men and women have different roles to play -- which in practice has meant that women do not serve as pastors or elders at Mars Hill, and he urges husbands to lead their wives and wives to submit to their husbands. He has objected to chauvinism, as well as feminism, but his critics say that, at his worst, he has had a tendency to objectify women and denigrate gays.
There's lots of stuff to unpack in there and note, that in these passages, there are no authoritative voices to help guide readers into this thicket. I would also note that the term "emerging" has, in the past decade of so, primarily been a label applied to evangelicals on the fuzzy or liberal side of most moral and doctrinal issues.
So is the claim here that Driscoll is on the left and the right at the same time, or is the Times team simply caught in the fog of modern evangelical discourse? I lean toward thinking it's the second option.
Now, on to the crucial passages about the looming judgment day for Driscoll:
Mr. Driscoll’s critics trace the church’s troubles to 2007, when the pastor demanded a revision of the church’s bylaws to reduce the authority of most of the church’s elders. Two elders who objected were fired, and the church then ordered one of them shunned, meaning that all Mars Hill members were to cease contact with him, his wife and his children, effectively eliminating their social world.
“It was devastating,” said Paul A. Petry, the elder who was fired and shunned. Rob Smith, a deacon who quit to protest the bylaw changes, recalled that Mr. Driscoll became abusively irate with him. “He said, ‘I will destroy you, and I will destroy your ministry.’ ” In the months that followed, Mars Hill members en masse stopped contributing to a foundation Mr. Smith was running to help orphans in southern Africa, eliminating a major source of the organization’s funding, he said.
The term "elder" usually has some kind of doctrinal content to it and implies a role in a formal church structure. Yet note that Driscoll's alleged power move focused on the bylaws of his own church -- period. The big question: Is there any authority in this case higher than the ones created by Driscoll himself? This is major issue, with often tragic legal implications, in the era of independent megachurches.
However, this passage suggests otherwise:
In a written statement, Anthony Ianniciello, Mars Hill’s executive pastor of media and communications, said, “We take any complaint or allegation against Pastor Mark and Mars Hill very seriously, and everything is and will be examined by several governing bodies.”
So, several "governing bodies" are involved? Are these all located in the structures of this semi-denomination? If there are national bodies involved -- perhaps the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability -- then what are their names? What legal, binding authority do they have over Mars Hill and its leader?
I realize that evangelical insiders already know this terrain inside out, in part because Driscoll is, for many, both famous and infamous. But the Times report needed a little bit of material to help readers in this post-denominational maze.
It's a basic question: Who is in charge here?