Confidential to Mark Driscoll: Your earthliness is showing.
I'd like to add a personal footnote to this story that I wrote in this week's paper about Pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, and its troubling slide from benign faith community into authoritarian doctrine-factory.
First, a little about my religious orientation, if only because pretty much everyone I interviewed for this week's story immediately asked me about my faith and whether I had "found Jesus." Normally, I'd consider that an off-limits question to strangers, more deeply intimate than asking about the intricacies of my finances or my relationship with my wife. But I was asking them about their religious orientation, so I figured turnabout is fair play: I was raised Catholic and am now deeply agnostic.
(This story I wrote in 2009—about the systematic, institutionally protected child abuse of Alaskan Native children by Catholic clergy—stomped whatever lingering embers I had for the institution into cold ashes.)
I am not a strident Dawkins/Hitchens/Ditchens anti-Christianist, which Mars Hill people might find hard to believe since I work at The Stranger. But this is America, a free country where religion should be treated like sex—believe and do whatever freaky shit you like in private, as long as a) it's consensual and b) you leave children and animals out of it.
Second, from my study of Driscoll and his sermons, it's clear he's a verse-slinger who selectively culls from a big, complicated book that's been written and re-written over thousands of years and says all kinds of things. I'm well familiar with this legalistic strategy of grabbing the moral high ground—I spent a chunk of my childhood in the South among people who sling verses, sometimes for amusement and sometimes for their profession. According to the ex-members I interviewed, Driscoll and his people are particularly fond of Hebrews 13:17:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
What a convenient, self-serving passage for a pastor to keep on the tip of his tongue. But whenever I hear verse-slinging, it brings to mind my favorite verse: The Merchant of Venice, act one, scene three, lines 96 to 103:
The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
Third, my fundamental problem with Mars Hill Church...
It's not Driscoll's enormously self-serving spin on theology—even though his cherry-picking the Bible to lean on women, gays, and anyone who would question the earthly authority of self-anointed pastors like himself is the kind of crap that gives Christianity a bad name.
It's his hypocrisy. Lance, one of the sources for this week's story, said he first fell in love with Mars Hill Church when he heard Driscoll preach a sermon on how religion won't save you. He preached that one's relationship with God, not one's relationship with a church, is what will save you. I can roll with that. If there was one thing I liked about those Bible-slinging Southerners, it was their deep understanding that church and faith communities are important, but no earthly power can come between a person and God. That's the principle saints and martyrs died for, wasn't it? It's what Christ (if we are to believe the Bible) died for—to demonstrate that the state (Rome) and the self-anointed religious class (the Pharisees) were not the ultimate arbiters between individuals and the divine.
But Mars Hill's increasingly legalistic practices, which privilege loyalty to the earthly church above all other things, works against that exact message. One of Mars Hill's own blog posts, by Pastor Tim Smith, called "How to Be a Pharisee," deals with this exact problem:
What happened? Their message could not be more familiar to us: “The Bible is the highest authority and you should live all of life to the glory of God!” How could something that started so right go so wrong as we know it did by Jesus’ time?
Somewhere along the way the Pharisees’ power and authority became an end in itself. Somewhere the leaders grew to love the sound of their own voices. Somewhere, at least in their own minds, their words became equal with God’s.
And there's the rub. As Driscoll preached in this YouTube sermon:
Some adults are just always questioning... these are people with critical spirits. These are people that if you answer their question, they've got 25 more questions, and they'll have questions forever. And it's not that they have questions, it's that they're sinning through questioning.
A pastor who says his words are above questioning is, in his own mind, making his words equal with God's—if you believe in that sort of thing. And even if you you do believe in that sort of thing, Mark Driscoll's arrogance should be deeply, deeply troubling.