Trying to understand Mark Driscoll

Posted on September 5, 2009

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(Yeah, I know, being somewhat nice about John Piper is one thing, but…)

The thing is, I think several of Driscoll’s sillier comments (and surely the most partisan supporter will own that he has said some rather odd things over the years?) are manifestations of the same two basic positions, and I find that an interesting reflection.

Driscoll’s public comments (by which I mean those that have attracted notice) have largely been to do with issues in ethics. He is famous for discussing what Christian people should and should not do, in detailed and often rather graphic terms. Of course, he lives and pastors in a nation where (to borrow Samuel Butler’s magnificent line) many people are ‘equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced’ – although this is probably less the case in Seattle than in many other areas of the USA.

My first exposure to Driscoll was reading his first book (I believe?), Radical Reformission. There is a chapter in there where he narrates his realisation that drinking alcohol is not forbidden to the Christian in Scripture. Fair enough; I think there are all sorts of good reasons why one might choose to be teetotal, and there are many situations where it is a pressing ethical imperative, but one glance at the convoluted logic of those who claim it as a Biblical position is enough to discount it.

Driscoll, however, then moves directly to the position that it is thus a Christian duty to drink alcohol. He puts it like this: ‘My Bible study convinced me of my sin of abstinence from alcohol. So in repentance I drank a hard cider over lunch with our worship pastor.’ (Radical Reformission, p. 146.) This seems a very odd comment, explicable in only two ways. Either he is assuming that if an act is not forbidden, it must be commanded, or he found particular reasons for regarding his previous teetotal stance to be not just not required, but actually sinful. It happens that both of these seem to be factors in many of Driscoll’s positions.

To take the latter first, in the book Driscoll links prohibition in the USA with feminism:

Tragically, as feminism grew in America around the turn of the twentieth century, the women’s suffrage and prohibition movements, which were the result of a feminine piety that came to dominate the church, also flourished. This all occurred as more women became pastors and the church became more feminine. At the same time, some denominations even began to condemn alcohol as sinful … The marriage of Christianity and feminism, helped to create a dry nation… (p. 146)

Probably the kindest thing to say about this paragraph is that not many local church pastors understand how church history and culture mutually interact (although most manage not to display both their ignorance and their lack of comprehension quite so blatantly either…). I will also do Driscoll the honour of assuming that the implication that it is sinful for women to want to vote in elections, although logically demanded by his words, was not one he intended.

All that said, the identification of ‘feminism’ as the key social evil seems to me to be rather characteristic of Driscoll, and driving a lot of his positions. His particularly hardline version of ‘complementarianism;’ his aggressive assertions of masculinity; his rather strange vision of Jesus as muscular superhero, even – all have at root this strange fear that the church is being feminised.

(I take it that there is no need to defend here either the proposition that feminism is not the all-consuming social force Driscoll imagines, or the proposition that an adequately Christian theology demands the affirmation of the full humanity of women, including the recognition of God’s calling of all women, and all men, to proper Christian vocations, and God’s calling of some women, and some men, to leadership and teaching positions within the church.)

The second feature here is the assumption that all actions are either prohibited or demanded by Scripture. This curious ‘law of the excluded ethical middle’ seems to me to be a repeated problem in Driscoll’s commentary. He has spotted that the repressed 1950s sexuality he apparently grew up with had nothing to do with Scripture. Good. But to move from there to preaching that it is a Christian duty for married couples to engage in various forms of sexual activity is ethically illegitimate and, I suggest, pastorally unhelpful (particularly when allied with his rather crudely-stated views on the proper ordering of authority within the family – see above).

So what? Well, something like this. It is rather easy to paint Mark Driscoll as some sort of madman who shoots off his mouth in bizarre ways. But a bit of thought demonstrates that actually he is just someone who is working out some false assumptions, assumptions which presumably could be challenged and corrected. Once again, I suggest the task of theology is more to understand than to condemn – and having understood, to attempt to correct, if that is needed.

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