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Revisiting the New Calvinism

March 2015 | by Jeremy Walker

Mark Driscoll in 2009 ABC news debateThis article is a somewhat reluctant and brief follow-up to my short book, The New Calvinism considered

Driscoll has been among the most vociferous and voluble of those sailing under the flag of the New Calvinism. Toward the latter half of 2014, significant concerns and charges began to accumulate around him.

These had to do with such things as plagiarism, use of church funds to promote a book on the New York Times bestseller list, and accusations of aggression and bullying, going beyond previous concerns about his behaviour and emanating from within the current and previous leadership of the Mars Hill multi-campus franchise.

As matters progressed, Mark and Mars Hill were removed from the ‘Acts 29 Network’, a church planting network which Driscoll had co-founded three years before. At the end of August, Driscoll announced that he would take a break from ministry while charges against him were investigated.

Seven weeks later, amid swirling storm clouds within the leadership of the church, Driscoll resigned. The circumstances were murky — did he jump before being pushed?

The board investigating his actions charged him with nothing illegal or immoral, though they did confirm several of the character issues raised. Neither, though, did they complete the processes that they had begun.

Driscoll subsequently spoke briefly at the Gateway Conference, expressing his appreciation for support received and describing some of the trials his family has experienced. But all this, we are told, was functionally the end of Mars Hill as a name and brand. The multi-campus megachurch ceased to exist on 31 December 2014.

Re-emergence

What do we make of all this? There are several things of which we must take account. The New Calvinism is far bigger and often better than Mark Driscoll, although he has epitomised or been connected with some of its biggest dangers, worst excesses and greatest failings as a movement. Visitors to the website are encouraged to make donations to help ‘support the ministry’, hosting and distributing past and promised future Bible teaching and resources, with a non-profit launch assured. But Mr Driscoll, though down, was not out. In December, he launched a new website with a very familiar design (and the Mars Hill name attached), a well-laundered resumé (containing nothing of the recent and well-attested allegations), and the vast majority of his preached and written material, all under the title ‘Pastor Mark Driscoll’.

We should avoid tarring all with the same brush, even if some have been spattered with the muck. None of us — myself included — are in possession of every relevant fact. Most of us are not in possession of many relevant facts. If we are to speak to a matter, we must speak to what is clear and evident, and avoid imputing evil without definite evidence.

Another thing to avoid is the kind of vindictiveness and viciousness that gloats in the downfall of another. No Christian should gleefully revel in someone else’s disgrace, even if you think you saw it coming. There may be a righteous sense of the vindication of God’s honour, but we do better to weep over another’s sin than wallow in our own pride.

Lessons

So, what principles are enforced and what lessons should be learned from this situation?

We should learn the value of a robust ecclesiology

I appreciate that there are different notions about this, but our ideas of church polity — the calling, institution, order and government of congregations — should be clearly derived and readily defensible from Scripture, and not from the world of commerce and enterprise, or anywhere else.

The multi-campus franchise idea, the bastardisation of the pastoral office with sub-biblical notions of pastoral ministry and practice (such as ‘executive elders’), not to mention the frankly risible idea of a ‘Board of Advisors and Accountability’, rather than a scriptural accountability to one’s fellow elders and the other members of the church, was an accident waiting to happen.

Many other dangerous elements could be identified. Consider too that this man who has been somewhere between suspended and dismissed, if not quite disciplined, is happy to continue arrogating to himself the title of ‘Pastor Mark’ and the notion of a ministry.

Pastor to whom? Ministry on what basis? We might conceivably offer a retired or ‘in-between’ shepherd that label as a sort of recognition of faithful labour. However, generally speaking, shepherds have sheep.

Even if Driscoll finds a congregation willing to be his flock, the fact that he has not relinquished that title and its functions sends a dangerous message.

Mark Driscoll preaching

We should learn the importance of maintaining biblical standards for pastoral ministry

The Bible contains perfectly plain, specific and detailed qualifications for any man who would be an under-shepherd of any flock of God (1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are the classic passages, but others shed much light).

Positive biblical principles and precepts concerning an elder’s graces and gifts, his character and labour, are plentiful. These are necessary, not optional; mandated, not debatable.

Tying in with what has been said above, Christ’s gift must be recognised by Christ’s church. The absence of scandalous sin is not the same as being qualified for pastoral ministry.

Any man — however prominent, apparently gifted or seemingly effective — who falls short in these matters is disqualified from the pastorate. If these pertinent failures of character remain as unresolved patterns of behaviour in any man seeking to shepherd the flock of God, then he cannot (and, for the sake of the church, must not!) be permitted to take or keep that office.

We should learn the necessity of real friends

There has been a chorus of people demanding that some of Driscoll’s high-end compadres publicly hang him out to dry. But I do not think that we would want our friends to parade our sins and weaknesses in front of a watching world (however large or small a portion of it). That may be genuinely necessary at times, but it is not the default option.

However, true friends do not deny or excuse our sin, and they do not insist on endorsing a man in the face of his sinning. They do not cover our backs, regardless of whether or not we are acting with righteousness and integrity. That is not genuine love.

Friends help us to identify sin, to face and repent of it. We might hope that Mark has some genuine friends who do not fudge these weighty matters.

We should learn the significance of true repentance

We are often told that some man has apologised for something. He was sorry he did it. Fine! And so might we all be! But an apology is not the same as repentance.

I can be sorry for a sin that I may or intend to go on committing. Repentance involves a God-dependent determination and whole-souled commitment to keep from sinning in that way again.

It recognises and accepts the consequences of sin. It does not just say sorry and then repeat the trick, sooner or later, somewhere else.
The gracious dynamic that truly resolves sin and its offence is not the mere passage of time, nor the issuing of a more-or-less public apology. It is the expression of sincere repentance with its appropriate fruits, with forgiveness extended in principle and practice, and hopefully leading to genuine reconciliation and appropriate restoration.

So applause for apology is a different thing to forgiving the repentant, and we should not confuse the two either in their intention or effect. There are things that Mark has been charged with, that if true require repentance, not apology — with all the proper consequences of the former, in terms of accepting the effects of sin and properly enjoying the blessings of forgiveness.

We should learn the blessing of doctrinal standards

I am, unashamedly, a confessional Christian. A well-developed, historically-grounded and well-proven confession is not a panacea, but it is certainly protection.

Driscoll’s careless handling of truths that have been carefully defined and well-defended over centuries, married to the evangelical itch for novelty, were unlikely to provide a church with the kind of anchor points required for kingdom life over the long haul.

Minimalist doctrinal statements are often lauded as a means of ensuring fellowship and promoting fruitfulness. In effect, they often leave churches without the kind of ballast required to hold fast and stretch forward with faithfulness to God over time and through trials.

A substantial declaration of the things that a church believes and practises is a great blessing, and a means of addressing doctrinal drift and practical confusion should it start to occur.

We should learn the ugliness of celebrification

It is an ugly word for an ugly thing, and it is especially ugly in Christ’s church. I refer to that process by which a man (or woman) attains a measure of adulation that seems to transcend any kind of criticism or restraint, and breeds and feeds the worst kind of arrogance. 

The church is the body of Christ’s disciples, not those of any man. A congregation composed of one’s fans and followers is a dangerous place.

An allegedly-Christian environment in which the fear and favour of men are the governing realities is horrible. A church composed of friends and fellow-labourers, the true family of God, is a delightful place.

We should learn the worth of hearing our critics

Listen to them. Some of them love you. Even the ones who genuinely hate you might still say things that are worth taking into account. They may point out flaws to which your truest friends are sincerely blind. They might point out flaws that your seeming friends lack the love to identify.

Admittedly, there are times when a swarm of godless critics all levelling the same accusations might be a powerful confirmation that you are in the right. But what if your critics are men and women of Christian integrity, with a track record of wisdom and honesty, and are all, in the main, saying the same things?

Then it is worth at least considering that they may have seen something that you have not, and which your friends are willing to cover with a blanket of love. You should hear them, even if you might not be disposed to heed them.

Mars Hill Church Ballard WA campus

Finally, we should learn the danger of our own circumstances

How many of us secretly yearn for the kind of prominence afforded to Mark Driscoll? Has a prideful anger ever bubbled over, perhaps begun to flow with alarming frequency and fulness?

Which of us would stand secure if we were elevated so high, so rapidly? It is very easy to cast aspersions on others, far harder to stand where they stand. ‘Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall’.

You may believe you saw this coming. You may have mourned over the painful trajectory that developed, and perhaps the failure of those who publicly applauded phases of Mark’s career to address the change in tack.

You may have your suspicions and fears about what comes next. But to revel in the sin of another is a demonic thing. To rejoice in a man’s public downfall is to join Satan’s company.

When you see another man — any man — sinning and stumbling, remember that, but for the grace of God, that is you; and pray with tears that it might never be.

You might ask, ‘What does all this have to do with me?’ Perhaps not much. But it may be that people you know have been, still are, or will be under some particular influence of as gifted a communicator and self-publicist as Mark Driscoll.

If that is the case, it would do us good to think and work through these issues for the glory of Christ and the good of his church.

Prayer

So, pray. Pray for wisdom and courage for those who remain, willingly or unwillingly, under Mark Driscoll’s influence. Pray for the health of the churches being formed out of the driftwood left behind.

Pray for the rescue of those who may be drowning in the wreckage. Pray for the restraint of all that would undermine the church of Christ. Pray for the progress of the gospel, despite and even because of these things.

Pray also for Mark Driscoll and his family and friends, that God would work out purposes of grace for them.

Pray, above all, that the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, will make his people complete in every good work to do his will, working in us what is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

Jeremy Walker

The author is pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, West Sussex