Mark Driscoll: Modern-day Machiavellian?

How does one gauge the merits of a pastor? Is the ideal pastor one who sets the embers of our latent faith aflame with fiery oratory? Who has cool hipster style and a willingness to engage the controversy du jour?

How does one gauge the merits of a pastor? Is the ideal pastor one who sets the embers of our latent faith aflame with fiery oratory? Who has cool hipster style and a willingness to engage the controversy du jour? What if, additionally, the pastor had the charisma to drown out all other voices in our distracted minds, grip our concentration, and then use our attention to distill some Scripture into our hearts? Some churchgoers might extend a call to this preacher posthaste – and if the methods used cause some heated controversy, aren’t they just moths to the flame? Enter Mark Driscoll, modern day Prince, in the Machiavellian sense.

For those who don’t spend their free hours dwelling on 16th century Italian treatises, the prince in Machiavelli’s The Prince is the embodiment of the power-hungry politician. Charming you one instant, bludgeoning you the next, the Prince will do what is necessary to gain control and keep it. To what end? The efficient and beneficial governance of the state or, in this case, the church. Does Mark Driscoll, celebrity pastor, fit that mold? Is it fair to peg him as a man with Machiavellian focus? All we can do is look at Driscoll’s message and his means to consider whether his bombastic, combative approach is in the same mode as Christ’s vision for his followers.

Admired and reviled
Mark Driscoll is the pastor of Mars Hill Church, in Seattle, Washington. Mars Hill is closer to a small denomination than anything like your local church. Dozens of congregations throughout the United States function under Driscoll’s leadership. Wikipedia states that as of 2014 the church has grown to 14,000 members in five states and 15 locations, with Driscoll as visionary spokesperson, calling the church to a “resurgence” in public life. His prolific writings and numerous speaking engagements are made possible with the help of a ghostwriting and administrative staff. In his biography on the Mars Hill website, Driscoll says that he is “grateful to be a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody,” a worthy description of all who long to bring Christ’s light into the world. The disconnect comes, of course, with the inherent fallacy – almost everybody has heard of Mark Driscoll. The New York Times pegged him as “one of the most admired – and reviled – figures among evangelicals nationwide.”
Driscoll’s preaching style is powerful. If he errs towards a paternalistic interpretation of Scripture and society, he does so while regularly referring to biblical chapter and verse, so it’s easy to get swept along with his confident viewpoint. When discussing the need for men to be manlier, he says: “The key to understanding masculinity is Jesus Christ. Jesus was tough with religious blockheads, false teachers, the proud and bullies. Jesus was tender with women, children and those who were suffering or humble. Additionally, Jesus took responsibility for himself.” Driscoll wants to pin those characteristics to godly men, failing to note that those same qualities can apply to godly women.

However, when Driscoll adlibs, or writes books, he ramps up the stridency to the point of being offensive. For example, he refers to a certain block of church-going men as “sissies” and frequently makes references to rock music, sexual relations and drinking beer to boost his manly credentials. Instead of a gentle Saviour, Driscoll aligns himself with what he calls “the Ultimate Fighting Jesus.”

One of Driscoll’s most recent books, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, co-authored with his wife Grace, has created a furor over its outspoken content – with personal details about their marriage and explicit advice about sex that has offended both the right (for its permissive “anything goes” approach) and the left (for its devaluation of women). Whether the material is blatant sensationalism seems moot – the uproar created free publicity and Driscoll quickly made the rounds on national television to discuss the book.

Book scandal

Recently, he has had to scale back his pugnacious public persona. One of a number of recent publicity scandals, the New York Times Best-Seller situation has reverberated within Mars Hill Church and beyond. It centres on the aforementioned Real Marriage. The book shot up the Best-Seller list and Driscoll’s bio page was quick to credit him as a “best-selling author.” After several documents were made public regarding a deal with ResultSource Inc., it soon became apparent that the success was fabricated. The documents outline techniques designed to trick the Best-Seller tracking procedures and guarantee a spot on the best-seller list. Once the media latched onto this news, questions arose regarding the ethics of such a strategy. To his credit, Driscoll asked his publishers to remove any mention of the “Best-Selling Author” label from his books, and announced a desire to write and speak less publicly for a time. In an open letter to his congregants, Driscoll said, “I’m going offline.” While his Twitter account managers continue to post daily Bible passages and short updates, Driscoll has vowed to shrink his online presence in order to be more pastorally present at Mars Hill.

Such a move could be the end of celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll. Or it could be just one more thing for people to talk about. In the letter that served as his apology over several matters and a re-affirmation of his intention to serve his church, Driscoll states, “I want to be under pastoral authority, in community, and a Bible-teaching pastor who grows as a loving spiritual father at home and in our church home for years to come. I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter.”

All of this begs the question: Is there any place for a celebrity spokesperson of the Christian faith in the broader cultural conversation? Is the ubiquitous use of the term “celebrity,” attributed to both Nobel laureates and porn stars alike, a worthy epithet for anything Christian?

C.S. Lewis struggled with those same questions. The writer became a central figure in many controversies during his life. He stood against those who claimed the unfettered pursuit of science was humanity’s only path to enlightenment, and also against those who thought the Christian faith was only a matter of emotion and “feeling.” His Mere Christianity developed from national radio talks meant to sustain the British populace during England’s fight against Nazi Luftwaffe. For a time he was considered a national treasure. Given his successes, one could easily imagine Lewis would find in himself the spark to which so many were drawn. Instead, he attributed all praise and worthiness to God alone: “As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you” (Mere Christianity).

Not celebrity, but humble service

Finally, when we evaluate Christian celebrities, we must remember the true archetype – Christ himself. Whether we consider the popularity of Lewis and Driscoll (Driscoll may consider himself honoured in such company), or reflect on our own paths to financial, familial and faithful successes, it’s good to return once again to the example set for us by Jesus, obedient in humble service:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil.2:5-11).

When we have the same mindset as Jesus, we confess God’s sovereignty over our lives and the church and we trust that his governance is always best.

  • Tom Smith is a teacher living in Barrie, Ont. with his wife Sarah and son Jakeb.

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