Reflections on Leadership & Mars Hill
One of the most popular Christian podcasts from 2021 was The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today. It's a well-produced series that hooks you in! I don't recommend it for your spiritual vitality, but if you have been impacted by Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll over the years, it might be of interest to you.
In my youth I was introduced to some of Mars Hill's content, and I credit that introduction as being the start of understanding the gospel and grace, which in turn led to me taking my faith seriously. God could have used someone else, but through His providence He used Mark Driscoll in my life.
Mark was the lead pastor at Mars Hill church in Seattle, Washington State USA. The church was “odd” because it bucked all the church trends of it’s day: It was a fast-growing church in an area that is famously post-Christian, it held reformed and complementarian theology, and it attracted young men. Over the years Mark Driscoll became something of a celebrity because of his style, the use of media and the rapid trend-bucking growth. It all came to a screeching halt when Mark was placed under church discipline. Rather than submit to the process and repent of sin – Mark absconded, and the various congregations of the church were either closed or became independent churches in their own right.
The podcast documented many aspects of Mark's rise to prominence, their apparent success, and the crisis that ended it all. Like many folks who have commented on this podcast series, it leaves me with mixed feelings. But, the tale of Mars Hill is a warning to evangelicals everywhere. There a few valuable lessons that I wanted to note for our own benefit.
Mark is a sinner, just like all of us. So please don’t hear me pouring any judgment on him that is not equally appropriate in our own failures. As Mark & Mars Hill are public matters of Christian interest, think of this more as an analysis that may highlight our own potential weaknesses when it comes to Christian leadership.
Christian Leaders must be Qualified
The accounts of Mars Hill’s genesis vary, but Mark himself bragged that he had never been a member of a church before he planted his own. This was not because he didn’t support formal membership (he did), it was because he was a young inexperienced Christian when he began to pastor.
God can use anyone, even stones, to build His church. Yet He very clearly prefers to use ordinary methods that the scriptures lay out for us. Exceptions occur – but in this case the story proves the value of the biblical way. I think one of the key factors that lead to the ruin of Mars Hill and Mark’s disgrace was that the basic foundations of Christian leadership had not been laid.
The qualifications for church leaders in Scripture very interestingly do not feature much in the way of skills. God does not call for charisma or inciteful anecdotes, instead he merely asks for men who are “able to teach”. The rest of the qualifications centre around character. Through Paul, God makes it clear that the ability to teach is only one (albeit important) part of the Christian leadership profile. One’s character track-record is the primary qualification. You can’t have a character track record if you’re new and untrained in the faith: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited…” (1 Ti 3:6).
The youngest in faith often tend to be the most passionate! They are keen to learn and share in a way that puts us older believers to shame! Unfortunately, the fire of new faith is often mistaken for leadership gifting and then believers suffer under the inexperienced ill-equipped guidance. How many “youth pastors” have been installed fast and fallen almost as quickly?
To be clear: age itself is not the issue, as the Apostle Paul points out to Timothy (1 Ti 4:12). Young leaders shouldn’t be maligned – but they too must shine as an example of godly character: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Ti 4:12).
It seems that Mark Driscoll had bucket loads of teaching ability but not the character to back it up. It seems he didn’t have sufficient time and training to prepare for the task which he undertook; in his own words he became a believer in the autumn and took up leadership in the spring. Then, he became conceited – to the point where he thought he was above Jesus’ design of church discipline while being very heavy handed with such discipline himself!
It started behind closed doors, but over time with more power and prestige and success it became very clear that Mark wasn’t just slipping up like all Christians do at times, but that he had a pattern of failing to be temperate, self-controlled, respectable, and gentle (refer 1 Ti 3:1–7 and Tit 1:5–9).
I for one do not have issue with the brash style that Mark was known for. In some respects tone and style are culturally defined, so in different times and places different tone and style will be appropriate (just look at the different tone and style across the pages of the Bible!). What is at issue here is not that Mark was rough with words or partial to a rant, but that he essentially used his position as an under-shepherd of Christ to bully people, the very people who were on mission with him to serve God!
In my opinion had the young and passionate Mark been kept from leadership for a time to be discipled and trained, things may have turned out much better. But who knows? God knows. Marks mythology has obscured his origin story, so it is hard to know if he indeed did have time in training and exemplify the qualifications of a pastor.
What is plainly obvious either way is that qualifications matter. God didn’t record them as mere guidelines – they are the basic foundations of Christian leadership. It is fine to like charisma, passion and rhetorical excellence but these are only icing on the cake. A cake is still a cake without icing, but icing on its own is no elder.
In our climate of immediacy and efficiency, it can be hard to appreciate the importance of time spent. It is interesting to see that Jesus discipled his Apostles over the course of years, and when the Apostle Paul was converted, he went away for some time before beginning his apostolic ministry in earnest. We have already seen that Paul banned the appointment of recently-converted believers. The very term “elders” implies that age, or at the very least the wisdom that comes with it, is part of the package. It takes time to build and test leaders who are suitable to lead God’s Church.
Christian Leaders must be Appointed
When those leaders are appropriately qualified, they must be appointed by others. It is not up to the individual to install themselves as a leader. In the latter years Mark Driscoll said he had a commission direct from God to do what he was doing, therefore, one of the implications was that no one could question him (he also pointed to the “success” as a validation from God).
In one sense this claim to divine personal commission is a problem because it is used to “trump” biblical qualifications. If ever there is a question about a person’s suitability for ministry or they disqualify themselves from leadership, they can justify continued leadership (or sin) on the basis of “I’m on a mission from God!” (Blues Brothers). Perhaps you can tell that I’m sceptical about Mark’s divine commission?
He and others may well have personal commissions from God, but in the church this does not automatically install us to leadership, or prevent us from being removed if we are disqualified.
Was Driscoll appointed or did he take up the leadership himself? I’m not sure, but the way Driscoll would talk about his role in later years communicated an entrepreneurial approach without reference to other believers. Something that is at odds with scripture.
So how are Christian leaders appointed? Well, the first Christian leaders were the Apostles – appointed as Christ’s eyewitnesses. Then they went on to appoint Elders/Overseers/Shepherds (a.k.a Pastors) in the churches they planted (i.e. Acts 14:23). As the church grew and the Apostles aged, it was not really possible for them to get around to do all the ordaining and people like Titus were sent to facilitate the ordination of leaders (Titus 1:5).
How did this ordination take place? There’s disagreement on this point, as one might expect when looking at different ecclesiastical models. Some see the appointment as “top down” – i.e. someone up a church hierarchy comes in and appoints leaders. Others look at the etymology of the Greek word for “appoint” and find associations with the idea of the congregation electing leaders to appoint them.
Let’s just do some simple logic on this point: If the qualifications of church overseers revolves around demonstrated character, then they have to be appointed by people who know them, and have seen the way they live for Jesus. This must in some way include people in their home church.
The apparent silence of scripture on the exact way this ordination takes place seems to provide space for us to “sort it out amongst ourselves” so-to-speak. In my estimation the best way is, that under the guidance of existing elders, churches should use a method like voting for the congregation to approve/affirm new overseers. In this way the Holy Spirit is seen to be moving through His Church to have Christ’s chosen leaders appointed.
Desire is an important factor to consider in being ordained as an elder. It is a good thing to aspire to be! “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” (1 Ti 3:1). Yet qualification must follow that aspiration.
Some people aspire to be pastors and so trot off to bible college. But, bible college a pastor does not make. Academic studies of the Bible or seminary-type courses may be helpful in forming Christian leaders, but they are quite auxiliary to the process. For many local churches, the idea of a 3 or 4-year degree for their lead pastors provides a kind of standard of knowledge metric that can be useful, but it has limitations! Christ is not after academics to lead His churches, rather those who will “[be an] example to the flock” (1 Pe 5:3). The aspiring pastor who is not a member of a local church is a severe irony.
Christian Leaders must be Accountable
Whether or not Driscoll was once qualified and/or ordained for Christian leadership the fact remains that in church we enter into an ongoing relationship of accountability with other Christians who help us to grow spiritually and warn us if we are wandering from the path Jesus calls us to walk. This is true for every believer, whether they be children, new convert, elderly life-long believer, or mega-church senior pastor.
As Mars Hill grew they changed their leadership structure to try and cope with the changing dynamics of staff and multi-site church, etc. Without boring you with all the details, what they practically ended up with was Mark as a rule-by-decree CEO over a large cohort of other campus and executive elders while he was (in theory) accountable to a Board of Advisors and Accountability made up of people outside the church.
Leaders under Mark ended up laying charges against him (like institutional charges, not legal ones). This, combined with external pressure from some controversy forced the Board to investigate if Mark has been disqualified. Mark took some time off and the Board formulated a plan of restoration, presumably to deal with the character issues that had been the problem.
Before that plan of restoration could be enacted, Driscoll resigned from his role as senior pastor and left the church.
The podcast was long, 12 mostly hour-long episodes covered a great deal of ground. But you know what? It hasn't changed the fundamental opinion that I formed in the immediate aftermath of Mark Driscoll’s resignation: He ran away from church discipline.
It has become apparent that changes in the church leadership structure made it hard for brothers in Christ to keep Mark accountable, but the Board did have some role in trying to do what the other elders couldn’t. You can tell the story in professional language, with “the board” and “leave of absence” and “resignation,” but at at the end of the day Mark was Christian who had some sin to deal with, and when it came to the crunch of actually having to face it and own up to it – Driscoll bounced.
He ran away from the problem. The church collapsed in his wake.
Then a couple years later he had the nerve to start a new church – with himself as the lead pastor again.
To my knowledge he has not publicly repented this sin, nor the betrayal of absconding from the flock he had professed to love and care for.
In Jesus’ commands for how to deal with a brother who is caught in sin (Matt 18:15-20) – the clear hope is for repentance. When we call-out a bother or sister, the desire is that they would see the error and turn away from it. And if they wish to persist in sin – then there is the clarity from the church that someone has been cast out. Excommunicated.
“God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’” (1 Co 5:13).
In a bid to have to neither deal with their sin, nor possibly be publicly excommunicated – people just run away. I have seen it in my own experience: they resign church membership as if that absolves them of the need to address sin before God and be reconciled to the brothers & sisters. It’s not a viable option, but when sin grips our heart we will even try to hide behind the bushes (Ge 3:8).
In my personal view Mark has disqualified himself from leadership until such a time as he owns up to the sin that was trying to be dealt with at Mars Hill. He has publicly shown he is untrustworthy when the going gets tough. Given the amount of time and “water under the bridge” since the fall of Mars Hill I’m not sure what this would look like but due to the public nature of these past sins, some kind of public repentance seems appropriate – not only to seek reconciliation and forgiveness of those he sinned against, but also to show the world what is looks like for fallible men to humble themselves before Jesus Christ.
The repentant tax collector went and tried to undo the harm he had done – not because he could buy repentance, but because it was the evidence that he was truly turning away from his past sin in the light of the Gospel. Apparently there has been nothing of the like from Driscoll despite the trauma and hurt in his wake.
It is entirely appropriate for churches to keep their leaders accountable, and the leaders should submit to that process. It is expected and commanded. To be sure, there will be some who make spurious accusations against leadership and so the scripture tells us how we should deal with allegations fairly:
“Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favouritism.” (1 Ti 5:19–21).
People in positions of authority are not above the ordinary means of discipleship in operation in the church. Therefore, the structures that we put in place for leadership and general membership shouldn’t put some people “off limits”. Elders, in my estimation should be in a cohort of men who have the power and ability to help each other walk the narrow path.
There’s lots that could be said in a commentary on the rise and fall of Mars Hill – and the podcast from last year is evidence of that! But I hate the idea of being a keyboard warrior removed in space and time from the events while entering into a continual series of assessment and commentary on the sins of others.
What is inevitably done is that a person’s/church’s sins and failures are highlighted to a degree that obscures the reality of their whole identity. Mark is not the “bad guy” – he is a flawed believer who needs sanctification like any other believer. He, like each of us, may have to own up to hurting others in the past. His sin may be “bigger” or somewhat differ from ours, but we have our own that must be dealt with. We should never disassociate ourselves from other believers on the grounds that they are sinners, but only on the grounds that they have disowned Christ.
Jesus' grace is sufficient to cover all the wrongs of Mars Hill and our own. I need Jesus to cover my own leadership sins.
God used Mars Hill to save and sanctify many people, and God may even now be using Mark to work in the lives of believers. But the good does not justify the bad or override a need for repentance.
Preventing the awful mess of Mars Hill in our own churches starts with adopting biblical model of leadership – just because it is old does not mean it is flawed. Sin can still sneak in, but God gave us these instructions for our benefit as churches full of sinners under Jesus.
We need leaders who are qualified, appointed and accountable.