Kissing Reformed-Evangelicalism Goodbye…

One of the best examples of long-form journalism and modern day ‘story telling’, is Christianity Today’s twelve-part podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars HillProduced and hosted by Mike Cosper, it is a riveting analysis of not only the ministry of Mark Driscoll—with a special ‘bonus’ episode on Joshua Harris—but also the cultural context which helped to create them. However, one can caveat is in order: sometimes the podcast veers into schadenfreude.

My own pastoral ministry has roughly coincided with that of Harris and Driscoll’s. Both men are approximately the same age as myself, and they both identified as being pastors in conservative churches. But that is where the parallels end. Driscoll no longer holds to the five-points of Calvinism and thinks that it’s ‘garbage’, whereas Harris no longer identifies as a Christian.

One of the things that always fascinated me about both Joshua Harris and Mark Driscoll was their extraordinary ability to communicate. Either through writing or the pulpit, it seemed that Harris and Driscoll could never utter a dull sentence. Which is one of the reasons why their books and sermons were so incredibly popular. For instance, at the height of their fame, the podcasts of Driscoll’s sermons were one of the most popular on iTunes, and Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (now discontinued) sold over a million copies.

The ‘cussing pastor’ and the ‘evangelical wonder-boy’

Driscoll’s ministry in particular, relied on the use of a Chris Rock type shtick of comedic crassness. I’ve listened to professional comedians—e.g. Billy Crystal—and in my opinion, Driscoll could more than hold his own. I was there with 10,000 others, when Driscoll packed the Sydney Entertainment Centre for his one-night only, Burn Your Plastic Jesus.

A question many people asked is, what is the place of comedy and entertainment in communicating the Word of God? 2 Timothy 2:15-16 seems especially apt in this regard:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.

Significantly, Paul’s command to ‘correctly handle the word of truth’ goes hand-in-hand with his injunction to ‘avoid godless chatter’. Why? ‘Because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly’. Preaching the Bible faithfully involves a seriousness, diligence and reverence that sets it apart from every other form of human communication. As James writes:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. [For] We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

The NIV translation omits the word ‘for’ which connects the two sentences, but it is there in the original Greek. It is a timeless warning though for the one who takes upon himself the sacred task to preach God’s Word. Of all the ways in which one could serve Christ, this is the ministry which will be judged the most strictly. Not just as to what is said, but also in how it is delivered.

A Little Folly Outweighs Much Wisdom

Faithfulness in accurately relaying the content of the divine revelation is just as important as the way in which it is communicated. To be fair, Mark Driscoll often did this extremely well. So well in fact, that he was feted by the “Who’s Who” of reformed evangelicalism. And this gave him a platform of legitimacy which opened international doors to publishing and speaking.

But as has become increasingly well-known, it was the presence of the proverbial fly in the ointment which repeatedly gave Driscoll’s preaching a bad smell (see Ecclesiastes 10:1). While I think it’s going too far to say that humour has no place at all in the pulpit, the Christian preacher should never try to compete with unbelieving ‘comedians’. 

And the reason is, we simply don’t need to. The Word of the LORD is powerful to save in and of itself (see Isaiah 55:10-11; Jer. 23:29; Heb. 4:12; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23-25) Indeed, in contrast to the pattern of the world’s reliance on rhetoric, the apostle Paul unequivocally renounced this practice. He presents the Christian alternative in both his first and second letters to the Corinthians: 

I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

Therefore, since God in His mercy has given us this ministry, we do not lose heart. Instead, we have renounced secret and shameful ways. We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)

Letting the Word of God do the Work of God

Not only can very few people be as funny as Mark Driscoll, but there is no need either. Indeed, there is a great spiritual danger in this regard since those who listen can be tempted to put their faith in the preacher as opposed to the message that is being preached. 

Consider the example of how Spurgeon—Driscoll’s great hero—was converted. The fifteen-year old ducked into a Primitive Methodist Church one Sunday morning due to a snowstorm. An unknown lay preacher was speaking on Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.” And this is how Spurgeon recorded his reaction in his Autobiography:

He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed—by me, at any rate, except his text. Then, stopping, he pointed to where I was sitting under the gallery, and he said, ‘That young man there looks very miserable’ … and he shouted, as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, ‘Look! Look, young man! Look now!’ … Then I had this vision—not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Saviour Christ was.… Now I can never tell you how it was, but I no sooner saw whom I was to believe than I also understood what it was to believe, and I did believe in one moment.

What made the message ring true was not the use of humour or the personality of the preacher, but the power of God’s Word. A divine power produced by the Spirit of the Living God sent from the ascended Lord Jesus Christ (John 16:5-11; 1 Thess. 1:4-5). It’s a timeless reminder that the word of God does the work of God. And it’s the job of the preacher to preach in such a way that the hearer doesn’t hear him, but Jesus. 

Gospel versus Law

All of which brings us to the ‘bonus’ episode Cosper did involving Joshua Harris. This was something which I didn’t want to listen to, but I am really grateful I did. Harris’ response to Cosper when he was challenged as to whether or not he was preaching ‘law’ rather than a Gospel of grace was especially enlightening. As Harris says:

I still do struggle though, with even what you describe as the Gospel over and against Law. There’s still a part of me which says it’s still the good news that if you don’t receive it you go to hell forever. If that is at the very core of the message, does that justify the kind of manipulative, controlling, abusive behaviour [of Christian preachers]?

Note that Harris suggests that the message of the Gospel has a tendency to produce “manipulative, controlling and abusive behaviour” in Christian leadership. Thankfully though, Cosper didn’t allow Harris to get away with this accusation, arguing that the Gospel is the antidote to this type of spiritual poison.  As Cosper states:

Part of the reason why we’re in this project is to say as strongly as can that it [the Gospel] absolutely doesn’t [lead to spiritual abuse]. The way that evangelical celebrity culture in particular has allowed the fallout of bad leaders to get framed in a transactional way is massively problematic. The heart of our repentance is the fact that we’ve allowed this sort of calculation to take place which allows it. I mean, it’s the quote in every interview I did with Mars Hill, which was, ‘Yeah, this was a disaster, and everybody knew that it was, but hey, look at the fruit?’ But I don’t think that’s inherent to the message. I think inherent to the message is, lay down and die. 

Which is More Toxic: Celebrity Culture or Purity Culture?

But it’s also at this point, that the interview takes a fascinating turn as Cosper explores the modern evangelical obsession—or faux worship—in the Christian cult of ‘celebrity’. Social media certainly has something to do with this manifestation of man’s innate desire for spiritual transcendence. Significantly, Cosper’s comment seemed to really get under Harris’ skin. Harris replied by saying:

I feel that’s an easy “out” for Christians, who I think need to ask deeper questions about

core theologies and systemic issues…I’m not saying it doesn’t go against some of the 

ideals of the Christian faith but I’m just saying that it is a scapegoat at times in a way 

that allows them to write off the systemic issues and not evaluate them. 

Once again, we’re back to Harris’ contention that the ‘systemic issue’ is that conservative evangelical theology produces spiritual abuse. Rather than take responsibility for his own spiritual deconstruction (i.e. ‘apostasy’), Harris seeks to blame the message of the Gospel itself for the problems of toxic Christian leadership. Cosper goes on to challenge Harris though about his own personal motivation, and in particular, whether or not it’s ultimately about his own self-promotion. Harris’ reply is striking:

I think that’s something I have to wrestle with and kind of deal with you know, myself. It’s like, am I doing that? Maybe…could be! Those kind of deep motivations…there’s still enough Calvinism in me to really be distrustful of myself and say, ‘Yeah, maybe. That could be it’.

No Little People, No Little Places

Cosper’s production has provided the church with a powerful resource. It is a timely warning as to the triumphalist spirit of the ‘super apostles’ which Paul warns of in 2 Corinthians. Francis Schaeffer offered a prescient warning of this ever-present danger last century when he wrote in his book No Little People (Crossway, 1990):

Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars etc… This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but He even reveres this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh. To think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered me. This attitude, taken from the world, is more dangerous to the Christian than fleshly amusement or practice. It is the flesh.

We would all do well to reflect on Schaeffer’s warning once again. The Christian fixation with celebrity is far more toxic that the problems surrounding ‘purity culture’ ever were. Indeed, it is a spiritual cancer that we are constantly warned against in Scripture—especially the book of 2 Corinthians—to avoid. 

The ministries of Mark Driscoll, and especially Joshua Harris, are warnings against the triumphalistic spirit which seeks to elevate self. For it is Christ alone who must be pre-eminent. As John the Baptist said to his disciples in regards to the ministry of Christ Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).

And this is really the nub of the matter for me. Especially for those of us who are leaders of God’s people, we must strenuously resist the lure of being lauded as a ‘Christian celebrity’. Significantly, the reason why the Pharisees delivered Jesus over to be crucified was because of envy (Matt. 27:18). One of the most humbling things about being a church leader is having been given responsibility over ‘small ministries’.

Not many of us with write popular books, or speak to large crowds, or draw large following on social media. But we nonetheless called to be faithful. Faithful with the ‘little people’ whom the world would easily overlook (Matt. 25:44-46). But that is what serving Christ is all about. Not about fame, popularity or influence. But doing it all for the glory of Christ rather than ourselves. 

                                                                                                            – Mark Powell