Yesterday the news broke that Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, was resigning. In his public letter, he cited the charges that had been brought against him by former employees, the divisive nature of his leadership style, and the health of his family as reasons for stepping down.
Driscoll founded the Mars Hill Church 18 years ago, and in that time became a public persona whose style was a cause of both admiration and outrage. His devotees were drawn to his straight-forward, tell-it-like-it-is style. His critics were put off by what they perceived as arrogance and misogyny. Few people are neutral on Driscoll. To know of him is to have an opinion. And his resignation only further illustrates this truth. Some people are breathing a vocal sigh of relief. Others are upset that their admired pastor was outed by what they perceive as bullies and haters.
Regardless of your take on Driscoll, there is no glee in seeing a pastor have to leave a church he founded, or in seeing a congregation lose a beloved leader. Any admission that his decision is the right thing for the church must be balanced with empathy for both Driscoll, his family and the congregants. Having been a part of a church that went through the painful resignation of a lead pastor, and having been the daughter of a religious leader who resigned due to moral failure, I know how incredibly difficult this transition will be for everyone involved.
It always requires some nuance to extend grace and forgiveness to an individual, while still appreciating the need for boundaries and consequences. Driscoll is as deserving of grace and forgiveness as any of us, but grace is not a blanket protection from natural consequences.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Driscoll sees that yet himself. In his resignation letter, he is quick to point out there were “no charges of criminal activity, immorality or heresy, any of which could clearly be grounds for disqualification from pastoral ministry.”
That’s true. Driscoll may not have exhibited overt abuse. There was no sexual misconduct or pivotal scandal that every can point to as justification for his need to leave the church. However, there is a string of troubling behaviors that together paint a picture of a leader whose effectiveness was handicapped by the severity of allegations leveled against him. Driscoll has suggested that God hates people. He’s been taken to task for his homophobia and rigid gender rules. People have expressed frustration about the way he belittled women, made fun of gay people, blamed Haggard’s affair on his wife, described Jesus as a brute instead of a peacemaker and suggested women who criticize their husbands need to be kept in line.
There are even blogs dedicated to former members of the church who need a place of support. There was the accusation of plagiarism in his book. And then, this year, 21 former pastors go public with formal charges of harmful behavior including verbal assault, bullying and creating a culture of fear.
It’s important for Christians to examine the issues that led to Driscoll’s crisis in his ministry. In the hours following the announcement of Driscoll’s resignation, many people took to social media and reprimanded those discussing it as being guilty of hypocrisy, character assassination, or “tearing down a fellow Christian.” There were many calls to extend grace and forgiveness, and to respond with Christ-like love.
Grace and forgiveness should be extended to Mr. Driscoll, but grace and forgiveness do not equal silence. Likewise, restoration is available and possible, but restoration of a person need not mean restoration of a position. We need to honestly address what “Christ-like” means in the face of a religious leader facing some very serious accusations of abuse. When we truly look at Jesus’s example, we see a man who was full of grace, but also could be full of righteous indignation when the church was being hurt by the humans in charge. Jesus was not meek when it came to calling out the abuse of power. In fact, when we ask ourselves WWJD, table-flipping is an option. Jesus was assertive in addressing the religious leaders of his day.
And yet today, many people are silencing and shaming others for addressing systemic issues or individual behavioral concerns with religious leadership, calling for grace—as if grace and accountability are mutually exclusive. I’ve also seen a subtle but pervasive suggestion that Christians should be quiet on matters of Christian leaders in the public sphere because we don’t want to “tear down our own.”
The problem with this kind of faith-based loyalty and avoidance of confrontation is that it allows abuse to flourish. This is the very environment that has been responsible for the wide-spread covering up of abuse in a number of religious institutions.
Given all of these facts, I believe Driscoll stepping down was the right decision. However, there is no gloating on my part. Only a sober concern for the ways in which the church turns a blind eye to leaders needing accountability and counsel in the name of grace—a brand of grace that frequently seems to grow based on the number of congregants said pastor has gathered.
My hope is that Driscoll’s resignation can activate a much-needed conversation about how Christians should respond when a pastor’s public behavior proves hurtful to those he is supposed to be leading. It’s time we examine the negative ramifications to long-standing microaggressions, misogyny, and verbal abuse as seriously as we would embezzling or sexual misconduct from a church leader.
Grace, yes. But accountability, too.
Kristen Howerton is a part-time professor of psychology at Vanguard University, and the author of the blog Rage Against the Minivan. She lives in Southern California with her husband and four children.