I’m very surprised to see British Christian groups inviting Mark Driscoll to speak to them. Not just because of the vast problems which have emerged in the church network he founded and ran, or because of the retrograde and toxic views on masculinity and female submission that he has preached. But because I’m used to seeing Driscoll being used as cover for sexists, not being embraced as one of them. “I’m not Mark Driscoll, but I do think the church has become feminised”, “You don’t have to be Mark Driscoll to see that male leadership is clearly laid out in the Bible”, “No-one here would agree with Mark Driscoll, but you can’t deny that feminism has watered down Christian values in our society”. This is how his name used to come up. As someone whom everyone agreed was off the charts, and could therefore be used by people to contrast themselves with whilst advancing the idea that women needed to speak less and men needed to be in control. “You’re getting things out of proportion, if you want to see a real misogynist, look over to the US at Mark Driscoll…”
So I am astonished by the decision by the popular Hillsong Church to have Driscoll as a speaker at one of their conferences. This post is not about whether he is a bad person or not. News reports appear to confirm that he has plagiarized and used church funds given by members to buy a spot in the best-seller charts. More seriously, the accounts coming out of Mars Hill produce an image of a damagingly power-obsessed ministry which lurched into spiritual abuse at times. His past writings show an unbelievably distorted vision of men and women, which is founded on rage and expresses itself through violent imagery and a need to humiliate others. I am not arguing that this disqualifies him from being a Christian, or that he should be somehow shunned or excluded. Nor is this post about whether he can receive forgiveness and redemption. Of course he can, and I profoundly hope he does.
But I am disappointed by the response to people – almost all women, that I’ve seen – who have spoken out about the problems with inviting Driscoll to speak at this event. This article is one of the more moderate examples, but there are a whole range of other arguments used to justify Driscoll’s return to high profile Christian conferences. For a start, they often talk about him being “punished”, and complain that those who oppose him are being insufficiently forgiving or gracious. But this is not a question of forgiveness or redemption. He doesn’t need the main stage to experience those things.
And what punishment are we discussing here? Not being given a start turn at a big public conference, and being enabled to teach from the platform. It’s telling – and troubling – that so many Christian men are equating “not getting to be the one in charge whilst everyone else sits and listens” with “being punished”. Listening to others is not a sanction. Letting other people speak is not an infringement on his rights. Especially given the very strong emphasis in Driscoll’s teaching on men’s leadership and domination, I think it’s worrying that other men see him not being given centre-stage as retribution.
If British Christianity genuinely believes in a diversity of gifts we should be able to offer Driscoll other opportunities to serve the Church as a man. There should be a whole spectrum of ways he could use his gifts for God which don’t involve putting him in situations he’s abused in the past. We hear a lot about the way in which everyone’s abilities are different, and how the people who wash up and organize the rotas are just as important as those who teach the Bible and lead the music. If this is true – and I certainly believe it is – then there are all sorts of ways he could employ his talents. The last few years seem to have proved that actually his gifts do not include teaching theology from the big platform, or lecturing men and women about gender roles. The fruits of that ministry have been very bitter. He is apparently not being called to serve in that way.
There are other gifts he might have, and which still fit with the particular strand of theology which he emphasizes. The Church needs practical people to run the buildings and keep them in good repair, and there’s no reason why some of them shouldn’t be practical men. It needs organizers and administrators. It needs people who love the Bible and can share that love with others. Any of these would surely be a more helpful kind of rehabilitation and return to ministry. Not being tempted to shout and rant from the stage. But it seems that many people – mostly men – see ministry and a matter of being in charge and being the loudest voice.
It’s also telling how much the defence of Driscoll is actually an attack on those who speak out against him, and how gendered the terms of those criticisms become. They’re called too loud, over-emotional, not graceful, prideful, bitter. They’re told they’re jealous or frustrated or that they lack a sense of proportion. They’re basically called unwomanly. The “problems” with the opposition to Driscoll read a lot like the criticisms women face when they object to other forms of sexism in the Church. Or when they advance arguments in favour of women’s ministry and leadership.
It’s not hard to connect the dots between some of the support for Driscoll and a sense of outrage that women are claiming the right to vet speakers. They have stepped outside the gender roles assigned to them – of listening to a male speaker and learning – and are being encouraged to return to that role. And no-one spoke out more loudly, more aggressively and more terrifyingly than Driscoll about women who transgress gender roles, and the men who “allow” them to do so. I’d be inclined to read a lot of this whole affair as part of a backlash against women setting their own spiritual boundaries.
So I am really troubled by the reception of Mark Driscoll amongst British Christian men, and their reaction to the voices who have spoken up against him. At the least it seems to elevate the career of a male preacher who has damaged women’s lives above the concerns of other women. To value his feelings and his sense of mission more highly than the testimonies of those who have been silenced and abused by the macho strand of Christianity he represents. It seems to reveal attitudes and assumptions which are far closer to Driscoll’s teaching than is healthy. As I said at the beginning of this piece, I used to find the use of Driscoll as a shield for sexist opinions irritating. I would be far more horrified if British Christian men started admitting they agreed with him.