Mark Driscoll, senior pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington State, is an odd figure. Originally identified with the Emergent Church movement, he distanced himself from that group a few years ago when it became clear that Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and others were leading the way into a new phase of Protestant liberalism and away from historic Evangelicalism. At the same time Driscoll began to identify himself as a Calvinist, one of the so-called "New Calvinists". Many saw this as a promising sign; while we found Driscoll's use of profanity in the pulpit offputting (and let's be honest, what is the point of that? It's to shock, it's to provoke a reaction), we recognised, and still recognise, that people mature and change. His affirmation of Calvinism was a step in the right direction.
Recently, however, a number of things have happened to cause deep concern for Driscoll. First of all, Mars Hill has become a multi-site megachurch. The idea of the Multisite is that in addition to the main location, you have a number of satellite campuses where the sermon from the main location is beamed in on big screens. This amazes me, because the Emergent Church began as a protest against the inauthenticity of the big-box megachurches, and an affirmation of community. Now, I can imagine few things as inauthentic as a church meeting where the sermon is beamed in rather than being live. Ironically, the musical portion of the service is live at these locations, perhaps a telling point. We put this down to an inadequate doctrine of the Church, recommend that Driscoll read P.T. Forsyth's The Church and the Sacraments and move on.
More worrying was Driscoll's participation in the mainstreaming of Word-of-Faith teacher T.D. Jakes at the Elephant Room 2 conference earlier this year. Despite having the doctrinal knowledge to pin Jakes down, Driscoll refused to do so. Many of us were left with the impression that Jakes was affirmed because he has a huge congregation, and so his false teaching on the Trinity, the nature of faith and the whole Prosperity issue was roughly papered over and another person was allowed to insinuate that opposition to Jakes was racist, a low blow if I ever heard one. And not a whisper of criticism from Driscoll. It seemed that he had been pulled off course. It happens sometimes, a man passes through orthodoxy on his journey from one form of heterodoxy to another. I pray that is not what has happened to Mark Driscoll.
And then there was Driscoll's very public claim that God gives him what can only be described as "pornographic visions". Well, this is the result. You may ask why I tend to believe the woman over Driscoll? Very simply puit, because I have come across such things before. I have counselled a woman whose pastor falsely accused of having an affair, and asked to leave the Church and go elsewhere. Thankfully in this case it was the pastor who left, though leaving the Church in a terrible state. But this man I refer to was not Driscoll, he did not think he was having direct revelations from God; he was just suffering from a mental complaint.
Leaving aside the question of Driscoll's sanity (though the parallel worries me), here is the problem: when a minister says, "I suspect that Mrs. Smith is having an affair", then his fellow-elders can ask, "Really, John, are you sure? What makes you think that?" (Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the recovered). But what if Pastor John says, "God has shown me that Mrs. Smith is having an affair"? What if he shares salacious details? Well, then to question Pastor John is to question God. This is the Achilles' heel of the Charismatic; when a popular and influential pastor claims visions about private lives, how can he be stopped? Well, you may say, what about Pastor Driscoll's story? Wasn't it accurate? We do not know. If a man is actually delusional, he may see things that are not there and reconstruct events in his memory. So the claim is unproven.
And it gets worse: Driscoll believes that he has a vision from God as to how Mars Hill ought to develop, and anyone who disagrees with that should be "thrown under the bus". Well, it happens to those who were in leadership roles at Mars Hill, as we see here. Now, call me an old-fashioned Congregationalist, and I will take it as a compliment, I am an old-fashioned Congregationalist. I am also a firm believer in a collective leadership and plurality of elders - in fact I am one of four elders at Bethel Evangelical Free Church, and we each have equal authority, but different roles. Mark Driscoll is over the elders at Mars Hill. That means that anyone who does not sign up and follow him 100% gets thrown under the bus, because Mark is certain that he has a special message from God.
Now, he is by no means alone in this: whenever a person or a group think that they have a special revelation of God's will, this tends to happen. It happened in the Ecumenical Movement in the 1960s and 70s, when the advocates of church union schemes so identified their schemes with the will of God that they were willing to ignore the proper procedures in their denominations in order to reach that union (see Ian Henderson, Power Without Glory [London, Hutchinson, 1967] for Scotland, and R.W. Cleaves, Congregationalism 1960-1976 [Swansea, John Penry Press, 1977] for the URC in the UK). The man or organization that believes it has a private revelation from God is liable to become a despotism. Worse, this supposed private Word will tend to overshadow the revealed Word. In a culture obsessed with modernity and the now, a word given yesterday is far more exciting than a ward given almost two millennia ago, or before. And so they will follow that word, even though it is, to quote the very worst of the Star Trek films, "A vision you created."
My plea to all who think so is that of Cromwell to the Scots Presbyterians: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."