As he takes the stage during the weekly meeting of the “Real Men” ministry at his church, Mark Driscoll is flanked by black-and-white images of soldiers donning rifles and helmets, preparing to storm the enemy awaiting them on the shore. He dispenses practical advice on issues ranging from prayer to sex to spiritual headship to his battalion of eager men facing what he has called the “everyday war” of Christian manhood in the United States.
Driscoll served as founding pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch empire, based in Seattle, for 18 years before resigning in the fall of 2014. This followed an investigation in which the church elders formally charged him with being arrogant, quick-tempered, harsh in speech, and domineering in his leadership. He is making waves once again as an even larger group of former Mars Hill pastors believe he is doing the same — or worse — at his current church in Arizona.
From the time he founded Mars Hill, Driscoll’s top priority was training men. And he has been preaching, writing, berating, and cussing at them ever since. Christianity Today’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill features a clip of Driscoll saying, “The nicest thing we can do for women, the nicest thing we can do for children, is to make sure that men are like Christ.” Driscoll’s Christ is a particularly muscley savior, and Driscoll has long insisted that Christianity has emasculated Christ — and Christian men along with him. Men avoid church because they have no interest in a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” according to Driscoll. Jesus was no “long-haired … effeminate-looking dude”; he was “an Ultimate Fighter warrior king.” As Christianity Today's Mike Cosper puts it in episode four of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, “This masculine vision of church not only served to attract and empower young men, it was self-reinforcing, keeping Mark at its center when trouble and conflict came.”
Driscoll's Calvinist emphases on the sovereign authority of God and utter depravity of humanity pitted strong, Christian men against a world that posed a constant threat to their faith and families (and this world included secularism, Muslims, feminists, LGBTQ advocates, and any Christians who disagreed with him). His theology was a call to action, an everyday war. Yet, Driscoll’s manly mission — like most manly missions in history — was simply a manifestation and exploitation of a culture of fear and uncertainty. He leaned on masculine, war metaphors that allowed him to demand complete loyalty and obedience. In wartime, there is no room for dissent. His commitment to God’s infallible sovereignty easily slipped into a movement centered around his own sovereignty.
From Mars Hill to The Trinity Church to D.C.
Driscoll launched The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., two years after resigning from Mars Hill. Yet, this summer, a group of 40 former Mars Hill elders issued a warning that Driscoll’s abusive behavior now endures at Trinity. “These sinful leadership behaviors appear similar to what he exhibited in his leadership role at Mars Hill Church in Seattle,” the statement says. After lamenting the fact that he remains unrepentant, they write, “Mark is presently unfit for serving the church in the office of pastor.”
The elders claim that they have heard directly from members who left Trinity over concerns around Driscoll, and this past spring, those stories appeared online. While Driscoll says he left his Calvinism behind, his preoccupation wtih masculinity and authoritarian leadership continue. A blog post titled “Dear Pastor Mark” by Trinity’s former director of security, Chad Freese, chronicles his resignation in April due to “the pastor’s immoral, unethical, and unbiblical actions.” Freese outlines a pattern of bullying and verbal abuse as well as dismissal of members from the church and then slandering, mocking, and calling them “demonic” after they left.
Luke Chase, former worship director, explained that church leaders dictated with whom he was allowed to be friends. “I had to listen to staff repeatedly tell me that my mom and dad were toxic,” he adds. “In fact, their continued presence in my life was viewed as such a threat to my development as a REAL MAN that … it was implied that if I didn’t move out soon enough I could be fired.”
A now-excommunicated Trinity intern told journalist Julie Roys that Driscoll informed staff that he “intentionally structured Trinity to avoid the ‘problems’ he encountered at Mars Hill. Apparently, this means eliminating any meaningful oversight.” Unlike Mars Hill, Trinity has no board of elders or oversight committee, only a “translocal” group of “wise counsel” (Sojourners has reached out to Trinity to learn more about their accountability structures and procedures but has not received a reply). With no elders to rein him in, Freese claims that Driscoll’s tactics have grown more cult-like.
Driscoll’s comeback in early 2016, fortified by the assurances of little to no accountability, heralded the rise of an authoritarian evangelicalism during the subsequent Trump campaign and presidency. In the nation's capital, we had a political leader obsessed with masculinity who told conservative Christians that he would “protect Christianity” and attempted to usurp an election to retain power. And in Arizona, an embattled, manly church leader re-emerged, erecting walls around his moral authority to guard against enemies keen on taking his power. Both figures are examples of U.S. evangelicals' dangerous attraction to an authoritarian leader who says he alone can save you — a warrior Messiah. Yet, whatever form that leadership takes, as both examples attest, unchecked authority is a recipe for abuse.
The responsibility we all share
Many leaders violate and betray the moral values they proclaim. But for others, the harm is the inevitable result of the values they preach. Driscoll’s rhetoric of warfare and image of a manly, fighting Jesus has shifted shaped and interconnected his leadership style and vision of gender relationships, advancing from hyper-masculinity to authoritarian misogyny. Women have often been props for Driscoll when he addresses his true audience: men. He has preached that women were expected to serve their husbands’ sexual gratification, not just for the sake of their marriage, but, as anthropologist and religion scholar Jessica Johnson argues in her book Biblical Porn, for the protection of the church. In this theology, women become either a means to an end or a threat, with little agency of their own. As historian of religion Molly Worthen noted in a New York Times article from 2009, at the height of Driscoll’s power and prestige, “Nowhere is the connection between Driscoll’s hypermasculinity and his Calvinist theology clearer than in his refusal to tolerate opposition at Mars Hill.”
It would be too reductive — and too convenient — to suggest that Driscoll’s authoritarianism was solely a product of his brash, conservative theology. Catholic, mainline, and progressive Christians are not immune. Many forms of theology are susceptible to manipulation and abuse, and many others are intrinsically harmful — even if the damage isn’t always easy to discern.
It would be hard to point to to a Christian leader who provides a greater theological contrast to Driscoll’s manly, warrior Christianity than John Howard Yoder. The influential Mennonite’s nonviolence and promotion of a discipleship of subordination would seem to lead to an entirely different posture. Yet, as historian Rachel Goossen and others have documented, Yoder engaged in years of sexual harassment and abuse of over 50 women colleagues and students. He employed his position of power to coerce them and then used the same to evade the processes of accountability and repentance that were offered to him. Some scholars are working to uncover the ways his pacifist theology of “revolutionary subordination” might have contributed to his abuses.
All denominations of Christianity need important accountability structures. For individual spiritual and moral leaders who fail to live up to their proclaimed values, Christianity has traditions and processes for repentance, redemption, and reconciliation. This was attempted in the case of Driscoll, but it failed because leaders perceived him as an aberration rather than a larger theological failing within evangelicalism. The pain surrounding Driscoll was never just the failure of one person; it was the inevitable product of a theology that mixed cultural anxiety, patriarchy, and a strong belief in unquestionable sovereignty.
The comeback of Driscoll, as a figure who repeats the same patterns and is enabled to do so by a wider community and supported by an infallible theology, reminds Christians of the responsibility we all share. The former Mars Hill elders wrote, “We are disappointed in the leaders who affirmed Mark’s role in planting The Trinity Church.” Yet, they ignore the danger of the underlying toxic masculine theology that they also endorse — a belief system that encouraged these behaviors. As The Rise and Fall of Marks Hill highlights, the elders' reaction fails to recognize the way all Christian leaders are complicit in failing to prevent bad theology from inflicting real harm.
Driscoll recognized an emergent dissatisfaction with Christian masculinity and responded with a warrior-Jesus theology that galvanized young evangelical men while harming women and supporting an abusive authoritarianism. Yet, while it is easy for progressives to criticize Driscoll, his story offers a larger lesson for a wider church entangled in so much harm and hurt. Considering its legacy of supporting slavery and white supremacy, excluding and dehumanizing the LGBTQ community, and covering up abuses of children, the most profound — and most faithful — witness of the church may be in its public confession and repentance. While Driscoll’s theology barricaded him from accountability and repentance, his ministry teaches us that the church more broadly needs a public accountability for its sins, even from those outside its sanctuaries. Jolie Monea, one of the former Trinity staff hurt by Driscoll’s abuses, says, “When we are honest about what happens in the church and don’t cover up abuse but instead stand up for the hurting, we send a powerful message to the world.”
Editor's note, Sept. 1, 2021: An earlier version of this article said The Trinity Church has around 2,000 members. We were unable to verify this number.