This week the Christian blogosphere worked itself into a frenzy over a Facebook status posted by Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. The status, which was later removed, read, "So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?"
The news of this post quickly drew responses from bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, who called Driscoll a bully, and Tyler Clark, who reflected on his own experience as an oft-labeled effeminate male. These responses consequently elicited counter-responses from writers like Anthony Bradley, who accused Evans of libel, only to be met with counter-counter-responses, such as Brian McLaren's contribution to The Washington Post. The discussion finally culminated with Driscoll issuing his own response, admitting his comment was both "flippant" and failed to address "real issues with real content in a real context."
The biblical author James once described the tongue as a "small spark" that sets a great forest on fire. Watching this debate ignite, I couldn't help wondering whether James penned those words with the Internet in mind. That said, my intent here is not to throw additional kindling onto the flame.
Moving beyond the firestorm catalyzed by Driscoll's words, many evangelicals are not quite sure what to do with him anymore. This is not the first controversial thing he has done, so is it time to draw a line in the sand?
Before I answer that, I should confess my conflicted feelings about Pastor Driscoll. On the one hand, comments like the one cited above are, I believe, harmful for both men and women. On the topic of manhood and womanhood, I disagree with Driscoll often.
However, God is undoubtedly using Driscoll to edify the church and minister to God's people. On the few occasions I have heard Driscoll preach in person, I was inspired in my love for Jesus and challenged to serve the church with greater urgency. In addition to my personal experience, I have heard consistently positive feedback from the members of his church. His congregation clearly loves him, and not in a "they drank the Kool-Aid" kind of way, but in a transformational Jesus community kind of way.
Bearing this in mind, Driscoll's latest controversy raises questions about the appropriate response to Christian leaders with whom we disagree. Whether or not you support Driscoll on this particular issue, most Christians are at some point confronted with a teacher who professes Christ and bears spiritual fruit, yet espouses a misguided idea. In the face of this tension, how should we respond?
Here it is helpful to look at Paul's example in Philippians. Imprisoned and awaiting an unknown fate, Paul experienced insult on top of injury when rival evangelists sought to worsen his condition. Paul describes them as preaching Christ "out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains."
Surprisingly, Paul responds to his opponents not with bitterness or even condemnation. Instead, he rejoices in the message they preach: "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice."
Although it is difficult to comprehend Paul's utter lack of gall, his apathy to their motives is equally confusing. Lest we think Paul was growing soft in his old age, he later employs harsh language in Philippians 3, referring to false teachers as "dogs" and "mutilators of the flesh." Why such a different approach to these ill-intentioned preachers?
First, Paul's rivals were Christians who preached Christ. They believed in salvation through grace and not the Law, a message more important to Paul than his own reputation or the impure motives of these men. Given the modern temptation to make every issue a gospel issue, that is a point worth noting.
A second factor informing Paul's response was his knowledge of his own sin. Although Paul does not mention his shortcomings here, he describes his struggle with sin throughout the New Testament. Paul was well aware that the power of his preaching came from the Holy Spirit alone. No Christian can ever be so bold as to claim an entirely pure heart, neither Paul nor his critics.
Paul provides Christians with a humbling example for handling the imperfections and mistakes of Christian teachers. But we don't have to stop there. The Church has an entire history of parsing out the good from the bad when it comes to our leaders. Martin Luther was a notorious anti-Semite, and in comparison with St. Augustine's misogyny, Mark Driscoll could pass for a feminist.
Should the blatant shortcomings of these influential men discount their contributions to the church? No, but it should temper our estimation of them. As a former seminary professor of mine once reflected, "Anyone who articulates the gospel articulates it as a hypocrite, someone who is trying to live it out but failing."
Except for Christ.
Indeed, we are frail vessels of God's good work in the world. Does such a reality preclude loving admonishment when a believer is in error? Certainly not. Neither Jesus nor Paul shied away from a stern rebuke when the occasion called for it. What warrants further conversation is how that rebuke should be administered, by whom, and whether the internet is the appropriate venue. Respectful disagreement and debate should be a welcome part of the Christian community, but blanket attacks on one another's character or ministry are likely to trample over the complexities of human nature and Christian discipleship.
I may not always agree with Mark Driscoll, but I believe in the Holy Spirit who works through him. If I find myself totally unable to learn from Driscoll or any other Christ-preaching teacher in the church, that probably would say less about the preacher than it would my own faith in the power of God.
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