Why Mark Driscoll needs a Bishop

Every time I wade into the fray of American Evangelical Drama, I feel like the little Canadian guy waving my arms wildly, shouting, “I have something to say too!”

UnknownIf you keep up on Evangelical drama at all, you will regularly hear Mark Driscoll’s name come up associated with some controversy or another, from saying something offensive to or about women, plagiarizing material for his writing, buying up his own book in order to make the New York Times best seller listrevealing that he anonymously posted some truly awful stuff to a Mars Hill Church chat board 14 years ago. (For my mainline readers, Mark is the senior pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle and author of a number of books. Mark is a big Evangelical deal.)

Now, Mark Driscoll should be no concern of mine… our worlds are very far apart. And yet, as a Christian pastor, he is my colleague. And as someone trying to represent at least one progressive Lutheran Canadian millennial voice in the great sea of social media christianity, he is hard to ignore.

As the pastor of a small local church in the Canadian hinterland, it is easy to feel smug about the spiralling downfall of a “Mega Pastor” like Mark Driscoll. Each time another story breaks I can just sit back in my office chair and think, “Hah, that’s what happens when you build a church on the cult of personality! Now… how can I get more than 100 people to show up to worship on Sunday?” (Compared to Mars Hill’s 15,000+)

But the reaction to the latest controversy among Evangelicals seems more and more discombobulated. Some are outraged and aghast by Mark Driscoll’s misogyny, abuse and lack of apologizing. Some think that he should resign. Some believe that he should be shown grace because that is what Christians do. Some say this issue is for Mars Hill to deal with. And some are blogging about not blogging about it.

People seem just unsure of what to do with Mark Driscoll.

But I think Mark Driscoll is a symptom of a bigger Evangelical problem.


Specifically, institutional accountability.

Mark Driscoll is just one of many pastor/church combos adrift in the sea of loosely affiliated Evangelical congregations. Congregations and pastors that become islands of theological, doctrinal, ethical and institutional accountability.

There is no 3rd party – outside of the congregational system – to whom both congregation and pastor are accountable to.

Like a Bishop.20140805-235616-86176628.jpg

Now, no church structure is perfect and human beings are very adept at finding ways within any system to abuse each other.

However, mainline churches have had a few hundred more years of practicing unhealthy behaviour than Evangelicals. We know our need for overseers.

We know that congregations really don’t have the mechanisms to deal with pastoral conflict. In times when pastors and congregations aren’t working together, when there is conflict and definitely when there is abuse, Bishops are 3rd parities who can come in and begin processes of reconciliation and/or discipline.

Sometimes pastors just need someone to come and say, “Your ministry is finished here.” I wonder who can say that to Mark Driscoll? Bishops are not peers, but rather pastors to pastors. They can come and speak with an authority and with concern that lets a pastor and a congregation know that they are cared for and also accountable to the whole church beyond them. With Bishops, congregations and pastors aren’t free to do as they will, but nor are they abandoned in times of need. Bishops connect the little congregation/pastor islands together to the larger Body of Christ. And they connect them in a theological, doctrinal, ethical and institutional way. Bishops are the embodied lines of accountability that we have to one another in the Body of Christ.

20140805-233952-85192204.jpgNow, I would love to sit down with Mark Driscoll and tell him, from my professional and pastoral perspective, all the ways in which he is failing as a pastor. I would love to tear a strip off of him for all the ways in which he is putting himself before his people. And I would have every right to do so as a colleague and fellow pastor in the Church. And he would have every right to ignore me. But a Bishop would be that person who can call a pastor and a congregation to account.

The reality is Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill don’t have these structures of accountability,  and the ministry there will continue to implode and not only wound people, but perpetuate an unhealthy system that will eventually become unsustainable. I would bet real money that Mars Hill won’t exist in 50 years.

And maybe this is the underlying truth that Evangelicals who don’t know what to do with Mark Driscoll need to know.

Mark Driscoll would not be approved for minsitry in most mainline denominations. Bishops would see his drama coming a mile away.

He would never have made it through the candidacy process, he would not stand up to the academic rigour required to be ordained, he would not pass the psychological exams, and he would not have been encouraged to pursue professional, ordained ministry. Mark Driscoll ministers from an unhealthy place and is not suitable to care for a congregation.

He would not make it as a mainline pastor.

Yet, even if he did make it through the process, any one of his “controversies,” would have earned him a visit from the Bishop and likely he would have been removed from ministry.

And the reality is Mark Driscoll probably wouldn’t want to become a mainline pastor, because we don’t make celebrities of our pastors (Nadia Bolz-Weber is the one quasi-exception). Lutheran theology reminds me that is isn’t even me who is given the gifts for minsitry, but rather the office is. When I am called to serve a church, I don’t serve it as me but I inhabit the role of pastor and the role or office is the one who serves. I serve at the call of the congregation, AND by the call of the greater church, the body of Christ who has sent me to serve in a local context.

And this is why Mark Driscoll is a symptom of a greater problem. As long as Evangelicals continue to exist as congregation/pastor islands, with little or no accountability to the larger body of Christ… cults of personality will continue to pop up and invariably lead to abuse by the celebrity pastors at the centre of them.

And while mainline churches also still have our share of problems and abuse, we have built in systems of checks and balances to hopefully correct the problems before long.

In my opinion, which is in fact a professional one, Mark Driscoll should absolutely resign. The victims of his twisted minsitry at Mars Hill need to find reconciliation and healing with someone else pastoring them. But the sad reality is, another pastor just like Mark Driscoll is waiting in the wings to step onto the big stage at Mars Hill or another church like it. Mark Driscoll is not unique.

Mark Driscoll and pastors like him will continue to be symptoms of a greater problem as long as Evangelicals continue the build up churches more concerned with American individualistic values than with being accountable and connected to the rest of the Church.

But if Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill have any chance at making it through this mess… It will be with a Bishop.


Is Mark Driscoll an isolated problem? Or does he represent a greater issue of accountability across Evangelicalism? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

23 thoughts on “Why Mark Driscoll needs a Bishop”

  1. I like very much what you say about the need for oversight. I find these Evangelical churches with no denominational links quite scary, and much in need of control.

    One hole to pick: it is possible to have other institutional forms of oversight than bishops, where the oversight is the property of a body rather than an individual (albeit worked out through individuals who fill particular roles at particular times). The clearest form of this is the Presbyterian system, but Quakers and Methodists among other denominations have similar systems.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not sure. We’d only be trading in one problem for another. Protestantism is a reaction against, for one thing, universal bureaucratic control. The flip side is the dangers of local clerical control. Pick your poison.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is very easy to determine and solve all the problems from the side lines. No of us are there on the ground in the trenches with him. That aside by the stands you are putting forth I am pretty sure the gospel would have died by now. To start with none of the original twelve would have made it through. Or at least very few. The thing we are forgetting is it is not up to our strength to sustain, maintain or propel the church. That is the work of the Holy Spirit! We can fix all Mars Hills problems and Mr. Driscoll’s for that matter. But he who began the good work will be faithful to complete it!


  3. I think it is stronger than this. If there were a bishop this would have been stopped years ago and many, many people would not have been hurt.

    I grew up American Baptist (mainline, but not hierarchical). So I think that with the caveat that theoretically a presbyterian system could also work, I think that a bishop system (I am saying this from the outside knowing that the reality is not alway perfect) just seems better. (I also have enough awareness from the outside, that when you get a bad bishop, it can be really bad.)

    My father is part of the baptist hierarchy, so theoretically when there is a church problem he is the first one to come in (his title is Area Minister and his role is pastor to the pastors, church conflict consultant and denominational rep). The problem with his job is that he can come in with best intentions say the wise things and actually know all the parties well, and still be ignored. At least in a system with a bishop there is a little institutional weight to say, ‘you guys are acting like children, now stop it’ and then be able to do something about it. As it is now, he spends a lot of time spinning his wheel because adults are refusing to be held accountable and there is little that can be done if they don’t agree to be held accountable.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s not a bad thought, but it suffers from a bit of Scotsman fallacy: there have been some pretty terrible Bishops on occasion.

    So who does a terrible Bishop answer to? What’s the procedure for removing an unfit Bishop? It’s the exact same problem another level up. No matter what titles and procedures we use, ultimately a ship has one captain, and if the captain is bad so is the ship.

    I think that Mark Driscoll is a jerk who ruined an already-damaged gospel for a whole generation. I think his “church” is a large group of damaged people paying *very* heavily to be told that they’re perfectly fine and don’t need to change and anyone who says different is no good.

    But I don’t think any particular structure could have prevented that. Guys like Driscoll want thrones and people like the Mars Hill faithful want to give them, and there’s no voting system on earth that will ever stop it.


    1. I’m not sure it’s the “exact” same problem. After all, a Bishop has to be elected by a body charged with seeking God’s will. The Bishop can’t just proclaim himself Bishop.

      A pastor in an independent church, on the other hand, CAN (and often does) place himself in that position of power.

      That said, there ARE procedures for removing Bishops. It’s not something done very easily, of course. Personally, this is why I prefer the Presbyterian model (which, as many have noted historically, simply uses a “Bishop by committee”).


  5. Well let’s see. Mark Driscoll is accused of not being nice to some people. So he therefore needs a bishop. Seems last I read, the church most noted for having bishops was using them to move around priests who were abusing children and young men. Let’s see: being impolite or sodomizing kids. Hmm difficult choice there.


    1. If you think the problem with Driscoll is that he is not nice you are not paying attention.

      Sexual abuse of children is serious. And the Catholic church is certainly had problems of covering up crimes by priests. But there is no good evidence that sexual abuse of children (or adults) is less in the Protestant church than in the Catholic church. Not having a bishop has certainly not solved the problems of SGM or the many other churches that have also covered up sexual abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. SGM has a pope and his name is C.J. Mahaney. And he was part of the coverup (and other despicable things). Having a Bishop or Pope just pushes the problem up a level which can cause bigger problems. Who will Bishop the Bishops?

        Nothing will be resolved until our perfect shepherd comes again.

        Although not a perfect solution, the best solution is total transparency in all church issues. Paul told us exactly what his disagreement with Peter was about; he also shared who he stayed with (supported him) and where we worked. Publish pastor’s salaries AND what they make from out side sources such as book sales. Where is the money going, to buy 200,000 copies of your pastor’s book? If there is a disagreement, tell the congregation exactly what the issues are; let each side explain their position. What is done in darkness will be shown in light.

        (And David, Driscoll has done much more than “not being nice”. Please do not build straw men.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Bruce is right, what is assumed is a structure there there is accountability, not a structure with no accountability and a single leader. Even in SGM with their lack of accountability, attempted to removed Mahaney and when it didn’t really work many of the churches left.

          You are right that no structure is perfect, but bishop structures that work right are not one man shows.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Erik Parker is not talking about a bishop alone but an entire diocesan structure pastors and seminaries and ordination processes and a shared culture of accountability. From the very beginning, when a Christian decides he wants to become a pastor, a diocesan-type structure has a screening process. A candidate is not just seeking a church that will choose him to be their leader; he is seeking membership in a family of pastors with a father-like head — a bishop. That family — his brother pastors and his father bishop — must accept him, not only at the beginning but throughout his ministry. At no point is the pastor or any of the pastors Top Dog with no one over him. Even a bishop is aware that he is not without accountability because even a bishop is surrounded by pastors, many older than he, who have known him his entire adult life. It is hard to be an imperial leader when there is some pastor out there, a decade or more older than you, who knew you when — when you were a young, just-out-of-seminary, stupid greenhorn — and who will call you on your BS.

    A diocese — with a bishop and pastors — are a small community — a fraternal gathering — who all know each other and like a good family call each other out on their BS. That is humbling. That is way Mark Driscoll needed. He didn’t need some imperial leader who helicoptered in and bashed heads. He needed a community of brothers — a community with authority that a bishop has — that would have restrained him in his younger years either correcting him or disciplining him — that would humble him.

    So much of Christianity is about being humble. A community to which one is answerable makes one humble and accountable. A bishop-diocese structure is such a community.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I generally agree with your premise, and as a Presbyterian (hanging in there despite the stupidity of our General Assembly), I believe the accountability that comes with denominational organization is important. That said, I think the witch hunt attacking Driscoll is disgraceful. I’ve never met him or attended his church (can’t stand the music), but I know dozens of young people who are practicing Christians today because of the ministry of Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church. They have made remarkable progress in t his most hedonistic corner of the US, and this nation would be a heck of a lot better off if we had more Driscolls and fewer Obamas.


  8. It’s interesting you bring up Nadia. I’ve felt for over a year someone needs to tell her to get back to her calling and stop letting others make a name for herself. It’s the same cult of personality – and i think it is sadly only a matter of time before she completely sells out. I blogged about this sort of today http://daringbelief.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/the-reasons-i-watch-and-pray-over-the-mark-driscoll-and-mars-hill-situation/


  9. It’s 1st Corinthains 3 – I meant to add to my comment – The minute a celeb pastor lets people make herself or himself a celeb, it’s basically over. We cannot be about anything else other than the name of Jesus Christ. So if we feel branded “Hey that Seattle pastor with the hipster outfit who talks about masturbation all the time…” or “That one tall skinny chick who has the tattoos all over her…” I really question the integrity of that. The biblical pattern for popularity is usually a road to destruction. If a prophet was popular, it was probably because they weren’t, if you know what i mean.


  10. I think it’s true that accountability is a huge, huge issue in American Evangelical church’s today, and I also agree that there are no structures in most of these kinds of church’s to ensure accountability. I disagree that a bureaucracy and more government is the answer – which is exactly what a board of bishops is (the history of the Catholic church is a fair tale to tell about this). The article doesn’t address the most common and obvious objection: who watches the watchers? Creating an additional layer of authority only complicates things and creates more room for corruption, and doesn’t really solve anything; it’s like putting a leaky bucket under another leaky bucket to catch the water. Mark Driscoll could have become a bishop or bishop-like leader in some churches – or worse personalities (which has happened and continues to in Episcopalian, Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc….no one escapes the accountability problem or cult personalities).

    Ideally, churches understand that the church is inherently an organic, emergent entity where each one does what each member is gifted at doing (1 Cor 12-14), and a plurality of local leaders of equal power use their gifts of administration, teaching, etc., all of which are accountable to each other and directly to the congregation. People don’t read about the thousands of Mark Driscoll’s that have gotten removed in these kinds of churches precisely because they never made it big enough to get that kind of publicity – and the structures of local ‘elder-congregationalism’ worked.

    Jamin H, ThD


    1. Thanks for the comments Jamin.

      I think ‘elder-congregationalism’ is a viable alternative to the Mark Driscoll situation… however, just as much as the episcopal system can have issues, so can the structures of elder congregationalism. Human beings are susceptible to corruption, regardless of the system.

      In Lutheran eccelsiology, Bishops are elected to terms, rather than life. And they are elected by a convention of representatives – lay and ordained – of the congregations they will oversee. So the question of who watches the watchers is addressed in this way. In addition, between conventions, Bishops are supported and overseen by an elected council, elected by the same convention.

      So we choose our own overseers, recognizing that we are not only accountable locally, in the congregational context, but accountable to the whole Body of Christ.

      Ultimately, this is the bigger problem congregationalism. Congregations can become doctrinal islands with no accountability to historic and traditional orthodoxy, whereas an episcopal system, however flawed, does have a better chance at maintaining historic orthodoxy.


  11. Is Driscoll not, in some weird way, a sort of bishop? Mars Hill has multiple sites in several states (though perhaps not for long) and each site has a lead pastor for that specific site. “Pastor” Mark is so far removed from his flock that it’s difficult to think of him as their pastor in the way that Christianity would historically define the role. Mars Hill, at its peak, looked and felt more like a denomination unto itself than merely one independent protestant congregation.

    Part of what has gone wrong here is that Driscoll has falsely assumed a title the belies how powerful he is in his organization. Styling himself “Pastor Mark” was a great way to hide the extent and danger of his power. “Supreme Archbishop of The Entire Pacific Timezone” – while closer to how he probably saw himself, might have tipped people off.


  12. I agree that a minister like Mark Driscoll wouldn’t make it in the context of an episcopacy – he does need a bishop. However, in his own context, Mark Driscoll IS a bishop. Mars Hill church is a multisite megachurch – churches like these operate somewhat like independent dioceses. Generally, multisite campus pastors report to the “lead” or “senior” pastor (in this case they report to Driscoll) just as rectors report to a mainline bishop. So, perhaps Driscoll really needs a presiding bishop.


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