For months now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the Mark Driscoll saga, but I’ve never quite found the words.
I wanted to argue that some of the charges of plagiarism were overblown, but I didn’t want to come off as blindly defending one of my “tribe.”
I wanted to explain why using ResultSource to game the New York Times bestseller list seemed like a permissible marketing practice to me, but I didn’t want to defend something that Driscoll, himself, had since disavowed.
I wanted to shame those dredging up decade-old anonymous message board posts (that had since been repented of) as disqualifying Driscoll from ministry, but I didn’t want to whitewash what were sinfully intemperate statements.
I wanted to question who had appointed Warren Throckmorton as the Grand Inquisitor into Driscoll’s malfeasance, but I didn’t want to come off as defensively attacking the messenger heralding Driscoll’s downfall.
I wanted to chide the Acts 29 leadership team for removing Driscoll under a “totality of the circumstances” test borrowed from Supreme Court jurisprudence and not found within scripture or church confession, but I didn’t want to speak for fear that I was unaware of some truly damning action that justified their decision.
But then I read a description of his actions that crystallized the issue for me.
Before he was deposed, Driscoll had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. He regularly belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped. From one reported about a half-hour “public humiliation” Driscoll doled out on his staff:
“Can anyone tell me what this initiative was supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the f–k doesn’t it do that?”
“You’ve tarnished Mars Hill’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”
One journalist describes Driscolls’ rough treatment of underlings:
He would praise and inspire them, often in very creative ways, but he would also resort to intimidating, goading, berating, belittling, and even humiliating them… When he was Bad Mark, he didn’t seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions… suddenly and unexpectedly, he would look at something they were working on say that it “sucked,” it was “shit.”
We all knew that Driscoll was nicknamed the cussing pastor, but these behaviors are truly reprehensible. His abuse needed to be stopped.
Just one thing, though, before we rush to judgment. Those lines were not written about Driscoll. Those are the abusive workplace patterns of Steve Jobs.
Leading Like Jobs
Mark Driscoll is not the first chief executive who has been known for dressing down his subordinates. Steve Jobs didn’t allow personal niceties or corporate inertia to prevent him from focusing on turning out the best possible product on schedule. He would upbraid partner companies for falling behind schedule. He offered to hire people with abrasive faint praise like, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit so why don’t you come work for me.” He fired people on the spot in front of their teams for failure to get a program up to snuff.
While Steve Jobs is certainly nobody’s idea of a model of Christian virtue, he did some really big deal things. And his documented jerkiness was not so much a flaw that hindered his talent, but actually part of what made him so exceptional. We may not like some of his methods, but let him who is without an iPhone cast the first stone.
And while Jobs is an extreme case, his personality traits are typical of many chief executives. Swearing has often marked great leaders. I understand General Patton had a bit of a blue streak. Of Packer coach Vince Lombardi, rival coach Hank Stram said, “I couldn’t believe that one man could yell and scream and spout so much profanity.” Jobs’ single-minded devotion to a clear vision is also common among the most successful executives. It is not for nothing that we say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. An individual mind pursuing a distinct vision is often necessary to obtain success.
But even if there is some trait linking Driscoll, Jobs, Patton, and Lombardi, should we as Christians embrace that characteristic as a virtue? Or are these so-called great men lacking something essential in Christian charity and must therefore be denounced?
Leading Like Paul
Paul is the obvious biblical personality that we must consider to answer this question. Paul was loud, brash, argumentative, and oppositional. He spoke so boldly that he inspired folks to try to kill him not once (Acts 9:29), not twice (Acts 14:19), but at least four times (Acts 21:31, 23:12). He “raised havoc” as an anti-Christian and his subsequent Christian ministry was certainly not some tropical cruise. Luke records that, basically, the only time the church was at peace was when “the brothers.. sent [Paul] off to Tarsus” (Acts 9:30-31).
And Paul’s decidedly un-mellow character was not reserved only for those outside the church. He famously opposed Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11) and split with Barnabas over staffing issues (Acts 15:39). He also used some pretty intemperate language both against those outside the church (Acts 13:9-11) and against those stirring up trouble within the body (Gal. 5:12).
From these episodes, I’m not sure we can say that Paul’s leadership style was Jobs-like or Lombardi-esque, but I believe it is fair to say that Paul was a dynamic personality who tenaciously advanced his agenda and was willing to give offense to those around him. His assertively confrontational leadership was not a bug, but a feature. For example, Luke records that his cursing of Elymas the Sorcerer was a Spirit-filled act.
But if Paul’s leadership was not exactly cuddly, does that mean that every assertive leader is operating within biblical morality? Of course not. Napoleon and Hitler were also known for their single-minded focus and their withering attacks on their subordinates. I’m not up on my Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, but I’m pretty sure you’ll find this trait in most folks who conquer continents.
Leading Like Lombardi
Which puts us where, exactly, on the appropriateness of Driscoll’s behavior? Somewhere on the continuum between a Christian saint and a genocidal megalomaniac, I think. In order to distinguish between the bad and the good, I think one simple factor makes all the difference: Love.
Here’s Packers’ lineman Jerry Kramer on the character of his coach:
I loved Vince. Sure, I had hated him at times during training camp and I had hated him at times during the season, but I knew how much he had done for us, and I knew how much he cared about us. He is a beautiful man, and the proof is that no one who ever played for him speaks of him afterward with anything but respect and admiration and affection. His whippings, his cussings, and his driving all fade; his good qualities endure.
A leader can be a task-master. He can be stern. He can demand more from his subordinates than they believe possible. He can inspire hatred in the moment. Yet, if he adds to this discipline the sincere desire for his charges to succeed, then his efforts will not be as a resounding gong. Instead, once everything else passes away, his love will remain. At least that’s what the guy who wrote the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians thought.
I don’t know Driscoll and I’m not privy to any insider details of the situation, but I do know what he said when he stepped aside last month:
While I’m still young, I suspect when I’m old I’ll be known for many things—some good, and some not so good. But I hope that the longer God leaves me on this earth, the more I’ll be known for one thing—that I loved Jesus and His Church, the Church He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against. I may be an author, a speaker, and a thought-provoker; but in the deepest recesses of my heart, I’m a local church pastor, and that’s what I want to give the rest of my life for.
In my opinion, that’s not just a line. This is what Driscoll has been claiming as his motivation since I first started listening to his podcasts a decade ago. Maybe he’s a self-deceived, self-aggrandizing charlatan with narcissistic personality disorder, but if that were the case it would manifest in a string of unloving actions. At this point and from this distance, I do not see a pattern of behavior that makes me unable to believe the best about Driscoll. Instead, I see a leader whose love for Christ and the church comes wrapped in a rather feather-ruffling package.
And that sounds a lot like that guy who wrote First Corinthians.