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Power, the Trinity, and Abuse: Notes on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

January 25th, 2022 | 19 min read

By Jared Michelson

Predictably, the lessons drawn from Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” vary according to the biases of the listener. Some of those ‘deconstructing’ see the Mars Hill saga as increasing conformation of the wholesale bankruptcy of evangelical theology. Others, particularly those quick to note the early criticisms of Driscoll by figures like John Macarthur, suggest that the lessons to be learned from Mars Hill have little to do with Driscoll’s evangelical and complementarian theology, but concern his pugnacious and crass speech and leadership. For those in the former camp, Mars Hill’s fall is an indictment of its conservative evangelical theology. For those in the latter, it concerns less a theological flaw and more a failure of practical reasoning or application.

Real human stories do not work like Aesop’s Fables. There is no single, definitive moral to the Mars Hill saga. What tragedies invite is not simplistic moralism or tribal point-scoring, but sustained moral reflection and critical introspection. In this vein, I want to suggest one possible ‘lesson’ from the Mars Hill saga. I side with those who see a connection between Driscoll’s theology and his ministry failures. Yet the theological deficit I identify here–which is by no means the only theological error at play–does not conform to a post-evangelical script, being widespread amongst both evangelicals as well as more ‘liberal’ theologies.

One key to Driscoll’s ministry was a particular vision of Christ which was the way—as Driscoll liked to say—to ‘get the men.’ As Driscoll famously said:

Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.[1]

Driscoll identifies this “Ultimate Fighter Jesus” as “my favourite picture [of Jesus] (and that of my young sons)”. This confrontational, hyper-‘masculine’ Christological vision of Christ was attractive precisely because it was the sort of man one wanted to be—after all, who could worship a man one could ‘beat up’. The wives of one of Mars Hill’s first elders, in a heart wrenching account of her family’s tragic experience, said the following:

The church began committed to certain distinctives…and then one driven, talented individual…turned the church into a “City within a City” where he functions like a king because he believes this is the best way to ‘grow the numbers.’…A Christianity which perpetuates the exaltation of mere men to god-like status…is completely antithetical to what Jesus taught.[2]

My claim is a simple one: a myopic vision of Christ the warrior king who men emulate, easily engenders a ministry led by a man of ‘god-like’ status reigning as tyrannical kings.

However, the problem with this vision is not that it presents a Christology and corresponding vision of God which is overly powerful, sovereign and majestic, quite the opposite. Driscoll, like many evangelicals, unintentionally presents an insufficiently transcendent vision of God rooted in a deficient doctrine of the trinity. This deficiency will not be rectified simply by emphasising the gentleness and humility of Christ, for the dangers to authoritarianism can be just as present—or at least nearly so—when pastors model themselves upon Jesus’s humility or self-giving love. My wager, is that a transcendent vision of the triune God is one indispensable resource for avoiding king-like figures who model their ministry upon Jesus in the wrong sorts of ways, and, further, that understanding the temptation towards pastoral authoritarianism in these terms brings the reality of this temptation much closer to home.

Driscoll’s Vision of the Trinity

While there may be no obvious heresy affirmed by Driscoll and much of conservative evangelicalism, their theology of God is nonetheless deficient. This claim will likely be startling because of a tendency to view orthodoxy as what John Webster calls “mute subscription to dogmas.”[3] We can mistakenly think that to have a ‘solid’ doctrine of the trinity is merely to affirm: ‘there is one God in three persons,’ or something along those lines. Such an approach is flawed, in part, because it makes doctrine dispensable. Once I can offer a definition of ‘the trinity’ that is not clearly erroneous, I can dispense with reflecting upon it and move on.

What is needed instead, is the recovery of a richer, more contemplative and formative approach to doctrine. Theology is an ongoing spiritual exercise through which we are brought from death to life, as our thinking and hearts are reoriented away from sinful futility towards blessed fulfilment in God. What this implies, is that even if one’s doctrine is formally correct, it can nonetheless be defective if we misapprehend what a doctrine is meant to do. This is something which Webster often referred to as matters of dogmatic scope, proportion and order.[4] Many of the most important theological disagreements concern what role a given doctrine is asked to play in one’s wider theology or how a given doctrine is meant to reshape the moral space in which we act and understand ourselves. In other words, if we misconstrue how a doctrine is meant to reform us, we have failed to understand the doctrine.

Driscoll, like other influential evangelical theologians, develops an account of pastoral leadership which novelly claims that Christ’s three offices of prophet, priest and king, map on to different pastoral leadership styles. Some pastors are more prophet-like, focused on the proclamation of truth and rejection of error, others are more king-like, excelling at “maximising resources to accomplish measurable results,” whereas others are more priest-like, emphasising pastoral care.[5] This is a rather straightforward error of doctrinal ‘proportion and scope’. The tripartite distinction between prophet, priest and king associated with Calvin’s Institutes is a Christological doctrine demonstrating the way in which various threads of the Old Testament are brought together in Christ. There is little (no?) indication in scripture that these three offices denote personality or ministry types, and many examples do not fit within the personality/ministry types Driscoll and other evangelical theologians propose. Moses is the paradigmatic prophet and yet he institutes one of scripture’s clearest instances of ‘maximizing efficiency’ (Exodus 18). Priests were linked with preaching and proclaiming the truth more consistently than prophets (e.g. Leviticus 10:11; 2 Chronicles 15:3; 17:7; Ezra 7:6, 10; Nehemiah 8:7-9;Jeremiah 18:18; Ezekiel 7:26; Micah 3:11). And when Paul refers to the ‘priestly duty’ he had been given, he refers not to a calling to pastoral care, but to his task to “proclaim the gospel of God” (Romans 15:16).[6] Likewise, Driscoll seems to make an overly quick movement from a claim about the nature of Christ as king to the assumption that because we are remade in Christ’s image, the kingly identity of Christ may be applied to us straightforwardly, without radical qualification.

This fits with a broader trend within Driscoll’s and evangelicalism’s thinking about God, in which one moves too quickly between supposedly ‘divine’ characteristics to a call for humans to straightforwardly emulate them (e.g. consider the innovative doctrine of the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, often defended as a means of defending the authority of husbands and male pastors). Driscoll straightforwardly and without nuance suggests that “The Trinity is the first community and the ideal for all communities.”[7] He proceeds to note various aspects of the triune life which humans more or less directly emulate in their relations. For example, for Driscoll, the hierarchical yet ontologically equal triune relationship is the model for the relation between husbands and wives and pastors and parishioners.[8] Likewise, he suggests we should love one another with the same sort of love which characterises the triune persons, holding nothing back and being completely transparent to the other.[9] Driscoll assumes that what is true of the triune God offers a straightforward model for the Christian life and for pastoral ministry.

Scripture presents a much more complex picture. Yes, we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48), but humanity’s first sin is wanting to be ‘like God’ (Genesis 3:5). The vision of the ‘Day Star, son of the Dawn’ in Isaiah 14, often associated in the Christian tradition with the fall of Satan speaks of one who pridefully said: “I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isaiah 14:14). The task of Christian discipleship is to be like God in the right way, i.e. in a creaturely way, while refraining from being like God in the wrong ways. As Miroslav Volf suggests: “There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans.”[10]

In highlighting the combative, kingly dimension of Jesus, and being insufficiently attentive to the ways in which imitating God can be a temptation rather than a virtue, Driscoll has subtly encouraged pastors to be like God in the wrong ways. To imitate God rightly, involves loving “your enemies and pray[ing] for those who persecute you…For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mt 5:43–45). Christ instructs us that as creatures, i.e. through the uniquely creaturely act of prayer, we are to imitate in a creaturely mode God’s benevolent kindness and generosity even to those who hate us. On the other hand, Paul states: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19–20). Christ instructs us to be benevolent in a creaturely way because God is benevolent, but Paul say not to be wrathful, precisely because God is. God’s exercise of wrathful judgment frees us from the burden, obligation and right of taking vengeance into our own hands.

What this implies, is that although there is a necessary place for confrontation in the Christian life, one should not simply assume that Christ’s confrontational style should be our own, for he represents directly divine rule in a way we do not. More pointedly, Jesus’s overturning of temple tables does not license pastoral pugnaciousness. Rather than following Driscoll in thinking that ministry needs confrontational kings who ‘maximise’ efficiency for the sake of ‘results,’ my own tradition asks of ministers seeking ordination: “Do you believe, as this Church in her historic testimony has constantly affirmed, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church?”[11]

The solution then is not merely a ‘nicer’ picture of God. The broader danger facing the whole discussion is viciously circular projection. Karen Kilby and Kathryn Tanner argue[12] that when human relational models are first employed to help us understand God’s triune relationality, it is difficult to see how then the triune relations which we have understood in human terms can be employed as peculiarly insightful models which will generate new insights into the nature of human relationships. In short, if we model God’s trinitarian relations on human ones and then turn round and model human relations on these newly understood trinitarian ones, we have in effect modeled human relations on human relations with a short divine detour in the middle.

Kilby and Tanner’s influential arguments imply that regardless of whether one is a mainliner appealing to the equal, triune society as a model for egalitarian social relations or a paid up member of The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood appealing to the hierarchical relation of Father and Son to ground complementarianism the danger of viciously circular projection lies close at hand. Similarly, it seems that, first, Driscoll tries to make sense of God via images of human warriors, kings, MMA fighters, and so on, but then second, he appeals to this newly constructed, all-too-human vision of God to make sense of how men and male church leaders should act. Why not just skip the middle man—or in this case the middle God—altogether, for the ultimate model for pastors here is human warriors and MMA fighters? Of course it is inevitable that we employ metaphors drawn from creatures to speak of God, but to avoid this viciously circular reasoning and the danger of projection these metaphors must be disciplined by constant attention to ‘the distinction’[13] between Creator and creatures and accompanied by an insistence that if humans imitate some aspect of God’s character, this imitation will be in a creaturely mode which looks very different from the divine original.

This is why simply affirming a more genteel vision of God, a God that doesn’t judge sin or is not a ruling king, will not solve the problem of circularity, and further, has nearly as much potential to engender the abuse of power. To demonstrate why this might be, we turn to a discussion of the doctrine of the trinity.

The Inimitable Triune God

While yes, we imitate the triune God insofar as we are creatures restored according to the image of the Son, the doctrine of the trinity serves primarily to highlight the unlikeness of the creature from its Creator and to protect us from imitating God in ways which fail to account for our creatureliness. Let us therefore retrieve together a few of the things the doctrine of the trinity is meant to do.

One of the classical dogmatic functions of the doctrine of the trinity was to simultaneously secure absolute divine aseity and perfect goodness. By goodness, we mean something like God’s generosity. As the puritan Stephen Charnock explains: “goodness is…a strong inclination to do good…it is an inclination towards communicating itself, not for its own interest, but for the good of the object.” Part of what makes God’s goodness so uniquely divine, is that it is rooted in God’s aseity, which defines God as totally independent and without need. God is so superlatively happy and consummately perfect that his life cannot be enhanced. When we put aseity and goodness together, we see that every act of God towards creatures is a unilateral, one-way gift, solely for the good of creatures. This implies that it is ontologically impossible for God to try to use you for his own sake or to get something from you. This is God’s perfect goodness: “He is too rich to have any cause to envy, and too good to have any will to.”

Yet for the sharp observer, a question will immediately arise. If God is necessarily generous, this means it is an aspect of God’s very perfect nature to do good to others. But if this is the case, this seems to imply God needs to create in order to be the good God he is, for a giver needs a recipient (many modern theologians, such as Jürgen Moltmann, reach precisely this conclusion). Yet if God needs the world in order to be good, then his very unilateral, perfect goodness is undermined. He is not creating now because he is already good, but to become good. Theologically speaking a lot hangs on this, not least of which is that God is now using creatures instrumentally in order to become perfect. To make sense of this, both Protestant and Medieval scholastics drew upon a venerable Patristic and Medieval discussion which understood the triune life in terms of a perfect act of giving and receiving within God himself.[14] It is only because God is trinity, that he can be perfectly good.

The great Medieval theologian Richard of St Victor says: “what is more magnificent than the desire to allow others to participate in everything that one possesses?” Richard argues that since the more perfect the more giving one is, it must be that the Father perfectly and totally gives himself over into the Son. This is called the Father’s begetting of the Son. This means that the only thing that makes the Son different from the Father, as Thomas Aquinas says, is “the relation implied in receiving one’s nature from another: so that in the Son is the relation of sonship.” Stated more simply, because the Father gives the Son all that he has, i.e. all of his being and attributes, the only difference between the Son and the Father is that the Father is the giver and the Son the recipient. The Son has the same nature as the Father, it is what he receives from him, but he has this perfect nature in the mode of sonship or reception. Likewise, the Father has all the Son has, but he has it in the mode of fatherhood or donation. This further implies that the Father is not Father apart from the Son since what it means to be the Father is to be the one who gives to the Son (this point was forcefully pressed by Athanasius). Correspondingly the Son is not Son apart from the Father. The entirety of who these persons are as persons is these perfect acts of giving and receiving.

Finally, as Aquinas goes on to note, a perfect act of self-giving might still remain a selfish act if the joy in giving and loving is not shared with another. The perfection of God’s inner love therefore requires someone to share in the joy which rebounds from this perfect giving and receiving and this person is the Holy Spirit. To summarise, the trinity shows God to be already perfectly generous in himself apart from creation because he is three persons who are exhaustively who they are in the act of giving, receiving, and joyfully loving one another (of course we do not mean ‘person’ in the modern sense of a free-standing centre of consciousness and will). God then needs creation for nothing, not even to become good, and thus towards us he is always perfectly generous, needing nothing in return.

This understanding of the trinity, which I have laid out in admittedly colloquial terms, was fairly standard in the Medieval, Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, yet for many of us today, it might seem strange or abstract. This is a pastoral problem.

The Trinity and Pastoral Authoritarianism

It is a pastoral problem, because what such an understanding of the mystery of the trinity secures is that our love for one another is in many regards unlike God’s love. If the triune persons were not relations within the one God, their love would be, almost by definition, grossly co-dependent. All that each person is, is rooted in what they are for the other. Insofar as they are persons, they are nothing else. If any pastor, priest or church leader demands this sort of ‘triune’ love from you, run. Similarly, some members of my congregation want precisely that sort of love from their minister. They want to offer me complete and total affection and perhaps in some cases even obedience, so long as I am willing to sacrifice everything I am, including my time, my family, and even at times my integrity, to ensure the growth of our church and the security and well being of each of them. It’s a Faustian bargain, one which replaces God with the pastor, and likewise, remakes the congregation (strangely enough) in another deformed image of God. Both minister and congregation become co-dependent. Pastors are rarely criticised and are often rewarded for acting in this co-dependent manner, for it can enhance a church’s outward ‘success.’

When we realise we do not merely need a ‘nicer’ portrait of god but a more transcendent one who lives and loves in a mode totally beyond us, we are offered a realistic portrait of the roots of pastoral authoritarianism. For me, the temptation to pastoral abuse is nearest to hand when the good things which both I and my congregation long for seem just out of reach. It’s not because I am a megalomaniac drunk on authority, it’s because I want people to meet Jesus, home/community groups to flourish, our services to be winsome and congregants to hold one another accountable to what Jesus asks of us. It is when we fear those good things are slipping through our fingers that we like Israel so long ago cry out to God, saying: “Give us a king.” “Give us a strong man who will secure our flourishing.” At the same time, we pastors then say to our congregations, “give more, obey more, sacrifice more, and I can give you what your heart desires.” When this happens, we fall into the profoundly subtle trap of thinking that we can give and love like gods.

A classical view of the trinity with its radical emphasis on how unlike God we are makes a real difference when facing the subtle slide towards pastoral authoritarianism. It does so by undercutting some of our most common assumptions about church. For example, consider the near ubiquitous proclamation that “The church does not have a mission, rather the mission has a church,” or similarly, the church “does not exist for herself but for the world.”[15] These might seem like mere hyperbolic ways of saying mission is really important but it is not the case that the end of the church or the reason she exists is as a means for accomplishing tasks on this earth. In the eschaton, Christ will eternally delight in his beloved (i.e. the church), but mission will no longer be the beloved’s task. Thus, while I appreciate the need to shake Christians out of insularity, selfishness or lethargy, mission in some sense exists for the sake of the church, not vice versa.[16] This has crucial consequences for pastoral abuse. The tendency of pastoral abusers is to use the members of the congregation for the end of advancing what they see as ‘the kingdom’ or ‘the mission’. Pastors become kings, as the testimonial from Mars Hill suggested, because this is the way to ‘grow the numbers.’

If the church is ultimately a means to some other end, even the best of possible ends like people meeting Jesus, then it is easy to convince ourselves that we are actually working for the kingdom when we push people to ‘get with the program,’ or to obey, or to do more. But what if God’s program is that creatures would know and love and be known and loved by him? What if his agenda is that they might become all they were created to be and enjoy as much bliss as is possible for a creature, since there just is nothing better than enjoying the triune God? What if God’s plan for us can only and ever be for our good, not what he can get us to do for him, because he already has all he needs as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? This means that while mission, discipleship and church growth are important, they are themselves only the means to the greater end of God unceasingly giving good gifts to his children (James 1:17).

If God does not really need us, then pastors must utterly refuse the lie that says congregants are instruments through which kingdom work can be accomplished. No, they are beloved children of God. It is true, the best thing for them in this life is to sacrificially participate in what God is doing on this earth and thus to joyfully give of themselves for God’s mission. But because the triune God’s ultimate end isn’t what he can get from us but what he can give to us, pastors and church leaders must be rigorously self-critical when we call the church to sacrifice for the sake of the mission. We must root out the ways we are tempted to use people for the sake of some other end, recognising instead that they are the ‘end’ of God’s redemptive work.

This view of the trinity also undermines the equally facile approach to pastoral authoritarianism which simply tells pastors ‘you are there to serve your congregation, not to benefit from them.’ This is just another way of asking the pastor to be a god. Creatures have needs: physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs, and more. Every time we do anything, whether it is caring for another person, contributing to a charitable cause or pursuing our professional vocation, we are forming and creating our own identity. In all we do, we are actualising our potential, enacting our nature (to use more traditional, scholastic terminology). It is impossible for a creature only to meet the needs of another and not at the same time in some subtle way to be meeting their own. Only God can love in a one way, unilateral mode, because only God is perfectly self-sufficient and therefore purely beneficent or—more simply stated—because only God is triune.

Conclusion: The Trinity makes all the Difference

The task before us as ministers of the gospel, or better said, the task before us as redeemed creatures, is to emulate the self-giving of God in an imperfect, creaturely mode. It is to benefit from one another without becoming co-dependent. Pastoral authoritarianism often begins with a pastor who not only asks too much of their congregation—too much time, too much obedience, or worse—but too much of themselves (or a congregation who does the same). Might it be that the slide towards authoritarianism often begins, not with monsters bent on dominating others, but with good intentions gone wrong? Pastoral abuse often starts not with despicable tyrants but co-dependent people who think they can love like the trinity. What the doctrine of the trinity reminds us, is that while we must imitate God, it is just as important to refuse to do so, to be willing to accept failure, stagnation and imperfection, because this is what it means to be a creature. To be a creature is also to be one who never gives perfectly unilaterally. Only one love comes from a being with no needs. What we must recover then, is the conviction that to be a creature, is to live an indicative life; a life which says, ‘I can never give you what your heart desires, but I know who can.’


  1. Mark Driscoll in: “From the Mag: 7 Big Questions.” Relevant Magazine, 28 August 2007. (accessed 9 August 2020).
  2. Joyful Exiles.
  3. John Webster, The Culture of Theology, ed. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 146.
  4. e.g. John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology: 1 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 7, 30, 45, 144, 215.
  5. Driscoll, A Book You’ll Actually Read on Church Leadership (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 67.
  6. For a more thoroughgoing critique, see: Timothy Paul Jones, “Prophets, Priests, and Kings Today? Theological and Practical Problems with the use of the Munus Triplex as a Leadership Typology,” Perichoresis 16 (2018): 63-86.
  7. Driscoll, Doctrine (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 12.
  8. ​​Driscoll, “Trinity God Is,”
  9. Ibid..
  10. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 301.
  11. Ordination vows of the United Free Church of Scotland. This reflects the language of The Westminster Confession 30.1.
  12. Karen Kilby, ‘Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity’, New Blackfriars 81, no. 956 (2000): 432–45. Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 207-46.
  13. On ‘the distinction,’ see: ​​Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1985). David B Burrell, ‘The Christian Distinction Celebrated and Expanded’, in The Truthful and the Good (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), 191-206. David Burrell, ed., ‘Distinguishing God from the World’, in Faith and Freedom (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 3–19.
  14. See Gilles Emery’s summary: Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas, trans. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 23-5. According to Emery, the view of the trinity I outline in the following paragraph was widely shared by the Medieval Scholastics. Where disagreements arose concerned the extent to which this understanding of God as trinity could be known according to natural reason. Some thought this conception was a matter of divine revelation but then reason could a posteriori confirm what was revealed, whereas others emphasised that because God must be triune in order to be perfectly good this understanding of the trinity was accessible to natural reason.
  15. I say ubiquitous advisedly. One can find affirmations similar to these in a huge diversity of different thinkers including: Christopher Wright, Rob Bell, John Macarthur, Ed Stetzer, Stanley Hauerwas, and more.
  16. To be fair to those who make such statements, there is an important conversation to be had about the way forms of mission or Christian service can be undermined, curtailed or criticised by a requirement that all Chritsian service immediately contribute to the growth of specific institutional forms of the church. Mission does not exist merely so our denomination, tribe, local congregation or parachurch organisation sees a boost in the numbers.