A brief note on the furor surrounding Patheos’s decision to add Mark Driscoll to their Evangelical channel: One of the common responses when something like this hits the press is for evangelicals, self-lacerating sorts that we are, to say that we need more institutional accountability, more safety measures in place to protect against “this sort of thing.”

One problem: When it comes to folks like Driscoll, that usually isn’t the problem. To be sure, in parish churches with a bad pastor, some institutional structure and accountability can go a long way. I grew up in an independent church. I know how bad it can get when there isn’t accountability. So none of this should be taken as a dismissal of ecclesial structure and accountability in general. That said, in the case of people like Driscoll I tend to think the problem is decidedly not one of polity.

Remember, after all, that Driscoll has been disciplined by ecclesial structures. Acts 29 removed him from leadership. After facing mounting pressure from the church, Driscoll resigned at Mars Hill. Did the process take longer than it should have? Probably, though it’s hard for me to say much in any direction on that since I’m such an outsider to the process. The point is that eventually something was done, Driscoll was ousted, and the recovery process began.

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This point is worth making because oftentimes evangelicals, particularly evangelical Anglicans, are prone to thinking that our institutional safety measures failed when actually they worked just fine. The problem wasn’t the safety measures. Those did their job. The problem isn’t the lack of structure in evangelicalism. It’s the evangelicals themselves.

Here we might consider another controversial pastor once renowned in YRR circles and now, justly, a pariah: Tullian Tchividjian. The ecclesiastical structures did their job with him too. He was removed from ministry once his affairs came to light and was eventually defrocked by his presbytery. The structure did its job.

So why are we still talking about these two discredited men? In Tullian’s case, a naive session agreed to give him a non-ordained ministry position in the church. When that, predictably, blew up, Tullian disappeared from the headlines for a short while. But now he’s back and some are even arguing that his failings make him more qualified for pastoral ministry.

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In both cases, what we have are men patently unqualified for ministry who are being given a platform despite the harsh condemnation of the existing ecclesial structures that have already condemned them. What we have, then, are two cases where the problem is not a lack of structure and accountability, but a lack of good judgment, courage, and moral consistency from private individuals. (We might say the same thing about Darrin Patrick’s recent return to ministry.)

The point is worth making because evangelicals with a background in more non-denominational settings will often look to ecclesial structure as a kind of foolproof mechanism to prevent the abuses they may have observed in an independent church.

If only.

While the evangelical world was lamenting the ascent of these zombie pastors, the Anglican world was dealing with its own problems as the head of their church found himself unable to give a straight answer (LOL) to a simple question about gay sex.

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Meanwhile, in Rome the current pontiff, who seems keen to follow the lead of the Episcopalians, is facing stiff opposition from conservatives while also shoring up his institutional base, all while quite possibly driving the church toward a precipice.1

Evangelicalism certainly has problems. For starters, the blogging home to a number of smart writers is also apparently more committed to attention and controversy than they are to principle and honor. We could add many more things to the list, of course. But we must be clear about the nature of our problems and not offer the wrong solutions to those problems.

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The problem of evangelical corruption and undead celebrity pastors will not be resolved by more stringent institutional standards. Indeed, there is not even the means within evangelical ecclesiology to provide structures with the kind of authority that many pursuing this line of thought desire: You need a magisterium for that. And if you’re ready to accept a magisterium, it’s time to buy some swimwear and make your way to the Tiber.

The reality when it comes to dealing with men like Driscoll and Tchividjian is far more basic: There is no replacement for virtue, good judgment, and a certain indifference to the allure of fame, money, and earthly success. If there is a lesson to the Driscoll, Tchividjian, and Patrick sagas, that lesson is probably not unlike the lesson we should have learned from Donald Trump: Until evangelicals care more about truth than they do fame, our moral witness will be hopelessly compromised.

Indeed, it will be non-existent.

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  1. To be sure, the corruption of both the Anglican communion and the Roman Catholic Church does not in itself disprove their respective ecclesiological beliefs. There is an entirely separate conversation that needs to be had about whether or not Scripture and reason would support such views. My only point here is that pragmatic appeals to authority structures lose much of their force in the era of Welby and Francis.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Adam Shields

    yep

  • Jonathan Leeman

    <> Good word, Jake.

  • Peter Gaultney

    I’m sure it’s naive to suggest this, but it strikes me that the second-to-last paragraph is leaving out a “third way” that might actually be worth looking into. Whereas the institutional processes may be working “as prescribed” in many protestant churches, the question remains – why can protestant churches and parachurch organizations not arrive at ecumenical agreements that would cause them to accept each others’ institutional pronouncements (for a defined subset of theological reasons) on “zombie pastors”?

    Granted, there will always be denominations and institutions that don’t abide by such agreements. But it would make it a little easier for the average protestant to see which institutions were truly invested in protecting the flock.

    • TedStriker

      This is the fundamental question. Just because Acts 29 did the right thing when they cut ties w/ Driscoll, that didn’t stop other, less circumspect (to say the least) people from giving him a pulpit again. A large part of the problem is that the organizers of the churches where these zombies roam are more interested in celebrity (and perhaps some twisted version of a redemption narrative) than in protecting their congregants and the reputation of the Gospel.

    • I would be more sympathetic on this point if Driscoll, Tullian, or Patrick had landed in recognized denominations with defined structures. But Driscoll’s church is independent, Patrick’s seems to basically be independent, and Tullian hasn’t found an actual church to employ him. So it seems like the denominations *are* basically fine. The problem we’re running into is independent congregations and naive donors.

      • Peter Gaultney

        this is true of the famous cases you’ve listed. But I know of a number of pastors who have jumped between OPC, PCA, EPC, etc., not solely because of doctrinal differences but because there were pending judicial cases. And absent cross-denominational agreements, that sort of thing can still fly.

        • David Wolf

          Excellent point. Federal vision is a good example of that kind of thing, though these days I’m pretty sure the only place they end up after being ousted (or near-ousted) by one denomination is to end up in the CREC. Which doesn’t seem like a bad deal.

          • Heh, see FV is an example of why cross-denominational discipline arrangements make me nervous. Like, say the PCA, CREC, OPC, EPC, and the other alphabet soup reformed denoms have a shared agreement to honor discipline. What happens to the FV guys who got unfairly run out of the denomination? If a denomination *massively* overreacts to a problem… well, in that case I am quite happy to have a variety of ecclesial institutions that can serve as a kind of check on one another.

  • Tim Virgo

    I love your main point here. We cannot legislate for sin, people are ultimately accountable to God. Systems do work to an extent but people are fallible.

    However…

    “There is no replacement for virtue, good judgement, and a certain indifference to the allure of fame, money, and earthly success.” ummm… Jesus? That’s the whole point of Christianity. He is the replacement. Otherwise 90% of the men in the bible and who wrote the bible are also disqualified. God extends forgiveness through Jesus, it is by grace we have been saved! I agree leaders cannot continue in sin, and I agree with your concerns, but I don’t think you can say they are ‘patently unqualified for ministry’ without knowing about their repentance. We are all unqualified apart from grace.

    I share your scepticism about these men and I wouldn’t personally be enthusiastic about coming under Driscoll’s or Tchividjian’s leadership now. But I wouldn’t be able to judge whether they are disqualified. I also think you have unfairly included Darrin Patrick who (as far as I understand) publicly repented and sought to reconcile with people he had sinned against.

    • Peter Gaultney

      I think you’re confusing salvation with sanctification here.

      Jesus is the replacement from the standpoint of salvation. And he is, by his Holy Spirit, the creator and sustainer of all good works that we may do in the process of sanctification (including good judgment and indifference to fame and money). But Jesus isn’t a “replacement” for indifference to fame and money. He sends us forth in His power to *be* indifferent to fame and money! And by doing so we can help protect His church, to which we belong by His grace.

    • Peter has said the main thing I’d say in response to this.

      With regards to Patrick, I am not privy to private information about his situation, but I think his first sermon at the new church (as well as the intro he received) make it pretty clear where he is these days.

  • As someone who was Episcopalian, then worked closely with Mark, and is now Catholic, it’s like you wrote this for me! I think there is a lot to like here, Jake. However, I do take issue with your paragraph on Pope Francis, which honestly seems like a side thought I would have edited out.

    First, the articles you quote are from either American moderate to liberal secular media sources or from very conservative Catholic media sources. In both cases, they make their living by serving up “newsworthy” stories, which are often missing the nuance of Catholic church politics, in the best scenarios, or completely off the mark in others.

    Second, your footnote doesn’t really do justice to the immensely different ecclesiological authority structures the Anglican church and the Catholic Church represent. The ills of the Anglican church in doctrine stem precisely from the lack of authority that the Catholic Church has, a Pope and a Magisterium that are the source of truth for articulating doctrine and dogma. Say what you will about Pope Francis, but the reality is that he could never change what has been already formulated as dogma by prior Popes. Welby could do that if he built a big enough coalition, and other Anglican churches have because they are not beholden to Welby at all, who is just a figure head.

    I think where you are right is that the problem essentially is within the culture of Evangelicalism itself. Or at least American Evangelicalism, where market tactics dominate and the media machine thrives off celebrity and, yes, controversy. We love it, precisely because humans love it. I can say that as someone who follows Catholic media perhaps much closer than the average lay Catholic, the culture simply isn’t replicated for whatever reason across the Tiber. Do we have our own problems? Absolutely, but they are not the problems of Evangelical celebrity and authority. Nor are they really the problems of Anglican inability to find doctrinal consensus.

    Thanks for writing and be blessed brother!

    • Jake – Thanks for commenting!

      Regarding the point about Francis, I cited the WSJ and a major Catholic pub plus Ross Douthat. As far as safe outlets go, I’d think those are the best I could search out? It’s not as if I’m citing Slate and Rorate Caeli or even Michael Brendan Dougherty something. ;)

      Also, I know that there are ways of finessing what Francis is doing. My friend JD Flynn had a piece for First Things that I think is foreshadowing how conservative Catholics get around the issue if/when Francis or a successor really does change established church teaching on communion for divorced Catholics. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/02/no-authority-over-divine-law

      That said, Douthat is a very circumspect critic but he wrote that pope/precipice thing. I also have enough Catholic friends that I know what folks, including some fairly influential folks, are saying in the backchannel. The crisis may not be *as bad* as someone like MBD would say here (http://theweek.com/articles/581178/does-pope-francis-fear-god-synod-family-fracturing-catholic-church) but there is a real crisis here in some form or fashion, I think. The next papal election will be pretty significant in determining how bad it gets. Sarah would probably pull things back quite a bit. But Francis 2.0 would make it more intense–and the longer Francis is pope and, therefore, gets more time to influence who chooses the next pope, the more likely that latter option becomes, I think.

      • Thanks for the response, Jake — Yes, I don’t necessarily quibble with the validity of the sources in terms of journalistic integrity, but I think we both agree, the media often doesn’t get it quite right when reporting on these issues. That’s really a minor point, admittedly.

        Also, in terms of the Zombie pastor, I was thinking on my drive into work (because what else would I do?) about how the validity of the sacraments is a big issue not talked about here. The ACNA, for instance, can form because there’s no consensus in the Anglican Communion around the sacraments. In the Catholic world, a priest can leave, but most Catholics won’t follow due to invalid sacraments. This mitigates the celebrity influence outside of the frock.

        I do agree the next papal election is significant, but I’m not sure it’s much more so than other supposed “crisis” in the papacy over thousands of years, but we shall see!

        Thanks again!

        • Jake – Yes, the sacramental question is big, but I think it’s downstream from the ecclesiology question. I think everything with Rome, at least from the Prot side of things, goes back to the ecclesiology question. If the Bishop of Rome and the magisterium have the authority that Rome says they do, then things like differences on sacramental theology or even Marian devotion are basically non-issues, I think. So I spend most of my time focused on questions about ecclesiology b/c I think those are the heart of the issue.

  • David Wolf

    I know nothing about Patrick, but in Driscoll’s case, I don’t see how the lack of ecclesial structure in non-denominationalism isn’t one of the problems. I agree that to correct for it *entirely* you basically need a magisterium, but in denominations with structural accountability, you can’t just hop from one church to another – you have to try a lot harder if you’re bent on stirring up trouble. In Driscoll’s world, Acts 29 being a small subset of that world, you can leave and head to a new place exceedingly easily.

    Similarly, in Tchividjian’s case, his hop to another presbytery in a nominally non-pastoral role was really not supposed to happen. It was a loophole exploited by a celebrity-hungry and naive pastor. They succeeded at exploiting the loophole, yes, but that doesn’t make it not a loophole in the system.

    In all, I do agree that “there is no replacement for virtue, good judgement, and a certain indifference to the allure of fame, money, and earthly success.” But while those things can’t be replaced, they can be supplemented by reasonably policies and procedures.

    I also agree unreservedly that one of the biggest lessons of these pastors’ and the failure to give them proper oversight and the election of Donald Trump is, “Until evangelicals care more about truth than they do fame, our moral witness will be hopelessly compromised.” Thank you for that perspective.

    • David, thanks for this.

      So theoretically shared institutional structure or even an agreement to recognize church discipline across denominational lines would help with some of this. And yes, Tullian found a loophole which does suggest a problem with the structure currently in place.

      I would also agree that ‘reasonable policies and procedures’ can help reduce the likelihood of these sorts of problems arising.

      That being said, there were two things that worried me as I was writing the post. First, the structural issue is there, but it is much less of a problem than the chasing after fame and recognition. *That* is the first-order problem, I think. If we addressed that, I bet a lot of institutional problems sort themselves out. Second, there’s a kind of ecclesiastical perfectionism that I was worried about: “Well, if we just had better ecclesiology we wouldn’t have these problems.” Toward that end, I want to consider the state of more rigid, hierarchical church bodies, such as Anglicanism or Rome, and see if their structures prevent problems as effectively as the ecclesiology argument seems to assume they would. And when I look at Francis and Welby I say, “well, that doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should, if the answer to these problems is more rigid ecclesiological structures.”

      • Peter Gaultney

        Your point about ecclesiastical perfectionism is absolutely true — it’s so easy to jump unthinkingly right over the proverbial horse. I would be quite interested to see a more in-depth exploration of that side of the topic, though the list of people qualified to write an even-handed analysis of Anglican or Catholic failures in this regard is perhaps fairly short.

        In the end, I agree that what you have diagnosed is likely nearer the heart of the problem than the lack of ecclesiological structure. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still be looking for ways of cross-denominationally codifying some of the conclusions that we can agree would result from apply good judgment and a heart more inclined toward the worship of God than the worship of man.

      • David Wolf

        Those seem like very cogent concerns. I think I have a much better understanding and appreciation of your main point now. I appreciate you engaging here in the comments.

  • This was genuinely helpful and edifying for me personally, particularly this comment: “Evangelicals with a background in more non-denominational settings will often look to ecclesial structure as a kind of foolproof mechanism to prevent the abuses they may have observed in an independent church.”

    I am encouraged by this piece of wisdom and by your link out to your “joy of indifference” article to remain where Providence has placed me—in a circle of independent churches—until I simply cannot do so in good conscience. I hope and expect that point never to come, but one of the reasons I have occasionally pined for denominational structures of accountability is precisely the abuse of power that I have (again, and thankfully, only occasionally) witnessed.

    Because there’s a flip-side to your argument: institutions can institutionalize and entrench bad things. I’ve seen that, too.

  • Cal P

    Maybe it’s that the so-called self-laceration of Evangelicals is anything but. Mark and Tullian ask for forgiveness, Ok, but why should I have to give you a job? If these guys are zombies, they’re still warm; they barely skipped a beat before beating their breast, going weepy eyed, and asking for a raise. There’s hardly anything of repentance in any of that. It reminds me of a program I saw years ago about pastors who became atheist but because of a lack of skill, they couldn’t leave for fear of their well-being, their lifestyle, and their family.

    Yes, there are structural problems, and yes, there are problems based in lack of judgement. But perhaps the deeper rot is the professionalization of the ministry. The problem is not merely that Driscoll can go off and found a new church, but that it’s big bucks all around. Yes, as St. Paul says, a minister of the gospel can/should be compensated for his work, but that’s a long way from salaries, IRA accounts, paid conference circuits and book deals. These have become the norm, and not the exception, for Evangelicalism’s golden-mouthed. It’s all attractive to people not as a life of service, but as a career option. In some ways, this is far more prelatical than even Rome, except the indelible mark has not quasi-magical powers, but functions as a form of capital.

    As a side-note, Jake, your accusation that Evangelicals lack judgement comes off as blaming the victim. Were you targeting Evangelical leaders particularly? Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to police an open border of which most people, without office or money, can do very little, even if their current circumstances mortify them.

  • Carrie

    No offense, but if you were doing this to a private individual, it would be cyber bullying. He repented. Maybe forgive him? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do? I have learned after Mars Hill, just how special it was a just how awful so many other churches are. He wasn’t the perfect leader, but Mars hill got so much right. I wish it was still around.

    • MKulnir

      “He repented.”

      LOL. A simple Google search will reveal that there is not one person from Mars Hill who was harmed by this fellow who has stepped forward to say that Driscoll actually asked for forgiveness and repented and sought to make things aright. Not one. He remains a fugitive from church discipline.

    • Krychek_2

      Carrie, you’re confusing the doctrine of redemption with the doctrine of leadership. If he did indeed repent, I’m happy for him, but his past conduct demonstrates an inaptitude for ministry. It doesn’t make him a worse sinner than any of the rest of us; it just means that he doesn’t have the necessary character traits to be a pastor. For the same reason that you don’t hire a convicted embezzler to be the church treasurer, whether he’s repented or not.

  • Krychek_2

    Full disclosure: I was raised evangelical and am now an atheist because about 20 years ago I decided I just didn’t see any real evidence for the existence of God. So I’m an outsider who used to be an insider. And my outsider’s perspective is that the real problem with how evangelicalism is actually practiced, is that it simply does not take its own premises seriously.

    I would expect people who in the depths of their soul actually believe that there is a God who has expectations for human behavior, which humans fail, and who therefore need redemption, and who serve a sovereign God who works out all things according to his purposes no matter how dire things may appear to us mortals, to act in a certain way. What I see instead is that religion has mostly become just another business, like selling soap or shampoo, and marketing decisions — for that’s what they are — are made based on consumer desires rather than on what it means to do the will of God. We can have a conversation about whether that is the fault of the shepherds, the flock, or both, but the bottom line is this: If you guys don’t take your premises seriously, why would you expect me to?

    Compare, for example, the twin issues of divorce and gay marriage. When I was growing up, getting a divorce would get you excommunicated, permanently if you remarried. The Bible says that second marriages are adulterous, so if you are in one, you are living in sin, and you are excluded until you repent and leave the adulterous relationship you are in. Today, with Christians swapping spouses as often as pagans do, a church that took that hard line would be out of business, so today’s churches have divorce support groups instead. Biblical teaching has not changed, but cultural demographics have. And if and when it becomes culturally impossible to continue to oppose gay marriage, watch for that issue to be revisited too. In another twenty years, evangelicals will say that it’s a vile slander that they ever opposed gay marriage. The seeds of that have already sprouted.