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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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- 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.