The Aussies who loved fallen pastor Mark Driscoll

Christianity Today’s outstanding long-form podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, continues to be a talking point among evangelical Christians in Australia. We’re enthralled and appalled at the unraveling of Pastor Mark Driscoll and the church that he founded.

Yet the lack of public response from many of the Australian Christian leaders who actively championed Driscoll, and even gave him a platform, has been conspicuous.

In the noughties, Driscoll was extraordinarily popular among young Australian church-going men. He was revered among Pentecostals, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and in many other denominations.

For young Australian Christian men, Driscoll’s hyper-masculine brand of Christianity resonated.

Growing up during Driscoll’s glory years, many of my Christian friends, all young men, devoured his sermons. A friend of mine from Sydney recently told me how influential Driscoll had been in his life. He wrote to me:

“Mark Driscoll had a major impact on my life in my early twenties. When it came to marriage and pursuing a career, he was probably single-handedly the biggest influence. He challenged me to stop sleeping with my girlfriend and to, as he put it, ‘put your pants on and get a job’. Within a year of his infamous Who the hell do you think you are? sermon, I was engaged and locked into an apprenticeship… He was the mentor I was looking for in the church, not scared of confrontation and ready for a fight, he spoke to me in a real, unapologetic blokey way.”

For young Australian Christian men, Driscoll’s hyper-masculine brand of Christianity resonated. Young men were berated and mocked by Driscoll for being effeminate, weak, and immature – the trifecta of male insecurities. But then, he offered them hope and a promise: if they did what Pastor Mark said they should do, they could become real men.

But not everyone lapped it up. Some young men found Driscoll’s focus on hyper-masculinity to be deeply unsettling and at odds with their own expression of what it looked and felt like to be male. Another friend, also from Sydney, recently said to me, “I remember thinking if I’m not an alpha male who takes charge, I’m not really the man that God wants me to be.”

“What I actually felt was that I would never be a good enough woman for any Christian man.”

Driscoll’s influence in Australia impacted women, too. The harrowing Rise and Fall episode, The Things We Do to Women, exposed the strange but all-to-familiar paradox, that women were simultaneously of great worth, and of no value at all. In Driscoll’s Christianity, women earned their worth through marriage and in what they could do for men, particularly in the bedroom.

I asked a friend what she thought of Driscoll, growing up as a young Christian woman in Sydney. Her heartbreaking reply speaks for itself, “he just made it seem impossible to please God, but actually underneath it all I think what I actually felt was that I would never be a good enough woman for any Christian man.”

Many of our churches were influenced by Driscoll, too. Sensing an opportunity, some pastors attempted to emulate Driscoll by preaching longer, harder-hitting sermons. Tragically, some pastors (from a range of denominations) became bullies, as they drank from Driscoll’s cistern of power, control, and ministry success.

Driscoll’s popularity culminated in his 2008 visit to Australia, where he gave several high-profile talks. For context, Driscoll arrived here about 10 months after he had sacked two Mars Hill elders (Paul Petry and Bent Meyer), in a gross abuse of power. Within days of that happening, Driscoll publicly boasted that there was a “pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.”

Clearly, by 2008, there were already serious warning signs about Pastor Mark Driscoll. But hey, look at the fruit!

A minority of Christian leaders (most of them were older and wiser) did their best to raise concerns, but there were just too many people who were more than keen to get on the Driscoll bus. It’s also difficult to speak up against someone as popular as Driscoll without appearing defensive, out of touch, or as though you’re somehow opposing the very work that God wants to do – needs to do – through him.

During his 2008 visit to Australia, Driscoll was the keynote speaker at a large RICE Rally, and at Engage Conference (Katoomba Christian Convention). His schedule was packed, and so were the crowds. He also preached at Moore College, Morling College, and Sydney Missionary and Bible College, challenging the students to avoid being “really cool heretics” or “boring Bible guys”.

There was also Sydney’s much-hyped Burn Your Plastic Jesus event, which we all hoped and prayed was going to have the same impact as a Billy Graham crusade. By any metric, it didn’t, but none of us seemed to care. Driscoll was here! And we were just happy to be in his orbit.

Having Driscoll visit Sydney felt as though we mattered. Missing an event that he spoke at felt like we’d missed something substantial like we’d missed a moment. Being a Christian felt exciting again. It sounds crazy (because it was) but it felt almost like we were taking the city for Christ.

During the same visit, across two nights, Driscoll delivered a provocative critique of Sydney Anglicanism to around eight hundred Sydney evangelical clergy, who had gathered at St Andrew’s Cathedral. He spoke on 18 Obstacles to Effective Evangelism. It was classic Driscoll; pragmatic, insulting, and drenched in machismo. He spoke with the confidence and self-assuredness of a prophet, and we eagerly treated him like one too.

Understandably, his 18 point sermon touched a nerve. If there’s one thing we’re obsessed with as Sydney Anglicans, it’s how we do mission. And Driscoll flew in to tell us that we were irrelevant, immature, disorganised, and doing it all wrong. Soon after, an online article in The Briefing magazine described that event as “Mark Driscoll rolls grenade down aisle”.

Driscoll’s 2008 speaking tour wasn’t his only visit to Australia, but it was certainly his most important. Due to the high-profile nature of the talks and the large audiences who came to hear him, Driscoll’s ministry was thoroughly legitimised, and so were his unscrupulous methods. The message to Australian evangelical Christians was loud and clear: he can be trusted.

With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect that most of us look back on that time with a mix of emotions, including shame, regret, and that sinking feeling of “how did we not see it?” Truthfully, we should have listened to the older and wiser Christian leaders who warned us about Driscoll at the time.

There are other lessons to learn too, but only if we are willing to be honest with ourselves. As far as I’m aware, no Christian leader has put their hand up to say publicly, “I’m one of the people who invited Driscoll to Australia, and I got it wrong”, or “I promoted and defended Driscoll, and this is what I’ve learned”. If that were to happen, it would be a powerful moment for the church in Australia, one of transparency and being willing to learn from the past. I would hope that if this does happen, our response as Christians would be one of Christ-like grace and mercy, rather than condemnation.

For the rest of us, especially those of us who are now leaders in the church, we must urgently commit to the difficult work of self-examination, to ensure that the same problems of controlling leadership and toxic masculinity are not hiding within our own church structures, or even within our own hearts.

Rise and Fall has given us an important opportunity to face the truth, listen to victims, seek forgiveness, and learn from our mistakes. Are we going to take it?

Rev. Matt Paterson

Matt is an Anglican Minister and has ministered in the inner-city of Sydney since 2014. He is currently an assistant minister at St John’s Anglican Church, Darlinghurst

Eternity is obviously aware of the 2015 controversy that occurred when Mark Driscoll was interviewed by Hillsong’s Brian Houston but not in person, which occurred after the fall of Mars Hill. Paterson has concentrated on the 2008 visit which had much greater impact on Australian Christians.