In a radio interview a couple years ago, long after the implosion of Mars Hill Church and his departure from Seattle, Mark Driscoll attributed the resurgence of Reformed theology among evangelicals to “father wounds.”

That whole Young, Restless Reformed—God is father but he’s distant, he’s mean, he’s cruel, he’s non-relational, he’s far away. That’s their view of their earthly father. So, then they pick dead mentors: Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther. These are little boys with father wounds who are looking for spiritual fathers, so they pick dead guys who are not actually going to get to know them or correct them. And then they join networks run by other young men so that they can all be brothers. There’s no fathers. And they love, love, love Jesus because they love the story where the son is the hero because they’re the sons with father wounds.

I was surprised by this interview, primarily because Mark went on to repudiate Calvinism after painting Reformed theology with a broad brush. But also because, while making a valid point about how father wounds can influence one’s theology, Mark didn’t address the ways his ministry benefited from the phenomenon of absentee and passive fathers. It would be much easier to connect fatherlessness to Driscoll-fanhood than to make the case that all Reformed theology is really about a distant, angry, “non-relational” God.

Mark’s persona—the dude who, unlike your wimpy father, will get in your face and tell you the truth—was compelling to younger men confused about the meaning and purpose of manhood. That’s why the infamous “How dare you!” sermon took off. More on that in a moment.

Fatherhood and Reformed Theology 

First, let’s acknowledge the kernel of truth in Mark’s assessment (if you can look past his caricature of Reformed theology): one reason for the recent rise of Reformed theology can be attributed to a hunger for healthy, assertive, promise-keeping, full-of-character fathers who reflect the fatherhood of God.

Collin Hansen touched on this desire in his 2008 book Young, Restless, and Reformed, when he described younger Calvinists referring to John Piper as a father figure. One young lady talked about Piper as being like “a dad” to her, although they’d never met.

At the time, I wrote about the strangeness of that phenomenon and the implications for a new generation’s vision of God’s fatherhood. What does it say about God as Father if young people think “father” is the appropriate term for a prominent preacher with whom they have no relationship? This is how I put it then:

Fathers image God. To reach for descriptions of spiritual fatherhood in relation to a powerful preacher, disconnected from a young person relationally, demonstrates a skewed vision of who God is: far off, transcendent, distant, thundering. If fatherhood can take place without ever meeting, then something has gone sideways regarding a more balanced view of fatherhood, one that includes transcendent authority combined with relational immanence, expressed most clearly in God’s gracious condescension to us in Christ.

The crisis of fatherhood and its effect on society isn’t new. “Daddy issues” are prevalent outside the church also. During the years Mars Hill was adding members and campuses, you could find numerous sitcoms in which the dad was the punchline—passive, spineless boy-men who could hardly lead their families because they were too undisciplined to lead themselves.

Several television dramas featured main characters whose problems stemmed from either the abuse or abandonment of authority on the part of their fathers. (Multiple story arcs for main characters in Lost, for example, veered toward patricide.) Caricature and bluster aside, Driscoll was right to see father wounds as an important element contributing to the popularity of Reformed theology.

‘How Dare You!’ and Fatherhood

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast shows how Driscoll, perhaps more than any other preacher of that time, benefited from the void of fatherly leadership among young people hungry for someone to end their extended adolescence in the 2000s.

When the “How dare you!” sermon, in which Driscoll appeared to lose it on stage and screamed at men who failed to treat their wives well, went viral, I was serving on staff in a rural church. A colleague of mine, also in his 20s, sent me the clip. An older pastor friend also watched it. Their reactions could not have been more different.

  • The younger guy thought it was terrific. He interpreted Mark’s outburst as if it were coming from a coach getting in the face of a star player on the football field, calling him to greatness.
  • The older guy thought it was ridiculous. He believed Mark’s outburst was a disgrace to the pulpit and an atrocious overstepping of pastoral bounds.

Age and experience certainly played a role in eliciting these opposite reactions, but fatherhood was an element, too. The younger guy who loved the sermon struggled relationally with his father and found in Mark a preacher willing to take him to task and call him to something greater. The older guy had a strong and healthy relationship with his dad and saw in Mark a preacher who was misusing his pastoral authority to browbeat and shame the young men in his congregation.

The “How dare you!” sermon went viral because of these polarizing reactions, with some viewers appalled by Driscoll’s harshness and others attracted to that brash display of authority.

Many who were drawn to Mark longed for strong words of confrontation and command from father figures who were absent or passive. It’s no surprise the lingo of “boot camp” spread into evangelicalism through Acts 29’s church planter gatherings. The atmosphere of “telling it like it is,” being “confronted by the truth” and “doing whatever it takes for the kingdom” had massive appeal to a generation of young men who came from homes where fathers were hooked on porn before the sons discovered it themselves, where the meaning of manhood and the pathway toward character development was left undefined.

Whiplash and Greatness 

All of this reminds me of Whiplash, a disturbing movie I won’t recommend (due to its language) and don’t plan to watch again. The plot centers on a young man who becomes a truly great drummer by doing whatever it takes to please his teacher, a foul man whose insanely high standards are expressed by constant belittling, obscene language, and abusive behavior toward his students.

Whiplash disturbs the viewer because, in the end, the results are breathtaking, and there’s something glorious in watching a young man develop skills and reach for new heights of greatness. But that achievement is shrouded in darkness because of the teacher’s vice-like grip on the mind of his student. The price of “calling out” greatness is a toxic environment of performance-based obsession.

It would be unfair to compare Mark to the music teacher in Whiplash. I mention the movie because more than a few podcast listeners probably wonder how or why anyone could have found Mark’s sermon rants attractive. You won’t understand the draw of the “How dare you!” style if you miss the underlying dynamics at play.

Father hunger is real. The desire for greatness is real. None of this serves in the least to excuse the manipulative and narcissistic leadership of Mark Driscoll. But if we are to avoid such pitfalls in the future, we should be aware of why so many were drawn toward that style, so that we’re better prepared when the next celebrity pastor tries to seize upon this vulnerability to build a media empire.

This is the second in a series of reflections on “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” You can read the first post here. If you would like to have the next articles in this series sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.