A podcast as popular as The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill—a journalistic-style narrative chronicling the demise of an influential pastor and megachurch—is going to have cultural ramifications. No way around it. The cautionary tale of Mark Driscoll and the lessons from Mars Hill Church will affect the thousands of pastors and church leaders listening each week.
Some of the influence will be good. I hope future pastors develop a strong distaste for “the pastoral strut,” that air of a leader who sees himself as a big deal. Maybe The Rise and Fall will inoculate the next generation from some of the excesses of evangelicalism’s celebrity culture.
Other good results?
- The podcast provides an opportunity for people who have been bruised and burned in toxic environments to speak out, to join with others, to find healing and regain their love for the church.
- Driscoll’s downfall sounds the warning to pastors who, for the sake of the “movement,” might abuse their authority and bully the sheep they’re called to serve.
- The Rise and Fall could jumpstart important conversations about the misuse of authority, how an anti-establishment ethos can itself turn into a behemoth of oppressive power, and the ways that a reaction to feminist ideology can drift far afield of what the Bible teaches about the differences between men and women.
If The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill leads to internal examination among churches and leaders, and if that self-reflection results in an aversion to the kind of ruling and authority Jesus said was the way of the world, the next generation will be better off.
But some of the cultural influence from this podcast could be bad.
One area stands out. Younger pastors and church leaders listening to the podcast may be vulnerable to the lie that the exercise of pastoral authority itself is wrong and dangerous. Some may assume that any kind of church hierarchy is suspect, even if explicitly spelled out in Scripture, where the apostles urge Christians to “obey the elders” (Heb. 13:17). Reacting against the abusive overreach of authority in the case of Mars Hill, a future generation of pastors may drift into a pool of passivity.
It’s not hard to picture future church planters and pastors who, out of deference to every church member—constantly concerned about offending the flock or hurting the feelings of someone in the congregation—refrain from making tough calls for the good of the church. What if an unintended consequence of these recent leadership debacles is a pendulum swing, so that our rightful concern about the abuse of authority leads us to abandon authority?
Until Jesus returns, we can expect some churches to be led by bad shepherds, those who exercise authority for their own benefit, no matter the consequences to the sheep. Seeing leadership abuses up close and personal should keep us from devoting ourselves exclusively to any kind of human authority. God is King, not the preacher. We are right to resist the wrongful authority of disqualified shepherds.
The Blessing of Good Leadership
But the answer to bad authority is not no authority, but good authority. We mustn’t respond to abuse with abandonment. Good authority, properly exercised, is a gift to God’s people. Jonathan Leeman points to King David’s last words in 2 Samuel 23:
The one who rules the people with justice,
who rules in the fear of God,
is like the morning light when the sun rises
on a cloudless morning,
the glisten of rain on sprouting grass.
Good authority strengthens and grows. It authors and creates. It’s the teacher teaching, the coach coaching, the mother mothering. It’s the rules for a game, the lines on a road, a covenant for lovers, the lessons for a child, the chance to grow and expand and eventually take dominion ourselves. One of history’s greatest secrets . . . is that God means his authority to grow and expand us, not to shrink and snuff us out.
Authority and Vulnerability
Andy Crouch’s outstanding little book on leadership, Strong and Weak, calls for a crucial combination of authority and vulnerability—it’s what is necessary for human flourishing. When either authority or vulnerability (or both) go missing the result is suffering, withdrawing, and exploitation.
What would happen if, in response to a culture where authority without vulnerability led to exploitation (Mars Hill), future church leaders were to let go of the proper exercise of authority? The result would be a situation with neither authority nor vulnerability, the “worst of all,” according to Crouch, because that kind of leadership appears to be all about comfort and safety, when the reality is abandonment, apathy, and fear of exposure.
Abuse vs. Abandonment
A few years ago, Mike Cosper and I worked together on some sessions of The Gospel Project, and his words still resonate with me:
In response to abusive authority, some go to the other extreme and choose to abandon authority. Fathers and husbands become passive, and families suffer without godly leadership. In such circumstances, other rulers naturally arise, filling the vacuum left by leaders who fail to lead. Likewise, family authority is inverted whenever parents fail to discipline their children and let the kids rule the house with tantrums.
The same is true of the church. If a pastor abdicates rightful authority, that absence of guidance still exerts massive influence. A gaping hole is left in the church, and the congregation is likely to be swayed by various factions grappling for power.
The absence of authority, Mike writes, can leave scars in many arenas of life:
- a CEO who won’t lead and make difficult decisions in the life of an organization
- a military commander who is indecisive in a moment of great need
- a quarterback who walks into a huddle during a fourth down and says, “What do you think we should do?”
The church needs leaders who follow Jesus, for when leadership is absent and authority abandoned, the consequences are far-reaching. My prayer is that future church leaders will look to Jesus and reject the way of pastoral pompousness marked by sinful scrambling for power. At the same time, I pray future church leaders will not abandon the sphere of influence they’ve been given, but will lead with boldness and courage, reflecting the wise rule of the Creator who called them to ministry. Abdication is not the answer to abuse.
This is the third in a series of reflections on “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” You can read the first post here and the second here. If you would like to have the next article 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.