Mark Driscoll has been back in the news this month after announcing that he will be launching a new megachurch in Phoenix. Perhaps he’s hoping his new hometown is far enough south of his old stomping grounds in Seattle that people won’t care as much about the trail of wreckage he left there. I originally wrote about Driscoll last summer, but with the unstoppable egomaniac back in the limelight, I thought his misdeeds were worth revisiting. Mark Driscoll started a Bible study class in his home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 1996. By August of 2014, he’d grown his operation, Mars Hill, into a megachurch, at its height counting thirteen thousand attendees across five states. He preached to a packed crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks), guested on prime-time national television, threw out the first pitch at Mariners’ baseball games, and turned his brand into a franchise. Brand is Driscoll’s word, by the way, not mine. Among the other Mars Hill pastors, he would often refer to himself as “The Brand,” making it crystal clear that Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.”
His precision branding, matched with his ability to scale his enterprise, would make any business entrepreneur blush with envy.
Driscoll appealed to the young families who showed up to worship with him in jeans and flip-flops, those disenchanted with more established versions of organized Christian movements. Known as the “hipster pastor” with his charismatic, edgy rhetoric, dressed-down blue jeans style, and family of seven, Driscoll knew and embodied his market. He had a reverence for Jesus and a seeming irreverence for everything (and everyone) else. He enjoyed being outrageous, and it worked for him. Yoga, for example, was “demonic.” Increasingly, his writing and sermons took on strong misogynistic overtones: he famously called America a “pussified nation” and claimed that mainstream Christianity characterized Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude,” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”
Driscoll declared that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was akin to choosing “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He joked onstage that wives who denied their husbands oral sex whenever it would please them were sinful, his unique interpretation of a verse from the Song of Solomon.
His outward style charmed many, but behind the scenes, he was often vicious, abusive, and controlling. Those who disagreed with him were shunned by the church, ensuring that other members would know what was in store if they came forward.
Fearful of his influence, many church members felt forced to complain indirectly or through third parties. But Driscoll’s strategy for defusing the discontent was to claim that he wasn’t sure how to respond since his dissenters remained anonymous.
Singularly, disaffected congregants felt powerless against the megachurch, a dynamic Driscoll was counting on. What he underestimated, however, was what would happen when they banded together.
As complaints about Driscoll reached a fever pitch, a large crowd started protesting during Sunday services, holding signs reading “We Are Not Anonymous.” Others started to directly and openly call for Driscoll’s resignation.
After eighteen years of stunning growth at Mars Hill, the groundswell of disgruntled congregants began to drive other churchgoers away. Within months, attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that church elders announced it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff thirty to forty percent.
Driscoll had a knack, like many mean men, for deflecting blame. In 2013, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused him of plagiarizing fourteen pages of his book A Call to Resurgence from another preacher. She pushed Driscoll during an interview to be contrite. He apologized but peppered his concession with indignation.
He got in yet more book-related trouble in 2014 when he was accused of misappropriating $200,000 in church funds to get his book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list via shady marketing tactics.
Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August 2014, Driscoll was hounded by the new accounts that emerged almost daily of his bullying, abuse, and outrageous behavior with congregants.
Driscoll resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of emotional abusiveness, plagiarism, and misogyny—with congregants fleeing to other houses of worship or losing faith altogether.
Driscoll ultimately wasn’t taken down by the church’s governing body but by those who—in small groups or individually—found their power in numbers and through their collective voice of public dissent. Driscoll’s charisma and normally effective ability to flip he blame to deflect culpability was drowned out beneath the indignation of those he’d harmed.
Sure, there were Christian media heavyweights calling him out for plagiarizing others’ work and his smarmy misogyny. But what brought him down was his arrogance and abusiveness, as well as those current and former followers who shouldered the risk of condemnation from others and stood together and exercised their power.
But his downfall didn’t last. Much like Donald Trump—who has famously claimed that he could shoot a person on the street and not lose voters—there seems to be nothing that can keep Driscoll out of the spotlight for good.
The folksy announcement video about his latest venture is drenched in faux humility about starting a new chapter of his life and “healin’ up” in Phoenix. The legendary bravado is MIA, but for how long? He’s already received very public support from Pastor Robert Morris of Gateway Church, the fourth-largest church in the country, along with a handful of other A-list evangelical names. Time will tell whether Driscoll will actually change any of his ways, but looking at the history, it seems about as likely as Trump naming Megyn Kelly his VP.
The heart of the problem with mean men like Driscoll is that they don’t truly feel they were wrong in the first place. The only thing they did “wrong” was get caught or called out by their peers. Driscoll can tone down his rhetoric and talk about healing and forgiveness all he wants; rest assured, it’s not about contrition—it’s about getting back on top.