Why Mark Driscoll is wrong about women in church leadership

I hope that title isn’t misleading.  In truth, it would take a book-length work to document all the reasons why Mark Driscoll is wrong about women in church leadership.  These are only a few of them.

Since this kind of response is uncharacteristic for me (at least digitally), let me give a little context for my thoughts first.  Last year, I contributed a chapter to a book for Dr. Raymond F. Culpepper called The Great Commission Connection.  I was asked to write about the connection between the great commission and media, with a special emphasis on social media.  In it I wrote at length about not only the promise, but the peril of social media, especially with the ability to so quickly speak destructive words within the Body of Christ without safeguards of Biblical accountability.  I tried to address this constructively in the broader construct of a theology of online life.  To quote myself:

When we have such powerful tools at our disposal, making it possible for us to broadcast our every thought and whim to the world with such ease, the key to using media in our mission may lie as much in our restraint as in our creativity.  Within a matter of seconds, I have the capability to share my opinions about any conceivable topic or issue with the world in a matter of seconds.  But just because I can, doesn’t mean that I should…

I try to heed my own counsel and be cautious about what issues I do in fact choose to address in this kind of format.  I share that to give a bit of context to what I did this week—when I fired a rather uncharacteristically angry tweet about the “pompous” recent remarks by Seattle megachurch pastor and neo-reformed guru Mark Driscoll.   While there is much about Driscoll’s ministry to admire and appreciate, I have taken exception on many occasions in the last decade over remarks he made about gender issues (in general) and women in ministry in particular.  And I have, for the most part, remained silent—as healthy diversity in the body of Christ should be tolerated and I don’t relish the idea of “calling out” other pastors or church leaders.

For my part, I am about as ecumenical as they come.  From my studies at Duke, where I focused on constructive dialog with Catholic Moral Theology from a Pentecostal perspective, to my relationships on the ground (here in Charlotte just this week I’ve spent a lot of time at Elevation Church celebrating a city-wide revival with my dear friend Steven Furtick), I think I model a kingdom-first unity in both my life and my preaching.  I also attempt to be a very gracious, civil voice in a world that is so unaccustomed to civility these days.

Given such a preface, it might seem like I am setting up for an apology.  But alas I am actually writing my non-apology.  I don’t think I should swing at every pitch.  But I don’t feel bad in the least about the pitch I swung at this week.  I’m swinging a little harder with this post.  I have no problem being charitable to brothers and sisters with whom I have deep disagreement with, even on issues I hold to be sacred.  I never engage in gossip or innuendo about other leaders.  Even in the case of extreme sin and moral failure, I have nothing but compassion to those in leadership who fall and fail—and am ever aware of the depth of my own need for grace.

But I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like bullying remarks.  And for as easily as I find it to be compassionate to the failings of leaders, there is such a thing as justice.  For me, when oppressed and/or marginalized groups within the body of Christ are maligned, you stand up every single time and you tell the truth.  That’s what preachers do—we stand on behalf of people who are bullied.

I don’t think Pastor Mark intended to bully in this recent interview.  But I think that is what he did.  And given the consistent pattern of commentary (and subsequent apologies, and subsequent occasions for him to say what he really thinks all over again), I don’t find this to be a one-off fluke.  You can listen to the entire unedited interview here.  The sections that I took exception to are printed here (while dealing only with this section, I find it to be an accurate depiction of the tone and spirit of the interview), in which Driscoll suggests that the church led by the interviewer’s wife is ineffective in evangelism, church growth and discipleship (as well as somehow unable to deal with complex sexual issues because it is led by a woman).  It would seem perhaps such a church would, for Driscoll, be unable to be blessed by God.  In a staggering display of arrogance, he compares his own numbers at Mars Hill to that of this smaller UK church and says, regarding the gender of their pastor, “You look at your results, you look at my results, and you look at the variable that’s most obvious.”  For Driscoll, churches that have female leaders inevitably embrace a sort of bland liberal tolerance in which lives are not transformed by the gospel.

The big question from everybody has been “have you listened to the whole interview? Have you heard Mark’s side?”  The answers are yes and yes (Mark’s blog response is here).  Though given the history of these kinds of remarks, including in his own teaching and blogs, I fail to understand why it is that whenever he says very plainly what he thinks there is always this tiresome backlash from people just who say he is “just taken out of context.”  Pastor Mark claims the interviewer was combative.  I don’t agree with that characterization.  I thought the interview was indeed tough, but fair.  Given his history regarding sex and gender issues, I don’t think it was off limits in the least to bring up some of those remarks in context of discussing his new book on sex and marriage–it all seemed in-bounds to me.  But you can listen and judge for yourself.  Even if the interview was antagonistic, I still don’t see how you get around the fact that his essential response to women in leadership absolutely reflects his consistent beliefs on those issues.

To be clear, my reason for taking this on has nothing to do with Mark Driscoll personally, per se.  I have been just as passionate about defending women in ministry inside my own tradition.  (Those are other stories for another time—I just think its important to note that this is an issue dear to my heart in general that I have spoken to consistently, as opposed to just being a bandwagon critic of Driscoll’s.  People within my tradition know my, um, reputation for speaking to these matters well enough)  I am very aware of how my reformed brothers interpret some key texts on the role of women in the church differently than I do.  The argument that Mark lays out implicitly here, however, is not so much from Scripture but his own culturally conditioned assessment of the role of women in leadership.  I come from a very different cultural context that tells a very different story, so I will limit my remarks to that today (though the Biblical debate is one I would love to have anytime).

As a third generation Pentecostal preacher who has been and continues to be shaped significantly by women in ministry, this time I had enough.  Within my tradition, which is theologically very conservative, we have never had prohibitions about women in leadership.  From the beginning, we have believed that the Spirit given on the day of Pentecost causes both “sons and daughters to prophesy.”  We had women pastors and leaders while at the same time forbidding our congregants for many years to wear make-up or jewelry, go to the movies, swimming pools or beaches; play cards or play sports.  Women were not allowed to wear pants or wear their hair short, men could not wear their hair long or wear shorts.  And yet in all of this—women were fully authorized to preach, teach, marry, bury, baptize and serve communion.

We did this all in a tradition that had an extraordinarily high view of the Bible (I would argue a much higher and even more terrifying understanding of the Word of God than the fundamentalists).  We did it because we did not interpret the apostle Paul’s teachings on the role of women in leadership the way many Protestant traditions had.  We did it because we believed there was in fact serious evidence in the New Testament that women were in fact leaders in the early church.  We did it because we had a dynamic belief that what happened on the day of Pentecost set us ablaze with tongues of fire and altered our perception of reality.  Now there was neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.  We did it because we no longer believed that institutional structures were the source of authority in the Church, but the Spirit of God that moves on both male and female alike to preach and prophesy.

We had no connections to liberal social movements, but were demonstrating racial equality in pockets all around the world years before the modern civil rights movement.  We weren’t demythologizing the Bible or playing down the blood or the cross of Jesus or the judgment of God (as Mark’s logic would suggest these are interrelated with the ordination of women as pastors).  There was a new social order coming in not through politicians or seminarians or professors, but from ordinary people who were taking the Bible and the Spirit seriously.

Today, depending on whose statistics you use (and the rapid growth of the gospel in places like Latin America, Africa and China right now make it hard to keep track with the explosive growth), but around one in three Christians in the world are part of the global Pentecostal movement, with staggering growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  And now more than ever before, female pastors and leaders are bringing the gospel empowered by the Spirit into the most volatile parts of the world—to remarkable results.

Such is the case with my spiritual grandmother, Sister Margaret Gaines, whose work in the Palestinian community of Aboud has brought the kingdom of God into the Middle East with devastating effectiveness.  Still today, the Muslim clerics in the area send their children to the school she founded even though they know they will learn about Jesus, because the legacy of Sister Gaines so changed the character of the village.  (One leading cleric said “Sister Margaret changed the character of our entire community” when she left)  She led both a church and school there, and even served as the Regional Overseer for the Church of God in the Middle East.  After 50 years of missionary service, health problems forced her to retire to her home of Pell City, Alabama.  But in the last year, at 80 years old and never married, she came out of retirement to pastor a Church of God of about 20 people that was about to get shut down. I was there a few weeks ago to help her dedicate their new worship space, and saw how among poor rural people she is doing just what she did in her Arab community—loving the marginalized and the oppressed, teaching them the gospel of Jesus and growing them in the faith.  It’s a thing of beauty.

Now given Pastor Mark’s rubric for success, I guess none of this would count.  Her church does not have 12,000 people.  She does not have a popular podcast, and her books have not sold as many as yours.  She does not have a “bold” reputation for sophomoric remarks from the pulpit or witty one-line smack-downs to her critics.  I don’t think she’s delivered edgy talks about masturbation or the morality or lack thereof of oral or anal sex in Christian marriage.  She has had the audacity to lead both men and women, not only as a woman, but as a single woman.  (how relevant could she be?)  Perhaps this is evidence, per Mark’s logic in the interview, that God isn’t blessing what she’s doing?  She is after all only leading a congregation of twenty at this point.

The reason I can’t let Driscoll off the hook here is that he does in fact travel the world (as he notes in the interview).  While I’m not convinced that any of the insufferably know-it-all current crop of neo-reformers are nearly as smart as you they think they are, I find it hard to believe that he has not noticed that most women in ministry on the ground are not, in fact, mainline Protestant liberals who are embracing some leftist agenda, but fire-breathing Pentecostal females who are preaching the whole gospel with other-worldly boldness.  Or is the neo-Reformed movement so elitist and self-congratulatory at this point, that this escapes their attention?  I don’t mind you differing with me about the role of women in leadership.  For heaven’s sake, my academic work has been all about constructive dialog between Pentecostals and Catholics—who has a more traditional understanding of gender roles in ministry leadership than they?  Yet they don’t seem to hold these views nearly as, shall we say, pretentiously.  And at this point I’ve heard so much grating “we deserve a merit badge because we don’t ordain women” rhetoric in these circles that the act is getting a bit tired for me.

If numbers is going to be the judge though, I’ll play by those rules.  How about the many Latin American and African female mega-church pastors out there?  Or my dear friend Pastor Roselen, a Brazilian woman who got kicked out of her Catholic convent for speaking in tongues and went on to start the largest evangelical church in Milan, Italy?  I celebrate the unique work Driscoll is doing in Seattle, where he loves to remind us that he is making disciples in the most liberal city in America.  I might suggest it is no small feat to have a thriving Pentecostal church with explosive growth in the fashion capital of the world, a city far more cosmopolitan, liberal and secular than Seattle. In 2013, she is hosting a massive city-wide revival and celebration where Christian leaders from all over the world will come and celebrate what God is doing in Italy.  And yet in all of this, her fiercest opposition has not come from her intensely secular culture, but from area church leaders who look down on her as a woman.  From Margaret to Roselen down to many other female evangelical and Pentecostal pastors I know serving around the world right now, there is more than enough opposition from the devil, the world and yes in some cases still the church without additional discouragement from people like Driscoll.

You can only be so offended at me for this.  I am, after all, just trying to be the kind of man Mark Driscoll wants me to be—confident, secure, comfortable showing some healthy testosterone.  Mark has taught us it is good and right for men in general and male Christian leaders in particular to have balls.  Well I do, and since I do I have no problem saying that the boorish, middle school remarks have gone far enough.  I respect his right to interpret Scripture differently than I do when it comes to issues of women in church leadership.  But I find the suggestion that churches that are led by women are either blanketly liberal, intrinsically cursed by God and/or unable to grow or win lives to Jesus to be not only false but slanderous.  There is no way he doesn’t know better at this point.

Mark Driscoll is now 41 years old.  He’s got an enormous platform, and sometimes he stewards it quite well.  I agree with his frequent assessment (reiterated in the interview) about the phenomenon of prolonged adolescence among males, that many young men in our culture are stunted by their obsession with pornography and video games and unable to step into the responsibility of adulthood. I applaud the way he is challenging young men to rise beyond these cultural expectations.

I just think that in this area of leadership, it’s time for him to take his own advice and grow up.

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