Trying to understand Mark Driscoll

(Yeah, I know, being somewhat nice about John Piper is one thing, but…)

The thing is, I think several of Driscoll’s sillier comments (and surely the most partisan supporter will own that he has said some rather odd things over the years?) are manifestations of the same two basic positions, and I find that an interesting reflection.

Driscoll’s public comments (by which I mean those that have attracted notice) have largely been to do with issues in ethics. He is famous for discussing what Christian people should and should not do, in detailed and often rather graphic terms. Of course, he lives and pastors in a nation where (to borrow Samuel Butler’s magnificent line) many people are ‘equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced’ – although this is probably less the case in Seattle than in many other areas of the USA.

My first exposure to Driscoll was reading his first book (I believe?), Radical Reformission. There is a chapter in there where he narrates his realisation that drinking alcohol is not forbidden to the Christian in Scripture. Fair enough; I think there are all sorts of good reasons why one might choose to be teetotal, and there are many situations where it is a pressing ethical imperative, but one glance at the convoluted logic of those who claim it as a Biblical position is enough to discount it.

Driscoll, however, then moves directly to the position that it is thus a Christian duty to drink alcohol. He puts it like this: ‘My Bible study convinced me of my sin of abstinence from alcohol. So in repentance I drank a hard cider over lunch with our worship pastor.’ (Radical Reformission, p. 146.) This seems a very odd comment, explicable in only two ways. Either he is assuming that if an act is not forbidden, it must be commanded, or he found particular reasons for regarding his previous teetotal stance to be not just not required, but actually sinful. It happens that both of these seem to be factors in many of Driscoll’s positions.

To take the latter first, in the book Driscoll links prohibition in the USA with feminism:

Tragically, as feminism grew in America around the turn of the twentieth century, the women’s suffrage and prohibition movements, which were the result of a feminine piety that came to dominate the church, also flourished. This all occurred as more women became pastors and the church became more feminine. At the same time, some denominations even began to condemn alcohol as sinful … The marriage of Christianity and feminism, helped to create a dry nation… (p. 146)

Probably the kindest thing to say about this paragraph is that not many local church pastors understand how church history and culture mutually interact (although most manage not to display both their ignorance and their lack of comprehension quite so blatantly either…). I will also do Driscoll the honour of assuming that the implication that it is sinful for women to want to vote in elections, although logically demanded by his words, was not one he intended.

All that said, the identification of ‘feminism’ as the key social evil seems to me to be rather characteristic of Driscoll, and driving a lot of his positions. His particularly hardline version of ‘complementarianism;’ his aggressive assertions of masculinity; his rather strange vision of Jesus as muscular superhero, even – all have at root this strange fear that the church is being feminised.

(I take it that there is no need to defend here either the proposition that feminism is not the all-consuming social force Driscoll imagines, or the proposition that an adequately Christian theology demands the affirmation of the full humanity of women, including the recognition of God’s calling of all women, and all men, to proper Christian vocations, and God’s calling of some women, and some men, to leadership and teaching positions within the church.)

The second feature here is the assumption that all actions are either prohibited or demanded by Scripture. This curious ‘law of the excluded ethical middle’ seems to me to be a repeated problem in Driscoll’s commentary. He has spotted that the repressed 1950s sexuality he apparently grew up with had nothing to do with Scripture. Good. But to move from there to preaching that it is a Christian duty for married couples to engage in various forms of sexual activity is ethically illegitimate and, I suggest, pastorally unhelpful (particularly when allied with his rather crudely-stated views on the proper ordering of authority within the family – see above).

So what? Well, something like this. It is rather easy to paint Mark Driscoll as some sort of madman who shoots off his mouth in bizarre ways. But a bit of thought demonstrates that actually he is just someone who is working out some false assumptions, assumptions which presumably could be challenged and corrected. Once again, I suggest the task of theology is more to understand than to condemn – and having understood, to attempt to correct, if that is needed.


  1. andygoodliff
    Sep 5, 2009

    Steve you are very a generous person … I love the paragraph that starts ‘probably the kindest thing …’

    • Terry
      Sep 5, 2009

      I’ve never read anything by Mark Driscoll other than what I’ve read on Halden Doerge’s blog. After reading Halden’s various comments, I’ve watched Driscoll on Youtube a couple of times (one thing particularly caught my eye, something about stay-at-home dads, which I am). Is he really that well-known in the UK? I know my own minister likes both Driscoll and John Piper, but really, until this post, I’d never heard anyone else in the UK talk about Driscoll.

      • Steve H
        Sep 5, 2009

        In the last couple of years he has done two preaching tours over here, one including speaking several times at the New Frontiers annual conference, to audiences of 5000+. His podcast is the most popular on iTunes. In some circles at least, people have heard of him, yes.

  2. roger flyer
    Sep 5, 2009

    Mark Driscoll-

    The early 20th century American social critic and humorist H. L. Mencken, known for his “definitions” of terms, defined a demagogue as “one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”

    George Bernard Shaw said:

    But though there is no difference in this respect between the best demagogue and the worst, both of them having to present their cases equally in terms of melodrama, there is all the difference in the world between the statesman who is humbugging the people into allowing him to do the will of God, in whatever disguise it may come to him, and one who is humbugging them into furthering his personal ambition…

  3. David Campton
    Sep 5, 2009

    My own reading of Driscoll suggests that he falls into the category of preacher who has written on his sermon notes “uncertain about this passage, must preach with conviction”. His grasp of church history, sociology and theology is shakey to say the least, making huge leaps in his reasoning, not just his tendency to ignore anything that smacks of a “middle way”. Of course I’m going to disagree with his radical calvinism, but we’ll leave that aside. I am most worried by the unashamed misogyny that masquerades as his hard-line complementarism, and his ascription of all things evil to the rise of feminism. I am especially critical of him on this because I do actually think that there IS a danger in the extreme feminisation of the church/theology, just as the church suffered by the prolonged masculinisation of the church and its theology. This is a particular danger at a time when what I would call “post-feminism” is currently at its zenith, with a peculiar combination of highly sexualised females who invite and reject the objectivisation of women, while men (and particularly working class men) are at a loss regarding their roles and positions in a post industrial world. Driscoll clearly sees some of these issues at play, but his Cro-magnon pseudo-theology is not the way to address it. Sorry, I’m not being as kind as you.

    • Steve H
      Sep 5, 2009

      I know it’s not the main point, but I can’t help wondering whether ‘Cro-magnon pseudo-theology’ is a particularly offensive insult to a young-earth creationist…

    • Jon
      Sep 5, 2009

      Awesome… paleolithic jokes, YEC jokes… what more could one want on a pleasant summer’s evening before The Football League Show has begun?

  4. roger flyer
    Sep 6, 2009


  5. fernando
    Sep 6, 2009

    Steve, you’ve been far more munificent than I’ve ever managed to be with Driscoll’s ideology. Perhaps because of that, you’ve done a better job of explaining what the either mandated or prohibited streak does to his ethics and social theory.

  6. RuthGouldbourne
    Sep 6, 2009

    As always, you combination of clear thinking and generous heart broaden my view of the world; thank you!

  7. RuthGouldbourne
    Sep 6, 2009

    That should of course be youR combination

  8. Dan
    Sep 7, 2009

    This is the first stab I’ve seen at a unified theory of Driscoll, well done.

  9. CTN
    Sep 9, 2009

    It takes an emotionally healthy and particularly wise theologian to treat Driscoll as you have, Steven. Thanks for being prophetic and subtle at once.

  10. Good stuff on Piper and the guy from Ballard. Not quite as “flaming” as the pyromanics but well reasoned.

  11. newsra8
    Sep 23, 2009


    I appreciated this very much. I stumbled across this blog somehow via Ben Myers blog, and was surprised, because… (drumroll) I took your “approaches to contemporary theology” (or something titled like that) at St. Andrews in the fall of 2005 as a young american study abroad student. Now I am in Divinity School in Winston-Salem, NC, and enjoy looking back over old notes from almost 4 yeras ago.

    It was good to find this; I’ll keep reading! Do you still take Ph.D./D.Phil. students?

  12. Steve H
    Sep 23, 2009

    Thanks for all the kind comments, folks, and apologies for the lack of replies – real life got in the way of blogging, rather.

    @newsra8: welcome to the blog – or perhaps, welcome back. Yes, I do take research students – if you’re interested, email me at sh80 [AT]

  13. Tyler
    Sep 25, 2009

    I can’t help but laugh just a little bit at this post and many of the comments here for a few reasons.

    1. Though claiming to “understand rather than condemn,” you have accomplished nothing of the sort. Driscoll is ridiculous in your eyes because his assumptions disagree with your assumptions (about gender roles, ethics, etc). I saw nothing in your post that went beyond such a superficial denunciation of his ethics and theology.

    2. Though claiming to understand, there are some reductionistic jumps from your observations of what Driscoll has written to what you perceive to be troubling statements. The following is troubling to me:

    “‘My Bible study convinced me of my sin of abstinence from alcohol. So in repentance I drank a hard cider over lunch with our worship pastor.’ (Radical Reformission, p. 146.) This seems a very odd comment, explicable in only two ways.”

    You went on to examine two absurd possibilities that display little charity to Driscoll. He’s kidding around and trying to be a tad bit shocking. It’s meant to prompt laughs and make a topic that is difficult for some people fun and accessible. He’s trying to get people to relax and reconsider. Really what has happened here is you have failed to understand the man from the larger body of his work and (most tellingly) his personality. He is not claiming that abstaining from alcohol is a sin. He’s saying that for him it was because it was done out of impure motivations.

    Driscoll’s not perfect. I disagree with how he moves from the text of Song of Solomon to application for his congregation. He’s said and done some things that are not wise. This makes him like all of us. So while I myself see more complementarian aspects to Scripture’s description of gender than I do other proposals (though there are things I like about some other views), I think he goes a little macho on some of his stuff. He puts some things on the women in his congregation that I wouldn’t put on my congregation. At the same time though, to be fair, he’s brutal with the men in his congregation. I’ve seen him scream at them for being cowards, domineering their wives rather than loving them sacrificially.

    I guess all that to say, your critique may be a bit irenic, but it’s not really substantive. At least I didn’t think so, and I could be wrong. I just wouldn’t know it from this post. It sounds more like scoffing than critique to me.

    Allow me to say something, professor Reinhardt. I really appreciate your blog and many others who are in your same general ‘vacinity’ theologically. I find your (plural) thoughts stimulating and often fresh, challenging. But I’m often puzzled by the lack of awareness of the irony with which many critiques are leveled against the Driscolls, the Pipers, etc.

    Driscoll’s not perfect, no one’s going to argue with that. But he’s a Jesus freak. And I’ve never met a more pious, humble man than John Piper. Disagree with me if you want, but that’s what makes a great theologian in my eyes.

    • Tyler
      Sep 25, 2009

      Imagine for a moment that I wasn’t an idiot and that I knew I was on your website, Dr. Holmes, rather than some imaginary professor named “Stephen Reinhardt” (who in actuality is a graphic designer).

      Now, don’t leave that moment.


  14. Steve H
    Sep 25, 2009

    Hi Tyler,

    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps a bit of context will help to explain where I am coming from. I don’t know how much you follow the academic theological blogs, but both Driscoll and Piper are routinely held up as figures of fun, or much worse. That was the discourse I was addressing with these two posts. I did in fact describe Piper in that post as ‘transparently humble and godly’ – I have never had the privilege of meeting him, but do not doubt this description.
    As to Driscoll, the post suggests, on the basis of a reading of (some of, I freely admit) Driscoll’s texts, that many of the things he says that others find risible or worse (and check out Halden’s blog – inhabitatio Dei, it’s in the blogroll on the right – for a sample or the ‘worse’ category) are explicable on the basis of two intellectual positions. You are right to say the claims are not demonstrated – such claims cannot be in the course of a blog post, relying as they do on a close reading of many texts. I assumed a certain familiarity with Driscoll’s work in my post, and offered an account that I hoped might be found convincing by thoughtful people who had read, and struggled to comprehend, his various comments.
    You suggest you found his sermons on the SoS difficult; my suggestion – right or wrong – was that they are a series of outworkings of the same ethical imperative that drove his comments about alcohol, that all is either forbidden or commanded. Maybe that is wrong, but I offer it as an interpretative possibility that makes sense of a whole series of his comments. That is, simply, the job of a theologian.
    You cite Driscoll’s ‘character’ as something I have not taken account of; again, I have never met him. I have only his published texts to work with. I know my data set is limited, and would be happy to revise it if further data that is convincing is offered.
    My vocation as a theologian is to try to make sense of apparently-disparate statements, whether those of Paul and James, or those of Dricoll’s various publications, in a way that demonstrates some level of coherence. Maybe I got it wrong here – I am happy to be convinced, but only if data is on the table.

  15. Tyler
    Sep 26, 2009

    Professor Holmes,

    Perhaps I spoke a bit too soon (I was probably reading Halden’s own comments into yours), I understand what you’re doing. I think I only slightly disagree. Within my particular context here in the US, Driscoll gets a bad rep unfairly. I disagree with a lot of what he does through application from his sermons, but I think people misinterpret him often because they don’t take his humor into account. In many respects, I think he has a lot in common with Marilyn Manson or someone else who simply likes to shock for effect.

    I think this is where a lot of what he comes up with springs from. Perhaps I don’t credit him with having such a thoroughly consistent ethic that he plays out time and again.

    It seems to me that you have “one of the guys” with some theology under his belt, a unique set of gifts, and a burden for the lost who lives in a post-Christian-wannabe city like Seattle. His story over the last few years has really been one of being corrected by men like Piper and CJ Mahaney. All that to say, I’m not sure he has a well-thought out method. Maybe he has a powerfully effective reaction to his own ecclesial upbringing. I don’t know what it is, but he has had a tremendous impact on the church and bringing the gospel to some pretty run-down areas that most people wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I believe my reaction to your post was premature because I feared this was being overlooked, but that wasn’t your purpose.

    Anyhow, my apologies for being a bit more biting than was called for.


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