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Time to Give Mark Driscoll a Sabbatical?

There’s a lot to like about what Mark Driscoll has done in his pastoral work at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Sadly, however, there’s a lot to dislike, too.

Brother Mark is right, for example, to bemoan the lack of clear preaching of the Bible that calls people to intellectual and moral account, rather than merely entertaining them or confirming them in their blithe consumerism.

He’s also right to worry about the feminization of much North American Christianity–a trend noticed by church historians also that reaches back to the nineteenth century. (I say this as a feminist who sees this trend as unhelpful for both men and women. A good popular-level roundup of these concerns can be found in David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church–a book that I judge to be about 80 per cent right, 10 per cent not right, and 10 per cent wildly wrong—mostly in its John Eldredge-inspired recommendations—which is a pretty good average for a book on such a contentious and wide-ranging subject.)

Alas, Brother Mark responds to these valid concerns too often with bad preaching of a bad message. Recently he managed to demonstrate both problems in all of six minutes. This video clip shows Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll answering a question about the legitimacy of stay-at-home husbands (HT: J. Barrett Lee). In these six minutes, a number of theological problems, in fact, emerge.

For a man who preaches that women aren’t supposed to teach men, it seems immediately odd that Brother Mark has his wife offer Scriptural teaching in their church, which she does as this clip starts off. I expect that he legitimizes what to many of his ilk must appear to be disobedience to Scripture (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”–I Tim. 2:12) by claiming that his wife is under his authority, or perhaps under the authority of the elders of the church. This is a common expedient among evangelicals, the “Under Authority Arrangement,” as I call it, that doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the Bible, nor is it taught anywhere in Scripture, but is certainly something for which a pragmatic feminist such as I am is grateful: It lets women speak, even if under strange (and unbiblical) constraints.

We are thus told, by Mrs. Driscoll as well as then by her husband, that a man who does not provide for his wife and children is flatly disobeying God. If she is out working and he isn’t–save only in extreme cases of injury, sickness, or other physical debility (unemployment is not mentioned as an excuse)–he is “worse than an unbeliever.”

That last phrase comes from the text–the one and only text–adduced by the Driscolls on behalf of their forbiddance of men staying home and women working: I Timothy 5:8. And now a cascade of basic exegetical, theological, and homiletical problems begins:

1. The passage in question has nothing to do with gender roles. The context clearly has a single, very different, issue in mind. Widows in Timothy’s church were not being looked after by their relatives and so were posing a financial hardship for the church. Some were also apparently exploiting their status for charity they did not deserve. So Paul warns the Christians, via Timothy, that they must do what even non-Christians understand to be a matter of basic obligation: support your kinfolk.

2. Thus the “worse than an unbeliever” charge, which sounds pretty harsh and not terribly appreciative of non-Christians on the lips of a twenty-first-century Seattle couple with no interpretive context given (I mean, are non-Christians really so bad?!), is really just Paul saying, “We Christians are called to live by a standard better than those around us, but failing to render financial support to your relatives isn’t even meeting the lowest common denominator of morality all around us.”

3. The passage has nothing to do with a couple who decide that, for at least a while, the mother will work outside the home while the father works inside the home caring for the children. Any argument one wants to raise against that option–which is exactly what lots of contemporary Christian couples nowadays elect, whether because Dad is finishing his education, or Dad has been laid off, or Mom wants to get back to work she loves while Dad longs to connect more with their kids–or the option of both spouses going to work in order to provide properly for their family, must be raised from other Scripture, not this one. And good luck finding that other Scripture.

4. Brother Driscoll then assures his audience that since he has read the whole Bible–which seems a rather basic thing for a pastor to claim–and can’t think of any Bible verse that justifies a husband staying home and a woman working, then there is no such verse and there could be no legitimate grounds for another view. “You can argue with me all day,” he assures us, and his mind will not be changed. Oh, dear: Do we preachers really want to sound like that? And on a subject like this?

5. Brother Driscoll also quickly dismisses any alternative intepretation that might render this teaching a matter of “culture.” That use of “culture” is code-language among preachers like Mr. Driscoll for something like “trying to dodge the abiding truth of God’s Word by relegating its universal, eternal teachings to a distant and long-past alternative social situation.”

I’m sympathetic with his aversion to such dodges. They are indeed rife and ought to be both exposed and resisted.

But the exegetical effect of misusing the category of “culture” works both ways. In this case, Brother Driscoll’s teaching is deeply embedded in, and makes a sort of sense only for, one social situation: middle-class people (or richer) who can live on the husband’s single paycheque that he earns in work undertaken outside the home.

Yet before the Industrial Revolution, and in many parts of the world today, the workplace is the home, and husbands and wives work together in the family farm, or shop, or service, or whatever. Furthermore, in many modern societies even in so-called developed economies, the days of a living wage being paid to men on which they can then support a wife and kids have disappeared for everyone below the middle-middle class—a reality affecting, I daresay, a significant number of people living in Brother Driscoll’s own city of Seattle.

So that can’t possibly be what the Holy Spirit was telling Paul to tell the rest of us everywhere and always. Brother Mark’s interpretation is obviously culture-specific, ironically enough, and therefore not plausible.

6. Finally, Brother Driscoll warns his audience that the Biblical teaching is so clear on this subject than any couple found departing from his interpretation would be subject to church discipline at Mars Hill. Really? Church discipline is being threatened (and, yes, “threatened” is the operative verb here) on a matter (badly) argued from a single passage? I’m all for church discipline–another important subject on which Brother Mark and I agree–but I would think that Mars Hill, like any contemporary church, would have its hands full with church disciplinary matters far more clear and far better evidenced from the Bible than this one.

I don’t know what theological training Mrs. Driscoll has received. The Mars Hill website claims that Brother Mark “received a B.A. in Speech Communications from Washington State University and holds a master’s degree in Exegetical Theology from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.” I confess to wondering what his professors at Western Seminary would think of this exercise in exegetical theology.

Mark Driscoll, I repeat, has doubtless done much good for the Kingdom of God and has a lot to offer it still. He’s undeniably energetic, charismatic, and principled. But my goodness: how he has strayed from the basic exegetical teaching I trust he received at Western! How much damage he is doing by misreading the Scripture and then dogmatically declaiming his errors with the full weight of his Big Church and even larger network behind him.

I expect he won’t listen to me: We haven’t met and I have no reason to think he would pay my opinion much attention. But I hope his big brothers in the American Reformed circle he frequents, such as John Piper and Tim Keller, will take him aside and remind him of the basic exegetical do’s and don’t’s he seems somehow, somewhere to have abandoned. Perhaps he is due for a well-deserved study break to regroup, re-establish his basic tools, and hear what God wants him to do next–and how God wants him to do it.

If instead, however, he persists in such troubling exegesis, theology, and preaching, the impressively innovative, faithful, and effective work done at Mars Hill will be compromised, perhaps fatally. People who find this sort of interpretation to be sexist, classist, and just plain uninformed will go elsewhere for competent Biblical preaching.

And they should.


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