Having grown up in the evangelical church, I watched various figures rise (and often fall), Swaggart, Bakker, Colson, Gothard, Dobson, Piper, MacArthur, almost too many to list. Evangelical superstars, gifted writers, speakers, and leaders. Men who draw crowds, nearly all of them have the same story of coming out of seminary and then starting small either in a home or small rented space, and then the dynamic and charismatic personality takes off and the church grows and then multiplies. This growth leads to new programs and even whole seminaries, dedicated to carrying on the message and purpose of their founder. In some ways, this was the dream of the kid who grew up in the evangelical world, I remember as a child hearing "who knows, you may be the next Billy Graham or Billy Sunday."
Somewhere along the road, that dream faded, just as the dream of the child in little league who imagines turning pro, only to realize that he is not one of the extremely talented few who will make a career of baseball. My realization that only a very small percentage of evangelical preachers become superstars, coupled with the fact that I just did not have the dynamic charismatic personality required, put an end to these aspirations for me. Still, the meteoric rise of another evangelical star piqued my interest, and so I followed at least casually the story of Mars Hill and its controversial Pastor.
In a little over a year, the entire Mars Hill machine had come apart and
yet another "gifted leader" had fallen from the pinnacle of evangelical super-stardom. After years of consolidating power and assuring compliance, the world of Mark Driscoll began to unravel. It started with an accusation of plagiarism, it blossomed into the full fledged internet protest and open criticism of Driscoll from current and former friends, and it culminated in his stepping down from his position, only to watch the thing he had created be completely dismantled. The pattern was familiar to me, the rise to stardom from relative unknown status, the establishment of a structure to gain control and maintain power, the accusations, the denials, the ultimate admission and resignation. I had watched this story play out before, names like Jimmy Swagart, Jim Bakker, Bill Gothard, Bob Coy, Ted Haggard...
Years ago, I would have probably laid the blame for these failures at the feet of the men who had once been such great spiritual leaders, but today I am not so sure. I have walked with pastors who have fallen; pastors who left their wives for other women, returned to previous addictions or developed new ones, people who just gave up on God when life became too hard. And what I discovered in walking with these people is that the system of creating and promoting and enshrining these evangelical superstars, in many cases, the evangelical system as a whole, has made the position of pastor into something that it was never meant to be.
I have come to see that when God gave the gift of the shepherd to the church, he did not give a patriarchal, heavy handed, my way or the highway leader who would be more interested in perpetuating the system than the souls in his care. When we hear Jesus describe the good shepherd, he is explaining the heart of the pastor. One who is willing to lay down his own life for the sheep, not one who throws the sheep out when they threaten his authority. One who protects the sheep from attack and lovingly guides them, not one who enriches himself at the sheep's expense. One who is willing to risk everything to save one sheep who has gone astray, instead of betting everything on his own ability to consolidate power and persuade people.
So, no I don't necessarily blame the men who fall into a system that perpetuates spiritual abuse and misuse of spiritual gifts. I am not excusing the abusive behaviors, in fact, I am broken-hearted every time I hear of another person hurt by abuse in their church. Abusers need to own their own mistakes, and they need to repent of abusing their power and hurting others. But I believe that they also need to repent and turn away from the system. All too often, those who rise to prominence and fall are later restored into a system that is just as prone to abuse and manipulation as the one that they were a part of before.
I believe that evangelicalism should apologize to these men who they have made into demigods in the name of proliferating their own views. To apologize to those who have been abused, first for attempting to quiet those who would speak out, and second for creating a system that is itself prone to making ordinary men into power-hungry control freaks who see themselves as being above the very rules they push onto others. I believe that we need restoration, but not restoration that takes abusive men and places them back into a system that is rife with the potential for even more abuse. I am for restoring the church to a more biblical model of believers living together under one head, Jesus, with pastors and other gifted men and women serving alongside and ministering to those in the body, not controlling or claiming ownership or even leadership of the body.
There is a problem with abuse and misuse of power in our evangelical churches, but it is not a problem of people who are prone to abuse and misuse power. Truthfully, all people have at least some tendency towards self preservation, self promotion, and self serving. The real problem in my opinion is a system that elevates "gifted leaders" above others in importance and influence and by its very nature creates an environment that fosters a feeling among its leaders that they are somehow more important than the rest of the body. Such a system cannot fail to create abusers as it has for many years. I am also convinced that just like the many "gifted leaders" before him, Mark Driscoll is not the last Christian superstar who will be caught up in this system and rise to greatness only to find themselves face to face with their own failures and shortcomings.
This post is part of the November Synchroblog, Spiritual Abuse and Redemption. Please read the posts from this months other contributors by following the links below.
- Justin Steckbauer – The Servant Leader: A Radical Concept
- Mary – Can I Get A Doctor?
- Glenn Hager – The Man Of God Myth
- Lisa – Forgive
- Jeremy Myers – Reconciling Mark Driscoll
- Peggy Brown – Abi and November’s Synchroblog: Spiritual Abuse and Redemption
- Edwin Pastor FedEx Aldrich – Shooting Stars: Of Scandal, Abuse, Restoration, and Systematic Failures
- Tara – Forgive Us Our Sins As We Forgive Those…
- Liz Dyer – Sorry