08 Conclusions: Mark Driscoll’s Culture of Contempt

I am nearing the finish line to my Mars Hill Case Study – which turned out to be a 10-month research project totaling over 50,000 words. The few remaining posts deal primarily with my conclusions, with some last recommendations mixed in here and there. This particular article focuses in on what I have distilled from considering some of Mark Driscoll’s toxic behavior patterns and the underlying characteristics that disqualify him from positions where he is given authority over people and/or is commended as being a public role model. (For extensive information on those personal issues, see the Case Study page 05 Leadership Problems.) I have not seen evidence of repentance necessary to even consider suggesting he should be restored to leadership. Rather, there is a continuing evidence stream of his contempt.

Contempt involves an arrogant attitude of superiority about one’s self, beliefs, abilities, opinions, etc. This in turn leads to bullying actions like scornful comments and sarcasm, reviling and mocking, minimizing and invalidating, and other forms of put-downs and control. You may be able to hide contempt for a while behind a veil of “charisma” or “edginess” or “relevance.” But sooner or later, the core of contempt will ooze out of the depths of darkness in such ways that can no longer be disguised. A pattern this deep is not accidental or inadvertent. It is practiced and intentional. Care to claim that it’s Christlike – even if there are likewise instances of appropriate attitudes and ministry?

From the early years of ministry, when Mark Driscoll’s reputation was expanding from regional to national – in great part via the Young Leaders Network of the late 1990s to early 2000 decade – snapshots that fit a pattern of contempt emerged. Hear from multiple public witnesses who share outsider peer accounts from that formative period:

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~ Excerpt from comment by Clay Tablet on “Mark Driscoll Gets Prophetic Word at Gateway Conference” (Warren Throckmorton, October 24, 2014).

Neighbors of mine used to live in Texas. Mark Driscoll was a guest speaker at their church. Apparently he was given a gentle warning ahead of time, that this was a more conservative audience than Seattle and maybe he should turn the notch down on the cussing thing a bit. “Pastor Mark” responded by recounting the warning at the beginning of the “sermon” and then angrily yelling, “Well F*** That!”

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~ Excerpt from page 48 in The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier by Tony Jones, who was part of an elite, inner-circle group associated with Young Leaders Network.

Meanwhile, things with Mark Driscoll had become uncomfortable. Sitting on a panel at a Seattle event in 1999, he vehemently stated that women should not be pastors. Everyone else in the room was dumbfounded, since he was breaking an assumed consensus in the group. He was also becoming known as the “foul-mouthed preacher.”[10] When Brad Cecil invited Mark to guest preach at Axxess Church in Arlington, he explained to Mark that unlike Seattle, swearing from the pulpit in Texas just wouldn’t fly, and he asked Mark to please keep his language clean. Mark used the F-word in the first sentence.

The young emergents were gaining a reputation as arrogant, foul-mouthed, and angry young preachers, very much as a result of Driscoll’s outbursts. This resulted in a couple of meetings and conference calls, an attempt to quell his vituperations. But nothing worked. Driscoll’s increasingly conservative theology and his unrepentant attitude led to an eventual distancing from the rest of the group. By 2003, he was publicly denouncing his former fellows.

Also see [10] Footnote 10, page 240. He’s referred to as “the Cussing Pastor” by Don Miller in his best-seller, Blue like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 2003), p. 134.

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~ Post by Andrew Jones on his Facebook page (August 8, 2014).

August 8, 2014

In a letter sent out today, the American church planting network called Acts 29 suggested that Co-Founder Mark Driscoll step down from ministry and informed him that he, and his Mars Hill Churches, were being removed from the network. The letter outlines a list of complaints including “ungodly and disqualifying behavior”.

We had a guy like that. Back in the 90’s in the Young Leaders Network.

We had a guy who consistently offended the church leaders in our audiences, in particular the ladies, with ungodly and disqualifying behaviour. We warned him he could not act like that and be part of our network. Eventually he left. But he was soon picked up by other less discerning networks.

Hey, wait a minute . . . ITS THE SAME GUY!!


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~ Comment by Andrew Jones on his Facebook page in a post about the Young Leaders Network “inner circle group” of which both he and Mark Driscoll were a part (January 3, 2015). According to a communication from Andrew, the specific incident he speaks of here (referred to indirectly in the quote above from August 8, 2014) occurred at a Seattle event in 1999. [UPDATE: Andrew corrected the year from 2000 to 1999.]

after we told driscoll he had to mature his character or leave our group we were quiet we didn’t bring it up for more than a decade and now we are wondering if our lack of public warning made us complicit in his abuse. I don’t think Paul regrets his warning regarding Alexander the coppersmith. “Lest we forget”

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In start-up work like church planting and social transformation endeavors, we talk about how the “spiritual DNA” that’s present in the beginning is what gets implanted into the eventual culture of the enterprise. Now, 10 to 15 years on from those early genetic imprints of who Mark Driscoll was, is it any surprise that he showed similar contempt right to the end – resigning from Mars Hill Church instead of undergoing an overseen process of repentance and potential restoration?

Hear from one final public witness – this time a Mars Hill insider – who summarizes some patterns in Mark Driscoll’s DNA of contempt, providential factors that finally brought it into the light, and hopes for spiritual growth for Mark and Mars Hillites in the future:

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~ Comment by MH Insida on “Say Good-Bye to Mars Hill Web Presence Tonight” (Warren Throckmorton, October 24, 2014; emphasis added). Note: This is the entire comment that MH Insida posted. I would have asked permission to post it in full, however, there is no way to do that, given this person is using a pseudonym in order to retain anonymity. I will say that, from what I have seen, MH Insida comments on Warren Throckmorton’s blog have consistently shared insider information – sometimes well before it is available elsewhere – and that the information ends up being confirmed by other sources inside and outside Mars Hill Church.

Thanks Warren, I think you should honestly be applauded for all you have done this year. Your name became a swear word among Mars Hill leadership. Yet I could not help but smirk when I would talk to staff, pastors, and members who just tried to dismiss you as a no-nothing blogger who was just outlandishly making up lies.

Internally, we all knew that was not true. Because if it was, Mars Hill would have unleashed Justin Dean to use all of its communications platforms to denounce and discredit you. Over the year, the silence from MH at every new bit of information only became more and more awkward. Your blog, became an underground newsletter not just for members, but for staff as well. People would whisper about what they had read on here. It truly made a difference.

I have no idea who your source(s) were but I am thankful for them and know that you all had a great impact in doing what you did. What people don’t understand about the fall of MH and 2014 is that this was not the first iteration or attempt to confront Mark and seek reform inside of MH. This happened about every four years or so if you look at the history. There were a few key ingredients that made 2014 distinctly different though, and successful.

  1. A pile of bodies that were becoming impossible to ignore. Plus, Mark has lost much of the goodwill with his base (Acts 29, TGC, TCG) by alienating them and trying to upgrade to larger mega-church guys.
  2. Sutton. The turn toward the business by a guy who was not ready to be a deacon let alone an Elder drove away many long term leaders and isolated Mark in some very harmful ways.
  3. Your blog. There was not a centralized and credible place to hear the truth about MH.
  4. Groups taking public stands against Mark. Groups is the very key word here. MH was excellent at discrediting and dismissing any individual leader as they left. But it was absolutely impossible for MH and Mark to discredit Acts 29, 21 Former Elders, and The Nine (did not mean they sure did not try). As I have said on here before, The Nine was the true tipping point. You could feel the power structure inside of MH shift in a way it never had before. For the first time ever, current Elders spoke up as a group and could not be immediately dismissed. Mark, Sutton and Dave were truly afraid. Before, any elder who ever spoke up was just eliminated, because of all that was going on, MH was stuck and weakened by not being able to publicly just call all of these men evil and disqualified. It drove Mark nuts that he had to tolerate them even being on even one day after that letter was sent to all the Elders. But he had become like a worn-out heavyweight fighter who has lost his luster and people were just not as scared of anymore. Much of the central staff was emboldened and began feeling freed by the letter from the Nine and knowing they were not crazy in all they felt and suspected.

I know we can all agree that this was an act of God. No church the size and scope of MH collapses this quickly and suddenly. I hope God does one more mighty act and leads Mark Driscoll to true, life-wrecking, repentance that gives him a deeper sense of self-awareness and grace than any of us could imagine.

Peace to all of you, and those in Seattle may you find good home churches to love God and others in.

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Earlier, I mentioned the organic notion about spiritual/cultural DNA shaping the eventual look and feel of an organization. That founding paradigm comes primarily from the leaders. I talked about this concept in an article I posted in 2013: “What do ‘safe’ versus ‘abusive’ environments for personal and social transformation include?” (August 22, 2013). Here is a quote from that post:

People who are safe, healthy, and mutually transforming to be around are those who demonstrate “Kingdom culture” – the embodiment of the character of Christ in all aspects of life. That incarnational character comes from the inside, not from being imposed on the outside, and it flows through all forms of social organization they participate in. These factors are crucial, because, as Price Pritchett says in The Ethics of Excellence, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” We cannot create a safe organizational environment for spiritual transformation if none of our people in it role-model what it means to have our character changed. (Emphasis added.)

I have reflected on that Price Pritchett quote for over 15 years now. I first read it while working on an archiving project for the Office of President William O. Crews at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. I believe I’ve seen implications of that principle of cultural DNA played out in both healthy and toxic organizations that I’ve been a part of. Eventually, I came up with what I consider to be an important spin-off idea embedded in Pritchett’s principle. It comes from my 2014 article in my series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse, and how “Affected Groups Need to Deal with Sick Organizational Systems” (September 20, 2014).

Why the Term “Toxicity”?

One final point to make here why I use terms like toxic and toxicity. Toxins are organic types of poisons, produced by animals and plants, and they cause diseases or other kinds of medical emergencies. I just resonate with the idea of these being organic, and “spiritual toxins” being something that humans can produce. So, it makes a difference to an organization if there are toxic people involved with it.

Organic – people – issues are a natural part of all organizations that we create. As Price Pritchett says in The Ethics of Excellence, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” To which I add my corollary: “The organization will eventually become whatever its leaders are.” This paradigm/people dynamic is why it is crucial to the health of an organization and all of its members that we ensure those set up as public role models and leaders are as healthy as possible for long enough to earn the trust necessary to lead. (Emphasis added.)

Final thoughts: I heard Mark Driscoll preach at the second Young Leaders Network national event, the GenX/Postmodern Ministry Forum in 1997. I’ve heard it suggested that Mark’s featured presentation on one evening may have been the tipping point for his reputation going viral. He mesmerized us with an amazing sermon, full of vivid images of how postmodernism emerges from the underground to influence culture and affect interpretations of Scripture. It seemed like performance preaching at its best!

Far into the sermon, when Mark’s giftedness as a spellbinding speaker was undeniable, the man next to me turned and whispered, “This guy is really charismatic!” I nodded my agreement. He continued: “That could either be a really good thing, or a really bad thing. We’ll just have to wait to find out.”

Sadly, now we know.

In my opinion, Mark Driscoll’s charisma served as an attractive veneer that hid hardened personal toxicity. With that corrosive spiritual DNA, he founded and sustained his Mars Hill culture of contempt. So deep did that culture go, that it survived, even after he left, as I believe the dissolution action plans reveal. This is where the admonitions of the apostles become ever more poignant that we are absolutely not to have “leaders” over us who are violent, quarrelsome, pursuing dishonest gain (1 Timothy 3:1-12). All individuals and networks that Mark influenced would do well to reflect on this, and root out any and all destructive DNA that he implanted …