Calling out Christian leaders in the age of Digital Media

by Anna Blanch on July 12, 2011

I’ve been following current discussions about comments made by Mark Driscoll on facebook asking for suggestions of effeminate worship leaders. I’ve read a number of posts criticizing Driscoll including this guest post on Jesus Needs New PR by Dianna Anderson titled “Dear Mr Discoll” and “A Jesus I can beat up” on her own blog explaining a little more why she objects to some of his recent comments on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve also read and commented on Rachel Held Evans post which declares Mark Driscoll to be a bully and suggests that people write or call Mars Hill in Seattle to make their concerns known. Although they have garnered almost 900 comments between them, these are not the first posts addressing these kinds of comments from Pastor Mark Driscoll, but they are two of the many i’ve read.

I’ve been reflecting on these posts. This post isn’t about that particular series of events or about Driscoll or any other Christian leader in particular. Rather I want to offer some thoughts about calling Christian leaders out in the context of digital media. I’ve read some comments criticisng Evans and Anderson and others for making public statements, especially in the kind of stern language and tone that both can use (Anderson is particularly strong sometimes), of these leaders at all.

They’ve been criticised with comments suggesting that they are equally prideful or sinful for criticising another openly. It is this public discussion that I want to consider.

I actually don’t have a problem with their posts, even if I don’t necessarily agree point by point or even necessarily think the tone is right in every case. Mainly I don’t have a problem because I think they have sought to go about it in way that is about sharing Christ and acknowledging the fallibility of the church.

That is to say that when a Christian leader with a great deal of influence makes public statements then I don’t think it unreasonable that there be a public response, hopefully a measured sober response, to those. It should be done in love, with humility, and prayerfully. I think tone is important. But i’m discovering that tone is a very difficult matter and one which is going to be meant and received differently in every case of author and reader. That’s to not to say we should endeavour to write in a clear, and humble way, but the difficulty is that sometimes no matter how hard you try you’re going to come off sounding quite harsh when you compose what is effectively a rebuke. That’s not to say every writer shouldn’t prayerfully keep working at trying to hit the right mark.

In the midst of calls to directly approach the church in question, Evans and others have called upon other Christian leaders of influence (in this case John Piper and CJ Mahaney) to get alongside Mark Driscoll and privately discuss these matters. I think this is right and good. In fact, all I’m going to know about any change in any Christian leader’s behavior (unless i know them personally) is whether or not the outward public behaviors have changed. As such I’m not going to judge the private life of an individual solely on a single post or series of comments, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not appropriate to respond directly to what is in the public sphere.

1 Cor 6 talks about how we should go first to the individual, rather than seeking to take the matter to the secular court of law, and seek to show them that they are not living in a way that is in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. One biblical model for how to work out disagreement suggests that we should go first to the individual and then seek a wise mediator to meet with the parties, and failing that going before elders of the church, and then before the whole church. This makes sense in a local context. But what about in the context of social media where the world and local are changed incontrovertibly. I think the principles can still be applied but i’m still thinking through how this might work when we live in an age when the influence of a single Christian leaders runs into the millions and where the responses can occur in real-time.

It makes even more sense to me that we really do need to be slow to speak, and slower still to get angry. It becomes even more apparent that it is important for Christians to speak carefully, wisely, and soberly about the truth of the gospel and the transformed life of the Christian believer. As Christians it’s not unhealthy that we are anything but homogenous, but I would like to suggest, that it’s not right to just pass off unwise comments as jokes, or skim over scandal without pause.

Like any family we are going to have disagreements and it’s important that we show a different way of having those disagreements. Indeed, we should be known “by our love for one another (1John 3:11; 4:7).

I don’t believe in public vilification. I do think though that as member of the worldwide Christian church who write and commentate and think there are times when we speak up and say, No, I disagree. Or, I’m sorry, that person should not have said that. It is a very hurtful thing to have said, and does not accord with what I know to be true about a transformed life in Christ. We should not be defensive. We should acknowledge the pain and suffering caused by those who (rightly) think the gospel offensive in its violence and in its grace, but who (wrongly) think that means they can say whatever they like whenever they like and then say, “I was just joking” or “that’s my style of humour.”

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  • Caleb Woodbridge

    I think blogs are a better medium for this kind of critique than social networks. Twitter and Facebook lend themselves to a mob mentality – it might be theoretically possible to have a nuanced, reasoned discussion in 140 character exchanges, but in practice it usually becomes point-scoring and sabre-rattling.

    With a blog article, you've got more room to put things in context, to season what you say with grace and to be able to make subtler distinctions, such as the distinction between Driscoll's theology of gender and his style and rhetoric – you can't really make the case for or against the charge of bullying without distinguishing the two and considering both in relation to one another.

    Of course, blogs can be just as ill-thought out as Tweets, but I think the medium of a blog post encourages developed thought and argument rather better than a status update.

    I think the crucial thing is to be trying to build up the body of Christ in grace and love. We shouldn't take pot-shots at other Christians, even if they deserve it, to make a point. My worry with the fuss about Driscoll is that it's more about trying to appear hip and socially acceptable to non-Christians by attacking someone on the conservative wing, than it is about building unity among God's people. That cuts both ways, of course – there are plenty of examples of conservative Christians tearing others down rather than building the church up.

    • Goannatree

      Caleb, I think you are on the mark. I don't think i emphasized enough that I think these discussions and comments directed on blogs towards Christians should have the motivation of building up the church in Christ. Unity is not as important though as spurring one another on to love and good deeds no matter whether we agree wholeheartedly in theological terms. I don't have to agree with someone to love them.

      I find the label of conservative christian an interesting one because in some circles, and in certain geographical locations I could be equally described as conservative, evangelical, reformed, socially liberal, intellectually evangelical and then in other places those labels would be the furthest from describing me….It's really different in the context of digital communications in the world as it exists for us to apply words and labels that have such a specific meaning in the context of certain kinds of American Christianity.

      • Caleb Woodbridge

        Yes, labels are a very tricky thing! Their meaning is usually contextual, and as you point out, that context is easily lost or radically changed online.

        The other problem is that building up the church as a project is that we all have different ideas of what the church should look like. Driscoll thinks we need to challenge our culture with a robust Biblical understanding of the distinctiveness of the sexes, and I've a lot of sympathy with that, and many Christians will strongly disagree.

        Issues of sex and gender are one of the points at which "traditional" Christianity is most at odds with the surrounding culture, so inevitably how we should respond and engage on these issues is a difficult one for Christians.

        In such a situation, Christians divide between those who prioritise reaching out to the world, and those who prioritise holding to the teachings of the church. Both are important, but both bring temptations. The outreach-orientated Christian will be tempted to compromise the truth; the truth-orientated Christian will be tempted to pride and narrowness. Holding the two together – expressing timeless truth in a timely manner, reaching out with the Gospel – is tricky but vital.

        Sex and gender are not issues we're very good on disagreeing about as Christians – it tends to be very polarised between "compromisers with an ungodly culture" and "intolerant, outdated bigots" (take your pick!).

        Driscoll believes that satire has a legitimate use for the Christian pastor and preacher (see…. I'd agree in principle, but "not everything that's permissible is beneficial", especially when it comes to building unity. It's great to be robust, sharp and funny in disagreeing with one another, but even satire needs on some level to be based on and to visibly express Christian love.

  • Preston Yancey

    No embellishment, Anna, this is the best post I have read about this yet.

    • Goannatree

      You are too kind.

  • AndrewFinden

    Great post!

    The thing that concerned me was that in some cases (certainly not all) those calling out Driscoll (and it is right to call him out on this) weren't, IMO, doing it in love and humility, and worse, got defensive when they were called on that instead of taking pause to consider.

  • Jason

    Hi Anna. I liked your post and agreed with a lot of your views.

    I think a large part of the problem was that many saw hypocrisy on display in the people who were vilifying Driscoll on their blogs and in their Facebook/Twitter feeds. If they truly felt Driscoll's comment was bullying and that it's unacceptable to have that kind of thing on the internet, then they need to be just as vocal and just as concerned when someone who is liberal in theology is using the same kind of tactics.

    If you go back and look at posts on many of those websites, they use similarly inflammatory language about conservative Christians or Christians who stand up for traditional marriage. You'll see websites hosted by some of the people calling out Driscoll who have post after post mocking pastors who preach a conservative message or people who might not be the best singers putting on a southern gospel tune. But if you ask about it, well, that's "satire" so that's OK.

    Well, couldn't someone build just as strong a case Driscoll was being satirical? (I don't think he was and thought he didn't need to post it but the case could be made.)

    I have no doubt the motivation of most of those folks was not to be Jesus but to attack someone who disagrees with their socio-political outlook. And it makes me sad because the world's going to look at us and they'll be able to see the hypocrisy the same as we can see it. And like it or not, hypocrisy by liberal Christians is just as damaging to Christ as hypocrisy by conservative Christians.

  • markmeynell

    excellent – thanks so much for getting all this so clear, Anna

  • Anna

    In my opinion, the global realities of authorship and teaching make it very difficult to hold teachers to account. Someone like Mark Driscoll or Rick Warren styles themselves as a "pastor of pastors." My liturgical background leads me to see the "pastor of pastors" as a bishop. In the Evangelical milieu, Christians have few options relative to certain authors and teachers. For instance, I think some Anglican bishops have flown very wide of the mark. However, I am NOT a lay Anglican and therefore, I do not see it as my duty or responsibility to pray about how I want to respond. Additionally, some Orthodox bishops have taught things that are very troubling indeed amongst the Orthodox faithful. As an Orthodox Christian, I pray as I measure these critiques and try to discern what the best course of action is. The Orthodox Church does have policies and procedures that permit for disciplining of a bishop when such discipline is warranted. Unfortunately, the mega-Church non-denominational movements do not carry this same degree of internal accountability. I appreciated the suggestion that Mark Driscoll is accountable to the board of elders at his church because I had never thought about that. But I struggle to know where different teachers of the faith are accountable.

    To me, the blogosphere is an attempt to make manifest "the invisible Church" when trying to hold leaders to account. It's particularly important in light of recommendations and discernment. In 2005, I read a book by Mark Driscoll that I found fairly insightful at the time. I have actually never recommended it further based on a pattern of comments. Similarly, I have benefited quite a bit from some of Rob Bell's older reflections. Something doesn't quite sit right in me about "Love Wins" even as an Orthodox Christian who sees many problems with penal subsittutionary atonement.

    For me, the question is not about "liberal" and "conservative" as I have seen people err on both sides. The broader issue to me is an ecclesiological issue: what mechanisms exist to challenge a charismatic "pastor of pastors" to proclaim the Gospel?

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  • Virginia Knowles

    Anna, this post is so relevant to me right now because last weekend I wrote a lengthy blog post with my thoughts on CJ Mahaney’s controversy and subsequent “stepping down” for a season from the Sovereign Grace movement. My little blog, which usually gets around 30 or 40 page loads a day, has had thousands from all over the world since Saturday. I have had some folks commending me for it and others who are upset with me. I continue to think it through and trust that I have done the right thing. For those who are interested, you can find my post here:

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  • carmelhadfield

    Anna, a great post.
    I personally felt concerned at the seeming witch hunt and public anger surrounding Mark Driscoll.
    Initially i got sucked in to the condemnation, and was shocked at his words, but then i started to think a bit more and realised that Jesus loves this guy, loves him to death.
    It made me sad to see this in-fighting between people working towards the same goal, and ultimately when a brother or sister stumbles us as the wider body of christ have a duty to pick them up, not stamp them down and shout at them for being stupid. We are called to be encouragers. I think most people's opinions would differ if the person involved in the controversy was a member of their own congregation.
    I feel that a lot of people have forgotten their duty to love the sinner here.
    Great post, thanks for writing it.


    • Azia

      What’s it take to become a sublime expounder of prose like yourself?

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