AuthorityChristian TraditionsTheology & Spirituality

Mark Driscoll’s Golden Parachute

Or, Why Denominations Matter

Among those Americans who felt the brunt of the 2008 financial crisis, many were infuriated when the Wall Street bankers involved–many of whom had engaged in high-risk trading behaviors–faced virtually no consequences. Instead, many walked away with multimillion-dollar “golden parachutes” and cycled into new professional pursuits. The message sent was intolerable to many victims of the crash: within the financial sector’s privileged caste, reckless and dubiously-legal behavior does indeed pay off handsomely.

This was the first thought that crossed my mind when I first heard that erstwhile Mars Hill figurehead Mark Driscoll plans to return to the pulpit. After resigning in public disgrace–following multiple accusations of domineering leadership, shady book-marketing practices, and casual sexism–I fully anticipated that Driscoll would retire from public view. It appears I was mistaken. (In a particularly glaring omission, the “Frequently Asked Questions” web page for Driscoll’s new church avoids any mention of the Mars Hill fiasco.)

My initial reaction was to view Driscoll’s reemergence as an example of the failure of non-denominationalism: denominations (or, for non-Protestants, the relevant magisterial authorities) are more effective at disciplining and policing wayward clergy. But as this year’s Oscar favorite Spotlight agonizingly depicted, such systems may conceal their own hidden cycles of tragedy: child molesters may be shuffled from parish to parish under the public radar, with the approval of institutional higher-ups.

These awful revelations have undoubtedly–and understandably–caused countless parishioners to question their faith in Church authority. But with all due respect to those who have suffered unthinkable abuse, I ultimately remain convinced that–despite their faults and failures–denominations and ecclesial hierarchies must endure within the visible Church. In so contending, I do not address the theological question of whether or not the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox patriarchates constitute the true Church; rather, I simply argue that a certain kind of ecclesial institutionalism must exist beyond the individual congregation, and I frame this in the context of the pragmatic question of accountability. Simply put, the traditional form offers greater potential for accountability than its contemporary, fragmented alternative.

Neither autonomous nor hierarchical church structures have any monopoly on wrongdoing, and each model has its faults in this area. Churches decoupled from denominational structures are accountable to no entity; churches embedded in institutional hierarchy may more easily bury misconduct. But I suggest that in cases where harms and abuses occur and are properly addressed, institutional change can be systemic in a way that individuated change can never be: Mars Hill may recognize the wrongs done by Driscoll and demand his resignation, but nothing prevents Driscoll from restarting another church and carrying on in the same pattern. Conversely, once misconduct is identified for what it is (and this is an important caveat), an ecclesial institution can (and should) properly say no more. Defrocking and excommunication may result in cases of persistent malfeasance.

This issue goes hand-in-hand with other considerations. For instance, as a result of the aforementioned scandals, the traditional Catholic clerical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience have been called into question. Obviously, so the argument goes, keeping people repressed warps their sexuality and turns them into predators. In response, I contend that such mandates render abuse less likely than it otherwise might be. A strict bright-line–irrespective of the fact that some may violate it–eliminates “gray areas” where leaders may be tempted to justify tolerating or overlooking questionable behavior. In other words, while such a rule may be broken (and punishment accordingly imposed), no countering justification can be raised to legitimate misconduct. “It wasn’t really like that” is no excuse in the face of an absolute prohibition on certain behaviors. Due to the vow of poverty, one is unlikely to find priests sporting ministry jets; due to the chastity vow, one is also less likely to find priests engaging in sexual behavior with their parishioners. Traditional ecclesiology may have its share of tragedies, but it also has a greater hope of moving beyond them.

Perhaps I am wrong, and Driscoll has mended his ways. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether–if a unifying Church body had anything to say about it–he would be reclaiming the pulpit so soon.


Image courtesy of Roger T. Bain.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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