It’s been some years since I checked in on Mark Driscoll. After losing his megachurch empire, he scuttled off to Arizona to pastor a small church there. However, he still nurses dreams of a glorious return to power. The problem is that the evangelical crony network isn’t ready to welcome him back quite yet. Come see what happened when he overstepped boundaries at an evangelical men’s conference—and got slapped down despite being right for once.

(Introduction: Mark Driscoll posted anonymously on his own church’s forum as William Wallace II. Screen grab of one of his posts there; screen grab of him getting spanked hard.)

(This post went live on Patreon on 5/3/2024. Its audiocast lives there too and is now available to anyone!)

The first time I ever heard of Mark Driscoll

Way, way back in the mid-1990s, I lived in Portland. One dreary day at lunch, I opened my newspaper—back when they were actual paper!—to see a long story about some weird evangelical pastor called Mark Driscoll. Apparently, he was popularizing this old-school add-on to evangelicalism called Calvinism up in Seattle.

Being only a year or so out of Christianity myself, I barely even understood what Calvinism was. It hadn’t been much of a thing when I’d been Christian. But the paper said Driscoll was turning into a really powerful and popular evangelical leader by preaching it.

Another long story in the paper that day involved the surging popularity of a new-ish game, Magic: The Gathering (archive). The story cautioned parents that these kids were playing for keeps by betting valuable cards on these matches.

I thought to myself, So this is what it feels like to be getting older: Seeing news of huge trends and not feeling connected at all with them.

The reporter writing about Mark Driscoll seemed amazed that Driscoll’s flavor of extreme right-wing, aggressive evangelicalism had ever caught on in hip, liberal, tech-savvy Seattle.

I wasn’t as amazed, though. As a former Pentecostal, I’d been part of a flavor of Christianity even weirder and more fringe than that. Most of my time as a Pentecostal was spent in Houston. In my first big church, I rubbed shoulders with actual NASA rocket scientists and MD Anderson surgeons. My second pastor and his wife were both NASA contractor scientists. So oh yes, I understood exactly what the draw was for normies in an otherwise liberal, very professional area.

What Mark Driscoll was selling probably hit Seattle people right between their mind’s eyes.

A brief recap of Mark Driscoll’s rise and fall

With a couple of friends from his home Bible study, Leif Moi and Mike Gunn, Mark Driscoll opened Mars Hill Church in Seattle in 1995—which is when I lived near Portland. It officially launched in 1996 with about 160 members. By 1999, it’d more than doubled in size. At its peak in 2013, over 12k people a week attended one of its 15 locations for Sunday services.

In 1998, Driscoll founded Acts 29, a church-planting network that followed the same theological doctrines he did. As Mars Hill took off, so did Acts 29. At some point, he also helped found The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a hardline Calvinist blogging site.

With that growth came a great deal of power. But rumbles of discontent had been growing as well. Beginning at least in 2013, and reaching a crescendo in 2014, this discontent led to Driscoll’s critics speaking out in relative safety for the first time. They talked about Driscoll’s heavy-handed, authoritarian leadership style. His hatred of accountability. His vindictiveness toward anyone he viewed as an enemy. And his vicious, aggressive, often inappropriate behavior in general. He even got credibly accused of plagiarism.

In response, Mark Driscoll flailed like a teased tiger in a cage, turning and lashing out everywhere, but he couldn’t silence this many people.

In August 2014, Acts 29 removed Driscoll and his church from their membership rolls. (He’d already left TGC in 2014, citing a lack of time.) Christian bookseller Lifeway Books stopped selling his books. His entire empire was crumbling.

When Driscoll’s church elders decided to put him on a disciplinary “restoration” path, he quit Mars Hill entirely. Most of its satellite churches went independent; the rest simply closed. In early 2015, Mars Hill itself closed.

Mark Driscoll had lost or thrown away everything. EVERYTHING.

I’ve no doubt that Mark Driscoll dreams of a return to power

Shortly afterward, though, he popped back up in the Christ-o-sphere as if nothing had happened. He was now pastoring a well-heeled little church in Arizona and writing nothingburger no-comments-allowed blog posts about proper Jesusing.

Incidentally, you could always tell which posts were his own work and which ones were reprinted from his ghostwritten books, even before seeing the attribution notes at the end. Dude’s nearly illiterate. But with a lot of help, he continued publishing books—even though he could no longer get big names to endorse them.

From the get-go, I suspected he dreamed of a grand return to power. Nobody that narcissistic gains so much and then loses it all without nurturing those sorts of dreams. We get a tiny hint of his sheer narcissistic rage over that loss in the dedication he wrote on his latest book, New Days, Old Demons.

Thank you to our church family for putting up with the drama that Ahabs and Jezebels give you for having me as your pastor.

See? SEE? He’s totes innocent. It’s all those nasty demon-possessed/oppressed evildoers out there who are totally persecuting him and his entire church for being such amazing TRUE CHRISTIANS™! In the same dedication, he describes the book itself:

[The book] reads like the book of Revelation meets a death metal band in a cage fight on Halloween.

Dear heavens, that’s pure chunibyo main-character-syndrome cringe. It reveals that Driscoll has very carefully learned absolutely nothing from his previous smackdowns. He’s still arrogant and fighty. In his own book’s description, we behold not a single hint of any godlings embodying peace and love.

Through it all, though, Mark Driscoll clearly thought that he just needed to bide his time. Eventually, the crony network would relent.

One day, his old cronies would embrace him again.

(Full PDF of the book available here, but I don’t know how long it’ll be there.)

An evangelical men’s conference for the record books

I wonder if Driscoll saw a speaking engagement at an evangelical men’s conference as the beginning of his second run at power?

The Stronger Men’s Conference runs every April in Missouri. They just had their 2024 meeting from April 11-13. The James River Church runs it.

This conference takes toxic masculinity tropes and dials them up to 11. At one point, the conference attendees cheered as monster trucks plowed around red-white-and-blue fireworks while giant American flags waved on big screens behind them and a blonde lady sang a Christian song. SO JESUSY Y’ALL! And not even a little White Christian Nationalist-y!

So far, everything’s normal. Evangelicals are tilting further and further right-wing and nationalistic every year. They are becoming more and more belligerent and control-hungry as well.

Yes, yes, all normal.

And possibly a return to power for Mark Driscoll!

Mark Driscoll was due to talk during this conference. I’m sure he was there to give a speech based on the book we just saw, New Days, Old Demons, since it came out just last summer. Since he’s the lizard king and poster child for both toxic evangelicalism and toxic masculinity, I’m sure he was a natural choice.

His worst dramas are years behind him, too. Most young evangelical men today have probably never even heard of him. Of the ones who have, chances are good they’ve swallowed so much Calvinism that they don’t comprehend why Driscoll got in trouble in the first place.

Again, all normal so far.

What isn’t quite normal—not at all—is the conference organizers’ choice to feature a well-built, handsome, half-naked guy pole dancing and swallowing swords during all of this blahblah.

No, what makes this story soar into the stratosphere is that Mark Fucking Driscoll Of All Fucking People was the lone voice of reason about it.

WHAT

JUST WHAT

JUST

Mark Driscoll as the lone voice of reason at an evangelical men’s conference

Here’s how it all went down, according to a Twitter post about it.

Onetime male stripper Alex Magala is our well-built sword swallower. He’s done the trick many times on TV talent shows in the US and UK. He got onto a platform dressed in black leather pants, sneakers, and a bedazzled vest. After tearing off his vest to reveal his bare chest beneath, he swallows a sword, climbs a dancing pole with the sword in his throat still, and slides down the pole head-first. Inches from the hilt hitting the ground, he stops. Once he’s back on his feet, he finally takes the sword out of his mouth and brandishes it aloft.

Mark Driscoll was scheduled to speak right after Magala’s act. (He looks so old. And I’m betting his ball cap was there to hide some serious balding.) Yes indeed, he was there to give a rah-rah speech from his recent book.

After taking the stage, Driscoll takes a knee, takes off his baseball cap (and yes: he is seriously balding), and claims he’s been up since 1am praying for the conference attendees. His heart is “burdened for” them. That’s Christianese. Burdens always come from Jesus. So Driscoll is claiming Jesus made him concerned about the attendees.

Then, Driscoll announces that “the Jezebel spirit” had already infested the entire event. That’s also Christianese. Evangelicals think that an actual demon called the Jezebel spirit makes people—even TRUE CHRISTIANS™—act un-Jesusy. This is also one of the “old demons” Driscoll describes in his book.

He then compares the sword-swallower and his act to a pole-dancing female stripper. (If the tweet isn’t available, here’s a local archive of the video.) At 1:30ish in the linked video, as Driscoll makes this comparison, you can make out a loud male voice shouting “You’re out of line, Mark.”

Driscoll ignores it and keeps talking. The male voice continues to call his name, and finally Driscoll drops the matter, stands, and identifies the speaker as “Pastor John.” That would be John Lindell, who with his wife Debbie pastors the church holding the event. Now we move to the next video, archived here. The voice says “You’re done.” Obediently, Mark gathers his things and steps offstage while Lindell gets onstage. But the attendees sound unhappy. One keeps shouting “Get off the platform!”

Lindell keeps saying “Wow” and trying to start his Bible study, but the crowd is very upset. Finally, Lindell lashes out. He says Driscoll talked to him for “a half hour” without saying “one word” about the sword-swallowing act. Dude even tries to Matthew 18 Driscoll, but the crowd isn’t having it.

Then Lindell left the stage. 30 minutes later, he came back onstage with Driscoll. The two seemed friendly again.

Somehow, this little kerfuffle didn’t end up on the church’s Facebook posts about the conference. Gee, I wonder why?

A new feud—and new attention!—for Mark Driscoll

Ministry Watch tells us what happened next (archive). Their link to the megachurch sermon has gone private with no archives, but here’s their description of it:

Despite the earlier show of friendliness, on April 17 Lindell preached a midweek service at his megachurch that sharply criticized Driscoll for “causing division.” That’s Christianese for criticizing someone or something the judging Christian thinks is okay. Jesus doesn’t like division, so causing division is obviously very bad.

(If the judging Christian agrees with the criticism, then the thing/person being criticized becomes the source of division. We’ll talk about this a lot more next time.)

In addition to being mad at Driscoll for wrecking the vibe of his conference, Lindell also accuses Driscoll of trying to persuade his son, David, to rise up to take over James River Church—and also trying to turn David against his parents.

Apparently, Driscoll also told David that his brother, Brandon, had something seriously wrong with him and was “a broken man.” To a posturing macho sexist like Driscoll, that has to be the worst insult he can imagine!

So now Lindell was mad. In his sermon, Lindell called upon Driscoll to “repent” for sowing so much division in Lindell’s family and church. Then that Sunday, the 21st, Lindell apologized to his congregation for inviting Driscoll and Magala to the conference.

Driscoll didn’t respond anywhere that I’ve seen. Instead, he began hyping up his dumb demon book on the 15th. He also tweeted snide asides about churches infested with “the Jezebel spirit.”

That appears to be where things are resting so far.

Reading between the lines at an evangelical conference

Knowing what I know about evangelicals in general and about Mark Driscoll in particular, here’s what I think went down behind the scenes:

  1. Mark Driscoll recently published a dumb demon book. He wanted his speech to be super-topical. So he accuses the conference organizers of being infested with “the Jezebel spirit” that he described in that very book.
  2. John Lindell freaks tf out because he was not expecting Driscoll to piss in his Froot Loops. When he can’t contain the crowd, he goes backstage to talk to Driscoll privately. There, he tells Driscoll what is going to happen if he doesn’t play nice.
  3. The two reappear on stage. Driscoll has agreed to play nice.
  4. Afterward, Driscoll decides he’ll get ahead faster if he doesn’t play nice. Behind the scenes, he tries to power-play with Lindell’s heir-apparent.
  5. Lindell starts speaking against him in sermons. The agreement, whatever it might have been, has been canceled.
  6. Driscoll revels in all the attention he’s getting from guys who have a problem with half-naked pole-dancing sword-swallowers at an evangelical men’s conference. Cuz it turns out there are a lot of guys like that in evangelicalism.

Unless we find out that Lindell and Driscoll orchestrated this fight ahead of time, I don’t think I’m wrong here. Lindell clearly tried to contain Driscoll after that initial outburst, but Driscoll cannot be contained. If anyone tries to contain him, he’ll do the opposite of whatever he thinks he’s being forced to do. Or he’ll simply take his ball and flounce home.

Moreover, Driscoll had nothing to lose by acting up at the conference. Evangelicals can’t cancel him more than he’s already been canceled! At the same time, he had quite a lot to gain. If he’s even halfway aware of the Calvinist Christ-o-sphere, then he’d be a fool if he weren’t looking for opportunities to get their attention.

Objectively speaking, Lindell screwed up by allowing Magala’s act at his conference. He opened the door for Driscoll to waltz through it.

So y’all, I think Driscoll completely played Lindell. The more Lindell talks about what happened, the worse it’ll be for him.

If this was a fight Driscoll picked on purpose, it was a smart one

I don’t think Mark Driscoll is very bright. As I said, he’s nearly illiterate. He’s a bad liar, a creep, aggressive, vindictive, and so narcissistic that his navel might just be the black hole at the middle of our galaxy.

But I’ll tell you something else about him:

He’s got a nose for attracting attention and charming the socks off of men like himself. To the power-hungry lost boys who make up most of Neo-Calvinism these days, he’s an incredibly charismatic Substitute Daddy. His public-speaking skills can make even his most harebrained takes on Christianity sound plausible to them.

And he’s got a history of staging stunts for attention.

If he did pick this fight on purpose, it was a smart one.

On one Twitter post about the conference incident, I saw many Christians complimenting Driscoll and wishing he hadn’t backed down even an inch to Lindell. One guy even said Driscoll was “hands down the best Bible teacher of this generation.”

What a searing indictment of modern evangelicalism that is!

With groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) splitting apart at the seams over women’s rights and sex abuse, Mark Driscoll probably seems like a breath of fresh air to the Calvinist guys wanting to drag evangelicalism even further rightward.

And this time if it happens, it’ll happen despite—not thanks to—the evangelical crony network. Mark Driscoll is a division-seeking missile, and he may have just pinged his next targets.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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