Theology and Troubling Theologians

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What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? Does bad behavior discredit good scholarly work? When concerning behavior is made public, what should be our response? When repentance has seemingly taken place, is there an appropriate length of time before the public forgives?

We recently examined what happens in baptism. My understanding has been heavily influenced by the work of two troubling theologians. Mark Driscoll and John Howard Yoder are two of the most famous theologians of recent times. They are, also, two of the most controversial. For my fellow theology nerds out there, it might seem odd that my theology could be influenced by two folks who are so different. If Driscoll and Yoder would have been locked in a room together, Yoder might have re-thought his pacifism. For now, though, let us focus on the questions from the previous paragraph.

Mark Driscoll is the former founder and pastor of Mars Hill Church, a multi-site megachurch in Seattle, and the former head of the successful para-church ministry Acts 29 Network which focuses on church planting. Driscoll was an early supporter of the Emergent Church movement and later became one of the most influential leaders in the New Calvinist movement.

Though Driscoll consistently received critiques from progressives for his complementarianism and hyper-masculine style, he started receiving nearly universal criticism in 2013. In May of that year an elder resigned and lodged a formal complaint against Driscoll stating that Driscoll’s sins included “not being self-controlled and disciplined, being domineering, verbally violent, arrogant, [and] quick-tempered.”((Murashko, Alex. “Charges Against Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church Executive Elders ‘Non-Disqualifying,’ Says Advisory Board.” Christian Post. March 27, 2014.)) In November of that year, Driscoll was faced with multiple accusations of plagiarism in both his published books and sermon supplemental material. The next year, it became public that Driscoll had used hundreds of thousands of church funds to purchase copies of his books to engineer sales numbers in order to suit his desire to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Things came to a head when a forum thread resurfaced and circulated online from 2000 in which Driscoll, under his pseudonym William Wallace II, was shockingly aggressive and vulgar – even for him. He was removed from the Acts 29 Network and resigned from Mars Hill Church which subsequently disbanded to form 11 independent churches.

John Howard Yoder was a theology professor with an expertise in Christian ethics. A Mennonite, he was a famous Christian pacifist. Yoder ended his career working at the University of Notre Dame. He began, however, working for Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The two institutions later joined to form Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary which has since been renamed Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).

Unlike Driscoll, Yoder was not particularly controversial and was even well liked by many across the theological spectrum. Even when his status as a troubling theologian became well-known he was, for the most part, not publicly lambasted or shamed. Folks in the seminary community had been aware, to varying degrees, of Yoder’s sexual behavior which was at its mildest strange and its worst violating. Numerous groups were formed to try to intervene with no success. The first group to really take any major action was from his congregation. This group received reports from 13 women of sexual violation which took place “in many places: conferences, classrooms, retreats, homes, apartments, offices, parking lots.”1 Due to the work of this group, Yoder’s credentialing was suspended and was never reinstated. This seems shamefully minor in comparison to Yoder’s actions, however. Though this initial case of 13 led to some action, once one digs deeper it becomes apparent that Yoder’s deviant behavior stretched much farther. During the 70’s and 80’s Yoder sexually violated over 100 women in multiple countries. What’s more, many knew and seemingly covered it up. Seminary president, Marlin Miller was not only aware, he took detailed notes about allegations, compelled women to remain silent, and later ended up destroying the majority of evidence against Yoder and the seminary. AMBS did finally apologize in a worship service on March 22 of this year in which folks close to the seminary community, including victims, were invited for a service of lament, open sharing, and prayer. Though this certainly is a step in the right direction, the overall response to Yoder’s actions is both perplexing and vexing.

Though these two stories have some similarities, the differences are what I find truly interesting. On the one hand, we have Yoder who actually broke the law – though he was never charged. Yoder also used methods – abuse of power, manipulation, and coercion – in his illegal activity which stand in conflict and diametric opposition to the Christian pacifism upon which his life’s work was based. All the while, Yoder’s fall from grace has not been widely discussed outside of Anabaptist circles and, as mentioned earlier, when it has been discussed by the broader public, he has not faced the sort of public backlash as others have for doing much, much less.

So, now we get to Driscoll who is one such person. Driscoll has been outright ostracized, as of late, for being un-Christ-like, unethical, and engaging in suspect business practices. Driscoll has, for the most part, been lambasted and shamed for behavior some, if not many, people are probably not surprised by. Anyone who has ever heard or read Driscoll’s works would describe him as aggressive, crass, and unapologetically blunt. For those outside the New Calvinist movement, his views on gender roles seemed backward and offensive long before his public fall from grace. Why, then, was the resurfacing of this blog thread from 2000 such a big deal? This is a serious question for a couple reasons. First, Driscoll had already confessed to this in one of his books, classifying his William Wallace II days as his angry prophet period – one he had since outgrown. Sure, you could still make a very compelling argument that Driscoll still was not acting Christ-like long after his angry prophet stage, but his behavior had noticeably improved upon his open confession and recognition of his former wrongs. Second, I wonder about the influence of our current internet culture on this storyline. If Yoder’s behavior, or at least its coming to light, had taken place in a world of social media and 24-hour news cycles, would things have been different for him?

Driscoll continues to be an outcast, some would even say he has been demonized. There was recently public uproar because Driscoll had been invited to speak at a recent Hillsong conference. He was not giving a plenary. He wasn’t even giving a speech or being asked to speak from any sort of position of authority. He was to sit down for a conversation with Hillsong pastor Brian Houston to talk about what if anything Driscoll had learned in the past year. People threw a fit to the point that Hillsong had to come out with a statement saying that Driscoll would not be present at the conference. The interview still took place and was broadcast via video at the conference which still got a number of people upset. Hillsong and Houston never endorsed Driscoll. Hillsong is a neo-Charismatic multi-site megachurch which differs from Driscoll and the former Marsh Hill Church in a variety of ways. Both are conservative evangelical, but Hillsong is egalitarian and has surprisingly moderate views on LGBT inclusion. So now what? Are we not even allowed to have civil discourse in public anymore? Are we not allowed to openly discuss our failings, and the failings of others, and examine what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown?

So, what do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? Ed Setzter says that while repentance must be both public and thorough, it must also ultimately lead to restoration.2 This is huge. Yoder has passed on. There is no longer opportunity for his public and thorough repentance and his restoration this side of the Jordan. There are opportunities, though, for the AMBS and broader Mennonite communities. It seems, too, that they are moving in the right direction. The same could be said of Driscoll. You may not like him as a person. You may not like his theology. But he does seem to be in the process of a public and thorough repentance. When, then, does restoration occur? Is there a time limit? What if God treated us the way many of us treat folks like Driscoll and other famous pastors who have public falls from grace? Can we forgive without forgetting, being permissive or affirming?

Two stories from Scripture, the parables of the prodigal son and the unforgiving servant come to mind. We are to forgive and welcome back into the fold those who turn and come back home. We are to forgive others who act inexcusably because God has done so for us and will punish those of us who refuse to forgive. I think of Noah and his naked drunkenness, David the murder and rapist, Moses and Paul who were also both murderers. God did amazing things through these broken people. I might not be a drunk, rapist, or a murderer, but I know how dark my sins are. I know that I’ve done things that are truly terrible and I know that I have hurt a number of people in my life, especially during my adolescence. I also know that I have helped positively shape the spiritual lives of many people by the Grace of God who chooses to use broken sinners for his glory.

So, I ask again, what do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? I, for one, acknowledge that the theology is good while also acknowledging that the theologians sometimes were bad. Yoder and Driscoll have hurt countless people. That is a serious, serious issue and should never be minimized. Yoder and Driscoll have helped positively shape the spiritual lives of countless people. That is a serious, serious issue and should never be minimized. So, that’s what I do. What do you do?

  1. Waltner Goossen, Rachel. “The Failure to Bind and Loose: Responses to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse.” The Mennonite A Publication of Mennonite Church USA Providing Anabaptist Content The Failure to Bind and Loose Responses to Yoders Sexual Abuse Comments. January 2, 2015. []
  2. Setzter, Ed. “When Pastors Fall: Why Full and Public Repentance Matters.” The Exchange. April 22, 2014. []
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What Happens in Baptism

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This post begins a two-part series. Part I will deal with the question “What happens in baptism,” an important question for many Anabaptist-Pietists. Part II will deal with the question of “what to do with quality theology from troubling theologians.” At first glance, I imagine that these two questions seem pretty far removed. You might be wondering how they connect as parts of a two-part series. Read on and I hope it will become clearer.

Baptism is: an act of discipleship; our dying and rising with Christ; our joining the fellowship of believers, which is the new humanity. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears write of this theology of baptism succinctly by saying:

We believe that water baptism is for those Christians who have already received Spirit baptism, making them part of the church. In water baptism, Christians are immersed in water, which identifies them with the death and burial of Jesus in their place for their sins. Coming up out of the water identifies them with the resurrection of Jesus for their salvation and new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. … [It] is a symbol of something far bigger. It is a visible declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit expresses the believer’s death to sin, burial of the old life, and resurrection to a new kingdom life in Christ Jesus.1

Baptism is an act of discipleship.

Scripture teaches that Jesus and the apostles charged all Christians to be baptized. Baptism identifies one as a disciple. Jesus commissions the first apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Peter, too, speaking to the crowds after Pentecost calls the crowd to believe, repent, and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Acts records how baptism accompanied conversion. After Peter had finished preaching to the crowd, Acts explains that “those who accepted his message were baptized (Acts 2:41).” Acts 8 shares of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch who eagerly exclaimed, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” After being baptized, he “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:36-38)2

Baptism is our dying and rising with Christ.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

One of the central claims of the gospel is that God is reconciling people to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19). We go from spiritual deadness and separation to being counted as alive in Christ. We are united with Jesus and submit to becoming part of his death. In Christ, though, we experience death that conquers death for in Christ “death is nor more” for it has been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

Baptism is our joining the fellowship of all believers, which is the new humanity.

In addition to being united with Christ, baptism unites us with the global church of committed disciples – the fellowship of all believers. In baptism, we proclaim that we are part of the true church of those converted, born-again, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and priests with unmediated access to God.

The church is the new humanity in which there is “a new inter-ethnic social reality.”3 The church is a people made up of all kinds of people. In Christ, God creates a new humanity that wrestles deeply with the problem of togetherness. In fact, this new humanity envisions a new way of living together “[as] a ‘multi-ethnic community,’ [that] does not quash ethnicity but relativizes it to the central claim that Jesus is Lord.”4 The same is said for other carnal attributes. This new path that showcases egalitarian living is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. The church is corporately made up of heirs of the Kingdom. “As ‘joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17) we receive the title to the coming kingdom, and even in this life we receive the ‘earnest’ or first installment of this inheritance.”5 In the church, and even more so in the coming Kingdom, God fulfills the promise to “take … from all the nations [and] gather … from all the countries” and give them his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:22-32).

Even the individuality of joining the church has the potential to lead to this togetherness as part of the New Humanity. Baptism, an act commonly associated with inauguration into the Church family, is rooted in many ways to the forgiveness of sin. It is a new birth – a new start that is available to the proverbial you. “The you here must refer not just to each person but to the other person – the stranger, the outcast, even the enemy or oppressor that one is inclined to view in terms of their past actions.”6 Because God can forgive you, he can forgive anyone. As all can be forgiven, the forgiven are one with Christ. As part of the new humanity, we are called to see passed our individual sinfulness and the sinfulness of others to our oneness in Christ. The new humanity aims to serve both the guilty and the hurting through reconciliation to God and to humanity. This new humanity works in the world, to bring about holistic change, under the guidance of Jesus Christ who is leader, shepherd, and judge. Under Christ’s supremacy, the church brings people into newness, continuing to proclaim that “The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So, what do we do when theologians don’t live up to their theology? What do we do when it seems as if the old things have not, indeed, gone away? Are they hypocrites? Do we dismiss their quality work because of their personal missteps? Does grace abound? Check back in next week as I ask the question: “What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians?”

 

 

  1. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). []
  2. See also: Acts 8-10, 16, 18-19., 22; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-15; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-14; 1 Peter 3:21. []
  3. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 30. []
  4. Russell Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 28 []
  5. Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 127 []
  6. Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 35. []
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