I’ve been listening to the incendiary podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, and shaking my head along with thousands of listeners around the world. But it’s worth remembering there were two churches named Mars Hill, one of which is still in existence. Both their founding pastors courted controversy, but one of them was treated very differently to the other by the evangelical church establishment.
MARS HILL CASE 1: ROB BELL
In 2011, the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, wrote a book entitled, Love Wins.
The pastor’s name was Rob Bell.
The marketing description of Bell’s book read, “Love Wins is about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” For many people, it simply became known as Bell’s hell book.
In it, he outlines a number of historical views of hell, from “eternal conscious torment” to “universal reconciliation” and (as best I could discern) doesn’t identify any one view as his own. He does write that the universalist view is appealing without saying he holds to it. But he is more explicit in his criticism of hell as a place of fiery torment: “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
Love Wins is a frustratingly imprecise book, but it’s pretty clear that Rob Bell was rejecting eternal conscious torment and suggesting that hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. One reviewer said Love Wins presents [Bell’s] “case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.”
Unfortunately, large swathes of the evangelical church leadership prefer certainty and they were certain that Bell had gone too far. Leaders such as Albert Mohler, Kevin De Young and David Platt rejected the book outright, and did exactly as Bell predicted — equated a rejection of this particular doctrine of hell with a complete rejection of Jesus.
John Piper infamously tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Rob Bell was shunned.
MARS HILL CASE 2: MARK DRISCOLL
In 2014, the pastor of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, Mark Driscoll resigned in response to allegations made by multiple staff over many years that he was responsible for a deeply dysfunctional culture of leadership in the church. The board of overseers stated that Driscoll had “been guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner.”
Over recent months, Christianity Today has been releasing episodes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast which has aired testimony of the trail of broken lives and dashed hopes Driscoll left in his wake at Mars Hill. It has also detailed the damage caused by his mistruths, his plagiarism, and his teaching about gender and demon possession. It cannot be overstated how traumatized many of Driscoll’s former colleagues have been by their time in the church.
You would think the conservative church that was so quick to shun Rob Bell over Love Wins would be just as scathing in their response to a man charged with bullying, anger, deceit, and plagiarism, a man who had caused serious harm to many in his church.
Not so, I’m afraid.
This week I was listening to the final episode of the podcast, Aftermath, which explores the fallout from Driscoll’s spectacular demise. It begins by replaying a series of sound grabs by conservative pastors speaking about Driscoll, the first of which is Pastor Robert Morris introducing Driscoll at a pastors’ conference in Texas just five days after his resignation:
“He did make some mistakes. Here’s what I figure: we’ve got two choices. One is we could crucify him. But since someone’s already been crucified for him… The other choice is we could restore him with a spirit of gentleness considering ourselves lest we are also tempted. And it’s very sad that in the church we are the only army that shoots at our wounded. And I want you to stop it… I’d like for you to show your love for him. I’d like for you to welcome him here. Mark, would you stand up? This is Mark Driscoll.”
The hundreds of pastors present that day greeted their fallen brother with thunderous applause.
Morris’ generous introduction is then followed by quotes from unnamed pastors, all speaking publicly about Driscoll around the time of his fall:
“And Pastor Mark had to go through a very difficult, almost a public trial with the media on his front lawn, helicopters overhead…”, says one man.
“And I believe Mark Driscoll has been completely mistreated by former staff people and by our media and I want to support Mark and his family…”, says another.
“And Pastor Jimmy got up and delivered a powerful prophetic word to Pastor Mark. And the prophetic word was this: you’ve been a brother to many, the next season you’re going to move into is you’re going to transition from a brother to a father,” says yet another.
Far from being “the only army that shoots at our wounded,” as Robert Morris had said, the church was absolving Driscoll of responsibility and celebrating him as a victim of the media and his “former staff people.” Two years after his ignominious departure from Mars Hill, Driscoll founded another church in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he remains the pastor to this day.
In other words, Mark Driscoll was not shunned.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Why shun one Mars Hill pastor for writing about his questions regarding the doctrine of hell, but commiserate with another Mars Hill pastor when he’s outed as an arrogant bully?
You could say the evangelical church takes doctrine more seriously than behavior. Bell was shunned for his theological beliefs, but Driscoll wasn’t charged with heresy or wrong teaching.
You could also say that Driscoll didn’t get an entirely free pass from the evangelical church. Acts 29, the conservative church planting network Driscoll founded, had removed him from leadership even prior to his resignation from Mars Hill.
But overall, Driscoll remains in the fold, while Bell was ejected.
What was the difference? I’ve been thinking maybe this is a case of identity theology.
You’ve heard of identity politics. It’s a pretty vague phrase, usually used as a pejorative, but initially it referred to politicking around issues pertaining to one’s, well, identity. But it has been broadened over time to describe the way people’s identities become expressed through their politics. And when people come to feel as though their preferred political party is a projection of their identity, they become less discerning or critical of that party’s policies, and less able to see value in the policies of another party.
Identity theology is the same. It’s like when your sense of who you are is conveyed by the religious group or network to which you belong. Mark Driscoll and the New Calvinists, also known as the Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement not only articulated a theological system of thought that appealed to their adherents, they fostered a tribe. They created a community and championed a group of elders that epitomized everything that community desired to become — men like John Piper, Matt Chandler, Al Mohler, Mark Dever and CJ Mahaney.
I’ve met many young men in ministry who very quickly identify themselves to me as part of this tribe. But when we enter into discussions about theology, they often can’t defend the Calvinist doctrine they say they hold. Sometimes, some of them have even inadvertently voiced views opposed to Calvinism. Their self-identification as Calvinists is often more a way of them describing who they are, not necessarily what they believe.
The concept of a theological identity can best be understood as an inner narrative of one’s theological self. Identity is the story that we tell ourselves and others about who we are, who we were, and who we foresee ourselves to be. For some people, Acts 29 or The Gospel Coalition do that work for them. They define the tribe they want to belong to and the person they want to be. Similarly, non-Calvinist networks like Missio Alliance, Forge, and the Parish Collective help their adherents to define their identities as visionaries, social justice activists, community workers and peace-makers.
THE POWER OF TRIBALISM
When trying to understand why one Mars Hill pastor was shunned while the other was welcomed back, look to the power of the tribe. While certainly an evangelical, Rob Bell was never a Calvinist. He didn’t appear to be interested in complying with the rules of his tribe. In fact, he was willing to question everything, pushing on the limits of evangelical belief. Hence, Love Wins.
Driscoll, on the other hand, was the epitome of his tribe. Confident, uncompromising and outspoken to the point of rudeness, he personified a kind of male Christian who loved theology, hated pointless emotionalism, demanded discipline and hard work, and embraced a commitment to traditional family values. He was a card-carrying member of the young, restless and reformed crowd. Even after he came undone as a leader at Mars Hill, his tribe could not reject him because to do so would seem like rejecting their very identity. Mark Driscoll was one of them.
Evangelicalism is too big and too broadly defined to operate as a tribe, so its adherents fracture into smaller, more meaningful groupings whose members say they are driven by biblical or theological agendas, but in reality they are defined by personality traits and a sense of identity as much as anything.
Sometimes, saying you are a Calvinist or a progressive, or that you’re missional or an Anabaptist, or that you’re conservative or woke, means something more like saying you’re a Gemini or a No 6 on the Enneagram. We all just want to belong somewhere and be known.