Mark Driscoll And The Danger Of “God Told Me”


I am catching up Christianity Today‘s podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The August 30, 2021 episode, “Questioning the Origin Myth: A Rise and Fall Short Story,” centered around what, in Reformed theology, piety, and practice, we call the internal call to ministry. In our understanding of Scripture and its outworking in the life of the church there are two aspects to the call to ministry, the internal and the external. The former describes that God-given sense within a man that he ought to become a minister of God’s Word, that he ought to become a preacher. The latter refers to the confirmation which comes from the visible church. In Reformed theology, piety, and practice, the two go together. To illustrate this there is an old story that circulates in the Reformed churches about the farmer who, upon looking up in the sky while plowing, sees the letters PC in the sky. He gets off his tractor, goes to the preacher and tells him what he has seen and that he thinks it means, “Preach Christ.” So, as the story goes, the minister tells him to write a sermon and then gives him the pulpit next week. The farmer does as instructed. After his sermon he asked the minister, “Well, what do you think?” The minister replies, “I think PC means Plant Corn.”

I suppose lots of traditions tell this story or they should but for us it means that the confirmation of the visible church is essential. We do not leave a man to decide on his own whether he is called to ministry. Thus, it was interesting to hear Mike Cosper narrate the story around Mark Driscoll’s sense of internal call. Here is a clip:

According to Cosper and others whom he interviewed for this episode, this is the story that Driscoll told over and again. Indeed, Cosper illustrates how often and consistently Driscoll has told the story of his call by playing several clips in succession. The discrepancy between the way Driscoll accounts for his call and the way the Reformed think about the call is notable.

Its Churchlessness

According to Driscoll’s repeated, public testimony he knew with certainty that certain things must happen: he must plant churches, study the Word, marry Grace, and train young men. He knew all this, however, as one of his friends at the time pointed out to him, before he was ever actually involved in a local congregation. This is remarkable. It is consistent with the nature and history of American revivalism going back, in some aspects, to the First Great Awakening in the early eighteenth century and entirely consistent with the theology, piety, and practice of the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century.

Often these movements frequently emerged outside the visible church. In this regard Driscoll is a classic American religious entrepreneur. He knew his market (or his marks), his message, and his method before he was ever accountable to a visible church. In Reformed practice, however, that should never be. In our understanding of the Scriptures and the life of the church, a young man usually grows up in a congregation or is at least a part of a congregation long enough for them to begin to see in him a giftedness for ministry. They take an opportunity to test those gifts in various ways. Only after they have had time to get to know him, after he has been catechized, after he has been evaluated do they ordinarily commend him to the church as a candidate for ministry. Then he made a candidate for ministry, i.e., put “under care” of one of the assemblies of the churches (e.g., consistory/session, classis or presbytery) and sent off to seminary to get the eduction a minister ought to have. He should learn the original Biblical languages so that he is not reliant upon English translations, the Old Testament, the New Testament, Biblical Theology, church history and historical theology, systematic theology, the confessions of the churches, and the practice of pastoral ministry. A serious and genuine ministerial education normally takes 3 or 4 years. As part of that process the candidate serves as an intern in a congregation under the supervision of an experienced minister. He is also ordinarily licensed by the churches to exhort in order to serve the churches (by providing pulpit supply) and to gain experience. Only then is he presented to the regional church (presbytery or classis) for examination prior to becoming available for a call.

Driscoll did little of this. He determined his call before he ever consulted the church. His ministerial education was an after thought and he was never accountable to a regional church. By the time churches attempted to exercise some oversight it was too late. Driscoll rebelled and the entire thing blew up quite publicly and notoriously.

Its Pentecostal Character

If you listened to the clip then the first thing you heard was Driscoll’s claim to have received a direct revelation from the Lord. This is another classic feature of American frontier religion. Nineteenth-century American Christianity was a wasteland of spiritual destruction wrought by religious entrepreneurs who heard “a word from the Lord” and who set off to establish a new congregation, a new method, or, far too often, a new religion. Think of Joseph Smith, who received a revelation from an angel. He gave us the Church of Latter Day Saints. The real question when studying nineteenth-century American religion is this: who was not receiving direct revelations from the Lord or from angels or the like?

According to Driscoll, when someone quite reasonably questioned the validity of his claim to have received a direct revelation he scoffed. Who could doubt its validity since it was in accord with Scripture and his aims were true? Well, any Reformed Christian would and should seriously question any claim made by anyone to have received a direct revelation from the Lord. Either God’s Word is sufficient or it is not.

Where has the Lord promised to give extra-canonical, extra-Biblical revelations? The best Biblical case for such (e.g., Wayne Grudem’s) is beyond weak, resting as it does on tenuous explanations of sometimes very difficult passages (e.g., the Agabus narrative) and dubious explanations of clearer passages. The case mostly rests on assumptions rather than Scripture. Even Driscoll implicitly admits that his “revelation” must be at least correlated with and verified Scripture. If the core of his call was nothing more than can be found in Scripture, then why the claim to direct revelation?

This is an important question and its answer illuminates the nature of American evangelicalism since the early eighteenth century: For centuries now American Christianity has been, in its spirituality and often in its theology, piety, and practice Anabaptist and Pentecostal. The Charismatic movement, which has become so prominent since the 1970s is, from a Reformed perspective, little more than the polite suburban relative of the more urban (i.e., Topeka and Azusa Street) Pentecostalism. It is not well known outside the ranks of scholars of the early Anabaptism but one of the features that alienated the magisterial Protestants from the Anabaptist radicals was claims by leaders of the Anabaptist movements to continuing revelation. Indeed, many of the phenomena we associate with the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic movements (e.g., tongues/glossolalia, being slain the Spirit, “healings,” etc) were an important part of the Anabaptist movements. Many know that Luther said that the Anabaptists believed that they had swallowed the Holy Spirit “feathers and all” but they do not always understand the context of the remark. It was Luther’s colorful repudiation of their claims to replicate the Apostolic phenomena.

The Reformed pastor Guido de Bres (1522–67), who died as a martyr for the faith at the hands of the Papists, who was the primary author of the Belgic Confession (1561) wrote a treatise against the Anabaptists in which he described in some detail the very sort of Pentecostal phenomena that we associate with groups such as the Assemblies of God. At the core of the magisterial Protestant rejection of the Anabaptist Pentecostalism was our doctrine of sola Scriptura. Indeed, the Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525) mocked the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and derided the Protestant pastors as “ministers of the dead letter.” He had no need of Scripture since he received, he claimed, direct revelations from the Lord. For him, the Bible only became the Word of God when it seemed so to him.

The post-Reformation history of Christianity is littered with claims of continuing revelation, beginning with Rome. It is of the essence of Romanism that the councils and popes receive, in effect, continuing revelation. Most of the sects, to one degree or another claim continuing revelation. Today, claims of continuing revelation are so commonplace few seem fazed by them. Americans seem to love the idea that their minister, rather than expositing the Bible as God’s Word, from the original languages, in light of the original context and intent of the human author and the Holy Spirit, receives direct, extra-Biblical revelation. Since the Cane Ridge Revival in the nineteenth century and the Topeka and Azusa Street revivals in the twentieth century, American evangelical Christianity has come to be increasingly dominated by powerful personalities who claim to receive direct revelations. Driscoll is just one in a long line of such claimants.

For Reformed Christians, however, Driscoll’s claims to receive direct revelation were a warning that something was seriously wrong. Not only did he know, allegedly from God, what he must do (before the church ever had an opportunity to evaluate him) but he used the authority endowed and endued by the claim to direct revelation to control the congregation and the rebuke challenges to his authority.

This is classic cult behavior.

Driscoll was laying down a marker from the beginning. He was saying, as the Pentecostalists like to say, “touch not the Lord’s anointed” and he was positioning himself as the Messiah. We can see the trajectory. Did Driscoll listen to the congregation or to others outside the congregation after it all melted down? No. He received yet more direct revelations and went to Scottsdale, AZ and set up a congregation in which there is not even a pretense of accountability. The Charismatics loved it so much they put him on the cover of Charisma Magazine. Who cares whom he hurt or how? The publishers of Charisma  are apparently did not care. This is what happens when evangelicals pay more attention to the gifts of the Spirit than to the fruit of the Spirit.

Mark Driscoll is a cautionary tale. It is a warning about the dangers of churchless Christianity and a reminder to the Reformed about the importance of the marks of the true church (Belgic art. 29). Christ, not any preacher, is the Anointed One (Heidelberg Catechism 32). The church is organized around Christ. The Scriptures are the sufficient Word of God. Everything we need for Christian doctrine and practice is revealed or necessarily implied in Scripture. We do not need continuing revelation and we should stoutly doubt anyone who claims to receive extra-Biblical revelation. Had we only this one case to which we could point to show the dangers of claims of extra-biblical revelation, it would be enough. Sadly, however, we have hundreds and probably thousands of cases to which we can easily point to show the dangers of claims of continuing revelation.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. For more evidence of the influence of the Pentecostal paradigm on Mars Hill, listen to the episode “Demon Hunting” (September 10, 2021), which describes the MH “deliverance ministry.”

  2. I once viewed a lecture you presented to a church on the topic of the Anabaptists (I don’t remember the website—I don’t think it was on Heidelblog). It was a good explanation of the link between the 16th century Anabaptists and Pentecostalism. I had no prior knowledge of the many of the roots of American revivalism.

  3. I believe the Charismatic Movement has been the worst single influence on the western Church in the last 60 yrs. I informally place its inception on “The Holy Spirit and You” by Dennis Bennett in or around 1960. I focus on 6 core errors: 1) a low view of God’s Word, 2) a low view of the Holy Spirit, 3) a low view of sin, 4) a low view of the sacraments, 5) a low view of the historic creeds and confessions, culminating in 6) a low view of worship. American evangelicalism seems to embody all of these even if they don’t identify as Charismatic.

    • I probably have ignored Bennett more than I should but it’s part of the broader neo-Pentecostal movement. I know that Charismatics like to distinguish themselves from the Pentecostals and there are distinctions but at bottom, they are varieties of the same phenomenon.

  4. This is a spot-on analysis. I was part of Mars Hill for 3 years right before its downfall. Let me just say that it wasn’t just Mark Driscoll, but associate pastors at the different campuses and community group leaders that had this attitude to the strange practices of “hearing God” apart from Holy Scripture. When my friends and I raised questions about these extra-biblical revelations that seemed to plague the Mars Hill leadership, we were ignored and not taken seriously. We left right before MH fell. I read Calvin’s institutes, visited a OPC, became a member, and now, after 6 years of membership, a ruling elder. Mars Hill showed me what being Reformed in piety and practice *isn’t* – so much so that it led me to study what Reformed ecclesiology, piety, and practice really is. I’m thankful to God for showing me these things in His mercy.

  5. I emailed a link to your post to my elders today. I’m not in complete agreement with everything, but on the main points of this post, you’re spot on, and the problem is far larger than the charismatic movement. Low views and unbiblical views of calling and ordination have become the norm throughout most of the American evangelical world.

    While a fundamental Baptist, a traditional Pentecostal, and a broad evangelical may agree on very little in matters of doctrine and church practice, two areas on which they will often agree in practice, if not in theory, are a low view of the role of the church in preparing a person for ordained pastoral work and a mystical view of the internal call which elevates the “God set His hand upon me” testimony above the role of the institutional church. I see that all over the Ozarks, and not surprisingly, it leads to not just many but most ministers having minimal formal training or accountability in the process of ordaining them.

    From my email to my elders with a link to your post: “…with regard to the problems of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, Clark’s evaluation of the problems, right from the start of Driscoll’s ministry, is right. When people believe they are called to the ministry outside the authority of the institutional church and the biblical process for evaluating men according to the standards prescribed for elders in I Timothy and Titus, in nearly all cases it turns out they have called themselves and are not called by God… While Driscoll’s problems have a charismatic flavor, the fact that Driscoll claimed for most of his ministry to be Reformed shows the problem is broader than the charismatic and Pentecostal community. Lack of understanding of the role of the church in evaluating and training those who aspire to the office of teaching elder — which two words describe what an ordained minister is, whatever other title he may have — is endemic in the American evangelical world.”

  6. Why is there a post-apostolic carve out for the legitimacy of a “call” to ministerial service but not for other professions? If I feel I have a “call” to be a physician, it has to be confirmed by medical schools, state examining boards, etc. So are these examinations a confirmation that I have received a “call”? I would say no. Isn’t it it QIRE to talk of a post-apostolic “call” to ministry or anything else? Why is it less legitimate to say “I have the desire to be a minister of the Gospel.” ? In my PCA church the pastor is always talking about he and the session being “led” to do this or that. I know that sounds more pious and tends to lend more legitimacy to what they want to do but shouldn’t they just say that they think it is good that they do this or that rather than invoke some mystical divine guidance that can’t be questioned?

  7. At the risk of mentioning that I’m still doing intermittent work on Mars Hill history, I’ve been writing lately about how in his 2006 book Confessions of a Reformission Rev Mark Driscoll announced he’d relied repeatedly on dream divination (“prophetic dreams”) in making key decisions about the future of Mars Hill.

    He’s also been ambiguous as to the extent of prophetic dreams he had since Real Marriage in 2012 refers to finding out something about Grace through such a dream without crediting a source for it, even though it’s been hard for me to shake a sense that a nightmare he mentioned in Confessions seemed clear that he thought he got at least one divinatory/prophetic dream he regarded as satanic without explaining how or why he would make distinctions between prophetic dreams of satanic origin.

    Since the CT podcast series has gone up I’ve been ambivalent about the series because CT can seem to overlook the mountains of published materials that suggest that Mark has not considered himself charismatic or Pentecostal and took his spiritual warfare ideas more from Karl I Payne (Mark wrote a glowing blurb) than any more conventionally charismatic/Pentecostal approach to spiritual warfare (I’m ex-Assemblies of God so I can think of a few names).

    I recommend both Vermurlen’s book and Gribben’s book on the PNW as references, by the way. Gribben’s work was particularly good and reminded me that in Driscoll’s own account his audible calling moment occurred by an Idaho river in 1990. It’s possible that journalists and scholars who have tackled Driscoll so far may have under-estimated the extent to which Wilson’s model inspired Mark’s vision of starting a church that had a publishing company, a music label, a church planting network, and trained young men. A lot of what Driscoll did has struck me as taking many of Wilson’s more dubious ideas and putting them on steroids.

    • Wenatchee,

      I appreciate this. Someone wrote to me recently to ask about this very connection with Wilson.

      Gribben’s work is excellent but I don’t know Vermulen’s.

      The charismatic/pentecostal connection seems clear to me. Are you suggesting that he wasn’t really Pentecostal or Charismatic?

    • Because the topic is Driscoll I’m afraid the potential answer is deliberately slippery as he has been on the topic. 🙂
      I’m still in progress on this project at my blog. I’m going through Mark’s books and cross referencing origin stories for his conversion and planting of Mars Hill.

      Mark spent the entire Mars Hill era downplaying or outright hiding the extent to which his family had charismatic Catholic influences. To mention that didn’t help his conversion story, which had more “oomph” when his “audible calling” account was framed around the surmise that Mark was no kind of believer with no serious religious background.

      Early patronage for Mars Hill came from the cessationist (or so I’m told) Antioch Bible Church and so while Mark was trying to get Mars Hlll launched and stabilized he had every incentive to “lean cessationist” (what he told me in a face to face conversation around 2001-2002). I’m hoping to assemble material to show that Mark’s history of hiding this kind of history was a part of the MH era writings and that it has been in the post-MHC books he’s finally admitted that there have been charismatic Catholics in the Driscoll clan.

      So he wasn’t really Pentecostal or charismatic because he’s refused to have any formal affiliation with denominations BUT he has been influenced by charismatic theology and definitely has had charismatic Catholic family members. So he’s had a some charismatic influence while having a history of rejecting any formal affiliation.

    • Wenatchee, please continue your research on this, particularly the connections (to the extent they exist) with the charismatic movement within the Roman Catholic Church.

      While similar to the older Pentecostal and the newer Charismatic movement in many external ways, the Catholic charismatic renewal (their term) probably needs to be considered a separate though related movement.

      Roman Catholic views of spiritual discipline and ecclesiastical authority are very different from most of modern evangelical Protestantism, and they make the Catholic charismatic movement very different in important ways from either the older Pentecostal or the newer Charismatic movements.

      One area of commonality, however, is the authoritative role of a single church leader, as opposed to the classical Reformed view of authority being shared by a plurality of elders. Another is the role of “Tres Dias” and the “Cursillo” movement in mainstreaming Roman Catholic forms of spiritual disciplines, particularly in charismatic circles. That seems to apply less to Driscoll but perhaps there are parallels in the personal piety and programs for spirituality which Driscoll taught in his own church and church plants. I wouldn’t expect Driscoll to want to join groups like Cursillo because they would unavoidably create competing leadership and loyalty against his leadership, but he may well have taken what he considered to be their good points and applied them locally.

      If Driscoll took his views on those two subjects from Roman Catholic charismatics, it would explain many things — including areas where his views are diametrically opposite. Perhaps his emphasis on sexuality is a rejection of the views he saw in his Roman Catholic family members?

      I don’t know but it’s worth exploring how interaction, both appreciative and negative, with Catholic charismatics may have affected Driscoll and the development of Mars Hill.

  8. It took a while to go through the primary sources across at least twenty years but I’ve managed to assemble a list of accounts Driscoll gave about his conversion process and calling. The core narrative stayed pretty stable during the Mars Hill era and my sense has been that the most significant revisions to the conversion and calling stories are more on the conversion side and cluster in the post-Mars Hill resignation accounts. It isn’t until 2013 that Driscoll seems to start slipping in that his mother and one of his grandmothers had connections to a Charismatic Catholic enclave of some kind in A Call to Resurgence. Once he shifted over to Charisma House he somewhat unsurprisingly leaned more into mentioning the Charismatic Catholic element of his family background that he didn’t mention in his Mars Hill era.

    He didn’t formally identify as charismatic or charismatic-sympathetic in the earlier years of Mars Hill most likely because, as he recounted in later published work, he interned at a church that was cessationist on the spiritual gifts. It seems as though Mark has a history of leaning in public toward the doctrinal beliefs of people who are willing to bankroll his projects while retaining his own private beliefs that he doesn’t necessarily disclose beyond a circle of confidantes.

    I’ve also got a post up about dream divination in the public ministry of Mark Driscoll

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