Between The Evangelical Circus And Deconstruction

This has been a strange week in Lake Wobegon. No sooner had the news emerged that an evangelical megachurch, James River Church (Springfield, MO) hired a male stripper/sword swallower—who, according to Julie Roys, “moonlights as a pole-dancing striptease artist at gay nightclubs”—to appear at their men’s conference, than the event was publicly rebuked by, believe it or not, Mark Driscoll for displaying the spirit of Jezebel.1 Then, Driscoll himself capitalized on the event by using it to sell one of his books. As they say on late-night television, but wait, there’s more. The same week, we saw Driscoll’s mentor and prototype, Doug Wilson, being interviewed by Tucker Carlson to promote his version of Christian Nationalism.

All this is enough to make one’s head spin. Mark Driscoll is a disgraced pastor who founded and then figuratively blew up the Mars Hill empire headquartered in Seattle.2 The story was dramatic enough to warrant an entire podcast series.3 He now leads a congregation in Scottsdale.

Wilson has been a center of controversy for decades.4 From his unabashed advocacy of the benefits of American (chattel) slavery, to his direct involvement in three different cases of plagiarism, to his impenitent use of vulgarity (particularly about women), to his advocacy of the Federal Vision error (denounced by most of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council churches), to his mishandling of gravely serious pastoral issues (e.g., statutory rape and child sexual abuse), Wilson has hardly been a model of pastoral wisdom, orthodoxy, or probity.5 Wilson and Driscoll have taken their turns driving the proverbial church-growth bus.6

These sorts of episodes sometimes cause Christians who only know American evangelicalism to despair of the faith, and to consider apostasy and say, “If this is Christianity, I want none of it.” This would be a good time, as they say, to take a beat. The American evangelical circus is by turns sweet and infuriating. The circus at the James River men’s conference is part of a pattern. Roys writes, “The annual Stronger Men’s Conferences have always bordered on the ridiculous, mixing Christianity with professional bull riding, monster trucks, boxing, and other shows of masculinity.”7

Clown shows have long been a feature of the revivalist wing of American evangelical religion. Weirdness is baked into the American evangelical experience. Though the First Great Awakening (1730s and 40s) is popularly thought to have been a sober Calvinist revival, the facts on the ground are rather more complicated (e.g., Jonathan Edwards’ endorsement of the bizarre experiences of his wife, Sarah).8 There were aspects of and episodes in the First Great Awakening that the magisterial Protestants and the Reformed orthodox after them would have found very strange indeed. Things became only more bizarre, beginning with the outbreak of Pentecostalism (among Presbyterians) at Cane Ridge, KY and elsewhere at the turn of the nineteenth century. During the succeeding Second Great Awakening, which dominated American religion in the nineteenth century (and continued to reverberate through much of the twentieth century), things became even stranger.

Entertainment and theater became a fixed part of the schtick of nearly every itinerant evangelist. Religious showbiz and chicanery might have reached its zenith in the life and ministry of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944), who once rode a motorcycle down the center aisle during a service.9 So, when James River Church brings in monster trucks or male strippers, that is part of a tradition that harkens back to Billy Sunday’s histrionics, and before him to the tents and sawdust trails of American revivalist religion.10

There is another way, a better way, a historic way, a biblical way to be a Christian. The theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed churches is rooted in Scripture and shaped by our serious engagement with the ancient church, the medieval theologians, and, of course, the Reformation Protestants and their orthodox successors. If you have found yourself in the midst of the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, please do not mistake that for actual Reformed theology, piety, and practice.11 It is not. It is an appropriation of aspects of Reformed Christianity by American evangelicals who have become excited about the so-called doctrines of grace. If you are shocked by this characterization, you are not alone. When, in 2010, Chad Vegas read these sorts of things, he was a little put off.12 This fall, we hope, Lord permitting, to see Chad, his fellow ministers, and his congregation join the United Reformed Churches in North America.13 It is a journey, but today is as good as any other to take the first step.

At its best, Reformed Christianity is the antithesis of the fiasco at James River and of Doug Wilson. It is truly ecumenical: we confess the ancient Christian creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed) and the historic Reformed confessions. The Reformed churches do not promote or create a cult of personality. Christ, not the preacher, is at the center of our theology, piety, and practice. Our churches are connectional, and unlike the weird episodes of the week, our ministers are accountable to their local elders, to regional elders and ministers, and to a synod or general assembly. When Wilson was found by his own federation of churches to have committed serious errors of pastoral practice, nothing came of it.14 When Driscoll was found to have been abusive, he fled and formed a new congregation. In actual Presbyterian and Reformed churches, however, should a minister do those sorts of things he would find himself under discipline. In other words, there is accountability for pastors and elders.

The Reformed churches have not just discovered that there was a church before the nineteenth century. We have always been conscious that we have a certain obligation to the past. We do not imagine that we are the first to read the Bible.

At our best, our churches are refuges from the world, gracious hospitals for sinners, embassies of the kingdom of heaven where the pure gospel of free salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), is held forth unashamedly and weekly. When we are faithful to our confession, our churches think of public Lord’s Day worship as a holy event. We do not think of it as a sanctified variety show or principally as an event held to “get people saved.” We understand public worship as a convocation called by the Lord himself, in his holy Word. We see ourselves as Christ’s flock gathered, in his name, before the face of God and heaven, to hear God’s holy law read, to confess our sins, to hear the blessed announcement of forgiveness, to pray, to hear his Word read and preached, to respond with his Word, to confess the faith once delivered to the saints, and to receive the holy sacraments. All of this we see as a joyful and sacred thing.

At our best, we do not consider our covenant children a burden to be shunted off to children’s church. Rather, we hold that they are part of the Christ-confessing covenant community, whom, by God’s command and promise, we have recognized as members of the covenant community in baptism, whom we instruct prayerfully, whom we include in public worship, for and with whom we pray, and whom we expect to make a credible profession of faith before the elders and to be received into holy communion.

Like the apostolic churches and all the churches before the thirteenth century, we only know two sacraments: holy baptism and holy communion. We observe those as appropriate, and some of our congregations, like the ancient church, administer holy communion weekly.

Our ethic is shaped by the abiding validity of God’s moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the moral instruction in the epistles. We seek to obey God’s holy law not in order to be justified or saved but out of gratitude, in union and communion with Christ, in light of the salvation that we have already received. We do not think of the Christian life as something lived in isolation, but one lived in the communion of the saints.

Unlike the Christian Nationalists and other culture warriors, our vision of the Christian life is not one of warfare with our neighbors. We know that our struggle is “not with flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12; NASB). As Christians, we find ourselves sometimes in very strong disagreement with our pagan neighbors, but they are not our enemies. We know who our enemy is and he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8; NASB). We pray for God’s saving grace for our neighbors just as he has shown it to us, and we seek to be lights in the darkness.

There is much more that could be said, but suffice it to say that deconstruction is not the way to respond to the evangelical circus. Do not despair. All is not lost. Christ is on his throne. He has his people, even if it at times it seems like only a remnant that has not bowed the knee to the Baal (1 Kings 19:18) of entertainment. In truth, it is a great multitude in all times and places, and will always be until our great King comes in glory at the last day.

Notes

  1. Julia Gomez, “‘Jezebel spirit’: Pastor kicked off stage at Christian conference in Missouri,” USA Today, April 15, 2024. Julie Roys, “Opinion: The Irony! Mark Driscoll Gets ‘Matthew 18ed’ for Slamming ‘Strip’ Act at Men’s Conference,” The Roys Report, April 15, 2024.
  2. R. Scott Clark, “Former Mars Hill Elders Plead For Driscoll To Resign Over Continuing Abuse Of The Sheep.” The Roys Report, “Mark Driscoll.”
  3. Mike Cosper, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, May 27, 2021–November 10, 2022, published by Christianity Today, podcast.
  4. See R. Scott Clark, “It Can Be Difficult But We Need To Open Our Eyes And Pay Attention To The Facts.”
  5. See R. Scott Clark, “Resources On The Federal Vision Theology.”
  6. See R. Scott Clark, “Heidelcast 139: Of Megachurches, Busses, And Woodchippers.”
  7. Julie Roys, “Mark Driscoll.”
  8. See R. Scott Clark, “Sarah Edwards’ Encounters With The Divine (Or Neglected Aspects Of The First Great Awakening).”
  9. See R. Scott Clark, “Magic and Noise: Christ the Center on Sister’s America.” For more on Sister’s life and ministry see “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim, Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91. (Apple Books version).
  10. See R. Scott Clark, “Resources On Revivals And Revivalism.”
  11. See R. Scott Clark, “Resources On The Young, Restless, And Reformed and New Calvinism Movements.”
  12. See Chad Vegas’ comment under R. Scott Clark, “Molly Worthen on Mark Driscoll (and Calvin).”
  13. For a series of articles by Chad Vegas narrating his journey, see R. Scott Clark, “Resources on Vegas on Discovering the Reformed Confession.”
  14. See “Presiding Ministers’ Report on the Sitler and Wight Sex Abuse Cases,” report, Christ Church, Moscow, ID, August 15, 2017, accessed at The Truth About Moscow.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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7 comments

  1. This is mighty good.

    And oh dear re: Sarah Edwards. My goodness, she’d be right at home in American ‘Christianity’ today, wouldn’t she.

    Wow. She’d probably be a tee-vee preacheress.

  2. I tried to look up Chad Vegas’s church and it looks like a pretty solid reformed (or as you say particular) baptist church. Is the whole church and the leadership switching from credo to paedobaptist? Quite the move

    • William,

      Sovereign Grace Bakersfield was Baptist but it is no longer. They are confessing the Three Forms of Unity and we expect to see them unite with the United Reformed Churches in North America.

  3. Folks, here we have the reason why the Heidelblog is my go-to site for theological sanity.
    Thank you Dr. Clark for, once again, putting yet another pathetic display in proper ecclesial perspective. I suppose the only positive side of these performances are that they show the perspicuity of scripture in the difference between sheep and goats, tares and wheat.

  4. It entailed dredging up older research I had done in the past but for a guy who mentioned “clear heels” 17 times in 13 sermons preached from the pulpit at Mars Hill between January 2004 and February 2008 Mark Driscoll seems to be in a very weird position to lament the influence of what he calls the Jezebel spirit in North American churches.

    https://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2024/04/mark-driscoll-is-in-strange-position-to.html

    What continues to stick out like a sore thumb to me is Doug Wilson would rather No Quarter November about his usual hobby horse topics (or announce that Clare Locke LLP has been engaged on behalf of Christ Church Moscow) than to get around to saying anything for the record about Mark Driscoll’s latest work and incidents.

    New Days, Old Demons is a new low for him. I got a second-hand copy and it’s a disaster more or less from start to finish. I think the Mark Driscoll of 2003 I used to know (if only a little) would regard the Mark Driscoll of 2023 who published New Days, Old Demons as someone who has gone insane and become a heretical nutjob.

    I’m reminded that one of the most basic questions about Driscoll’s career as a preacher has yet to be answered even by Mike Cosper’s sprawling podcast, which is “Who thought Mark Driscoll was ever actually called to be a preacher?”

    I’ve been revisiting Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and his point about how Edwards ultimately made a mistake in throwing his intellectual, theological and philosophical gifts behind a defense of revivalism seems more on point now than it seemed decades ago.

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