“Whatever you have done to the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.” – Jesus
Who needs lions when you can throw Christians to the Christians?
This started out as a blog post about Mars Hill and Pastor Mark Driscoll. It was not going to be a favorable post.
I once said on Facebook that Mark Driscoll “has a case of verbal diarrhea,” a statement I later apologized for. Yet Driscoll’s crassness and provoking statements anger me. His personality triggers me—makes me feel shamed and judged. I planned to write about him as an example of a controlling leader.
When I started researching about him, I grew even more concerned.
First about him.
Then about me.
Then about other bloggers.
And finally about the online Christian community at large.
Here is what I found.
Gloating Over My Enemies
Earlier this year, a popular Christian blogger (Matthew Paul Turner) published a post about a church discipline matter at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. A young man named Andrew seemed to have been mistreated. The church seemed controlling, possibly cult-like. The story was—and is—compelling.
Within days, the blogosphere went crazy.
Articles appeared in Slate magazine, the Wartburg Watch, The Stranger, and in many other blogs and Internet forums. Each blog referenced the article by Turner and sounded off on Driscoll. Selected video clips from the controversial pastor’s sermons went viral. Groups formed for survivors who had left the mega-church. Many folks—both laymen and former elders—came forward to express their concern over what they consider draconian discipline at Mars Hill.
The more I read, the more I disliked Mark Driscoll.
He’s a misogynist, people said. A control freak. An immature, shame-based leader who browbeats elders and delights in crudities. He preaches about sex to exorcise his own shadows, another person said. A bully, opined well-respected blogger Rachel Held Evans, back in 2011 before the latest news came out. A cult-leader, others said. This man must be stopped!
And I agreed. I come from a spiritual abuse background and can often scent the symptoms.
So I opened a fresh page in Microsoft Word and began to draft a juicy blog piece about Mark Driscoll. I thought I might title it, “Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill, and the Leadership Reef.” Reef, as in you can shipwreck people’s faith by your leadership style. Clever. Devastatingly so.
But then I remembered a verse I’d studied years ago when I was in a cult myself. Proverbs 18:17: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes forward and examines him.” Suddenly my one-sided arguments didn’t sound so clever.
Instead they sounded angry. Simplistic.
14,000 people attend Mars Hill, many of whom would never darken a traditional church door. Several of my friends have testified to me that Mark Driscoll has spoken prophetically into their lives in ways that other pastors haven’t. I may dislike his personality; I disagree with many of his methods; and I think his leadership style may unintentionally harm people.
But I can’t write a blog post about this Christian leader, at least not today.
My motives aren’t right.
I haven’t really researched about Mark. Just read one of his books, the Mars Hill website, and some opposing blogs. And while I don’t doubt that mistakes have been made at Mars Hill and people have gotten hurt, do I really have Driscoll’s best interest in mind? Or do I just want to generate blog traffic by capitalizing on his polarizing name? It seems so easy—gratifying, even—to publicly sink a knife into his back and hear the crowds roar.
Blogging as bloodsport, you might say.
I wonder if anyone else struggles with the same problem.
The Ecstasy of Agony
I think they sometimes do.
Ideally, Christian bloggers should educate, inform, and spur other believers on toward love, good deeds, and critical thinking. They can provoke, but they should not malign. Act as the conscience of the church and society, not the judge or executioner. They must avoid character assassination even as they warn of threats in doctrine or practice.
Responsible bloggers research controversial topics from both sides and offer robust perspective on each. Sure, anyone can write a one-sided diatribe against a provocative person. But do I really want to draw my conclusions from them? On the other hand, balance and diplomacy are a Christian blogger’s best friends.
Sadly, some bloggers seem to have embraced a culture of antagonism.
Let me explain.
Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Argument Culture, puts it like this:
“The phenomenon I’d observed at the book-group meeting [where fellow scholars verbally tore apart a book in order to sound smart, rather than discussing its merits in order to benefit from it] was an example of what the cultural linguist Walter Ong calls ‘agonism,’ which he defines in Fighting for Life as ‘programmed contentiousness’ or ‘ceremonial combat.’ Agonism does not refer to disagreement, conflict, or vigorous dispute. It refers to ritualized opposition.”
The seduction of such ritualized opposition is the perceived merits of sounding smarter than another scholar, author, or public figure. It is the adrenaline rush of intellectual combat. The ecstasy of agony.
“Many aspects of our academic lives can be described as agonistic. For example, in our scholarly papers, most of us follow a conventional framework that requires us to position our work in opposition to someone else’s, which we prove wrong. The framework tempts—almost requires—us to oversimplify or even misrepresent others’ positions; cite the weakest example to make a generally reasonable work appear less so; and ignore facts that support others’ views, citing only evidence that supports our own positions.”
I believe that this climate of stylized opposition and over-simplification has occasionally infected some of our Christian blogs—if not always in the original blog posts, then certainly in the comments section.
The result is like throwing fellow Christians to the lions.
Bloggers who write whistle-blowing posts about other Christian leaders have not finished their job until they have coated their verbal fire with at least a little asbestos of grace. Otherwise, they leave their followers with lit brands, ready to run like Samson’s foxes through the fields, burning up the wheat with the chaff.
A quick look at the comments sections of Turner’s and Evans’s blogs provides several examples.
This quote was from the comments section of Ms. Evans’s blog:
“if we are throwing [Driscoll] under the bus for misogeny, but i am EFFING tired of Liberal Feminism being accepted in God’s people too… if we are trashing one, trash the other bad ideas too…” [sic]
“i disagree with [Evans] tagging articles about [Driscoll’s] teachings within the church that GOD has appointed him pastor of… No OUTSIDERS, especially conservative stuff-shirt d-bag ‘Christians’ or liberal hippie outsider ‘Christians’ who don’t attend my Corps/Church, get to critique how i lead my Youth Group until they are INVESTED IN IT… i don’t care if they write 1 million letters on how they disagree with HOW i teach solid biblical teachings” [sic]
A number of other commentators tried to reason with folks who made vicious comments. Lively threads popped up. Plenty of respectful dialogue did occur. But non-Christians occasionally weighed in with comments like, “This is why I left the church,” or “99.9% of crimes are committed by Christians.” Cheerful stuff.
Where in all of this was the balance? The perspective?
Blogging in the E-rena
This made me stop to think.
And think some more.
I began to feel sick to my stomach.
For some reason, the posts and comment sections of these blogs conjured the image of gladiatorial combat.
I began to hear the cheers of the crowds. The clang of metal on metal. Felt the sand under my feet in the arena.
I saw the bloggers as champions on yellow sand, sheathed in metal and wielding swords. They traded blows with their opponents—some matches were fair, others unfair. Some were honorable, others dishonorable. Hit after hit after hit. Several champions accumulated large followings.
And then a gladiator fell.
The crowd of spectators roared!
I roared too.
I looked up in the stands and saw thousands of faces—Christian faces—twisted with passion. Some called out for imprisonment and death. “Death! Death! Death!” they screamed.
Others raised their thumbs and shouted for mercy, “Live! Live! Live!”
I followed their gaze up into the stands, to the dais where the emperor usually sat.
But the throne was empty.
The emperor was not there.
Instead, he was down on the dirt of the arena with the least of these.
Covered in blood.
Beneath the blogger’s foot.
I think we can all do better.
I know that I must do better. I am guilty of thinking the worst of public figures in Christianity without asking for the other side of the story. I almost wrote an article tearing to shreds a man I have never met. As a blogger, I sometimes have my own case of “verbal diarrhea.” I don’t want to be a lion.
I want to be like Christ.