Mars Hill Church, Mark Driscoll, and Gender Roles


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If you are a student of theology searching through sources that are immediately obvious (Mars Hill Church’s web page) and easily attainable (the publications of Pastor Mark Driscoll) concerning the theology of Mars Hill Church, you will find nothing surprising, nothing indecent, nothing “out of the ordinary.”  This was, frankly, a little bit surprising, indecent, and unexpected to me.  You see, much of my experience with Mars Hill Church, and Mark Driscoll by way of extension, is through those that attend services at a Mars Hill campus or through those that listen to Mark’s sermons.  Without fail (no, really) these conversations always lead to a discussion regarding Mark’s theology on gender roles; particularly gender roles and how they are played out in the church and home.  Now, admittedly, many of my more recent conversations have been driven by my own morbid curiosity concerning these issues.  As such, I am the one that brings up the gender role “issue.”  However, my most recent encounter with this theology comes via a concerned friend attending a Mars Hill Church.

I know I am late to this party.  Bloggers have been bashing and defending Mark for years.  The reason I enter the fray now is in order to faithfully walk with a friend in need.  Consequently, though I am late, I wonder if two or three years after the brouhaha I am not seeing the practical incarnation of Mark’s theology in the lives of his parishioners.  Still, it bears telling that after reading everything I could get my hands on for free and after watching what seemed like pertinent sermon archives on YouTube, I am mostly annoyed over how little I am actually annoyed by Mark’s writing and preaching when it comes to matters of orthodox theology.  Sure, his tone is brash, his words are poorly chosen at times, and he mostly lacks theological finesse; but which of these things could not also be said of me?  The lion’s share of his doctrinal writing is done in the style and quality of most reformed theology.  So, after adjusting for things that I would personally not like to be nitpicked on, I am not left with a lot to attack.

Then there is the ministry niche he is filling.  Mark has made his mark in the church market by bringing in the elusive 20-35 male crowd.  He has published quite a bit of material directed toward discipling Christian men on how to be good husbands and fathers.  How did he do it?  Well, here is where most people have been fighting.  Dr. Richard Beck of ACU has a very evenhanded approach to understanding the practical/pastoral theology of Mark Driscoll and why it makes waves in the broader Christian community.  In short, Mark’s advocates claim that he has given men permission to be real men, and Mark’s detractors claim that he has created a haven for misogynists and their sympathizers.  Dr. Beck’s blog (here and at the end of this post) answers with an eloquent “yes” on both counts. 

Mark should be applauded for an attempt to bring genuine masculinity into an environment whose controlling narrative is fundamentally feminine and feminizing.  Conversely, Mark’s teaching is not always accurate in depicting genuine masculinity.  Instead, much of what Mark props up as complimentarian gender distinction finds its locus in misogyny.  To borrow Dr. Beck’s words,

“I think this is because there is a great deal of confusion about what we mean by “masculine.” In psychology, the word “masculinity”, due to its gender overtones, has been largely replaced by the term “agency.” Agency/masculinity is associated with motives for control, power, independence, and dominance. These are, stereotypically, “masculine” traits, but women can be highly agentic as well. If agency means power, control, and dominance then it seems clear that “masculine” traits will struggle to find a place in the Christian ethic. This was precisely Nietzsche’s concern about Christianity: Christianity preaches a passive “slave ethic.”” 

Consequently, Mark is an “agentic” guy and he interprets his “agency” as genuine masculinity.  So, what is the best way for Christian men to be genuinely masculine in the Christian sense?  If you read Mark’s publications the answer is for men to exert control, power, independence, and dominance over their wives and children.  Hmm, that sounds familiar.  Where have we heard it before?

One more quote from Dr. Beck is helpful I think:

“I’ve {Dr. Beck} argued in Thought #1 and #2 that Driscoll should not be so easily dismissed. The question he’s raising–Why are males not more attracted to church?–is worth asking. And one of his diagnoses on this issue–Church leaders are chickified–has some merit to it.

But the dark side of Driscoll’s ministry is its chauvinism and misogyny. And this criticism is also valid for certain impulses one finds in the Christian men’s movements. Specifically, the assertion of masculinity implies a suppression of women and a restoration of male power over women. To be a “Christian man” means “reclaiming” and “taking back” leadership roles in both the family and the church. Men use spiritual warrant to assert power over women.”

The danger is when Mark uses biblical exegesis in that very “evangelical argumentum ad baculum” way to proof text gender roles that he superimposes on biblical texts.  Why is this problematic?  It is problematic, because this theology has created a normative expression of gender in the Mars Hill Community that cannot be contradicted, because of an appeal to Scriptural authority.  If one does not meet the expectations of those normative gender roles, then one is looked down upon for not submitting to God.  In short, if you are a member of Mars Hill Church and want to participate as a leader (even at the lowest rung) in discipleship or fellowship, then you cannot deviate from the established gender roles.  If you want to lead a small group and you are a man, then you had better be fulfilling Mark’s vision of genuine masculinity – read dominant, controlling, and powerful.  If you want your family to belong and you are a woman, then you had better be fulfilling Mark’s vision of genuine femininity – read submissive, controlled, and weak.  So, what happens if it makes better sense for a family if the mother works and the father stays home to raise the children?  You come up for “review” with the leadership of the church, that’s what.  A man who will stay home with his children while his wife works comes under the same kind of scrutiny as a man who is cheating on his wife.  It becomes a question of whether said man is “fit to lead.”  This is justified, because, apparently, Mark’s Bible says so.

Exegetically, Mark takes too many liberties in 1) giving narrow definitions for terms that are either contextually or culturally bound in the text, and in 2) insisting that such notions be applied to the lives of Christians as if they were the actual theological principles found in the texts, and in 3) using wisdom literature as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

For an instance of #1 and #2, in this broadcast posted on YouTube, you can see the basic hermeneutical approach utilized by Mark and his wife.  They use 1 Timothy 5:8 which says, “but a man that will not provide for his own and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” as an injunction against both a father that would stay home and take care of his family in order for his wife to work, and as an injunction against a father that allows his wife to work outside of the home – at all.  Mark even goes as far as to acknowledge that some have complained that he takes the Bible out of its cultural context, but does nothing to answer the criticism. 

As far as 1 Timothy 5 is concerned, a larger issue than even the cultural expression of gender role is the fact that Paul is clearly not talking about “every man.”  Paul is giving instruction to widows, their families, and their churches.  Paul tells them that some of them are merely husbandless, and some of them are “true widows.”  Those women who find themselves husbandless are to return to their parents.  In which case, Paul explains that the parents of husbandless women that will not care for her have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever.  Apparently, Timothy’s church was full of rich, heartless bastards that wouldn’t even take care of their widowed daughters, because it was easy to let the church community do it instead.  This comes from only a simple reading of the whole text of Timothy. No fancy Greek translation, no obscure historical-cultural background.  Mark Driscoll is superimposing what he wants the text to say onto a text that seems to fit the bill.  I think we call that proof texting?  In fact, if anyone would take the time to read it, I surmise that I could easily dismiss most of his readings in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Peter 3, and Titus 2 on the basis of the same kind of sloppy hermeneutics.

For an instance of #3, in Pastor Dad he states that Proverbs 19:13 proves that the sorry state of modern families is due to the fact that women have undermined the authority of the husbands by “chirping” at them constantly and turning their children into ruinous fools by proxy.  The verse says, “A foolish son is ruin to his father, and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.”  I’m sure it is obvious to everyone how he came to those conclusions?  Interestingly, this kind of exegesis is damaging to the actual principle at hand.  Why can we not just appreciate the wisdom of Scripture in identifying the importance of harmony in the home?  Why does this verse prove gender roles?  Go ahead; replace any of the characters in the verse with another member of the family.  For instance, what if son and father is replaced with daughter and mother – what if a wife’s quarreling is replaced with a husband’s quarreling?  Does it change the theological principle?  No.  Does it change the verse’s utility as a proof text for gender roles?  Uh-oh.  Furthermore, and perhaps more problematic, why does Mark have to rely on Scripture’s wisdom literature in such a prescriptive manner for so much of his theological stance on gender roles? 

What is ultimately the case, in my experience, is that only people who have the luxury of indulging their personal biases and living out their “ideal self” are ever so pedantic about moralizing issues like gender role.  Sure, there are lots of chauvinist men out there that would have their wives in their proper place – the home; but how many of them earn Mark’s salary?   Sure, there are lots of misogynists out there that think women are gullible and weaker than men, but how many of them are as charismatic as Mark?  Mark has the ability to get away with this moralizing, because he is a successful mega-church pastor (and has been since a young age) and is untouched by the realities faced by young professionals, single parents and low-income families alike.  This is, of course, a practical explanation of what ultimately originates from a need in the theological framework of most “conservative evangelical” narratives.  Meaning this: sure Mark is reaching a historically hard to reach demographic, but he is reinforcing a historically negative social hierarchy based in gender bias.  This negative bias is at the root of many patriarchal worldviews, and is defensible from arguments that rely on perspectives that in turn rely on traditionally fundamentalist understandings of Scriptural authority.  What’s the cost?  Real people, in real modern families, are once again begin taught to objectify women by men of the cloth.  Kyrie Eleison.

Some of the interesting material I used preparing for the post



  1. For a while I was one of those that defended Mark’s view of gender roles from the over 100 sermons of his I’ve listened to over the years. However, his chronic foot in mouth syndrome has caused me to not care to defend him anymore. I don’t know whether he’s a misogynist and chauvinist or not. I don’t know if that’s a fair translation of what he wants to get across. From the rhetoric it seems to be the case, but from the distance of the internet it’s impossible to tell whether or not he and his leaders act that way to their wives or the rhetoric is overcompensating for being in the context they perceive themselves as being in. Are their wives and daughters actually weak and submissive? I can’t tell. I’m not there.

    I get the sense from what I’ve heard, read and seen that he is very committed to living his beliefs. This becomes problematic then for interpreting his beliefs since that means we can only understand them if we can see him living out his beliefs. I also get the sense from what I’ve heard about his own life that he doesn’t walk all over his wife and doesn’t want his daughters to grow up to be maids/babysitters with benefits. Again, maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. I can’t tell from my computer what he means. He would do a great service for conservative evangelicals and complementarians by tempering his rhetoric to more accurately reflect exactly what his and his leaders lives represent.


  2. If your church is growing at a phenomenal rate or attracts large crowds in u.s.america, you might be doing something wrong. In this case, reinforcing a cultural fantasy rather than subverting it.


  3. Blake,

    I agree. In fact, I have always taught that this is the source of Scripture’s admonition not to seek out authority for the sake of power. Those in charge of Christ’s church are accountable for the outcomes of their teaching/preaching. Mark and his wife are probably great people, but like you – I can’t figure that out with a computer. What I can figure out is what he teaches, writes, and preaches. Like you, I do not see anything but a message that consistently pounds the same values with little qualification and with little grace. If Mark is a different man than he comes across, or if Mark is does not intend to communicate the intolerant perspective that he exudes, then he needs to temper his words.

    As to whether Mars Hill will actually pursue church discipline over such matters or not – well, unfortunately, I have a friend that is about to find out.


    1. Excellent, as always. Among other things I’ve not seen Pastor Mark take into consideration is the way that “gender” is at least to a certain extent culturally created and thus what is and is not “appropriate to a gender” is hardly a fixed thing.


  4. Halden Doerge posted this Driscoll quote recently; I filed it under “Driscoll Is an Ass”:

    Without blushing, Paul is simply stating that when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. While many irate women have disagreed with his assessment through the years, it does appear from this that such women who fail to trust his instruction and follow his teaching are much like their mother Eve and are well-intended but ill-informed. . . Before you get all emotional like a woman in hearing this, please consider the content of the women’s magazines at your local grocery store that encourages liberated women in our day to watch porno with their boyfriends, master oral sex for men who have no intention of marrying them, pay for their own dates in the name of equality, spend an average of three-fourths of their childbearing years having sex but trying not to get pregnant, and abort 1/3 of all babies – and ask yourself if it doesn’t look like the Serpent is still trolling the garden and that the daughters of Eve aren’t gullible in pronouncing progress, liberation, and equality.

    Mark Driscoll, Church Leadership: Explaining the Roles of Jesus, Elders, Deacons, and Members at Mars Hill, Mars Hill Theology Series (Seattle, WA: Mars Hill Church, 2004), 43.


  5. Tony,

    For some reason, I think there is a segment of the population that wants to get Scriptural interpretation as far away from cultural influences as possible. In regard to the present topic, I cannot help but be reminded of how forcefully James Dobson has argued that gender differences are strictly hard-wired into us biologically. As is usually the case, I think it serves to protect their particular brand of bibliolatry, which in turn serves to protect their broader theological assumptions with a veil of absolutism. Not to mention the fact that it helps some of their social and political biases as well.


    I also read those interviews, but it is hard to tell whether Mark Driscoll is being an ass for publicity or whether he is being an ass because he is a misogynist – I guess it doesn’t really matter, if he’s always being an ass?


  6. IMO, the fact that Mark Driscoll’s description of gender roles has any purchase at all in Xian culture proves how impoverished the churches’ teaching/living of manhood and woman really has been and is. He would be shown up for what he is if we offered up even the feeblest truth, so we need to spend our energies on finding ways to articulate positively what masculinity and feminity mean in light of the gospel that illuminates the Scriptures and our lives.

    I’m reminded of something CSL said: “No doubt these rudimentary organs have a spiritual significance: there ought spiritually to be a man in every woman and a woman in every man. And how horrid the ones who haven’t got it are: i can’t bear a ‘man’s man’ or a ‘woman’s woman.'” Whatever we are to make of Lewis’ suggestion, I think he’s right to be annoyed by a man that’s “all man,” not least because (as Tony has pointed out), at least some aspects of gender are nurtured into us by the “principalities and powers,” and so must be brought under sway of the gospel’s askesis. If we hope to die to “self” and “the flesh,” then we must be ready to die to “masculinity/feminitity,” as well. (This is what Driscoll and Dobson fail to understand, I think.)


  7. Chris,

    You’d be amazed (or perhaps not) at the looks my students give me when I read Genesis 1:27 “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” and point out that the usage of “him” and its antecedent “man” is obviously a reference to “Mankind” or “humanity” and that God made males and females out of his own image – meaning, yes, God is masculine, but also that God is feminine.

    Now, when I read the account of the Old Testament along with Paul’s assertion that there is not a distinction between male or female in the Church, I begin to wonder exactly what gender differences exist and to what extent they even matter. Consequently, the notion of dying to those distinctions is not only spiritually efficacious for me; it has proven to be very important in my marriage. You might be surprised how regularly people notice how well my wife and I get along (then again, perhaps not).


    If I have my friend’s permission to make updates on the situation, then I will.


  8. Shawn,

    I didn’t think to respond to this before, but you said:

    “I have always taught that this is the source of Scripture’s admonition not to seek out authority for the sake of power. Those in charge of Christ’s church are accountable for the outcomes of their teaching/preaching.”

    I don’t think Driscoll can or should be held accountable for his teaching as it comes across the Internet. Driscoll shouldn’t be held accountable for what he teaches out of context. The context of his teaching is Mars Hill Church in Seattle (their New Mexico campus is a really bad idea and sets a bad precedent). It would be like holding anyone accountable to the ways in which FOX News quotes someone out of context.

    I wish Mark would temper his words because he’s being heard globally through the internet, not because I’m at his church in Seattle and those words might (or might not) be what I need to hear from him. The context of the internet is very different from that of a particular region and culture. Speaking effectively to the world through the internet requires a very different tone, language and presentation than speaking to any local context. I believe Mark (as any pastor) should only be held accountable for what he teaches in the primary context God has given him.

    I think it’s clear from his inability to translate his message globally and as a representative of a larger part of orthodox Christianity that this is evidence he is called to the very specific location he is. His appeal beyond Seattle is due to people identifying with his read of culture out of context and applying beyond where it is meant to go. That’s the part that allows him to connect with problematic pockets of evangelicalism who have a warped view of society and reinforce certain bad practices and theology in those pockets.


  9. Blake,

    You make valid points. In fact, you have illustrated that I made a generalization without intending to do so. I think that being accountable to what you teach/preach is a dynamic thing. While I am not sure that I agree with your take on the local nature of accountability, I do agree that what is said in a particular context may have a completely different meaning in another. Consequently, I think we all make blunders in writing and preaching. I think we ought to have the right to go back and say, “Wait, I was wrong.” Indeed, that is what responsibility essentially looks like. Taking responsibility for what you say/do. To that end, if Mark were to come out and say, “Listen, I know I put my stuff out on the internet, especially places like YouTube and iTunes, hoping to widen the impact of my message. In doing so, I realize that my message comes across to a national/global audience much differently than it does within the four walls of my church – so, here are some qualifications…” I would be completely happy. I would think that he was wielding his influence responsibly. Do you think it’s going to happen? I don’t.


  10. I want to call your attention to Amy Laura Hall’s essay on masculinity in the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. She bases her article on the movie “About a Boy.” I think she would say that the Hugh Grant character is the probable end for the kind of masculinity Driscoll preaches: lonely, selfish and bored. I see the root problem with Driscoll as leading men into a theory of personhood where dependency is deeply suspect. The failure to grasp interdependency, the heart of our Trinitarian doctrine, is what spirals Driscoll out into gendered abyss.

    (begin sermon) But if you men want to take this seriously then you also have to start taking Hall’s advice. Don’t leave the discipleship to the women. Teach Sunday school. Take meals to the sick. Do the small acts that women have been doing for years to keep the church running. (end sermon here.)


  11. The Rolling Stones said it all about gender roles with their song, “Under My Thumb.” Its first appearance was in 1966. Therefore, what Mark Driscoll is preaching to his younger congregation about gender roles is nothing new.


  12. For what it’s worth, I think masculinity and femininity are part biological hardwiring, part environmental influence, part social construction, and part choice. I worry when people overemphasize any of these elements, as traditionalists often do with biology and egalitarians with social construction.


  13. George,

    Essentially, I am in the same boat. In fact, I am working on a follow up post that addresses some of the questions I feel like this raises.


  14. I don’t understand why Christians are worrying about mystical meanings of gender. That’s Taoist, not Christian!


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