My browser’s home page used to be set to a website called The Gospel Corporation*. My friend Brett was also a regular visitor to the site. A few months ago, he told me that he used to go into Starbucks, order a drink, open up his laptop and just sit there for hours, poring over posts that brewed up religious anger and caustic convictions in his heart. Such feelings were common to my time browsing their articles as well. And we kept reading for years. The self-righteous fury stirred up by the site’s content only barely managed to obscure the foundational vitriol and theological misconceptions upon which groups like The Gospel Corporation™ are based.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, one character famously observes that “sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another…there are just some kind of men who — who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
The Neo-Reformed/Hyper-Calvinist/New Fundamentalist Industrial Complex (what’s sometimes referred to as the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement) is a powerful player on the evangelical Christian stage, and its sway can clearly be felt multiplying outwards to a plethora of circles. One needn’t look too far “down the street” of the landscape of contemporary North American Protestantism to see the patterns of sin and harm this particular brand of religiosity has wreaked in our faith communities.
As conservative Arminian scholar Roger Olson has noted, there is an often subtle but pernicious way that these wrath-fetishizing theologies can sneakily influence otherwise unsuspecting churches. Again, this is why the myopic theological precepts taught by the industry’s predominantly wealthy, powerful white men – the movement’s Driscolls, Pipers, Chandlers, and DeYoungs, the Platts, the Kellers, and the Mohlers – their teachings can be felt reverberating far past individual churches, publishing houses, and media companies.
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Driscoll apologists frequently espouse the doctrine of the supposed frailty of each individual (sometimes called total depravity), stressing that the biggest lesson to be learned from the horrific revelations of abuse that led to Mark’s downfall is that even the most humble, brilliant, biblically-sound men have the potential to fall into corruption. Pastor Mark was surely dealing with a lot of rotten demons in his private life. Even the mighty can fall, so this gospel goes, and the failures of Driscoll and Mahaney and Harris are not at all representative of a larger problem within, for example, the culture of celebrity pastor conservative Calvinism.
That’s certainly one way of looking at things: that Driscoll was the rare problematic abuser in a hundred who found his way into an otherwise benign system, who slowly, miraculously, tricked a well-meaning body of believers into following him towards sin and death. But what if we see the system itself as the source of the problem? What if the very culture from which a man like Driscoll can emerge and amass so much power and influence is constructed in such a way that it actually encourages and facilitates abuse?
It reminds me of the story of another now infamous abuser: Tyler Deaton. Tyler, like Driscoll (like my old spiritual discipler) was an extremely gifted, charisma-tic individual who, it’s said, was able to speak with a near supernatural sway over those he talked to (think Parseltongue but in Christianese). He did not use this power for good. Tyler founded a benign-sounding Kansas City prayer group closely affiliated with the International House of Prayer (IHOP). He is now recognized for his role in leading what was actually a horrific cult that quickly descended into all sorts of abuse and culminated in the actual murder of one of its members.
Yet for all the distance IHOP has tried to retroactively insert in between themselves and Tyler (claiming in a set of coolly titled documents called “Regarding the Death of Bethany Deaton” that Tyler had “always operated independently” of IHOP and stating that a “volunteer mistakenly labeled Deaton as a divisional coordinator when preparing a[n]…info packet“) the truth is that Tyler was always closely partnered with the ministry. Moreover, he was powerfully driven by their shared core beliefs. That is, Tyler wasn’t “faking it” to fit in: his theological precepts matched up to IHOP’s in such an intimate way that they masked patterns that became truly abusive, and he was given unlimited access for espousing the correct theological buzz words and tirelessly advocating for their shared, bona fide IHOP values.
While Deaton’s legacy is to this day being framed by IHOP officials as some sort of bad apple who, like the devil, was able to steal away and take advantage of some unsuspecting souls, in actuality Tyler Deaton is the direct result of the theological climate of the International House of Prayer. As my friend Boze has said, “Tyler was not an isolated individual, but the product of a phenomenally twisted system.” IHOP’s frenzied obsession with supernatural prophecy, employing sexualized and sensationalized language to describe “spiritual warfare,” their overemphasis on miraculous occurrences and fantastical gifts and regular corporate indulgence in violent apocalyptic fantasies – these twisted theological commitments were all storming together and feeding directly into Tyler’s head.
It should be clear that there could be no Tyler Deaton without IHOP, and that there could be no Mark Driscoll without the culture produced by companies like The Gospel Corporation™.
We see that distorted theology often attracts and supports the wrong kind of spiritual leaders. As one blogger recently noted, it’s not as easy as insisting that Driscoll was a “weird hiccup in the evangelical world” and that “Driscoll is a product of a corrupt culture, not the other way around.” I understand his point. I wonder what it says about a fight club, a church, or a parachurch culture when a guy like Durden, Deaton, or Driscoll doesn’t raise any eyebrows until it’s too late. When they are first (de)formed in the group’s intense theological soup and then actually begin to pass for emotionally healthy and spiritually sound as they gain wide influence and slowly develop increasingly cultic practices.
Any religious environment – whether Calvinist or Catholic or Charismatic or anything else – where intellect is squelched and leadership is constrained to a powerful few is a culture where abuse can easily occur. We see that Driscoll consistently steeped himself in the kind of Konservative Kalvinist Khristianity that so often creates a particularly potent culture of fear and shame. Meanwhile, Deaton inhabited the fundamentalist charismatic world, a zealous, mystical place populated by violent folks like the self-proclaimed “end-times forerunners” Lou Engle and Mike Bickle.
But does the fact that both of these specific ministries were hellish mean that Calvinism innately toxic? That charismatic fundamentalist theology always fosters abuse?
As Baptist seminary professor and theologian Scot McKnight said in a recent comment over on David Hayward’s blog:
Each version of the major options in theology is quite capable of distortion by toxic people. The bold lines that emerge under the forceful hands of toxic people are usually healthy lines prior to the force. Calvinism has lines that are attractive to certain forms of toxicity, while Arminianism or the Anabaptist orientation … Orthodoxy… Catholicism, each has elements easily turned into toxicity. On their own, however, those theologies are more or less healthy and capable of expressing the gospel and grace.
I tend to agree with McKnight’s characterization: I don’t think that cruel theology always results in cruel behavior. There are indeed unhealthy temptations towards toxicity in every tradition, and good ones besides. I’ve seen healthy strands of 5-point Calvinism that openly critique the rhetoric and praxis of the Young, Reckless, and Deformed movement while preserving traditional precepts about election, salvation, and the sovereignty of God. Likewise, Pentecostal theology is not (as some have suggested) inherently “underdeveloped” or unintelligible or otherwise incapable of producing good fruit, even if IHOP’s version of this tradition has become demonic.
And yet some correlation appears to persist between violent theology and all sorts of abuse. Perhaps this is because we seek out theological systems – like mates – that affirm our own inner values, that reflect our understanding of ourselves to the rest of the world. We tend to resonate with descriptions of humanity (and God) that sound like what we’re likely to find in our own hearts. For those with deep-seated inclinations towards cruelty or anger, this can have nasty consequences.
I once knew a reformed fellow who liked to joke that he was a Calvinist “for his inner prick.” He’d say it and laugh, but looking back, it really was quite disturbing – although he knew deep down (on a spiritual and moral level) that the theological framework of hardcore ultra-reformed Calvinism is utterly untenable, he delighted in propagating its teachings. Because of personal misanthropy or apathy or whatever else, this young man was able to take sadistic satisfaction at the rather unbiblical idea that God deeply hates humanity, loves only his “elect,” and that billions and billions of people will inevitably burn in hell to the everlasting joy of this angry American God.
It would be foolish to say simply that “bad theology attracts bad people,” for the answer is surely much more difficult than that. But we should be able to recognize that the negative, prickling inclinations in our own being, even the tiniest ones, can be affirmed and inflamed and eventually tempt us to re-create God in our own image. When we come alongside communities of people who struggle similarly, when we blot out other perspectives, this worsens, and our collective conception of the divine angers and transfigures into a monster god.
I’m reminded of a helpful test that Jesus instructs us to use to discern bad teachings: “by their fruit, you will recognize them.” What this means is that any spiritual movement that is producing pain, horror, and hurt (bad fruit) in the lives of its adherents is not of God. Applied to this conversation, that means that any unchecked culture of hyper-masculinity, bibliolatry, or prophetic supernaturalism that leads to harm and loss of life is not following faithfully in the tradition of Jesus. If the (pa)theologies inhabited by folks like Durden, Deaton, and Driscoll have proven to be repeat offenders, one a possible indication that all is not well.
For those who remain a part of faith communities driven by leaders who espouse strict Gospel Corporation™ or IHOP theologies, it should give new weight to that old adage about sheep and wolves. Or, as Shakespeare put it, keep an eye out: “where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles.”