Although it’s not popular in my circles to say it, I have somewhat mixed feelings about Christianity Today’s (CT) newest podcast, hosted by Mike Cosper, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Let me start with all of the things I love about it. First, the craftsmanship that has gone into this podcast is masterful. This is storytelling via podcast at its best and Mike Cosper and the folks at CT deserve kudos for the beauty of this work alone. (Another example of this kind of high-quality storytelling would be Mere Orthodoxy’s “Passages,” and of course, the trail-blazing “Revisionist History” by that endlessly interesting character, Malcolm Gladwell).

Second, the story this podcast chronicles as a cautionary tale is priceless. It places on full display the putrid and rotten fruit that grows off a ministry tree when it has been tended along the lines of (to change metaphors) what Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin call “the way of the dragon.” The podcast thereby elevates the importance of “the way of the lamb.” As a pastor—and one with traits and a temperamental constitution that naturally shares a dangerous resemblance to Driscoll’s—I personally find this story terrifying. This is why I don’t sympathize with the kind of exasperation that often surrounds these stories. When another pastor falls under the weight of sin accumulated by his hubris, I don’t at all relate to the befuddlement that asks, “How could this have happened? How could he have let himself go that far?” I know exactly how it could happen. I see the threat imminently in my own praise-adoring heart. It’s no mystery at all, it is painfully conspicuous: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.

And, I would even go so far as to say that if pastors respond with strictly finger wagging and head shaking, and not instead with an introspective prayer along the lines of, “Lord, save me from myself,” they are already in trouble. While being a pastor doesn’t automatically make a man a narcissist, I think there is something about the work that irreducibly draws those with narcissistic tendencies, and we who shepherd the flock of God would be simply foolish not to recognize that about ourselves. Humility is the uphill struggle from which we must never cease to climb.

So, what this story teaches, in part, is the absolute necessity of ministerial integrity. A pastor is called to present himself to God “as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed” (2 Tim 2:15), which means the godliness he preaches from the pulpit must be, to some imperfect and ever-increasing extent, identifiable in his own life. This emphasizes the need for pastors to be surrounded by men who are vertebrates. The moment you become convinced that you could control the whole tone and direction of a meeting unhindered simply by asserting your sheer will is the moment you should realize your leadership structure is dysfunctional. May it never be.

Another lesson that every pastor must learn from this podcast—and particularly those gifted in preaching and leading—is this: evidences of (genuinely) good things happening in ministry is no indicator of how you’re doing personally, before the Lord. It is entirely possible, and perhaps even common (thanks be to God), for the Lord to bless your ministry not because of your faithfulness, but in spite of your faithlessness. This should put to rest that dastardly assumption that God must be happy with us in light of “all this good fruit.” People coming to Christ, baptisms, marriages saved, sinful habits broken, conviction of sin, and the fruit of sanctification in the individual lives of members is no sure sign that God is pleased with his undershepherds. Those things are always tremendous mercies from God; sometimes he grants them through pastors who are truly pious and godly, and sometimes he grants them through disqualified pastors whose hypocrisy will eventually catch up to them. Let God be true, though every man were a liar.

So, the convicting and instructive nature of this podcast is invaluable. It is clear that the culture among the Mars Hill leadership was coercive, ungodly, and wicked, and it is worthwhile for us to mark out the paths they trod, and avoid them. But I told you I had mixed feelings, and this is why. I can’t help but wonder if the implicit subtexts of this podcast, at various points, are unhelpful.

For example, when documenting the theological trajectory of Driscoll, Cosper acknowledges that it was no foregone conclusion that Driscoll would be a major player in leading the Young Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement. He very well could have stayed in the emergent world. This is true, and one take on the way things went down might be something like, “Thank God he at least didn’t go heterodox.” That’s the angle I take as one who, like many others, rode the YRR wave and landed on that hospitable beachfront of the actual reformers. Some of us even went inland, and accepted the reformers’ invitation to travel down their well-trodden and safe roads, exploring the Great Tradition of the Church. No regrets there. I thank God that he drew some straight lines with that crooked stick we know as Driscoll. He introduced so many of us (albeit in an incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate manner) to a strong theological family heritage, one we could be truly proud of. For theological orphans, such as many of us who came from low-church evangelicalism, this introduction was a gift.

So that’s how I take Driscoll’s departure from the Emergent Church movement and his appropriation of the “reformed” tribe. But it’s hard for me to imagine anyone taking that angle if all they knew about the situation was the story as told by CT. For example, Tony Jones, a man who by all accounts veered left when Driscoll went right, is given quite a bit of air time in the earlier episodes, and though CT may not intend this, we could forgive the listener for assuming, based off the podcast’s presentation, that we are supposed to conclude that Driscoll made the wrong call, while Jones made the right one. “Driscoll left the Emergent movement and went with Reformed theology and it made him mean. Jones stayed, grabbed onto progressive Christianity and it made him nice.” That might be an overstatement (though I don’t believe so), and I suppose it depends on how familiar you are with the situation to know how much of an overstatement it is, my only point is that this narrative subtext is at least plausible for the open-minded listener to glean from the podcast’s presentation thus far. And I think it’s worth inquiring if CT finds this objectionable.

Isn’t it worth asking of CT—the magazine started by the late, great Carl F.H. Henry—if their editors and storytellers consider the heterodoxy of Jones as equally destructive and wicked as the heteropraxy of Driscoll? I don’t think this is a “whataboutism” (though, while we’re on the topic sometimes “what about…” is a worthy question, and slapping an “ism” on it as a way of dismissing it shouldn’t make good questions go away), it’s relevant because the way you tell a story often communicates just as much as the story itself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Driscoll was right and Jones was wrong. If forced to choose between heterodoxy and heteropraxy, we should refuse the false choice and choose neither. I think the non-Christian gospel of Jones and the prideful spiritual abuse of Driscoll are both despicable, and I pray God would spare me from ever being guilty of either. I also know that one podcast can’t tell every story, and the theological perversion of Progressive Christianity is its own story, but I think the presentation of the podcast at least merits the inquiry.

Along the same lines, I can’t help but wonder if the most recent episode (episode 5) contains an example of a kind of bulverism (that fallacy C.S. Lewis coined in his essay of the same title). You can call this “psychologizing” or, in this case, “sociologizing.” It’s the “that’s just because” argument, and it’s the decision to opt out of addressing an argument on the merits of its truthfulness. A person engaging in bulverism instead describes the process of a person reaching a conclusion they find objectionable as a way of explaining away the conclusion. Example: someone–I’m not sure who, but someone, (work with me)–might conceivably maintain, “You maintain that dogs should relieve themselves outside instead of using a litter box, but that’s just because you grew up in a family where that’s where the dog went, according to the rules of your parents, in a culture that expects for dogs to relieve themselves outdoor. And that’s how you came to that conclusion. Simple as that.” The proper response, of course, is, “Fair enough. But none of that even touches on whether it’s better for dogs to relieve themselves outside or in a litter box. It’s quite right that I learned this from my parents and our culture. But you still have to reckon with the question of whether my parents and our culture are right or wrong.” The misdirection is in ignoring a position itself, and simply calling attention to its external circumstances.

Where does this come in for “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill?” In episode 5, I listened some truly gut-wrenching descriptions of a culture that sexualized women. It documents Driscoll manipulating Scripture to paint a reductionistic picture of sex that is pornographic and a far cry from the sacred gospel-adorning marital intimacy presented in Scripture. The culture surrounding women and sex and sexuality at Mars Hill was unholy, and we shouldn’t begrudge the fact that judgment begins with the household of God. For all of this, I am grateful to Cosper and CT for pulling no punches on its documentation. The tendency to objectify women in the ways chronicled in this episode is inexcusable and calling attention to it is a way to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them” (Eph 5:11).

I have zero beef with the fact that this dysfunctional sexual culture at Mars Hill was dismantled. However, I can’t help but wonder if framing the issue the way they did in this episode might have been misleading. Taking all things together, particularly how the episode began, it almost seemed as if we are invited to consider the masculinity and gender distinctions promoted by complementarianism (and I would maintain, perverted by Driscoll) as simply the product of a number of sociological ingredients. Imagine the argument in dialogical fashion:

Q: Why did Driscoll create this culture at Mars Hill?

A: Well, he affirmed a traditionalist distinction between men and women, where men were to be the strong leaders, providing for and protecting their households, and women were to be fruitful homemakers who respected and submitted to their husbands.

Q: Why did Driscoll hold that position?

A: It was an overreaction to the feminism and egalitarianism propelled by the sexual revolution of the 60s, and was amped up by the “tough guy” masculinity of Cold War America, and the fearful nationalism that came on the heels of 9/11.

This may not be the story they intentionally want to share, but isn’t it at least fair to think it might be? In a story that constantly solicits “why?” from its listeners, it seems that the sociological climate the story-tellers present is an attempt at answering that question, at least in part. What isn’t even entertained was the possibility that those things such as masculine leadership, gender complementarity and the like, which were perverted by Driscoll and are celebrated by some today, could have come not from sociological causes at all, but are rather theological convictions that predate the supposed sociological causes.

Let me illustrate. At one point, Cosper suggests that Driscoll probably viewed life as a “hierarchy,” as if that were a self-evidently bad thing. But my response is simply, “Of course life is a hierarchy! The whole of the cosmos is hierarchical—including family and marriage and church and civilization and the animal kingdom and astronomy and the like. That’s where all the beauty and symmetry come from: the cosmos are beautiful because there is such a thing as nature and nature is hierarchical. Reality isn’t a drab, colorless androgynous blob, it has edges and order, which is precisely what makes it lovely.” The question is, is it possible for that response of mine to have nothing whatever to do with the sexual revolution, the Cold War, or 9/11? Is it possible that Christians of the Medieval era, or the early Christians, or the Platonists, or the Jews who worshiped Yahweh as the architect of all this hierarchy all affirmed this outlook not because they were slaves to their social conditions, but because it was true?

At the end of the day, I enjoy this podcast. I will keep listening, and will continue to enjoy, and will continue to prayerfully examine my own heart as a pastor who dreads the pride that lurks there (no matter how often I drive a Spirit-powered, blood-laced stake through it). As much as this post might scream otherwise, I really do want to simply enjoy the podcast and benefit from it for what it is, but these nagging questions had to get out of my head before I was driven mad. Forgive me for subjecting you to them.