A Rather Confusing “Call to Resurgence”
The book is clearly laid out, and its contents can be easily summarized. American society is in a terrible mess: Christendom is over, and the results aren’t pretty (chapter one). The American church is also in a terrible mess, with weird spiritualities, sexual sin, fluffy pluralism, immature masculinity, and financial stinginess creeping into her through the surrounding culture (chapter two). Not only that, but she is also divided into tribes that may barely know each other: Reformed and Arminian, complementarian and egalitarian, continuationist and cessationist, fundamentalist and missional (chapter three). There is, however, a solution, which is to work together with other Christians who are united with us on primary issues, despite the tribal disagreements we may have over secondary issues (chapter four). As we do so, we need to continue being empowered by the Holy Spirit (chapter five), calling people to repentance as biblically defined (chapter six), and committing ourselves to mission: preaching, loving, contextualizing, evangelizing, engaging culture, serving, and suffering (chapter seven). Two appendices summarize the history of the church (appendix A) and offer some helpful resources on the areas of theological disagreement (appendix B).
As we have come to expect from Driscoll, the book is filled with pithy one-liners, inspiring stories, clarifying illustrations, and laugh-out-loud moments. He uses to good effect the key analogy in his central chapter about unity. The limits of Christian orthodoxy are like a national border, whereas your denominational tribe is like a state, and your church and your family like a street address. Several of the stories from Mars Hill Church, where Driscoll pastors, are both illuminating and deeply moving. Aphorisms like “love wins; God loses” (23), “contextualization is about showing the relevance of the gospel, not making the gospel relevant” (226), and “young people tend to get excited about causes more than they do churches” (79) display his gift for communicating crisply and powerfully. What’s more, the passionate desire that clearly runs through the book, namely the call for young men (particularly) to lay down their lives for courageous, contextualized, gospel proclamation, is one of the most important things you could ever write a book about. So there is much to commend.
At the centre of the book, however, is an unresolved tension that threatens to scuttle the whole volume. On one hand, Driscoll insists that, in order to pursue “resurgence,” the various tribes in contemporary evangelicalism need to unite around the gospel, choose our battles wisely, and allow all sorts of disagreement over non-essential matters (116). The tribes that he, John Piper, Bill Hybels, Steven Furtick, John MacArthur, Joel Osteen, Stanley Hauerwas, Scot McKnight, Andy Stanley, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Albert Mohler represent all agree on the non-negotiables of evangelicalism (95-96 and following)—an observation I suspect will astonish some of these leaders!—and we should understand each other’s tribal preferences without making everything a divisive issue (117-123). On the other hand, in the next chapter he draws what he calls the “border issues for biblically faithful and culturally missional Christianity” in such a way as to privilege Reformed, complementarian, continuationist, missionals—that is, people like him (and, as it happens, me)—and defines evangelicalism in a way that excludes huge numbers of professing evangelicals (122-136). So, for instance, the “border issues for biblically faithful and culturally missional Christianity” include believing in biblical inerrancy (125), an originally perfect world (127), an Augustinian view of original sin (128), the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement (130-131), a Reformed view of justification (132), the idea that all Christians are missionaries (133), and the conferring of spiritual gifts at regeneration (135). I’m not certain how many of the tribal leaders he mentions in chapter three could affirm all of those views, but I suspect it would be a small minority. I know I couldn’t.
The result is confusing. Should those who seek “resurgence” continue to insist on and contend for the things Driscoll regards as “border issues,” or shouldn’t they? When (say) Tom Wright is checked at the border, should he be greeted with a “welcome to America” as a fellow big-tent evangelical, or should he be sent back to Heathrow for his views on Scripture, sin, justification, and the atonement? Would C. S. Lewis make it past Homeland Security? Would McKnight, or Shane Claiborne, or Roger Olson? And on what basis do we call something a “border issue” in the first place? Rather than defining the boundaries by Nicene or Chalcedonian orthodoxy, the Great Tradition, the historic confessions, or an ecumenical “mere Christianity,” Driscoll has created his own list of affirmations, based on the evangelical intramurals du jour. He is perfectly entitled to do so, of course, if he’s offering a personal set of convictions, or listing the values that characterize his church and his network. But in a book that makes much of the need to bring tribes together, this idiosyncratic list is puzzling.
None of this is to say Driscoll’s goals here—pursuing unity on the one hand while defending essential doctrine on the other—are unnecessary or irreconcilable. This tension is healthy and should be embraced, not avoided. All of us, whether church leaders or not, are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, to speak the truth to one another in love, and to contend for the faith delivered once for all to the saints. Rather, it is to say Driscoll’s way of pursuing them, both in the issues he identifies as “border issues” and in the way he represents other beliefs and practices (see below), is unlikely to be successful. Unless I am misreading him, he draws the borders in such a way as to exclude a great many Protestant (not to mention Catholic and Orthodox) Christians who disagree with him about Scripture, the atonement, sin, mission, and salvation (122-136), while simultaneously implying that the apparently heterodox Trinitarian theology of T. D. Jakes or the prosperity theology of Joyce Meyer are merely tribal variations or preferences that are not non-negotiable (95-96). If Joel Osteen agrees with you on the non-negotiables but your national borders exclude Athanasius, then some more work on the relationship between unity and truth is probably needed. Many groups of Christians have hammered out “borders” before, from Nicea onwards, and to my mind they’ve done so more carefully, and hence more effectively, than Driscoll does here.
There are some other significant problems, related to the way Driscoll represents other beliefs. The sketch of Arminianism, especially the Articles of Remonstrance, is inaccurate (98). The bomb-shelter description of fundamentalism (108-109) sits uneasily with the examples of fundamentalists given elsewhere, which include Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert, 9Marks, and Newfrontiers (see chart on 112-113 and bibliography on 308). I imagine this label will be a surprise to all of them when the book is published (as it was to me, given that I pastor in a Newfrontiers church). Such unrepresentative and ahistorical labels do nobody any good, especially in a book urging greater ecumenical collaboration. The discussion of tongues drives an exegetically implausible wedge between the nature of the private and public gift at Corinth (165-166), and thus muddles further an already complex debate. The discussion of contemporary Christianity in America excessively relies on John Dickerson’s version, and ignores alternative perspectives like those of Bradley Wright, John Micklethwait, and Adrian Wooldridge (chapters one and two). And the appendix summarizing church history begins at the Reformation and effectively tells the backstory of modern American evangelicalism, leading to the remarkable comment that “a healthy movement does not debate doctrines such as the atonement, the Bible, heaven and hell” (285). No doubt church historians will be surprised. If a genuine confluence of different tribes within evangelicalism is to happen—which I hope and pray it will!—I suspect it will require the leaders among us to know more about what other tribes believe, and more about the history of the global church as a whole, than can be found in this volume.
Mark Driscoll has been a huge encouragement and provocation to me personally, and I have benefited enormously from his bombastic and courageous approach to biblical truth, church leadership, and personal mission. I also agree with an awful lot of what he is saying in A Call to Resurgence, not least the importance of contending for the truth while working hard to pursue unity in the gospel. But in my view, the flaws in the central chapters of the book—which I read as critical given what he is trying to do—are significant enough to spoil it. Maybe read A Call to Spiritual Reformation instead.
The original version of this article appeared at The Gospel Coalition website.