Mark Driscoll means business. The US mega-church pastor brings the same ‘muscular’ approach to our interview that he’s well known for at his church Mars Hill in Seattle. By the end of our conversation, I’ve been rebuked twice and given a theological dressing-down on my views about hell, atonement and women in ministry. But I’m quite enjoying it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a man – Driscoll says he talks to the men in his congregation like a ‘drill sergeant’. His prime target is a generation of irresponsible young males who are ‘extending their adolescence as long as they possibly can’. His solution is a no-nonsense approach to the gospel where ‘the Bible is truth, Jesus is God, and sin is the problem’. He says men respond well to tough talk.

Nevertheless, his preaching has been known to cause controversy. To some he is the ‘shock-jock’ preacher, making a name for himself by testing the limits of good taste. He has stated that he can’t worship a Jesus ‘I can beat up’. A new book, Real Marriage (Thomas Nelson), authored with his wife, Grace, will continue to challenge the sensibilities of conservative-minded Christians with some of its graphic content.

For Driscoll, however, it’s about cutting through the ‘cultural noise’ and making Jesus ‘interesting’ again. Beyond the humour, dress-down informality and stage presence that are a given for any mega-church pastor, it’s Driscoll’s no-holds-barred preaching that sets him apart. The authority with which he delivers his messages on men, women, sex, theology, popular culture and Church have earned him a dedicated following both at home and abroad, and his sermons regularly top the iTunes religion download charts.

You have guys in dresses preaching to grandmas, and young men won’t show up

Driscoll shrugged off a nominal faith from his Catholic upbringing near Seattle, only to find a saving faith at an evangelical protestant church while in college. Married to Grace, and with the first of five children on the way, a 25-year-old Driscoll began a Bible study in his front room in 1996. Today, Mars Hill Church numbers 12,000 people across 14 sites, with the senior pastor’s sermon video-cast to them all. In addition, his Acts 29 Network has planted more than 400 churches in America. A laid-back, post-modern approach initially saw Mars Hill at home in the ‘emerging Church’ movement, but its theology soon moved in the opposite direction to other leaders such as Brian McLaren (and don’t confuse it with Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church – they are very different).

Driscoll’s theology has made him a leader in what has been termed the ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’ movement. But it’s the phenomenal church growth, particularly among young men, which has cemented his position as a pioneer of church mission to Generation X. He was recently named one of the 25 Most Influential Pastors of the last 25 years by Preaching magazine. Theologically like-minded friends, such as John Piper or Terry Virgo, may raise the occasional eyebrow at Driscoll’s frank style, but they can’t argue with his success.

Mark and Grace Driscoll
Mark and his wife Grace

Meanwhile, the lack of young men in the UK Church is ‘a full-blown crisis’, he says, a situation about which Driscoll, unsurprisingly, doesn’t mince his words.

So is it time to ‘man-up’ and ‘stop drinking decaf’, as he puts it? Maybe. In practise, for Driscoll it means pursuing a culturally relevant Church model, reclaiming the different roles of men and women, and investing in a reformed theology that can handle some heavy lifting.

Muscular Christianity has never looked so buff.

Is it fair to say that you discovered your theology as you were first setting up Mars Hill Church?

Yeah, I was raised Roman Catholic, but I stopped going to church when I was young. I didn’t really care, I didn’t know Jesus – it was not the church’s fault; I was hard-hearted. Then I got saved in college, reading the Bible. I didn’t have a formal theological education, I wasn’t part of a denomination or network. 

The story of Mars Hill is one of amazing growth. 

We are now in 14 locations across four states. And while I was preaching the Gospel of Luke I baptised 2,000 new Christians. In addition we have seen over 400 churches planted in the US by young men. Combined Easter attendance
was 175,000 people.

You sometimes cause controversy in what you say. Some say you put across a very macho, muscular form of Christianity. Do you think the Church has become too feminised?

Well, men are not going to church. You have got a full-blown crisis in Great Britain where young men are not coming to church, and are not rising up as leaders. You could say, ‘Mark, you’re a little intense, a little bit masculine.’ I say ‘Well, what are you not doing?’ You have guys in dresses preaching to grandmas, and young men won’t show up. You have to ask yourself, ‘Have we picked a course that fits the past, but isn’t going to work for the future?’ 

I was in London not long ago. When there is a UFC fight that comes into town the place is packed. But the churches are not packed. Why is that?

Is there a danger of the Church blindly following popular culture to attract men?

What happens is that many men did not have a father, so they don’t know what a responsible male looks like. I speak to men more like a father or a drill sergeant would. I preach to them for an hour plus, and give them very
direct orders. Men tend to respond very well to that. I don’t speak in the same way to women. I think the problem in the Church is there has been a one-size-fits-all approach; we speak to nice, godly, growing women in the same way we talk to immature, rebellious, date-raping men.

Is it true that you discourage women in your church from working or earning more money than men?

There is a cultural problem today of young men who are extending their adolescences as long as they possibly can. It’s an epidemic in Great Britain. You call it ‘laddism’; in the US they would call it ‘being a guy’. These are men into their 20s, 30s, sometimes 40s – they don’t want to work, they don’t want to get married, they don’t want to have kids, they don’t want to take responsibility. They consume a lot of alcohol and pornography, and take advantage of women. 

This is even an epidemic in the Church, where there are far more women than men. Young single women who want to marry are having a hard time finding a man who’s even ready, or able, to be married. So I hammer a lot on men – in particular, young Christian men. 

So within that context it is not a sin for a woman to work and make money, but it is a problem in a relationship when a man is acting like a boy and dumping all his responsibilities on the wife – that is what we press against. We also teach that the best caregiver for a child is the mother, especially in those early formative years before the children go to school.

You’ve recently written a book, Real Marriage, with your wife, Grace. You are a ‘complementarian’ – the wife should submit to the husband.

The emphasis in the Bible is that the husband would love the wife like Jesus Christ does the Church. In the context of that, a man is safe and trustworthy, and his wife knows he deeply cares and has her best interests at heart. That enables her to trust him and to follow his leadership in the family, as she gives input and speaks into the decision-making.

We can put women in a very dangerous situation when we tell them to submit to men if we are not equally telling the men to be loving, gracious and kind.

Ephesians 5 also says ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’. There is a sense of mutual submission in marriage, isn’t there?

Paul goes on to say about husbands loving, nurturing, caring for and protecting, and wives respecting, submitting, honouring. I think when it says ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ it means the other person in the marriage has the authority to determine whether that is happening. We give a lot of power to our spouse as to whether or not we are living up to the biblical standards.

When it comes to how men should act, you caused some controversy on Facebook, saying, ‘So, what story do you have of the most effeminate, anatomically male worship leader you have personally witnessed?’ People accused you of being a bully. Do you regret writing that?

I do, but... I go too far sometimes. Almost every other pastor I know doesn’t go far enough. That’s ok because the Church tends to be led by people who are timid and fearful of going too far. Let’s just say this – right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that is the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.

What about people such as John MacArthur who say some of your material is ‘crude, tasteless and totally inappropriate for a minister of Christ’?

Certainly not everything goes in the pulpit. When I have crossed a line, or good, godly friends have brought that to my attention, I am one who publicly repents, publicly apologises. I also believe that I am a sinner; I need the grace of God. But I don’t want that in any way to cause me to not be zealous, passionate and courageous with the gospel moving forward.

When it comes to Jesus, you’ve said, ‘I can’t worship the hippy, diaper, halo Christ, because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.’ Those are strong words.

You’ve got to break through the cultural noise. If I get on and say ‘Jesus is nice, blah, blah, blah, Jesus is sweet, blah, blah, blah, Jesus takes care of people, blah, blah, blah’, nobody cares, because there is nothing interesting around it. The reason you’re talking to me is because I will say things that are interesting.

Is there not a danger that you will turn into the shock-jock of the pulpit?

Yet most people’s reaction is repentance. Once in a while, a blog will turn it into something because that is what the media does. But most of my time is spent teaching through books of the Bible. It’s really not that complicated or that controversial.

But when you say ‘I cannot worship a guy I can beat up’, Jesus did get beaten up; he didn’t put up a fight when they came to crucify him.

But when he comes again in glory, it will not be to take a beating, but to give a beating. And the reason Jesus took a beating is like a soldier who gets shot for his country – that is valour, courage and masculinity.

They are defending and saving, and that is what Jesus did when he died for our sins. You have a crisis in Great Britain of a whole generation questioning penal substitutionary atonement because it seems too dark, too masculine, too intense. This is a cultural, theological epidemic that you have to acknowledge.

You are as upfront in print as you are in preaching. Real Marriage is set to cause some controversy, as it includes teaching on what Christian couples can do in the bedroom. You teach, for instance, that anal sex is ‘not unlawful’, but are you in a position to say that?

I am a Bible teacher, and if anyone wants to disagree with me they can argue biblically and I will be glad to do so. But I cannot allow the people of God to be governed by some sort of prudish Victorian culture; they have to be governed by the word of God.

But is there a danger you are buying into an already overly sexualised culture when you say anal sex, sex toys and role play are not unlawful?

You’re being kind of scandalous and immature about the issue, and I don’t appreciate that. You have picked very specific pages in the book where we answer very common questions couples have, and as a pastor I am trying to answer the kind of questions people ask about the Bible.

The Bible doesn’t forbid certain things, so we can’t forbid certain things. However, in 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul gives us three questions to ask, ‘Is it lawful, is it profitable, is it enslaving?’ We say in the book there are many reasons why it may not be profitable – health risks, lack of conscience, doing something because you saw it in pornography, and becoming obsessed by it. If you can say, ‘It’s not for any of those kind of reasons, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing for us according to conscience’, then you move on to ‘Is it enslaving?’

We would never encourage a couple to do such an act, but there is not a biblical case that says it is a sin, so they have to operate according to conscience just as Christians do on many issues. That is exactly why we wrote the book. Most Christians do not think biblically when it comes to cultural issues. They think emotionally, in a way which is culturally governed, and we want to bring them back to the word of God.

Maybe it’s a sense of British reserve, Mark?

But I’ve been around the UK, and what appears to be British conservatism is only public. In private, Brits are just as dirty as Americans.

You are at the forefront of a theological movement in the US termed the ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’. Why is reformed theology becoming so captivating for many people?

I think there are a few reasons. It has a high view of the Bible; I think young people who are Christians want to know the Bible. Number two: there is a high view of Jesus, and it really is all about Jesus. Any time it is about Church, or morality or politics it’s not very interesting, but when it is about Jesus it is very interesting. Number three: there is a high view of sin, which explains all the problems in the world. 

I think if you put those together – the Bible is truth, Jesus is God, and sin is the problem – you have got the beginnings of a real understanding of the world. Also it has tended to be reformed theology that writes a lot of the books – Luther, Calvin, Edwards. It does a lot of the theological heavy lifting.

Another area of theology you’re known for is that a woman can’t be an elder or preach in the Church. Why is that?

The Bible. There is this book called the Bible – it’s fantastic. I would encourage everyone to read it.

How strongly do you hold that position - is it a first or second order issue?

I have preached in churches that are egalitarian and have women elders. However, I do not believe that the Bible allows a woman to hold the highest office of spiritual authority in the Church – the pastor or elder. When it comes to our church, we have to do things according to our biblical convictions.

I do believe that there are some godly women who love Jesus and are gifted for ministry and are holding that office. However, I would encourage them to look at the scriptures to find a more biblical way to conduct their gifts and calling. 

But you can be an absolutely committed Christian and disagree on that issue. There are churches in our area who disagree, and we will work with them on evangelistic tasks if they really love Jesus and are leading people to him.

You’ve spent time with the Newfrontiers church network in the UK. Would it be fair to say you are a charismatic Calvinist?

It’s an area I am growing in. I absolutely love Terry Virgo, I love that movement and I love the Holy Spirit. Here’s my thing, though – I have never spoken in tongues, God has not given me that gift, though I believe all the gifts operate today.

But I believe the primary purpose of the spiritual gifts, and the empowering of God the Holy Spirit, is for mission – just like Jesus’ life was led by the Holy Spirit. It’s not so that I might have a private spiritual experience.

You gave a prophecy at a Newfrontiers conference that actually caused them to do some serious rethinking for the future. It must weigh heavily on you that you have to get it right.

It is terrifying, and is one of the reasons why I am growing in my biblical study of God the Holy Spirit, and trying to be led by the Spirit. I know in my flesh that I have said and done things in my past that I regret and came from my own pride, my own macho disposition. It is one of the few times I will admit that I feel a bit fearful as I don’t want to serve poorly or abuse spiritual authority. I want to be used by God and not get in the way as much as I am able.

Where do you think you have got it wrong in the past?

I think being in a room with 20-something non-Christian guys, I would sometimes work the crowd or take the jokes too far, make a shock-jock statement. I was just playing to the audience, more like a performer in that moment. Those are things I have been convicted of. I would say in the grace of God my teaching and preaching has changed and matured, and I hope to be able to say that when I am 80 years old.

Listen to Justin's interview with Mark Driscoll on Unbelievable?