Can leaders say ‘I am sorry—I was wrong’?


Mark Driscoll is a controversial figure, even in America. He has hit the headlines for a variety of reasons, including preaching that ‘God hates you‘ based on a verse in the Psalms. (If nothing else, this is useful in raising question about biblical interpretation!). In more academic circles, his work has raised serious questions about plagiarism; in a recent speech all his points appeared to have been lifted directly from writing of Tim Keller, though without acknowledgement. (If nothing else, this is useful in raising questions about sources and plagiarism!). And this is clearly not an isolated incident. And he appears to have used a dodgy scheme to push one of his titles onto the bestseller lists. (If nothing else, this is useful in raising questions about the credibility of the media!)

The most recent announcement is an apology from Driscoll about certain aspects of the way that he has acted as a leader. There have been very mixed reactions to this—why does it only focus on some issues? Is it genuine, or another publicity stunt? One of the more astute observations has come from Maggi Dawn:

I usually stay out of discussing Mark Driscoll. I don’t warm to his style of ministry and what I’ve read and watched in the past seemed to me to be full of theological and pastoral problems, not least of which is the paternalistic, macho approach he takes to ministry. But his recent “apology” seems to me to require some response, because he is now pitching himself as a reformed Reformed pastor, which begs a little examination.

She explores his use of the language of being a ‘father in God’ to his congregation, and points out some important issues about the use of this term in Scripture:

The first is that, theologically speaking, the image of God as Father does not endorse God as male, but God as progenitor. In the scriptures, God is described as Father when it means he is the creator of all, and the One from whom Jesus and the Holy Spirit proceed.

So this is not primarily language of nurturing—which, if nothing else, is useful to highlight the different cultural assumptions made about terms like ‘father’. In fact, when the language of nurturing is used, Scripture deploys both paternal and maternal imagery. Hosea 11 is an interesting case in point:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms;
but they did not realise it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.

Israel is a child, but there is no mention of God as father. And the images of picking up and feeding have strong maternal overtones.

Secondly, Maggi Dawn points out, Paul’s use of the language of ‘father in God’ is neither paternalistic nor patriarchal.

Paul’s usage of the word “father” in this context was not paternalistic – he wrote repeatedly about his expectation that those younger than him in the faith would grow into his peers, and he longed for the day when they would not be like children… Paul as father-in-God is one who expects his congregation to grow up. Driscoll’s vision of being a father to his church, making them a family in the same way as he is a father to his own children, smacks of sub-Christian infantilisation.

Paul was very happy to have women in senior leadership position, so perhaps Driscoll should consider this too!

(The question of what this phrase ‘father in God’ means is worth exploring, since I know Mike Breen has also borrowed Paul’s imagery here in relation to his leadership of The Order of Mission.)

So is there anything left of value in Driscoll’s comment? I think there is, and I would recommend that all Christians in leadership (which, in fact, is just about all Christians—everyone has someone who looks to them for inspiration and direction) read the statement, because it includes things which I think every leader needs to be able to say:

  • First, I am involved in this ministry because of God’s call on my life and not because of my own ambition.
  • Secondly, my goal is not to become a ‘successful’ leader (however that is measured) but to love those under my care.
  • Thirdly, there are other calls on my life besides my formal ‘ministry’ and I need to keep these in balance.

Ministry is about call not about career, external measures of success are not the ones that matter at the end of the day (or rather at the end of the age), and I have responsibilities to others and need to find a work-life balance. I need to keep being reminded of these, and I suspect you do too. And above all, the letter expresses a willingness to admit I am wrong, both in public and in private.

samson_and_dalida_belgianThis last point really got me thinking. Do leaders in the Bible ever say ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’? Christians immediately have a problem, in that this was something Jesus never said. Is it easier or harder to be humble when you are perfect?! But it is not very clear that Paul ever says ‘I am sorry’ either. Perhaps the closest candidate is his ‘harsh letter’ written to the Corinthians (2 Cor 7.8), which some think forms part of 2 Corinthians, though I think is probably lost. But even here Paul states that he ‘does not regret it.’

In the Old Testament, we see plenty of stories of leaders who failed, or went wrong, or fell from grace. Moses was a headstrong young man, and when God did call him, he doubted his ability. Gideon went off the rails at the end; Samson was a man of flawed strength; Solomon was led astray by his wives. (I wonder whether Driscoll, with his focus on machismo in Christian faith, is a modern day Samson?) But no-one here clearly says ‘I am sorry, I was wrong.’ (OK–David did in Ps 51.1, but that was about a specific sin, not about his leadership as a whole.)

With one notable exception: the gospel according to Mark.

The traditional view is that Mark was written from Rome, in the first instance to Christians in Rome, just prior to the persecution by Nero, and certainly prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Peter was by this time based in Rome and was likely executed under Nero, as was Paul. There is a good argument for believing that Mark’s account of Jesus’ life was based on Peter’s eyewitness testimony, which is what makes Mark’s gospel ‘apostolic’ (important for being considered for inclusion in the canon of Scriptures)— Tim Henderson summarises the reason for this very neatly:

  • Peter is the first and last named disciple in Mark (1:16; 16:7).
  • Peter is mentioned more than any other disciple in Mark.
  • Peter appears in some of the most important scenes in Mark: the calling of the first disciples (1:16-20), the confession of Jesus as Messiah (8:27-30), the transfiguration (9:2-8), the prayer in Gethsemane (14:32-42), and in the concluding scene alluding to future appearances of Jesus (16:7).
  • Of the four gospels, Mark has the highest percentage of references to boats, the Sea of Galilee, and fishing. Peter apparently was a fisherman who worked on the Sea of Galilee (1:16).
  • There is the curious story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29-31), which seems to include personal details related to Peter.

P1070760But one of the distinct features of Mark is the negative portrayal of disciples in general, and Peter in particular. The disciples are constantly failing to understanding what Jesus is doing—and in fact Mark includes a unique account of a double healing in Mark 8.22–26 to drive home the point. It includes the wonderful line (Mark 8.24) ‘I see men like trees walking’, but the point is that, just as the man has needed Jesus to heal him twice, so the disciples need Jesus to explain to them not once, but twice, who he is and what he is about. Just preceding this healing, Jesus’ words to the Twelve seem particularly harsh:

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?…Do you still not understand?” (Mark 8.17–21)

Peter in particular is consistently portrayed in a less favourable light in Mark than in the other gospels. In his confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8.27–33), Matthew includes a long affirming speech by Jesus, and Luke doesn’t even mention his rebuke to Jesus and the counter-rebuke he receives. At the Transfiguration, Mark emphasises Peter’s fear and failure to understand (Mark 9.6). On the way to Gethsemane, Peter in Mark’s gospel is most emphatic in his declaration that he would die with Jesus (Mark 14.31)—an empty boast as we discover just a few verses later. And so on.

And this raises a key question: What does it take to tell your story about following Jesus, but in doing so portray yourself in the worst possible light? What might it take to agree that these stories, told in this way, should be included in a written document, which as an account of Jesus’s life was always going to have weight, even without consideration that it would become part of the canon of Scripture?

I think there can only be one answer. It means that Peter was not at all concerned about himself and his ministry and leadership, but was completely focussed on the message that his ministry carried: the grace of God found in the transforming forgiveness of Jesus. In the very shape of Mark’s gospel, Peter is saying to all leaders, and so to all Christians: it is not about me, it is about the person of Jesus—the effect he has on people—and making that transforming power available to others.

If we focussed more on that, and were less worried about ‘our’ ministry, I think we would find it easier to say sorry!

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8 thoughts on “Can leaders say ‘I am sorry—I was wrong’?”

  1. Dave, thanks for the correction–odd that I misspelled it as I know Mike.

    My comment wasn’t a sideswipe at all. I have co-published with Mike this Grove booklet,
    as I thought what he said was really important, and I know Mark Carey quite well too, and have a deep respect for him and his ministry.

    I stand by my comment: I think it is important to explore what this phrase means. I was quite surprised to hear Mike use it of himself, initially in person, because it had quite a ‘catholic’ ring to it, and I have written elsewhere of the problems that arise when church leaders are treated as acting in the place of God.

    As a paid-up New Winer, I am also aware of the dangers of big-personality leadership.

    What do you think of Maggi Dawn’s observations?

    Has Mike written or spoken about how he understands the phrase?

  2. I like this, but I also have misgivings…………It seems to build an awful lot on a very shaky foundation, because the tradition that Mark’s gospel = Peter’s shadow-written memoirs is just that – a tradition.

    If alternative origins – such as Ralph P. Martin’s hypothesis of a Pauline origin- were to be demonstrated (but I doubt if we can ultimately know….) the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down………….Indeed, if a Pauline origin is positing, the negative portrayal of Peter takes on a decidedly polemical dimension!

    • No, it is much more than ‘a tradition’. I am not sure Martin’s thesis has convinced anybody. There is a strong argument supporting the Petrine view in Richard Bauckham’s ‘Eyewitnesses’ book.

      It is really difficulty to explain key features of Mark without the Petrine thesis…

  3. I have to say this piece absolutely hits the nail on the head regarding the ‘success’ or otherwise of ‘ a persons ministry’. The ministry is not theirs but Christ’s. Any of us, whether ordained or lay, with a particular responsibility or none, serve Christ, not ourselves. If more of us remembered that, we would be a lot more content in what we do and worry far less about how others see us.

    More importantly we might do a better job of service to our Lord. The early apostles and leaders were prepared to suffer persecution and even die for Christ’s ministry. How many of us would be so willing today? A humble ministry on Christ’s behalf, honestly done, sows as many seeds as the big noisy one. The difference is that one doesn’t know how many seeds will grow or with whom; but then again, that is the Lord’s business, not ours.

    • Thanks John, indeed. ‘If more of us remembered that, we would be a lot more content in what we do and worry far less about how others see us.’ Hard to remember in our media age!


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