I was sixteen years old when a new album came on the scene, quickly labeled “edgy,” if not offensive, in the world of 2003 Contemporary Christian Music. The lyrics were provocative, at least for the time, and my teenage heart was enthralled by them.
I am a whore
I do confess
I put you on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle
I listened to the album over and over again, enticed by the call to what felt like a deeper faith, a rawness and authenticity that seemed to be missing in so much of the evangelical culture around me. The music was artistically good, but not overly polished. The lyrics were reverent (enough), but not stripped of human honesty.
I knew my salvation was secure, but I wondered if perhaps the hollowness I’d sometimes felt in the conservative evangelicalism of my childhood could be filled by the fresh air this singing provocateur was breathing. Maybe this was the missing piece.
Seven years later, my husband and I sat in a small group Bible study on a Sunday afternoon. We were working our way through a video series on Song of Solomon taught by Mark Driscoll. He, too, was “edgy” and seemed to be offering something new. His hardcore-neo-Calvinist-swirled-with-Seattle vibe was fascinating to me as a lifelong Bible church–attending Texan. As a twenty-something whose husband was training to become a pastor, his zeal for ministry and family caught my attention.
Driscoll’s eyes brimmed with tears on the video once, his voice quivering as he described his inability to imagine sending their children to daycare. The woman sitting in front of me, a friend, slumped a bit in her seat, inched toward her husband. Their daughter attended day care, and everyone in the room knew it as clearly as we knew that Driscoll was condemning their choice.
I was confused about how to feel in that moment. Was that judgment my friend was feeling? Or maybe it was conviction? Driscoll seemed so certain that what he was saying was godly. Maybe this was the missing piece.
Just four years after those Sunday afternoons in Bible study, an article by a man named Tullian Tchividjian came across my computer screen. He spoke of abundant grace and I immediately felt a connection to him for a specific reason—he was articulating free grace theology in a reformed space. My husband had recently accepted a pastoral position at a free grace church, and, as a mid-twenty-something, I often felt keenly aware of the bits of difference between us and the TULIP crowd.
But Tchividjian, for that brief moment, seemed to be straddling both worlds. Maybe he had it figured out. Maybe I wasn’t going to be left out after all. Maybe this was the missing piece.
The Pieces That Weren’t
Over the past few years, Driscoll publicly departed his church and the Acts 29 Network amidst allegations of harshness, verbal abuse, and plagiarism. Tchividjian and Webb both engaged in extramarital affairs that led to the ends of their marriages, as well as Tchividjian being deposed from his pastorate.
Their stories are not the only ones, either. Darrin Patrick, Perry Noble, and others have also been removed from pastoral and Christian leadership positions in the past few years. There were thousands of people harmed by their sin, and the internet predictably cried out with pain, frustration, anger, defenses, and eye rolls.
But the outrage doesn’t seem to have affected them. Now Driscoll, Tchividjian, and Webb are popping up in my social media feeds like nothing ever happened, except for how it’s not like that at all.
Driscoll joined Patheos, pastors a church, and has a slew of new internet content.
Tchividjian’s freshly branded website features “A Word from Tullian’s Pastor” that reads like an endorsement.
Webb released his latest album, Fingers Crossed, which includes a song reminiscent of early 2000s worship music that turns out to be about alcohol, lyrics full of anger toward people from his former church, and heart-piercing longing for his children.
There are “too soon” and “leave them alone” and “who cares” takes aplenty regarding each of these men. So why this piece? Because when I look at their stories, when I hear the pouring out of pain and anger felt by those harmed in their wakes, all I can think about is that feeling I had when I was sixteen, and twenty-three, and twenty-seven. I recall my hope that they were offering me a missing piece. But what I see more clearly now is that rather than offering me what was missing, they were teaching me about what was missing.
We’re indicted by our search for the missing piece.
Driscoll, Webb, Tchividjian, and others like them have all benefited immensely from Christian product industries. Albums, books, sermons, and swag abound with their names permanently affixed (even in the case of Driscoll, who did not write a great deal of what has been peddled as his). As their products and messages evolved into oxygen in the evangelical air, these men became brands to the Christian public as much, if not more, than they were actual people.
If there’s any judgment this reality leads me to make, it’s one that also lists my name under the word “indicted.” Men like Driscoll, Webb, and Tchividjian are culpable for their sin and responsible before for God for how they seek or embrace the spotlight. And men and women like me are culpable for our sin and responsible before God for how we shine or support the spotlight.
Christians who have publicly, morally failed are regularly welcomed back into Christian industry circles because their names have become brands, and brands are worth money. Brands have clout. Brands make Christians feel like we’re stakeholders in a culture that we fear is leaving us behind. And brands seek to render mortals immortal, propping up mere men as demigods who hold the answers hearts long to hear.
Like the Israelites crying out for a king, my own heart has often looked for answers and guidance from a human leader. I believe, and yet I doubt. Far too often, I find it wildly alluring that someone else discovered treasure I’ve yet to unearth, because the alternative seems so hard to bear—that maybe this Christian life looks much more like being acquainted with lowliness and grief than it does like the glimmer of celebrity.
Maybe the king who is seated at the right hand of the Father is the only human who will ever be equipped to fill the longing for guidance within me that I keep trying to fill with names and figureheads that inevitably let me down. Maybe I am guilty of seeking to commodify the very image of God, of using mere mortals to fill holes in me that only The Immortal can fill.
The Driscolls, Tchividjians, and Webbs are responsible for their sinful choices. But I can take responsibility for my part in clamoring for their platform—for the longevity of their brands. And perhaps if I recognize my own culpability, I can begin to consider what it may look like to turn from living as one unfilled and longing for filling, and live as who I actually am—one filled by the Spirit whose heart still wanders as she walks a broken earth.
The Phantom Missing Pieces
There is no quick or ultimate fix for the problems of Christian celebrity and industry this side of the kingdom come. Power gives birth to power. Privilege gives birth to privilege. Money seeks more money. Branding is always looking for better branding. And while each of these things can be brought into submission under Christ, there will always be those who refuse to submit, and whose platforms grow tall only to inevitably give way and crush those beneath them.
But Christians are equipped with the better way, even when we struggle to believe it’s true. Indwelled by the Holy Spirit and commissioned as a body of believers, bound one to another, we are not missing pieces the way we so often believe. We await the day when all the pieces connect together, when the kingdom comes in its fullness and we no longer long for anything at all. But even today, if God’s word is true, we “have everything we need for life and godliness.”
The church down the street has imperfect people and a sometimes boring preacher. Another offers awkward small groups and sporadic outreach events. These don’t come with the glitz and wonder of platform or celebrity. It comes with the fellowship of believers, the commonality of belief in the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the mutual indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
It also comes with risk. The church isn’t a static commodity—it’s a living thing, and living things often cause and experience pain. Just as Driscoll, Tchividjian, and Webb caused pain within their local bodies, there are those who will cause pain in yours. Yet the church is the embodiment of the hope of Christ’s return in the world, and even when it feels like foolishness to us, we stick with her, because Jesus sticks with her.
What big-name Christians do matters for a host of reasons, and public commentary on foolish decisions is often justified. As we make space for the pain of those who have been hurt by Christian celebrities, and as we wonder at the wisdom of the Driscolls, Tchividjians, and Webbs of the world continuing to embrace the spotlight, our responses cannot stop there. As God, Jesus emptied himself of his rights to associate with the lowly. We must do the same. The body of Christ is our family, which makes it messy, but we can trust that community is part of God’s answer to our sinful habits of commodifying, and that he is present in the moments unseen.
Cover image by Iqbal Muakhid.