Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur and the Danger of Celebrity Pastors

driscoll and macarthur

A couple of weeks ago Seattle mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll got into a tiff with Los Angeles mega-church pastor John MacArthur. Their dust-up provided a few moments of entertainment in an otherwise slow news week, so religious publications as well as a few secular ones gave some attention to it.


I have to admit the situation made me laugh because of Driscoll’s sheer chutzpah—he wears the trait like a merit badge. That his target was the dean of American fundamentalism John MacArthur made the matter even more interesting. But what the whole episode revealed about the state of the American church made it important for all of us to think about.


Here’s what happened. MacArthur was hosting a conference called “Strange Fire” that was devoted to exposing—in his view—the errors of charismatic churches. The conference was built around his new book of the same name, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship.


For reasons known only to himself Driscoll showed up uninvited and began passing out free copies of his own new book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Future or a Funeral? To rub salt in the wound, he went on to pray with people standing in line to get into the conference.


A security detail arrived on the scene and told Driscoll he couldn’t hand out his books at MacArthur’s conference. That’s when things got weird. Driscoll claims he was thrown off the property and his books confiscated. MacArthur’s people say he gave them his books and left on his own accord.




Earlier this week Driscoll sent an open letter to MacArthur inviting him to Driscoll’s upcoming conference—like MacArthur’s previous meeting, a seminar based on his book—to be held next month in Seattle. It remains to be seen if MacArthur will hand out copies of his book to Driscoll’s crowd.


I expect MacArthur to join Driscoll at his conference. The two of them will make a public appearance and profess their appreciation for one another and how the whole thing was just a misunderstanding. Then their respective camps can breathe a sigh of relief that their two heroes are back on speaking terms and America’s evangelical churches can get back to normal.


This is the part that troubles me. The normal state MacArthur and Driscoll will return to is what started the controversy to begin with. The fact is that their normal state is their celebrity status. No one would care about their disagreement and who tried to show up whom at whose conference if both weren’t such widely recognized and publicly celebrated pastors. And that’s the problem. In churches today, celebrity pastors have become larger than life, to the point where the churches they serve often become—in perception if not in fact—little more than platforms that support their personal ministries instead of communities of grace and mission in their own right. The normal state of a growing number of American churches is an unhealthy dependency on their celebrity pastors.


I’m not pointing fingers at MacArthur and Driscoll. Both seem to be men of integrity and vision and I’ve been blessed by their ministries. I continue to benefit from reading some of their books.


Like many other mega-church pastors across the country, though, their public personas have assumed a life all their own. Can you imagine a Mars Hill Church without Mark Driscoll as pastor? Or a Grace Community Church without John MacArthur as its leader?


When a pastor becomes larger than his church, isn’t that some sort of red flag?


The Church has always recognized and honored her outstanding servants. In early church history John Chrysostom was more famous than any religious leader today. Martin Luther was just as celebrated in his day. In our time we could point to Billy Graham.


But today’s fascination with celebrity pastors feels different. There’s less substance and more hype. Less authenticity and more marketing. There’s a cold-eyed strategy that makes it feel as though we’re being sold a product instead of being led into a deeper walk with Christ. When I see the glitzy campaigns that keep celebrity pastors in the public eye—through television interviews, planted newspaper stories, book sales, twitter feeds (does anyone really believe these pastors write their own tweets every day?) or professionally designed publicity campaigns—it looks as though the  pastor himself is the center of the church.


He’s not. The center of the church is Jesus.


Humility is a pastor’s most important quality. The church isn’t his platform, his creation, his business or his plaything. It’s the people the Holy Spirit has given him the privilege of serving. Congregations and their pastors who forget that biblical truth create a celebrity culture where the church’s mission is secondary to the pastor’s ego.


  1. Bruce K. Cronkite on November 1, 2013 at 1:16 am


    I enjoyed this article. A Mega church with celebrity or even extremely popular pastors leading them do take on a role of leadership on earth. I wont say that because a church is huge the Pastor in self centered on hi church he is in charge of however will say often larger church’s do take on a personality of their own. The Pastor that leads this church has many directions to choose from, larger congregation, more exposure of the Gospel and the Pastors exposure. The Pastor gets over run with responsibilities associated with running an operation of that size. It is an operation because it take many person to assist the Pastor in properly functioning as the leader on earth. Now the Pastor is somewhat removed from ministering to the individual level member. The church as it grows does change the primary focus from ministering to its members to a
    dichotomy, torn between inreach and extended outreach. Yes churchs should have outreach, often termed missions, but when I refer to extended outreach I am speaking of expansion of the church. Is this a bad thing? Not if The Gospel is the true center and not the equidistant vision of its core values, its covenant with God stretched or convoluted to the point growth is tantamount to “being right with God” when in fact it is mere sinful pride of the Pastor in question. Lets not even look at a Mega Church, I have seen in firsthand on a smaller scale, whereas a Pastor is a complete control freak to the point of delusional self importance as opposed to having an open ear second and open heart first to the members of the congregation. Personally I feel a Pastor should never do anything that detracts from the Gospel being shared and done so with purity. Pastors are human and as humans make mistakes, with much power is a propensity of derision in the church, speaking of Christ’s description and the man made vision. A Pastor can be led astray through money, pride or power, when in fact the only thing a Pastor should chase after is God’s true vision for the ministry He or She has been called to lead. Who is to say what is and what is not of God? Perhaps follow Acts 5:38-39, and us be followers of Christ, pray for these Pastors and seek how God would use us to further His Kingdom! Brother Bruce Cronkite

    • on November 1, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for weighing in on this. You’re right that pastoral sin is irrespective of the size of his church. But as a I said to Tray in his comment, there are some unique issues at stake in the modern mega-church that are making the pastor/church relationship particularly vulnerable.

      Blessings on you, my friend,

  2. Tray Coker on November 1, 2013 at 1:41 am

    According to Outreach Magazine I belong to the 2nd fastest growing church in America and the 4th largest church in America. I guess we would be considered a mega church, and our pastor a celebrity pastor. During my time as a member of this church our pastor has always taught a Christ centered message no matter what the topic. He always puts himself in his place which is well below Christ. He is open about his faults, his shortcomings, and how he is so thankful that to be a servant of God. Our mega church does not do much marketing. If you ask 90% of the people who attend they will tell you they started coming to our church because they were asked by somebody. I don’t think the problem is Mega churches or celebrity pastors, I think the problem is sin. It’s in all churches big and small. I think we need to stop pointing out the problem with churches and just start doing what Christ asked us to do.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    • on November 1, 2013 at 10:33 am

      I’m happy that your church and pastor have a clear view of their relationship with one another. Sin is indeed a problem for all of us–in churches large and small. I do believe, though, that modern American mega-church along with their pastors are dealing with unique issues of identity, leadership and the overall status of the pastor. It’s a new world. Glad you’re doing well.

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