Plagiarism, Personality-Driven Leadership, and the Problem With Evangelicalism

Plagiarism, Personality-Driven Leadership, and the Problem With Evangelicalism December 4, 2013

Update: New developments in the Mefferd-Driscoll storyline can be found over at Warren Throckmorton’s blog post, “Janet Mefferd Removes Evidence Relating to Charges of Plagiarism Against Mark Driscoll; Apologizes to Audience.” Updated 12/4/13 @ 5:14 pm EST

The recent dust-up within evangelical circles over accusations of plagiarism highlights one of the problems with the personality-based leadership that encompasses most of American evangelicalism.

For those of you unfamiliar with the hullabaloo, Tyndale House recently released A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future? by Mark Driscoll, the ever-controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church, Seattle.  Evidently, a good chunk of the book bears a strong resemblance to the work of Peter Jones, scholar-in-residence at Westminster Seminary California and the director of truthXchange, a think tank dedicated to helping evangelicals “recognize and effectively respond to the rising tide of neopaganism.”*  Jones and Driscoll are also close friends, and Driscoll consistently credits Jones with teaching him a great deal–apparently not in A Call to Resurgence, however.  Evidently, Driscoll gives one citation for fourteen pages of information drawn from Jones’ work.  In an interview ostensibly scheduled to discuss the content of the book, Janet Mefferd confronted Driscoll on her nationally syndicated radio talk show, accusing him of plagiarism and a lack of integrity.  (You can listen to the interview here and read about the debate over whether or not Driscoll hung up on Mefferd here.)

Regardless of how this whole debacle turns out, it demarcates the manner in which the evangelical embrace of personality-driven leadership creates problems the movement cannot overcome.

George Whitefield

Throughout its history, evangelicalism has consistently empowered dynamic leaders.  Dating back to its inception in the colonial period, George Whitefield’s itinerant ministry blossomed both as a result of his skill in promoting his ministry and his ability to connect with auditors in a manner that transcended most other preachers of his day.  This popular appeal marked a “new model of leadership” in Christian circles that circumvented both established ecclesiastical patterns and ministerial norms.**  In the wake of the Awakening, the ability to connect with and directly appeal to the people became a hallmark of evangelical leadership, particular in the religious marketplace of America.

In the antebellum period, Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer gathered followers through personal charisma and dynamism.  After the Civil War, D. L. Moody did the same, uniting many evangelical Protestants with his winsome personality and broad evangelical message.  In the middle of the twentieth century, the ministry of Billy Graham demonstrated that this trend continued. Today, that model of evangelical leadership endures.  Pastors and laypeople alike are enamored with John Piper, Rick Warren, Francis Chan, Rachael Held Evans, Rob Bell, and Mark Driscoll. Social media has only exacerbated personality-driven leadership as individuals can friend, follow, and subscribe to a constant stream of thought-forming and ministry-shaping information that comes via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  As a result, acolytes consume a steady diet of material from their favorite evangelical leader (or his/her assistants) increasing affection, loyalty, and commitment.  In the last century, it took a trip to the library to find out what Billy Graham thought about a topic.  Today, David Platt’s opinions stream to my phone and are available for me even before I know I want them.

Ironically, all this only increases the “tribalism” that concerns Driscoll.  Evangelical responses to Mefferd-Driscoll story are all-too-predictable.  Fans of Driscoll–who likely follow him on Twitter, subscribe to his sermons on iTunes, and read his blog daily–have defended him, arguing that a single-citation suffices, or that Driscoll has a “photographic” memory, or that perhaps ghostwriting is to blame.  Others, who are not fans of Driscoll, see this as confirmation of Driscoll’s rascality–his true colors finally coming through.

Because of the personality-driven leadership inherent in contemporary evangelicalism, the tribalism it nurtures, and the reality that most of American evangelicalism subsists in some variation of the free church tradition, the final outcome of this story is clear.  There is no authority that can adjudicate this matter other than the authority upon which both Driscoll and Mefferd have built their ministries: evangelical popular opinion.  (Recalling Jimmy Swaggart’s refusal to abide by his church’s disciplinary actions, it is clear that even in cases where such authority does exists, popular appeal often trumps that authority.)  Thus, regardless of whether or not Mark Driscoll truly plagiarized in A Call to Resurgence(and other books) or whether Janet Mefferd lied about Driscoll hanging up, their tribes will defend them to the end.

This is the troubling reality of the personality-based leadership that encompasses much of American evangelicalism.  Often, charisma and dynamic communication skills trump character and integrity as popular appeal wins the day.  And for those of us who wish it were otherwise, there is no court of appeal with the authority to hear our case.  Replete with positives, this remains one of the great weaknesses of contemporary evangelicalism.

Citations (of course):

* “Vision” at  Last accessed December 3, 2013.

** Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 112.

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  • I appreciate your post and I agree we have a penchant for personality-based leadership. But I think that’s more a problem of the flesh than it is a problem with American evangelicalism. We grant influence very easily or we wouldn’t pay actors and sports figures as much as we do. Even worse, we allow them to influence us in other areas which is why so many will grant influence in the area of government or politics to an actor or a sports figure. Just look at the people in the commercials we see.

    It takes work to manage the influence we grant others. We get lazy and grant influence to people who don’t have enough accountability in their personal or professional lives. It looks worse for Christians because we should know. We should be held to a higher standard. But the problem applies to us all. It comes with our flesh. We are responsible to work harder and steward the influence we grant to others because of the importance of our witness.

    Thanks for a great post.

  • Don Bryant

    Great speakers get to bear great influence. Nothing new here.

  • Personality-driven leadership wouldn’t be a problem if Evangelicals would return to Jesus Christ, their first love.

  • Michael

    No, great marketers (i.e., self-promoters) get to bear great influence. And, no, it’s nothing new, but it’s about time evangelicalism stopped it.

  • Michael

    Because if evangelicals returned to Jesus Christ there would be no such thing as “personality-driven leadership.”

  • We may be on the same page. My point was that His personality, and only His personality, is worthy of “personality-driven leadership.”

    The very presence of a “star system” in Evangelical Christianity (or even modern Christianity as a whole) is a sign that the sun (Malachi 4:2) has been eclipsed (i.e. forgotten, gone out of mind). It is also a sign that Evangelicals are walking by sight and not by faith. These Christian “luminaries” are the blind leading the blind.

    Let us return to Jesus our Lord.

  • Philip Wade

    Whitefield’s ability to connect with auditors? Would that be audiences? (Please forgive me if this is out of place.)

  • I’m not entirely convinced that this is a new phenomenon or even unique to the Evangelical culture. I Corinthians 3:4 seems to highlight a very similar problem long ago before Evangelical became a buzzword. I agree with Mr. Henry that the penchant is there, and it expresses itself in other areas of life as well. Perhaps the visibility in evangelical culture is a bit higher than it would otherwise be given the average person won’t consume (nor understand) the theology of Jonathan Edwards or a contemporary scholar.

    To me the fault is both the follower who gets caught up – but the leader whom does not conduct his/her business a way the befits humble service for the King.

    At the end of the day, a charismatic (not the religious variety) person is going to bring in people. What matters is not that he or she revokes that God-bestowed gift, but that he or she uses it for the glory of Lord Jesus.

  • Nope, it’s hearkening back to the older user of the word derived from it’s old Latin meeting – simply to hear. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “audit a course” then that would be similar to usage here.

  • Philip Wade

    Thank you. That’s interesting.

  • Miles Mullin

    Yep. Thanks, Denver.

  • Miles Mullin


    Denver is right, of course. It is helpful in distinguishing those who listen to a speech vis-a-vis those who might read it later. Perhaps I should have used “listeners.”

    Thanks for reading!


  • Miles Mullin


    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You are right that we grant influence way too easily. There are multiple problems with this, and multiple levels at which this is true. I have some more thoughts on this, but may save them for a different post.

    Thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.


  • Miles Mullin


    To an extent that is true. But the degree to which a great speaker has influence multiplied exponentially in the American context where a religious marketplace void of any overarching ecclesial authority emerged. Before the 18th century, there were legitimately powerful checks upon popular embrace of great speakers. Even today, there are checks in hierarchical church structures. In contemporary evangelicalism–especially in the free church tradition–there are virtually none.

    Thanks a lot for reading!


  • Excellent point, Denver. To ask a different question: what is Christianity if not a “personality-driven” faith? Humans are set up to respond to personalities, and God has used that tendency to draw Jesus’ followers, from his earthly ministry til today.

    The problem comes when we allow fallible human “personalities” more influence than we allow the infallible Person of Jesus.

    Tribes are fine. Following personalities is fine. Expecting them to be Jesus is not.

  • Great way to reframe a question, I think.

    God specifically created us to be social creatures and thus we ultimately pass our faith on to others by interaction (preaching, teaching, evangelizing) versus faith being born out of sitting down with the Bible and reading it in a vacuum (there are always, exceptions of course).

    The danger is holding a man or woman who passed the faith (or passes [ongoing], such as a pastor or close friend) in too great esteem and not realizing where the blessing ultimately flows forth from. I agree that “tribalizing” is not what God had in mind, but at the same time don’t we already tribe off as the redeemed of God?

    I was not charitable enough in my initial posting in that I fully acknowledge with the author that this is indeed an issue, but I disagree a bit that it’s new or unique to Evangelicalism. It’s rather old hat, as I think the Corinthian quote suggests.

    I’m reminded of Cardinal Dolan as a figure hailing from a Roman Catholic background, and perhaps someone like Dr. Wright in the Anglican tradition. Cardinal Dolan recently misspoke that recent events in the marriage arena were simply the result of being essentially out-marketed. Clearly it’s not level with what Driscoll did, but at the same time it’s a case of certain voices being elevated out of the larger mass and closely followed.

    The question becomes, though, if one closely follows even a local pastor/priest, then why is that different from Driscoll? If he plagiarizes or uses a ghostwriter for sermons, chances are he won’t get caught. Conversely, if he preaches metaphorical manna from heaven, why would it be a bad thing to be a part of his tribe and sit under his teaching? Certain conditions clearly contributed to Driscoll’s need to pump out books, but isn’t a local pastor wrestling with the need to pump out sermons?

  • Great points.

    I wonder about the flip side too: what pressures do pastors face because their followers idolize them? (In this instance I think the term idolatry is pretty fitting.) If there are benefits to having your own cult of personality (defenders, acclaim, money, etc), is it worth the downside: not being able to fail without losing the favor of a fickle public?

    I appreciate your thoughtful response, as well as the author’s perspective.

  • Miles Mullin

    Denver: I think you sense that this “problem” occurs at the local level is correct. Many, many, many pastors in local contexts set up the same sort of insulation against accountability that evangelical celebrities cultivate. The popular appeal is the same, the scope is simply different. It is still a terrible problem and not one to which there is a good answer.

    In the case of Dolan and Wright, there are actually episcopal structures that exist in both cases that could–if the offense were great enough–step in to do something. And that “something” could be minimal or quite severe. In evangelicalism, because it depends on popular appeal, the only limits on a person’s authority/power/etc. are a) popular revolt and b) willingness to put structures in place that limit his/her power. In the first case, as long as the “tribe” is willing to overlook x,y, or z nothing changes. In the second case, well… that takes a lot of fortitude, humility, patience, and willingness to accept others’ judgments for the sake of having a “good process”–even if it slows decision-making and even when you are confident you are right. A tough sell.


  • Miles Mullin

    Absolutely. This is on my list for a follow-up post at some point. In today’s social media driven ministry, the pressure to produce content is constant. They must tweet, fb, and blog regularly in addition to preach, disciple, and write books. Compare the output of a celeb-pastor today to one of two generations ago–it is ridiculous.


  • Philip Wade

    No. I’m glad you used the word. I’ve learned something now.

  • Huskersuck
  • Jason Klanderud

    Although I do appreciate the case that the author of the article makes I disagree with his conclusion. Would not the character and integrity of these ‘tribal leaders’ still be determined by a popular vote as well? I believe that truth transcends the individual, especially the messenger. It would serve these leaders well to remember that so as not to let their egos inflate beyond anyone’s reproach.

  • liz

    In the last two paragraphs, I found myself replacing “evangelical” with “political”. Your article, as well as outlining the problem with the cult of personality among evangelical leaders (your focus was evangelicalism, but it can be found in every religion) also provided an accurate description of partisan politics. I don’t believe this is coincidental. Has anyone else out there seen a parallel between political partisans and religious zealots in their worshipful attitude towards their leader? I’ve seriously begun to wonder if the American party system isn’t America’s newest religious movement. Politician or Pastor, it takes a strong character, and I would think constant vigilance, not to believe and be affected by the accolades filling up your twitter feed from zealous followers.
    Politics aside, religious leaders of any Christian denomination should always be pointing towards Christ, not at themselves. I respect those leaders who can take zealous praise directed at them and gently steer the conversation back to the gospel. Otherwise, your church is now become, as you say, a “cult of personality” rather than a church of Christ. An inflated ego is the natural result. And the likelihood is very good that you will transgress, be you Driscoll or Mefferd or (fill in the blank) politician from (fill in the blank) party.

  • Fair points indeed. The only issue I have with the episcopal structure is that it’s a bit of a paper tiger. It sounds good in theory, but (and I am sorry to the Catholics for picking on them [honestly!] but these are the most visible examples) many of the recent sexual abuse scandals and some of the (in)famous rebellious nuns suggest that the hierarchical hand is not quite as strong and godly as we would hope.

    (Can’t you tell I am a Baptist?) I also spent time in the Methodist church for which I am very grateful, yet their episcopacy again underlines that the system doesn’t quite work as well as advertised given a Reformation/Protestant spin.

    Ironically, I say this as someone who has grown a bit divorced from Driscoll. I read a few of his earlier works and generally appreciated them. However, my wife and I were somewhat turned off by his “Real Marriage” book and his desire to sometimes use red meat tactics.

    I really do see what you’re saying about nobody really policing what has happened, yet I don’t see a much better alternative in a more rigid ecclesiology as any gain would be fairly superficial. At some point Driscoll has to come out and own it, apologize, and work to fix the issue. Even in with an episcopal system, he would need to fully accept the eldership.

  • joe

    As a newer Christian, I wasn’t too familiar with Mark Driscoll. I recently discovered rapper Lecrae on the Internet and became a fan of his, and figured I’d see what pastors he likes so I could learn more about God from people who I thought would be good. Turns out, he and Driscoll are friends, so I followed him on twitter. I began listening to Driscoll’s sermons on Genesis (excellent) and picked up A Call to Resurgence (half way through) and generally liked him. I wasn’t aware of the fierce tribalism that exists in the Evangelical community, so Driscoll’s book (and this article) were very enlightening. However, if Driscoll indeed plagerized, he certainly owes all the buyers and the person he stole from an apology, as that is clearly a sin. Perhaps he should give Carson and Jones some of his profits to make up for it? Nevertheless, I think we should all be gracious. Why can’t we love God and each other like Jesus commanded, instead of making war against our brothers? I understand now why so many unbelievers were turned away because of church attitude. God bless.

  • $25021989

    The muzzling of Janet Mefferd has caught the attention of Warren Cole Smith over at World Magazine:

  • cken

    Sadly people are generally sheep who follow a leader thus saving them the trouble of ascertaining truth. Additionally, there is no such thing as a pure truth, rather it is a function of perception and belief. Even science, the god of atheists, is rarely if ever able to promulgate an unassailable truth.

  • Jeremy

    I have always been and continue to be somewhat leery of broadcast preachers. However, I will admit there is a particular one who I listen to on the radio. He has helped me to understand Bible doctrine and encouraged me to be a student of the Bible. I went to hear him preach in person once and figured out he is pretty smug. I think any prominent person gets that way (no, not defending, just saying that’s the way it is). But Christians must be careful to remember Paul’s point about sectarianism (which is basically what this article is about)….sectarianism is sin. Jesus is the one to follow, not preachers.