Mark Driscoll, John Woolman, Zacchaeus and grace

Mark Driscoll, John Woolman, Zacchaeus and grace January 25, 2012

Thinking a bit more about the appallingly cult-like approach to “church discipline” at Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, I’m reminded again of John Woolman.

Woolman was the Quaker abolitionist primarily responsible for the Quakers, as a whole, becoming abolitionist:

John Woolman believed slavery was unjust — that it was cruel for those in bondage and corrosive for the bondsman. So he wrote an essay explaining why (“Some considerations on the keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the professors of Christianity of every denomination”). And then, since he was sure that his condemnation of slavery was true, and that the truth of it was compelling, he set out to talk to those who disagreed.

One by one, meetinghouse by meetinghouse, home by home. He would speak to gatherings of Friends, or would arrive for dinner at the home of Quaker slaveowners, and he would talk to them about his “considerations” and concerns with this practice. After the meal, he would pay wages to those slaves who had attended him. And he would invite the slaveowners to liberate their slaves, paying them back wages for their years of service.

Crazy. But even crazier: This worked. Conversation, liberation, transformation. That was Woolman’s method and he continued it, unchanged, throughout his life.

Well, almost unchanged. He eventually switched to traveling on foot out of consideration that the stagecoaches he had been riding in were cruel to the horses.

If you live somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, anywhere in between New York City and Richmond, Va., then you’re probably not far from some old historic Friends Meeting House. John Woolman spoke there. He arrived there on foot and spoke about slavery until he had convinced the Friends who gathered there to condemn the practice and cease participating in it by emancipating their slaves and paying them for their service. And then he left on foot, heading for the next such meeting house or home to have that same conversation again, and again and again.

It’s amazing that Woolman succeeded even once at this, let alone that he succeeded with an entire denomination. But that really happened. Quakers were, like many wealthy white people in the colonies, slaveowners. And then, a few decades later, they weren’t. Mainly because John Woolman talked them out of it and talked them into, instead, becoming the foremost white abolitionists of their time.

Woolman scrupulously kept a journal, but he’s frustratingly sketchy as to how these conversations went. What did he say? What did they say? What else did they talk about?

I desperately wish that instead of a journal he’d brought along a documentary camera crew.

My guess is that when John Woolman showed up at your house you knew what you were in for, you knew what to expect. I suspect it was the same way for Zacchaeus when Jesus came to town.

I can’t help but wonder if the slaves of those colonial Quaker households knew this too. Had they heard stories? Did they know that this man whose place they were setting at the dinner table was going to pay them for their service that evening? Did they know that he was going to try to convince their so-called “owners” that they must be freed and paid retroactively for all the unpaid labor they had provided?

There’s a play to be written here. I want to see it. I want to watch it play out so that I can learn how such a thing happened.

That Woolman was so miraculously persuasive suggests to me that he likely wasn’t as monomaniacally focused on a single subject as the old preacher in the story I shared in the previous post. And the more I think about that story and Woolman’s, the more I want to qualify my commendation of such a single-minded relentlessness. Woolman certainly was single-minded and relentless. He did one thing for decades, obsessively. Yet he also convinced people to change — he convinced hundreds of people to change radically.

I don’t think he could have been so convincing unless all those people who encountered Woolman were convinced that he cared about them. And I don’t think that they could have been convinced of that unless he took a real interest in more than just the one issue he had come to discuss with them — as vitally important as that one issue was.

So I suspect that sometimes Woolman discussed the weather, the crops and whatever else passed for pleasantry and small talk in the 18th Century. I suspect that he asked about the children and all the various members of the household (all of them) and that he cared about the answers — that he genuinely cared and didn’t seem like he was just getting such chit-chat out of the way so he could get down to his real business.

But for all that, even while he was discussing all those other things, everyone knew why he was there and what his being there meant. His agenda and his great subject could never be wholly forgotten, and I think it must have hung thickly in the air even when he was engaged in heartfelt conversation about all those other matters. The urgency and depth of concern for his great cause that radiates from his journal surely must have similarly radiated from the man in person.

And, after all, his cause wasn’t something trivial. It was the greatest moral issue of his time — slavery.

Slavery! — the blogger retyped the word for emphasis, entering each letter on the keyboard of his iMac, which was manufactured in China by …

Oh. Right.

And there it is. There’s the key thing that’s so utterly missing in Mars Hill’s dealings with its wayward and not-so-wayward members. There’s the key thing that’s too often missing in my own dealings with those I am certain are in the wrong — the thing I too often forget about entirely until I’m forced again to remember that I, too, rely on it utterly.


Grace, I think, was the secret ingredient that made miracles happen when John Woolman spoke to his fellow Quakers just as it made a miracle happen when Jesus spoke to the wee little predatory lender in Jericho. Woolman didn’t set out to “discipline” his Friends, nor did he arrive at their homes only to convict them. That convicting was part of his agenda, but I think part of it also was to invite them to be forgiven — to remind them that such forgiveness was necessary and available and possible and within reach.

I don’t claim to be as Reformed in my theology as the folks at Mars Hill Church say they are, but a Calvinist reading of the story of Zacchaeus — or the story of the colonial Quakers — is compelling. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said to Zacchaeus. And for Calvin, salvation is grace and ethics is gratitude. And thus for Calvin, injustice is an intolerable ingratitude.

Zacchaeus’ joyful making of amends is easier to understand as an act of gratitude. The same is true for the Quakers’ eager emancipation — and compensation — of their former “property.” Such radical transformations seem impossible if we think of them as conditions — as aspects of a “discipline contract” that must be performed in the hopes of receiving forgiveness in return. But if we think of them, again, like Scrooge on Christmas morning — as people caught up in the liberating joy of having been forgiven, then such acts seem more comprehensible. “You received without payment; give without payment.” Or as the King James has it, “Freely ye have received; freely give.”

So grace has to be at least part of the equation. Grace can transform an imperial collaborator and tax collector into a champion of the poor. Grace can transform a slaveowner into an abolitionist. Any approach to “church discipline” that doesn’t allow for grace is bound to be as gracelessly cruel as that obscene “Mars Hill Church Church Discipline Contract.”

That wretched exercise in authoritarianism is one more piece of evidence against Mark Driscoll’s douchebag-theology. It’s one more reason to reaffirm what Robert Cargill said: “If you a member of the Mars Hill church, get out.”

But then part of the response to Driscoll also needs to be to remind him that the invitation to grace stands waiting for him as well — that forgiveness, even for him, is necessary and available and possible and within reach.

Perhaps if he accepts that invitation, he too can be transformed and — like Zacchaeus and Scrooge and those colonial Quakers — he may find the joy that has long eluded him by making amends with all those he is now defrauding.

Browse Our Archives