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Mark Driscoll has been named one of the 25 most influential pastors of the past 25 years.  More than 15 million people listen to his sermons online each year.  He has written more than 15 books, appeared on The View and Nightline, and written for CNN and The Washington Post.  He is one of the most visible pastors in the world, and one of the most controversial.

In March 2014 he apologized to his congregation for trying to be "a celebrity and a pastor," and pledged to relinquish the former for the latter.  He has also apologized for hiring a firm to spike sales of one of his books, and has been accused of plagiarizing from other authors. 

Now he's back in the news after his online comments made 14 years ago have surfaced.  Calling himself "William Wallace II," he posted rants which were filled with expletives.  He has once again apologized, saying that his posts were "plain wrong" and that he "remains embarrassed by them."  His critics are calling for more than simple apologies, some demanding that he step down from his pastoral role.

The Mark Driscoll controversy raises a larger question: how should Christians criticize each other?

In Matthew 5, Jesus told his followers: "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (vs. 23-24).  In Matthew 18 he added: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother" (v. 15).

In the first case, you have sinned against someone.  In the second, someone has sinned against you.  In both, you are to initiate reconciliation.  You are to speak to the person, not about him.  I'm not defending Driscoll, but I wonder how many of his critics have done what Jesus orders us to do.  His critics would likely say that Driscoll is inaccessible.  They should then use every medium to communicate their concerns—but directly to him.

What if he refuses to listen?  Jesus tells us: "If he will not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.  And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt. 18:16-17).  Discipline within the body of Christ is essential.  But it begins by going directly to the person, initiating reconciliation.

The same principle holds for anyone we are tempted to criticize, from our president to our pastor to our neighbor.  In Driscoll's case, he has repeatedly apologized for mistakes and failures.  If God forgives every person who confesses their sin to him (1 John 1:9) and teaches us to do the same (Matt. 18:21-22), who are we to refuse?

I agree with columnist Jonathan Merritt that "there must be grace for the abused and the abuser, for the oppressed and the oppressor, for Mark Driscoll and for all those he has hurt."  Merritt wisely adds: "If we Christians have now arrived at a point where grace has run dry or is only available to some, let us abandon this whole Jesus way and join those who have no hope."