Mark Driscoll, Ergun Caner and the Factions and Fictions of Evangelicalism
February 22, 2022

In late 2013 two nearly simultaneous events happened in evangelicaldom: Mark Driscoll was publicly accused of “plagiarism” and Ergun Caner was hired as the president of a Christian college. The first appears to be the first domino that would lead eventually to Driscoll resigning as the pastor of Mars Hill Church and the fall of that church. The second barely caused a ripple.

The Driscoll debacle was, I believe, a case of pastor lynching going national, a mob mentality being inflamed. Countless pastors in America can recount tales of how an irrational and irascible mob in their churches was ignited by some rumors with the result that the pastor is unemployed. To veterans of such irruptions, the anti-Driscoll mob appeared to be the same, just on a larger scale. Yes, Driscoll appears to have indulged in fleshly works, as the recent Christianity Today podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” chronicled. No, not what you might think by “flesh.” No affairs but it appears plenty of “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” (Gal. 5:20.) The plagiarism accusation – which in retrospect seemed to be the tipping point that led to the collapse of Driscoll’s ministry in Seattle, disappeared into the dusty cloud of the myriad of accusations kicked up against Driscoll. The most substantial plagiarism charge turned out to be simply the failure to properly cite sources in one internal Bible-study guide, normally a yawner of a “controversy.” Now as the anti-Driscoll mob takes a sentimental journey back to their glory days of when they hounded him out of Mars Hill – sometimes celebrating those who told us so – and as CT’s post-mortem tries to make Driscoll’s failures representative of all of evangelicalism, especially young, restless, reformed complementarian evangelicalism, I still think there are huge unreported stories, both in the Driscoll debacle and in the eerie silence about Caner.

Driscoll failed to cultivate a political base. He didn’t understand that he needed – from a purely cynical, earthy point of view – a faction to watch his back. He was a peculiar animal: espousing “Reformed” doctrine while also claiming not merely that spiritual gifts exist but that he experiences them. He calls himself a “charismatic” but with his seat belts on. But by advocating Calvinism he alienated a large block of evangelicals and by claiming spiritual gifts he lost another one. Wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt while doing either, lost the proper set who don’t care what you believe as long as you look good doing it. The end result is that at the dawn of 2015, Driscoll was unemployed.

Six years later, Christianity Today is still so engrossed by Driscoll that it commissions a twelve-part podcast about him. Meanwhile, it couldn’t be bothered to comment on the appointment of an exposed fabulist as the president of an SBC college. Don’t expect a podcast on The Rise and Fall of Ergun Caner.

According to the Washington Post, Caner rocketed to fame in the evangelical world following 9-11 because he was trained to do what bin Laden’s terrorist had done. So he said. He said he was born in Istanbul, Turkey; that as a boy growing up in Turkey he only knew American culture through what he had seen on TV there; that he hated us Americans; that he was educated in a Madrasah (a Islamic religious school) in Beirut, Lebanon; that he was trained to be a terrorist; that he came to the USA in 1979 at age 14, when his father immigrated with his several wives (using the “Abraham lie” to claim his plural wives were really his sisters); how his family came here to be Islamic missionaries to America, taking his prayer rug to school and praying toward Mecca in his high school bathroom; that he came into a Baptist church in full Islamic garb, carrying  a Koran; he can be heard speaking what he implies is Arabic, as he recounts what Islamic hecklers were shouting at him during what he claims are his various debates. He made these claims in countless speeches over nearly a decade following 9-11-2001. It was a great story, well-told.

It just wasn’t true. The truth is that Ergun Caner wove a tangled web. It was exposed while he was dean of Liberty Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. A Liberty investigative committee managed to thread the needle between completely white-washing Caner’s fictions and telling it like it is. They concluded that Caner was guilty of “factual statements that are self-contradictory.” The committee’s wording was political but appeared to be a diplomatic way to humiliate him enough so that he would look for work elsewhere. That’s what happened, with Caner going to Arlington Baptist College in Texas. The humiliating reality is that any secular academic who embellished his curriculum vita as Caner did, would have been fired and driven out of the profession. But such lofty standards don’t exist in Caner’s circles.

Caner’s circles (and Driscoll’s lack of such circles) is what this article is about. Like ancient Israel, with Gileadites slaughtering Ephraimites at the crossing of the Jordan, detecting them by how they pronounce the word “Shibboleth” (Judges 12), the factions of evangelicals can be detected by how they respond to the fictions of Ergun Caner or whether they obsess over the brusqueness of Driscoll. Why was Caner chosen as president of the Brewton-Parker College, an SBC college in Georgia? The Brewton-Parker trustees said they called Caner “because of the attacks” on him. He’s a “warrior,” they said. But to be a warrior, Caner needs an enemy. It used to be fictitious Islamic hecklers who threw Arabic invectives at him along with their oranges. Now it’s the Young, Restless and Reformed – whether or not they’re young or restless. Caner found that Calvinists make just as good a bogey man as do Muslim extremists.

Evangelicalism has always had factions, of course. What Caner managed to do – which Driscoll failed at – was cultivate a faction that wouldn’t care that Caner’s career was built on fabricating a persona. If it fills the pews – or classrooms – fiction works just as well as truth. Caner exposed the factions of evangelicalism: consisting of the Old Time Religion that doesn’t want to be bothered, the sophisticates who don’t want to get their hands dirty with it, the escapists who want another Elmer Gantry to entertain them, and a minority who are appalled.

Elmer Gantry, the hilarious Sinclair Lewis character portrayed by Burt Lancaster in 1960, — the book is much more of a comedy than the movie – seems like an unlikely cross with the jihadists our country was obsessed with in the wake of 9/11. But religious frauds have always been taking advantage of the fears and gullibility of the flock. In modern America, they also now take advantage of their sense of humor. In the 1980’s it was the lurid tales of Satanism told by Mike Warnke which Warnke told as part of a comedy routine he performed in churches across America. He was finally exposed by Cornerstone magazine in 1991. Some believed that Mark Driscoll was another such fake, his frankness about sexuality and quirky humor helping to fuel the frenzy that he was another Elmer Gantry, never-minding that of all the half-true accusations against him, none are sexual. Besides, Driscoll, like Warnke was ambiguously charismatic so the stereo-type of the charismatic showman who is grabbing as much sex as he is money kicks in. The accusation that he bought his way onto the New York Times best-seller’s list sounds too much like he’s raking the cash for himself. It turned out that he was handsomely paid by the end, to the tune of over $600,000 a year, still $200,000 less than Warnke had been bringing in over 20 years earlier. But the mention of Driscoll’s over $200,000 spent on marketing, feels like Mike Warnke’s $800,000 plus salary. Then the impression is left: here’s another Warnke, another Elmer Gantry, a womanizing, profiteering huckster.

And who was there to defend him? When Phil Johnson threw his rhetorical Molotov cocktail at Driscoll, appropriately enough on the “pyromaniac” web-site, Driscoll responded with a humble, brotherly appeal to reconcile and be friends. Sure, that may be the Christian thing to do but that doesn’t inspire the hot-heads – like me – to rally into a faction, to go to battle against the other “side,” like Sonny in “The Godfather”: “They hit us. So we hit them back.” Hot-heads, faction formers, love that kind of thing. It gives us a visible enemy to organize against, like Caner’s skillful demonizing of “5 point-hypers.” Rather, Driscoll, in response to John MacArthur’s pointed criticism crashed his 2013 anti-charismatic “Strange Fire” conference seeking to make a connection. That confuses us hot-heads. How can he be rubbing elbows with the enemy? Driscoll even invited the cessationist-in-chief MacArthur to his Resurgence conference. Such overtures were ignored. On Driscoll’s side, no enemy was held up to unite against; no faction was formed. Is the friend of my enemy a friend? And so, when crunch time came, no camp existed to watch his back. That much, he and Warnke had in common.

Caner is a different character. Before 9/11, he was a Baptist pastor who often went by the name “Butch.” If writing formally, he was “E. Michael Caner.” Then as the twin towers came down, the story of Ergun Caner, the converted jihadi, arose. It launched him to prominence in evangelical circles. He co-authored, with his brother, a best-selling book on Islam and became the dean of Liberty Baptist Seminary, a popular conference speaker and even trained US Marines on the strategies of our terrorist enemies. After all, he had been one, so he said.

When that house of cards collapsed, Liberty got him to leave. They too had a faction to cultivate and “wisely” (from a cynical point of view) there was no reason to name his sin. Unlike Warnke, whose road-show collapsed after his claims too were proven fiction, Caner had managed to cultivate a constituency. One would think that being proven to have fictionalized one’s own life story would be a hindrance to a successful ministry in fundamentalism. Think again. With the controversy still fresh in the air in 2014, He claimed to have spoken at 200 events in the previous year.

Caner was, after all, a rain-maker. Like Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry, he brought in the crowds. That is one of the most – if not the most – precious commodity in the Old Time Religion sub-culture Caner exploited. Liberty Baptist Seminary tripled its enrollment under him. Crowds loved his bravado as he strikes the pose of his favorite WWE wrestler. The crowds now, just as those paving the streets of Jerusalem waving palm branches, want a warrior. First, it was the Muslims he claimed to be debating in their mosques, even while they “hammered” him and threw fruits at him. Now, it’s “5 point-Hypers.” Just as well.

How does he get away with it? Some say it’s a diabolical cover-up. If they mean there is an organized conspiracy to foist Ergun Caner on unsuspecting evangelical churches, I’d just smile. But there was a “great evangelical cover-up” of sorts, I discovered. I wrote several opinion pieces for The Christian Post; so, when the weird juxtaposition of another out-break of Driscoll Derangement Syndrome coincided with the inexplicable news that a Baptist college had selected Ergun Caner as its president, I was intrigued. The difference in buzz over the simultaneous incidents was stark. So, I wrote “Mark Driscoll, Ergun Caner and the Scandal of Evangelical Integrity.” The terse response from John Grano, the Senior Managing Editor was: “I like this one.” It appeared on The Christian Post on December 19, 2013 at about 9:30 AM (EST) and was taken down without explanation by the time I got back from lunch. Caner has a faction watching his back. Richard Land, the Executive Editor of The Christian Post, had championed Caner on his radio program. Put the pieces together.

Why would a sensational story about a fake-Jihadi conning his way into the presidency of Christian institutions be buried and ignored? Again, the factions and fictions of evangelicalism raise their head. Certainly, a man like Caner, who could fictionalize his own autobiography to suit his audience, is probably adept at ingratiating himself with the powers that be. The good ol’ boys club looks after one of their own. What’s humiliating to Caner, is embarrassing to them. Even if “it” is the truth. The denominational media is the worst. Truth doesn’t sign their pay checks. The denomination does. And as long as they are mum on Caner, or even promoting him, they’ll go along. Try looking in official Southern Baptists publications for anything about Caner’s fictions. Now he’s landed safely as Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Arlington Baptist University.

Meanwhile, Driscoll was first unemployed and moved to Phoenix to start a new church. He didn’t claim to be an ex-Jihadi from a polygamous family and speak fake Arabic. Sure, he threw bodies under the bus. He was apparently disloyal to people who were loyal to him, if they showed that loyalty by calling him to a higher loyalty to the Lord. He was probably, as CT’s podcast reminded us in every episode, “narcissistic.” But that’s not why Mar’s Hill fell. Do we honestly think that there aren’t even bigger evangelical empires that last for the duration of a man’s life that aren’t built on personalities as equally narcissistic as Driscoll? Then what’s the difference between Driscoll and others? Why is Caner prestigiously employed and Driscoll held up to scorn by a widely hailed podcast? Driscoll didn’t cultivate a faction. Critical articles on him wouldn’t get spiked because no editors had his back.

Further, despite Caner’s insistence that he was “stalked” by Calvinists, the reality is that many Calvinist evangelical leaders apparently saw no benefit in exposing him. You’ll alienate Caner’s base and the smiley evangelicals who don’t want to be burdened with a scandal so close to home. Hence Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) saw fit to comment on a wide gamut of issues, even criticizing the sex-talk in Mark Driscoll’s sermons. But of Caner, who, in 2003, spoke, alongside Mohler, at “Ecumenical Jihad? Islam, Christianity and the Culture War” at Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, we hear nothing. True to the off-Broadway play he was starring in for much of the 2000s, Caner claimed to have been raised in majority-Muslim cultures and even treated the conferencees to a sampling of his “Arabic.” One would think that Mohler’s scruples about public speaking behavior would compel him to decry Caner’s lies. One would be naïve. A web-site search for “Caner” in Mohler’s prolific posts brings up “no results.”

Meanwhile, evangelicals tuned in to twelve parts – about 15 hours of content – of a CT podcast focused on Driscoll. The insinuation, in episode 5, “The Things We Do to Women,” in CT’s podcast on Driscoll that no conservative evangelical leaders spoke out against Driscoll salaciousness is scurrilous. The opposite is true, with John MacArthur, Al Mohler, John Piper, The Gospel Coalition, Tim Challies, probably everybody voicing criticism. Meanwhile crickets could be heard over the reporting on Caner. At the height of the Caner debacle, CT deemed the Pope’s musings on breastfeeding in church as more newsworthy than Caner.

The end result was that the fissures in “evangelicalism” were exposed. It’s a house divided. Not over the Caner or Driscoll fiascos. Many have never heard of either. They were litmus tests, like “Shiboleth” at the fords of the Jordan. Say “Driscoll” and if they fume or insinuate darkly over his “disqualifying” sins, but aren’t able to actually list any, don’t bother reasoning. It’s a mob mentality and Driscoll doesn’t have a mob behind him. Say “Caner” and you’ll get one of three responses: if they say “man of God” or “at least he’s not a Calvinist” then you have the Old Time Religion – it’s good enough for them; if they say nothing or change the subject, you have the sophisticates and the escapists; if they say “liar,” you have an evangelical. A very sad one.

John B. Carpenter, Ph.D., is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church ( and the author of The Seven Pillars of a Biblical Church (Wipf & Stock, 2022).

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