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Accustomed to public controversy as an outspoken defender of traditional marriage in the secular Pacific Northwest, mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll apparently is meeting some resistance in the Bible Belt this month as he prepares to bring his orthodox but edgy and unconventional approach to faith and practice to the late-Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
It’s clear that Driscoll, co-author with his wife of New York Times bestseller “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together,” is still scheduled to speak at Liberty’s student chapel April 20 and hold a marriage conference that night and the next day based on his book.
What is in dispute is whether the university’s trustees – a panel of pastors, business leaders and other lay people ultimately responsible for the institution – unanimously expressed their displeasure with the decision to invite Driscoll to speak at the Lynchburg, Va., campus.
Founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College, Liberty now boasts 12,000 residential students and more than 60,000 who are studying through its online program, making it the largest evangelical university in the world.
Blogger Peter Lumpkins, who regularly covers the Southern Baptist denomination, published a post April 4 claiming sources within the trustee board told him of their opposition to Driscoll.
Lumpkins told WND his original post was based on two separate sources who were unaware that the other was talking to him. Since then, he said, a third trustee called him “out of the blue” and confirmed that the information he reported is accurate.
The university’s top attorney, David Corry, fired back to Lumpkins a “cease and desist” email the same day the blog post was published, demanding he remove the post and issue a retraction, accusing him of defamation.
But in a series of email exchanges between Lumpkins and Corry – copies of which were obtained by WND – the attorney refused to comply with the blogger’s request to correct any specific information Liberty contends is inaccurate.
Corry cited a trustee rule that the contents of the board’s deliberations must remain confidential.
Lumpkins’ April 4 post said that along with unanimously passing a motion opposing Driscoll, the trustees voted, again unanimously, to establish a panel that would vet future Liberty speakers.
Among the trustees concerns about Driscoll, Lumpkins said, was his “potty mouth” pulpit etiquette and “provocative hedonistic understanding” of sexuality within marriage that includes advocacy of anal sex between husband and wife.
Driscoll has been known to punctuate points in his sermons sometimes with profanity, and he joins with his wife in their book “Real Marriage” in a frank discussion of sexual practices that has resonated with younger evangelicals but goes too far for many others.
“Trustees were apparently flabbergasted that Driscoll was considered for an invitation in the first place,” Lumpkins writes.
Before their meeting, trustees became aware of a column about Driscoll’s upcoming Liberty visit written by WND Managing Editor David Kupelian, titled “The Church of Sex.” Kupelian wrote that while he recognizes the appeal of Driscoll’s “blunt, masculine, passionate style – a refreshing respite from all the stuffy, pretentious and cowardly pastors out there” the popular pastor “is utterly obsessed with sex” in an oversexed culture that needs more of the Bible’s message of “modesty, moderation, self-denial, humility, patient endurance.”
Lumpkins said the board also was concerned about differences with Driscoll’s Reformed theology and his membership in an association of churches called the Acts 29 Network.
Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, according to its website, has grown from a small home Bible study to more than 19,000 people meeting in 14 locations in four states. Driscoll and his church have a high profile in the Seattle area, and he is developing a national following through his books, sermons and media appearances.
Liberty’s Corry, who wrote the cease-and-desist letter, did not respond to WND requests for comment. The university’s vice president for executive projects, Johnnie Moore, declined a request for an interview and instead referred WND to the Liberty’s statement on the issue.
Moore also declined by email to answer questions raised by the official statement.
The statement asserted Lumpkins wrote an “inaccurate” account that “contains information that is defamatory and portrays Liberty University in a false light.” It contends the “blog is clearly being used to disseminate misinformation about Liberty University and to cause strife and harm to the university.”
Liberty further insists the board “did not vote unanimously that Mark Driscoll is not welcome on campus, as the blog states, and, in fact, Mark Driscoll is still scheduled to speak in Convocation at Liberty University on April 20, 2012.”
Lumpkins argues that the Liberty statement implies his blog reported that the trustees took a vote that resulted in Driscoll’s event being canceled.
But Lumpkins points out he only reported that the trustees passed a motion expressing their disapproval and then approved another motion to establish a council to vet future speakers.
The blogger told WND that the most the trustees could do about Driscoll was to capture their sentiment that he was not welcome.
“They couldn’t vote for him not to come,” he explained. “They only expressed that they were disappointed in the invitation.”
The Liberty official statement also refers to the demand by Corry to remove Lumpkin’s original post and publish a retraction because it violates the trustee’s confidentiality policy for their meetings and “contains false information that is defamatory and calculated to injure Liberty University by portraying it in a false light.”
Corry warned in his email that refusal to remove the post and issue a retraction could result in civil action.
Lumpkins did not budge, however, after Corry refused to answer the blogger’s request that the university specify the alleged false information.
In an email reply, Lumpkins promised to “fully cooperate and swiftly retract and/or correct any factual misinformation” he has written if Liberty provides him with “documentation on precisely what I stated that is factually incorrect.”
The post remains online, and Liberty’s Moore did not answer whether the university intended to follow up with its threat.
An opponent of Driscoll’s visit got hold of a video prepared by the pastor to promote the Liberty events, overlayed a running graphic commentary and posted it on YouTube.com.
In the video, Driscoll says he visited the Lynchburg campus previously and met with Jonathan Falwell, son of the late founder and senior pastor of his father’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, finding him to be “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”
“It was an amazing place. I’m really looking forward to coming back,” Driscoll says.
Jonathan Falwell’s brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., succeeded his father as Liberty’s chancellor.
Beneath the video, the poster commented: “LU apparently is breaking out of the moral restraints Jerry Falwell Sr. instilled for the school.”