Calvinist super-star Mark Driscoll is the iconic figure at the heart of a church empire that spans five states and fifteen locations. Co-founder of the Mars Hill franchise, Driscoll boasts a flock of 14,000 members plus hundreds of thousands of listeners and readers via web and print media, including, until last month, 466,000 followers on Twitter alone.
While fans and critics heatedly debate whether Mar’s Hill is a church or a cult, there can be little doubt that the brand relies heavily on a cult of personality. Every Sunday Driscoll appears on stage not only in person at his primary location but on life-sized screens at others. He opens at times with a rock band that one secular detractor confessed was “the best indie music I’ve heard all year” and that Driscoll himself has said will “melt your face off.”
Driscoll has a knack for getting attention and, in particular, for using controversy to spin up his visibility. During the second Obama inauguration, he tweeted, “Praying 4 our president who today will place his hands on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.”
Though Driscoll rarely dabbles directly in politics—his followers know implicitly where he stands—his comments about queers and, in particular, women have been a source of ire for many. When Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals was caught with meth and a male prostitute, Driscoll pointed the finger at Haggard’s wife: “It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness.” Outrage on the part of feminists merely stoked Driscoll’s fire.
Another time, he set the blogosphere abuzz by recounting a self-congratulatory story in which he advised a woman in his congregation that she should apologize to her husband for the sin of not “serving” him, and then should get down on her knees and give him a blow job. By Driscoll’s account this excellent advice caused the husband to start attending church.
In Mars Hill theology, female members are viewed through the lens of complementarianism, a theological position that prescribes separate roles for women and men including male headship. A woman being advised to get down on her knees and give her husband a blow job represents just one of a spectrum of submissive behaviors touted for females, who are encouraged to find their meaning in the traditional roles of wife and mother. The virginity of women is prized as is early marriage, and by some reports Driscoll’s late discovery and fury that his wife had sex with another male around the time they got together became bizarrely significant in their relationship and in the life of the church even though he himself was not a virgin when he married.
Sex talk fused with God talk, or titillation more broadly, is a key component of the Driscoll brand. Driscoll’s stage persona at times has included tight jeans and an extra button open on the shirt. He once greeted a crowd at the University of Washington by reporting that he had gotten his genitals caught in his zipper before the show and that he would be stopping on time because his wife was at home waiting for him with a cream pie. On a more serious note, Driscoll has been a key advocate for candid conversations about sexuality among conservative Christians—though any actual “action” is reserved for married straight couples with the man—metaphorically at least—on top.
For years, while Driscoll’s detractors have railed behind closed doors or publicly—with one critic even launching a website called DriscollWatch to address his internecine rants against Catholicism—Driscoll has maintained a bold face forward, confident that he is God’s emissary on a divinely appointed mission. His loyal following has backed him, and, thanks probably to Google Alerts, any criticism online triggers a flurry of defense as soon as it goes live.
Of late, though, the armor of invulnerability may be cracking. Last November, a conservative fan of Driscoll’s theology, radio host Janet Mefferd, accused Driscoll of plagiarizing material for his book, A Call for Resurgence. Further research revealed other incidents of apparent plagiarism which Mefferd detailed carefully (here, and here), leading others to back her claims and follow up with examples of their own.
Then, in early March, another ideological ally, World Magazine, reported that church funds had been used to buy thousands of copies of Driscoll’s book Real Marriage (written with his wife, Grace) in an attempt to force it onto the bestseller list. The books were purchased by Driscoll’s publicist through a variety of channels to make it appear that the sales came from an array of booksellers and buyers. In a deal signed by Mars Hill executive pastor John Sutton Turner, over $200,000 changed hands. The contract specified that the church would “provide a minimum of 6,000 names and addresses for the individual orders and at least 90 names and address [sic] for the remaining 5,000 bulk orders. Please note that it is important that the make up of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.”
The practice is not illegal, but that it lacks integrity goes without saying.
In a rare public moment of contrition, via a letter subsequently published on Reddit, Driscoll committed never to game the bestseller list again, and further, said he would pull back from his place in the spotlight.
I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter. . . . To reset my life, I will not be on social media for at least the remainder of the year. The distractions it can cause for my family and our church family are not fruitful or helpful at this time. At the end of the year, I will consider if and when to reappear on social media, and I will seek the counsel of my pastors on this matter. In the meantime, Mars Hill and Resurgence will continue to post blogs, sermons, and podcasts on my social media accounts, but otherwise I’m going offline.
But while Driscoll may be attempting to pull back his online presence, another wholly unwanted kind of attention is ramping up. For several years, disgruntled or wounded former members of the church have been making their way into internet forums. Now their presence has exploded.
On March 29, four former church pastors and elders, including Mars Hill co-founder Lief Moi, launched a platform, Repentantpastor.com, on which they posted confessions and apologies related to their leadership roles at the church. Although many specifics of the problems are obscured in part by traditional confessional language, what emerges clearly is a set of longstanding problems with Driscoll’s cut-throat and autocratic management style, anger, and personal hubris. The leaders, all of whom appear still to be devout Christians and some of whom are still in pastoral roles, apologize to church members for their failure to, among other things, rein Driscoll in.
One of the four men, Kyle Firstenberg, has also created his own blog, Sin,Repentance, Grace, Firgiveness, which unveils part of the story. Firstenberg joined the church in 2000, when the congregation numbered 70 people. In time, he left his job as a sheriff to become full-time staff, rising to the role of executive pastor. On the surface, the church was flourishing, but behind closed doors employees lived in an atmosphere of constant stress:
The reputation Driscoll got for being the cussing pastor simply because he used harsh language from the pulpit was nothing compared to the swearing and abusive language he used daily with staff. When people asked me how I liked working at Mars Hill, I would simply say, “It is a great church to attend, but I wouldn’t recommend working here”. It was well known with the staff that what was preached on Sunday was not lived out Monday morning with the staff.
Eventually, Firstenberg and his wife Kathleen seized the opportunity to establish a franchise of Mars Hill just outside of Los Angeles, in Orange County. By this time, operational management of the church was under the control of Sutton Turner, the man who later signed the ends-justify-the-means book promotion strategy. Sutton Turner, it appears, had no trouble asking Firstenberg to push the limits of ethics and legality in their effort to launch the Orange County congregation, with zoning violations as a part of the mix. Firstenberg eventually rebelled.
In a 2012 letter Firstenberg sent to church leaders and a set of allegations at his website, he accuses Driscoll of promoting a culture of fear in which success was to be attained regardless of human and moral cost.
According to Firstenberg’s letter, he was restrained from moving locations after it became apparent that their gatherings were in violation of city code. Further, church leaders insisted that he not file a required application for a business license that might call more attention to the code violation. Things escalated. After Firstenberg tendered his resignation, he was advised that if he wanted a severance package—which he desperately needed—he would have to sign a gag order (aka non-disclosure agreement) that permitted him only to say that he was leaving for “budgetary reasons.”
While Firstenberg was struggling to find his feet, another former pastor, Bent Meyer, (not one of the four) was wrestling with how best to address the circumstances of his own tenure at the church and eventual dismissal. In January of 2012, Meyer posted a public comment at The Wartburg Watch, a Christian blog focused on church conflict, spiritual abuse, and authoritarianism. Like Firstenberg, Meyer remained loyal to the theology the church espouses and to its organizational mission:
I am one of the men fired the day of Mark’s rant about two elders he felt needed broken noses. . . . I am happy to say, the next Sunday my wife and I attended another Church with far better expository teaching and a community that authentically and generously helps the marginalized. . . . I thought a lot about how I would response and just what my motives would be. I chose not to be lured into a public argument through the Seattle Times asking me for a blow by blow description of the events I have documented.
Meyer has gone on to complete a master’s degree in counseling and maintains a psychotherapy practice in the Seattle area. He describes Driscoll as “very troubled man,” using adjectives like impulsive, aggressive, and irascible. Even so, he has positive things to say about the model Driscoll created, and he expresses optimism that whatever may happen with Driscoll himself the Church, broadly speaking, will endure.
The model that earned Meyer’s admiration includes a creative embrace of pop culture, differentiated branding around a set of theological certainties, intensive “shepherding” of young members, a cell-structure that holds individuals accountable to group values while separating them from the outside world, ruthless purging of dissenters from both the congregation and staff, and of course, the charisma embodied in Driscoll himself.
All of this is propagated via highly polished print and electronic media, with the congregation members functioning (as they do in many evangelical organizations) as a lay sales force. This sales force includes trained “campus missionaries” and community leaders who reach out to the Mars Hill target audience of college students and young professionals. The whole operation is managed by a team of professional staff with business acumen to rival any comparably successful for-profit franchise. At a time when mainline Christian denominations and many Evangelicals are fretting over the loss of their young people, Mars Hill’s model on the surface looks like something to envy—or to emulate.
But given the carnage, one can’t help but wonder if the model itself is the problem.
One former attendee, pen name Sophia, moved to a town where Mars Hill was planting a new church. Newly arrived and without friends, she and her husband were attracted to the church’s vibrant social matrix. But over time she found herself subject to pressure for more and more intensive engagement, ultimately spending several nights weekly in church-related groups that she experienced as demanding and intellectually combative. As the relationship deepened, she was informed that membership required a series of doctrine classes, signing a “covenant” and confession of sin. The contract would include a financial pledge, and a community group leader would question those who didn’t meet their pledge.
Feeling “spiritually manipulated,” Sophia and her husband withdrew, only to find themselves pressured by leaders and shunned by people they considered friends. Sophia opened a blog, Mars Hill Refuge, where she posted her story. In it, she describes the church as having a “hyper-focus on idolatry” a “hyper-focus on accountability,” and a “sense of elitism” that manifests in disparagement of other Christians who “think they are saved but really aren’t.” The experience left her shaken.
In March, Mars Hill blogger John Catanzaro, a naturopath by profession, was stripped of his professional license because his idiosyncratic cancer treatments, often provided to members of church family, were exposed as failing to meet minimal standards of evidence and efficacy. When the problem hit the Seattle paper, Mars Hill removed his posts from their Resurgence blog. But the incident raises broader questions about how authoritarianism, group think, suspension of disbelief, and in-group trust at Mars Hill may contribute to vulnerability on the part of members.
One particularly toxic aspect of the culture may be the practices of pressuring and shunning members who fall out of line—tactics that, at least anecdotally, have been associated in other settings with psychological harms including depression, anxiety, or even what psychologist and author Marlene Winell has called Religious Trauma Syndrome. Members who decide to leave are pushed to debrief with leaders, knowing full well that disagreements may be framed as rebellion against not only Driscoll but against God. Simultaneously, they are expected to abstain from talking with other members about the issues that have become deal-breakers. Membership materials frame audible dissent as divisiveness, creating a more subtle, psychological version of Firstenberg’s gag order. Those who leave often simply disappear.
When church leaders go, they too tend to disappear abruptly, and questions are met with a pious smokescreen. Per Firstenberg, a departure typically is described as God having called the disappeared leader elsewhere, which helps to explain why it has taken years for things to reach a boiling point. That four former pastors—including one co-founder—have now banded together to expose their concerns to the congregation and general public speaks volumes about their depth of frustration and conviction. Given the combined years they poured into the Mars Hill franchise, it may say something also about their sense of loss.
Even so, their accusations are, at least partially obscured by the language of faith, by a hesitance to label problems with the frank terms that would be used if Mars Hill were, say, just another for-profit corporation. The four men appear to be struggling—caught between trying to avert the harm they perceive being done and the risk that by confronting the problems with unflinching candor they themselves may do harm to the Body of Christ.
As Sophia put it, spiritual manipulation runs deep.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.