Controversial Mega-Minister Faces Mega-Mutiny

Mark DriscollCalvinist 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.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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22 Responses to Controversial Mega-Minister Faces Mega-Mutiny

    • dover1952 says:

      Hi Valerie. I just ran into your blog tonight quit by accident while doing random net surfing. A good deal of my life has been spent studying Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism—as well as fighting the Religious Right. I think it is fine and wonderful when people decide to leave an abusive Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical church. Everyone should have the freedom and right to choose their own religion or the absence of one in their life, and the Bible indicates that God gives all people this free choice and does not force anyone. However, I have been concerned for some time:

      1) That so many Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals go straight from those two beliefs systems to atheism and agnosticism. It seems like a classic case of all or nothing thinking—as if no sane and loving middle ground exists.

      2) That even after they leave Christian fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism—claim to be totally free of them ideologically and otherwise—and claim to have become atheists or agnostics—it is clear to me when I read their writings that they are still TOTALLY TRAPPED by their former indoctrination. They are unable to even consider that much of the old belief system they had been taught was unreasonable and false. They do not understand that they are running from a false and abusive man-made religious system—rather than running from God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Just in case I am not making my point here well enough, I can just hear one of them saying something such as the following:

      “The Bible really is inerrant, Adam and Eve were real people, Noah really did fit all of those animals on the ark, and the whole world really was flooded for 40 days and 40 nights. Christian fundamentalism really is the only right and true doctrinal understanding of the only true KJV Bible and the Christian faith, and all the other so-called Christian churches really are apostate—and I hate God for all of it—and I am rejecting him to become an atheist.”

      I have seen so many overt and subtle versions of this in the writings of people who were pounding their fists in total assurance that they had LEFT THE SYSTEM FOREVER when it was clear to me that the choke rope of the old belief system was still just as tight around their necks as it ever was—but they were seemingly unaware of that clear fact.

      I have been thinking about starting a new website to help these people understand that:

      A) It’s fine that you want to leave this abusive system—but you really have to understand that the system itself was false—and you really do have to let go of it BECAUSE IT WAS FALSE. It was not God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit that worked this number on you and let you down—it was men pushing false understandings of the Bible and faith— false understandings that they created right here on Earth rather than in Heaven.

      B) You don’t have to throw Baby Jesus out with his bath water just because a bunch of stupid backwoods preachers got their “right doctrine” all wrong.

      Thoughts?

      • Greetings -
        I think what you’re up against is this: Once someone starts looking at the human fingerprints on the Bible or on doctrinal agreements and Christian history, once one acquires the tools to see those fingerprints, they are visible even in the most sane and compassionate Christian teachings. To be rid of fundamentalism a former believer may dig into neuroscience or linguistics or antiquities studies or into the Bible itself. When that happens, fundamentalism is can be seen as a human construction, and one that is harmful. It loses its power do harm in part because we come to understand that power in naturalist rather than supernatural terms. And those naturalistic explanations appear to be both necessary and sufficient to explain the evolution and experience of human religion.

        More open inquiring forms of Christianity may seem (and be!) more benign, but they appear in this context simply to be more benign mutations of the same meme complex, if you will, products of the same cognitive processes.

      • Dover, I agree with most of your observations and reasoning… but with a modification or two… I realize you were asking Valerie and have read her reply. I agree (mostly) with her comment; and I highly respect her as very insightful and positively, compassionately motivated, knowing her a bit on a personal level as well as her writings.

        That being said, here are a couple points she might or might not agree with, or would probably not emphasize as much as I do: I find it a bit misleading and problematic to say that the entire system is “false”, much as that language seems fitting and I DO see a system of thinking and variations of specific theologies within that as a problem. But to use “false” is on the same basic level as “they” tend to use “false teaching” or “false doctrine” — it sets up a black-white, right-wrong way of viewing a complex of many things that are not just binary options.

        Also, having studied human development heavily, and stage theories within that (for adult as well as child/adolescent development), I believe that the tendency to think like a fundamentalist is at least partially a stage of development… tho sadly one that can “freeze” many for way too long or a whole lifetime. Now, if cognitive development were more separate from social and emotional factors, more people would more quickly move past the pre-modern to modern (overly rationalistic, in my view) levels of fundamentalism and much of Evangelicalism. But “postmodern” is at least partially understood at the modern level and feared/rejected because of some rather obvious inconsistencies in its typical forms. To me, that’s one reason it’s hard for many Evangelicals to move beyond the largely “us-them” centered worldview… there are levels beyond postmodern (such as “integral”, in the Ken Wilber Integral theory system) that understand and handle truths/truth better than does postmodernism.

        That pertains particularly to what some call “re-enchantment” of Western culture or even of rationalist (“liberal”) Christian faith. In Wilber’s language, the baby/bath water problem you refer to is a “line-level” fallacy… and a major/massive one for about 2 centuries now (with the rise of modern science). Enlightenment and modern thinkers, esp. via “science”, have confused the LEVEL of magical or supernaturalistic religion with the entire “LINE” of spirituality… of mystery, of the unexplained and evidences for a Creator not literalistically or supernaturalistically (in the typical sense) interpreted. Thus, most intellectuals, esp. scientists, have thrown out the entire line (big mistake!). See Process theology (Wikipedia, or on my blog or ctr4process.org) for more input on resolving the “naturalist vs. supernaturalist”, science vs. religion/spirituality dichotomy. Not simple stuff, but things truly curious, unafraid people CAN grasp.

      • I know of very few atheists who just decided one day that they were no longer an Evangelical and now they are an atheist. For most people, it is a long, torturous, halting journey. In my case, I was a Christian for almost 50 years. I was an Evangelical pastor for 25 years. I went from Fundamentalist Baptist to generic Evangelical to Progressive Christian to Universalist to Agnostic to Atheist. I stopped for a time at each spot along the road, but I continued on because I still had questions and doubts. Some people can make peace with religion and save some sort of faith. I couldn’t do so.

        You say that ______________Christianity or belief system is false. Who determines what is false? You? The Pope? Every sect thinks they are true Christianity. You think you have THE truth but so do those you think have false beliefs. This is one of the reasons I left Christianity. There is no such thing as Christianity. What we have are countless Christianities, ever evolving. The Bible speaks of the faith once delivered to the saints, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. Yet, Christians fight internecine wars over even the most basic of doctrines. They can’t even agree on salvation or baptism. Every Christian or sect thinks they have the “right” doctrine.

        Bruce Gerencser

      • Well said. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  1. Perry Bulwer says:

    “…confident that he is God’s emissary on a divinely appointed mission…“

    Every cult leader thinks and preaches the same thing. A cult of personality is perhaps the most dangerous kind of cult. There is a long list of cults with self-professed prophets, some who even consider themselves kings and queens, infecting their followers with folie à plusieurs (madness of many; or a shared psychosis). Spiritual abuse caused by the god virus.

  2. M. Sabo says:

    This all sounds very similar to Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church….then and now. Even people that are intelligent (?) and educated need to “belong” and believe so badly that they will set aside common sense, integrity, and science to be part of a narcicistic “nut job”‘s sense of the sacred. Sad and pathetic!

  3. MB says:

    Valerie, your post was very well written. Having said that, I’m going to admit that I don’t have much sympathy for Mars Hill members who are just beginning to see the light. Any church that practices “complementarianism” (read: patriarchy) is bound to be abusive. They should have known better. I’m sure the cycle will repeat itself. Another guy will start a fundamentalist super church, men will flock to him because he preaches male dominance and women will attend his church because they think they will find a good, moral man to marry. And then, the façade will come tumbling down.

  4. Well done, Valerie. Thanks for the significant details on various levels. On “the other end of the spectrum”, this past week-end I found myself much encouraged, even inspired by a totally different and refreshing dynamic at a Christian conference in San Diego, TransFORM 2014. A truly egalitarian practice, not just theory, was in place… in that (without counting) I believe the organizers, speakers and workshop leaders were a bit more female than male… or a pretty close balance. Overall, a very anti-hierarchical (or empire-oriented powers-that-be) perspective, yet one honoring relationships and community and with the positive agenda of deep solidarity, positive action out of healthy compassion (not pity or condescension). (Brief report on my blog.)

    The best way to “counter” the dysfunctional dynamics you describe is to build and live out genuine community in healthy conceptions of faith. There ARE places it is happening!

  5. Allan Avery says:

    Concerning the end of “MB’s” Comment: “And then the facade will come tumbling down.” One Hopes! Now, how to get all of your Posts into the “Favorites” menu and onto the Screen of every PC and mobile device. (At least here in the good ‘ol U.S.- where the Super Rich can now freely buy the Government of their choice- for starters.)

  6. Fascinating. I read his recent apology/retrenchment, and I was confused about vague references to the anger and personnel problems. This was helpful.

  7. mikespeir says:

    Not his fault. God predestined him to be that way. ;-)

  8. Pingback: The Weekly Upchuck April 7, 2014 | Being Christian

  9. Allan Avery says:

    Thot I’d lost my automatic “follow.” Resubscribed. (Over-stressed elederly Mind. And pls excuse my misspellings.) Anyway, more “My personal epiphanies.” I just replied to a reader of another your recent new posts. Who had commented on it, and to whom I had responded with a comment. His/her/their initial comment apparently was meant to say you had “SMEARED” Liberals in the original post. And, having missed their point, I had in turn “Smeared” them with my comment. So, before thinking calmly, I re-replied with a similarly smug, impolite response. Oooh boy. Now I see again that I Gotta’ cleanup my own act first. Fact is, my original comment following theirs’ had missed the Focus of their comment: Your “SMEAR.” And my rsponding comment was too long, and not directed sufficiently to their POINT. I must remember that, fact is, some folks’ viewpoints are more doctrinaire than others,’ and they may feel condescended to, unless you stick Directly to their point. And also “debate” very politely and carefully. Even some Way Point followers may not be up for reading long- as this. Since “compact” writing my weakest suite, I’ll work on that bit self awareness. :-) So, that said: If there is ANY “Blog” Author who might reasonably be suspected of overlooking some necessary “consideration(s),” it is NOT You. Your breadth of thinking, research, Mind, and means of expression, are unequaled, in my experience. So, How ‘Bout we Readers save some time. All Read Away Point. And after thoughtful thought and polite debate, arrive at “Very High Probability” concensus on This subject. I.E. Matter of Fact, ALL arbitrary absolute standards of civil and communal conduct, of all sources— however widely they originate in any and all Religious and other Tribal Creeds, and in Doctrine Enforcing governments— can be and often are widely oppressive; including within their own “membership.” Repressive, and thus Necessarily “Eligible for Reconsiderable,” and Negotiable. To “give us at lease a shot” for an “ultimately-reasonable, we’re-all-in-it-together” personal Freedom in a Diverse, Peaceful Worldwide Community. An assignment that we earthlings might well assume collective self-responsibility for Bringing About. In place of Arguing, Winning or losing the argument, and “got no time for deep thinking, open listening & learning, and compromise.”

  10. Pretty hilarious spoof of the Mars Hill Ballard location (below). Apparently it’s a hoax, but it’s funny nonetheless.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/2014/04/romance-at-mars-hill

  11. gwpj says:

    Excellent article, Valerie.

  12. On the Christian podcast “Issues Etc” someone commented on the difficulties at Mars Hill. He wondered if there’s one of those accident signs like they have in factories that says “It’s been __ days since our last scandal.”

  13. For those interested in more in depth analysis of problems at Mars Hill, the blog Wenatchee The Hatchet maintains a detailed record with careful reference to primary sources. Unfortunately many of those sources were removed by Mars Hill in April/May of 2014, and access via the Wayback Machine appears to be blocked. http://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/.

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