Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll, and Spiritual Abuse in the Church

Mars Hill, lead by Mark Driscoll, has become one of the fastest growing churches of the last decade. Not only have they been extremely successful in Seattle but in franchising Mars Hill to other cities and states around the country through multi-site campuses. Mark Driscoll has led the way for a new generation of Calvinists who are edgy in their style and dogmatic in their doctrine. Throughout his career he has become as well known for his inappropriate comments as he has for his beliefs (he has frequently had to make public apologies for his remarks about women, homosexuals, and worship leaders).

I first ran across an article on Mars Hill Church about 12 years ago when the church was just a few years old. I was struck by their unique approach to ministry, their emphasis on theology, and their intentionality about reaching out to young men (something for which the church at large has not done so great). I remember being really inspired by what I was reading about them back then. Since then I have also read books by Driscoll and listened to several of his online messages, which I have found very helpful in my journey as well. However, in the last few years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the tone and direction of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. The brash off-the-cuff comments that seemed cute 10 years ago have come to seem immature and sometimes even destructive to others. When I add to that his increasingly dogmatic embrace of Calvinism, I find it very hard to get much from his ministry these days.

However, what concerns me more about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill than their theology and style is the increasing number of reports of abusive and controlling leadership. I read an article yesterday entitled Church of Cult?: The Control-Freaky Ways of Mars Hill Church. The piece looked at how Mars Hill has enforced “accountability” and discipline through a very authoritarian and hierarchical leadership structures. It’s really the same old story of abusive leadership in the church that seeks to control every aspect of people’s lives under the guise of discipleship. But the end result has nothing to do with freedom or learning to live by the Spirit but rather a legalism and abuse that choke the very life out of the believer.

My Experience With Abusive Authority in the Church
One of the hardest experiences of my life came as a new Christian when I got heavily involved with a church that, in many ways, reminds me of Mars Hill: an incredibly gifted preacher, a well-communicated vision, passionately held convictions, as well as controlling, authoritarian leadership structures. I was a part of that church for about 4 years but it has taken many more years than that to get over the damage caused. In that church discipleship was a huge emphasis, but along with discipleship there was a huge emphasis on submission to authority. When I read about how leadership at Mars Hill was trying to tell people who they could and could not marry I am reminded of similar comments made to Dina when we were dating that we were somehow missing God and they knew better for us (I’m really glad that we didn’t listen to them).

Had I not had some relationships with pastors outside of that church who could speak the truth to me I think I would have ended up either becoming a legalistic controlling leader myself or would have just quit Christianity all together. I came very close to completely quitting church because I saw all the damage that had been done to myself as well as others in such a short amount of time. Every time I would approach the pastor about something that I might disagree with or have a question about I was just told to submit to authority. My faith became increasingly performance driven. I only thought God loved me if I was praying enough, reading my Bible enough, serving the vision of the church enough. I was becoming insecure in my walk with God because I was so afraid I wasn’t following the rules enough.

Things came to a head for me towards the end of a crazy week of “revival” at that church. What had started earlier that week with an extended prayer meeting had turned into 24-hour prayer meetings at the church. But this was no ordinary prayer meeting. The pastor’s office quickly became the “holy of holies” in which only the most spiritual people could enter. Those who did enter were given titles such as “guard dog of the revival” or “gatekeeper”. All of the decorations and pictures in the church were taken off of the walls so they wouldn’t compete with God’s glory. In fact, they wouldn’t even let people set foot in the church without taking off their shoes saying that the church was “holy ground”. I could go on because there was much crazier stuff than this that took place but this will do for now.

About four days into this revival I came home and told Dina something which became a true epiphany for me, “I don’t feel the love of God in this.” In spite of all of the craziness, legalism, and abusive leadership I was hearing the voice of God. I knew something wasn’t right. I knew I couldn’t stay any longer. Within another month I had quit my job (I was full-time staff with that church) and we ended up leaving that church. This of course meant that I ended up on the churches black list because I was in rebellion. People who had previously been friends wouldn’t speak to me for years. I would hear rumors from other pastors as to why I had left the church. One rumor was that I had moral failure in my marriage. Another rumor was that my band was into voodoo (I am not making this stuff up). But in the last 5 years I have had many people apologize for shunning me as they have eventually come to an awareness of the destruction wrought by the same abusive authority in their own lives.

I have come to realize that those who have to demand submission are usually very insecure in their leadership. Those who have to control, manipulate, and guilt people into action are not helping people submit to God but to fear man.

There was a movement that popped up in that church towards the end of my time there called G-12. G-12 ended up creating a very hierarchical system of accountability, which expanded the spiritual abuse that I had experienced. The basic premise of G-12 was that the Jesus pattern of ministry was to disciple twelve disciples and that his model should be our model in the church. Under the G-12 (government of 12) model, the pastor would have twelve disciples (the pastoral staff) and, in turn, each of those twelve would gather twelve more, and so on. The G-12 emphasis really began to make the church look and feel like a cult. I remember bumping into people years after I left that church. I would ask them how they were doing and they would get a glazed look in their eyes and mumble the G-12 vision to me as if some kind of automated response and move on.

The G-12 model ignores the fact that Jesus did not choose twelve disciples for a church growth strategy and He didn’t lord authority over the disciples either. He led his disciples by serving, by loving, by relationship. Jesus was not a control freak and he wasn’t insecure in his authority. In fact, after 3 years of ministry he could trust his entire ministry to his disciples.

I know that Mars Hill is different than the church that I was a part of but I am very concerned by the warning signs. Back in the late seventies there was a movement called the Shepherding Movement that gathered quite a following and yet wounded many a believer with authoritarian leadership, strict accountability, control and manipulation. I pray that Mars Hill doesn’t become the next shepherding movement of our day.

Related Posts:
Jesus is not a Control Freak

Related Audio:
The Kingdom and the Empire


brian jeansonne said...

Articles like the one I read (that you referenced) bum me out because I know for years the local expression of the church that I am currently affiliated with was deemed a cult by many. I hate when I see this kind of stuff b/c it's bad for the whole church of Jesus.

At the same time, I, like you, have read much by Driscoll, have listened to him, have been encouraged and challenged by him and at the same time have been put off by his approach and dogmatism. At the end of the day, I think the issue is, many who find themselves in leadership in the church think to highly of themselves. Many would say that they don’t trust people to really know what God is saying, but my own opinion is that those leaders actually don’t trust the spirit of god in the people (b/c let’s face it….people following the spirit is messy. Just look at Peter. Or me.)

My hope is that in my own life and ministry I (we) can continue learning to live in the tension of the grey, without demanding that others declare black or white and keep moving towards the heart of Jesus in ways that speak and show liberty and freedom (not the America type) to a world that god is passionate about fixing and restoring. A people led by the spirit of God….

Now, if I may pose a sincere question. When moving towards allowing people to experience God, and when it does get messy (b/c we do believe that sin does keep people from experiencing more of the fullness of god’s kingdom life), where does discipline, correction, accountability come to in to play without being labeled as legalistic, controlling, etc.?

Crispin Schroeder said...


Great thoughts on this subject. I think your question deserves a whole other post though. I'll put a few thoughts together and we can continue this dialogue on the next one.

Charles young said...

Now,lets see....how to approach this...I ask the Holy Spirit to help me give a comment....Oh love give the right words to say. There are many churches claiming all sorts of things and its obvious some ephesis a more legalist approach to ministry.All should be careful,it can be a slippery slope for a person who lacks knowlegde of the full bible and much of its historical applications a person really should get informed with.This all can take time,and milk or light knowlegde to start and meat is gained by a person who wants it.There are some saying look...Jesus is over here with us,just look at all we do...and some say...hay wait a minuete here...how can he be with yall,when he's over here with us...then there are those that say,wait we have the truth,look at all the doctrine we have and how we can answer all your questions...but wait all you guys...he's just got to be here with us...we teach school,give out titles and uniforms,and also look at the things we wear on our bodies....then there are some that say look at all the miricles were doing and how we take care of people...oh-just wait a dog-gone-minute here,wait what about us over here...look how we adhere to scriptures and give out about them in public....oh but how about us...look how many bibles we print and give out,and all the interprtations of them,and how fancy the covers of them are....no-no-no you guys they say,Jesus is with us over here,look at our books on end time prophecy and how cook book and layed out for all you need to know on this and we know who the antichrist is...........NOW I HOPE ALL WHO READ THIS UNDERSTAND I'M GIVING NO CONDEMNATION OR JUDGEMENT,IT NOT MY PLACE...THESE ARE OBSERVRATIONS I NOTICE...I DON'T KNOW IT ALL,I'm just a follower and learning daily as we all should.How does an individual realize they are not in the right place....Matthew 7:15-21 and I like the way Jesus handles the situation when he told them he never knew them,after they stated how by all they did,and he didn't know them.....its helping people to realze in church that its important to test those spirits,so they are not lead astray by the wrong Jesus,and bring themsselves ins strong delusion of the misperceptions they can be lead away with of all that is GRACE and LAW by false teachers and false prophets....meaning some use everything but love and try to motivate by guilt....GUILT IS NOT OF GOD....ALL CONDEMNATON IS REMOVED...THE LAW OF THE SPIRIT OF LIFE IN CHRIST JESUS IS STRONGER THAN THE LAW OF SIN AND DEATH ROMANS 8:1-2

Pi Man said...

You mean I bought that Voodoo album of your for nothing??? 8^) JUST KIDDING!!!

Seriously, I am so glad you got out of that awful situation that you described, as just reading about it and knowing that you have first hand knowledge of it is scary, S-C-A-R-Y!

And I promised myself to not turn my response into a novella - this time anyway - ha! So I'll leave it, for now, with the profound truth that Jesus did not force himself or what he taught on anyone. So, depending on where one is in their own walk with God, I would say to them, if anyone in your church has to "lord over you" the themes of (for example) submission or control or that *all* your tithe "has" to go to "them," then frankly, I'd be going elsewhere. Yes, the bible talks of these things but historically the interpretations of these things have probably hurt more people then we'll ever know. Taken out of context they can become a tool of the enemy rather than an opportunity to live and love from a changed heart and restored life.

The truth sets you free, and love forced - in human or spiritual form - is not love at all. Peace. TA

Crispin Schroeder said...

Great comment Tim. That about sums it up!

greenturtle said...

I know all about spiritual abuse; What I did not know, was that you and I had a nearly identical experience.

Like you, I was branded with a "spirit of division" because I questioned things that took place.

Like you, I was called "demonic" because I pointed out truths, as in, I don't see the love of God in this at all. (Truth tends to piss people off).

Like you, I was "blacklisted"; members of the congregation were told not to associate with me. I was completely repudiated and permanently banned, never to be reconciled nor forgiven.

Like you, there are people that to this day, refuse to speak to me. And we had been friends; I had been to their house!

Now, what they will do when they see me in eternity does remain to be seen; I'm betting some of them will actually leave.

I remember years ago, you posted an article about your experience confessing a personal sin, and you were so afraid that you would be cast off forever from their company.

And that's exactly what happened to me. One of the worst mistakes of my life, was trusting a Christian enough to be up front and honest about a personal struggle of mine; the consequences would have a resonating effect, for years to come.

Only two people, out of maybe a hundred, have been man enough to come back and apologize. But I've given up on that; After years of waiting for repentance that would never come, I gave that up.

Are you familiar with the "victim to victimizer" concept? Joyce Meyer describes it as "hurting people, hurt people", but in the psychology field, it means that people who were abused, in turn abuse others in a similar way.

greenturtle said...

I bring up victim to victimizer, for a reason:

I know that church and its pastor. I was there during that very event of which you speak.

The head man in charge, was never anything but good to me.

It was various people under him, that did what was done to me in round one. (It happened to me twice).

Round two wasn't by a man under him, but he had a very similar stance on blindly submitting to authority at all costs.

He may or may not have had a history with that particular pastor, but, they were less than a mile from each other; He almost certainly had a history with people closely associated with that pastor!

It's easy for someone on the outside looking in, to just chalk my experiences up as "she just doesn't submit to authority, and look how cynical she is anyway."

Until it happens to you. But first you have to realize that it happened to you, and I know it took you many years to come to that conclusion.