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.
Jesus is not a Control Freak
The Kingdom and the Empire