Church or Cult?
The Control-Freaky Ways of Mars Hill Church
To become a "member" at Mars Hill Church requires more than attending church. Becoming a full-fledged member—a process highly encouraged, and sometimes thunderously demanded, in Pastor Mark Driscoll's sermons—requires months of classes and a careful study of Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, Driscoll's 463-page Mars Hill textbook. To seal the deal, the prospective member must formally agree to submit to the "authority" of the Mars Hill leadership.
Driscoll, the church's cofounder and public face, has made a name for himself with his strutting, macho interpretation of Christianity, one in which men are unquestioned heads of their households and "chick-ified church boys," as he calls them, need not apply. He rails against mainstream Christians who imagine a "Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ... a neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy." Instead, he has molded a doctrine based on manliness, sexual purity, and submission to authority: wives to husbands, husbands to pastors, and everyone to God.
Lance, a soft-spoken ex-military guy whose real name is not Lance, started attending Mars Hill Church in early 2008, became a full member before the year was out, and by October of 2010 was deeply and happily immersed in the life of the church. It was, he says, "like a second family." Around that time, Lance says he "did something I shouldn't have done." (I told Lance I wouldn't divulge his "sins," but they were amorous indiscretions that anyone who isn't a fundamentalist Christian, Jew, or Muslim would find extremely minor.) Lance said he "felt like a hypocrite," so he voluntarily confessed and submitted to six months of counseling and spiritual probation.
In August 2011, a few months after his full restoration to the church, Lance was enjoying life in a Mars Hill house, living with other men and paying his rent in volunteer labor. But that autumn, he had a disagreement with one of his pastors over a building-safety issue during a church party. As Lance tells it, the pastor said Lance was being overcautious, Lance disagreed, and the disagreement metastasized into a weeks-long debate—not about the safety issue, per se, but about whether Lance was being "insubordinate" and refusing to properly "submit."
"I began to question their authority," Lance says, "and their ability to make good decisions."
In the midst of this, Lance had begun a long-distance relationship with a young woman in Colorado. Lance says that his pastor instructed him to end the relationship, even though their relationship was not yet physical and nothing improper had happened. Lance balked, but his pastor insisted: "I'm the authority over you," the pastor said, according to Lance. "You agreed when you became a member that I am your authority, and you have to obey us." Lance was torn—on one hand, he had signed that membership contract.
On the other hand, this was ridiculous.
In a final, tense meeting, Lance got fed up with the leadership's harping about submission and authority. "How is this not a Jim Jones theology?" Lance remembers asking. "We don't even think you were a Christian to begin with," the pastor retorted, according to Lance, and left the room. The church told him to move out and, if he wouldn't submit to church demands, to cut off any communication with members of Mars Hill.
Lance quit the church.
But the church didn't quit him. Not only was he barred from speaking with his now-former friends at the church, Lance says his pastor threatened to contact any future church that he might attend. And then Lance's pastor took the extra step of calling the father of Lance's girlfriend in Colorado. "They were warning him how dangerous I was," Lance says. "That I was on a path of destruction that could result in the death of his daughter."
That father, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Hanyok, is a retired marine and evangelical Christian who says the Mars Hill leadership overstepped its authority. "There is church leadership to guide and provide order," he says, "but not lordship over the congregation." Hanyok spent 21 years in the US Marines and says, "Poor leadership is one of my pet peeves... the church isn't to come in and tell me how to manage my family." Hanyok says he used to watch Driscoll's sermons online, but doesn't anymore.
Lance calls the church culture "manipulative" and says, "I don't want this to happen to other people... It's how people wound up drinking Kool-Aid." He adds, "I still love Jesus. But I can continue my spiritual walk just fine at a different church... Mars Hill seems crazy to me now."
Last week, a similar story from a former Mars Hill member named Andrew erupted into an online firestorm that left some church critics, including longtime members who've since departed, wondering aloud whether Mars Hill is crossing the line from church to cult.
On January 23, Andrew released some internal church disciplinary documents to the blog Matthewpaulturner.net. Andrew had sinned by kissing a woman who wasn't his fiancée and then confessed the sin to his community-group leader. In Mars Hill parlance, "community groups" are breakout sessions that happen throughout the week. Everyone attends a weekend service at one of the 11 Mars Hill campuses to watch a live broadcast of Driscoll preaching from his Ballard church, and then attends various community groups—often in people's homes—to discuss the week's lesson.
After Andrew confessed his sinful kissing to his community-group leader, he says he was asked to step down from church responsibilities, forced to attend lots of meetings and confessions over the course of a month about his sinful action, and asked to agree to a "discipline" plan, which included the following acts of repentance and submission: "Andrew will not pursue or date any woman inside or outside MH; Andrew will write out in detail his sexual and emotional attachment history with women and share it with [redacted]; Andrew will write out in detail the chronology of events and sexual/emotional sin with [redacted] and share it with [redacted] and Pastor [redacted]..."
After thinking it over, Andrew refused and quit the church—but just like with Lance, the church didn't quit him. In a letter Andrew says is from Mars Hill, one pastor told members to shun Andrew because he refused to "submit to his church leaders" and to not discuss anything with him besides repentance. It even offered a few helpful lines for awkward encounters: "Andrew, I would enjoy time with you, but I can't because you're under church discipline. You can join me if we can talk about your refusal to listen to God and the church."
Once Andrew leaked the documents, the Christian blogosphere exploded with indignation. People were furious about the church's invasive demands: to stop dating until told otherwise, to write "in detail his sexual and emotional attachment history with women," to cut off ties with his friends at Mars Hill. It seemed less about getting right with God than public humiliation and congregation control.
Blog posts appeared with titles like "Never Mind Andrew's Sin, What About Mars Hill's Sin?" And "Spiritual Abuse Must Stop." And "Mark Driscoll: Worst Pastor Ever?" The blog Marshillrefuge.blogspot.com was launched, full of stories similar to Lance's and Andrew's. "This," the blog's preamble says, "is meant to be a safe haven for those who have been wounded by their experience with Mars Hill Church."
The woman who runs the blog is an on-fire-for-the-Lord type who tried, with her husband, to join one of Mars Hill's new spin-off churches. They were frustrated by what they saw as demagoguery and poor leadership by the young, inexperienced men running the community groups: "EVERYTHING," she writes, "always comes back to DOCTRINE, not JESUS." Eventually, the couple left. Even though they had not become full-blown members, their community-group leader demanded an explanation from the husband anyway. When the husband said, in essence, it's none of your business, he says the group leader questioned his faith in Jesus and ability to lead his family, and accused the couple of stirring up division (a common charge from Mars Hill). "We have never again heard from any of our friends from that group," his wife writes.
Mars Hill pastor Jeff Bettger responded to queries from The Stranger about these stories with a long, heartfelt e-mail. He confirmed some of the stories, did not deny the rest, and wrote:
I personally have never known anybody at Mars Hill who would harass, blackmail, verbally abuse, or belittle ex-members. I would actually say that over the last few years Mars Hill has increasingly become more loving, kind, generous, and humble. I have been seeing this over and over from leadership at Mars Hill, and from members. We know we are not perfect, but we believe in an active God who loves us... The way God is growing this Church, I don't believe anybody would even have the time, let alone the interest, to follow ex-members around. We have a difficult enough time maintaining all the work that needs to get done from week to week as well as meeting with all the people who want counsel and are hurting.
The Stranger attempted to contact several current members of Mars Hill, but none of them responded to requests for comment.
The music critic Chris Estey, who used to attend Mars Hill in the early days, remembers the moment he started drifting away from the church. He was walking out of one especially long-winded service by Driscoll and joking to a friend: "Hey, that guy needs an editor!" He says he was "accosted" by other churchgoers: "They were saying, 'How dare you! He has vision and you have no idea!' I kinda started separating then. That was the first time I'd had that culty feeling."
Mars Hill began in the late 1990s, bouncing between apartments, parks, and spare rooms. It appealed to young people who felt out of place in other churches. By 2008, it was the 23rd-fastest-growing church in the United States, with a 38 percent bump in attendance in a single year, according to Outreach magazine. New campuses opened across the city. The Acts 29 Network, founded by Mars Hill and led by Driscoll, "planted" dozens and dozens of new churches across North America, creating a dense network of churches that are not tied to a denomination, but to Mars Hill. In 2006, Mars Hill claimed $31,110,000 in assets. (According to a church-generated report—since it's a church, Mars Hill is not required to publicly disclose its tax returns.)
As the church grew, Driscoll became more visible, landing high-profile gigs (like an appearance on Loveline with Dr. Drew) where he drew more criticism. Also in 2006, he infamously commented on Ted Haggard's meth-and-prostitute scandal by casting aspersions on Haggard's wife: "A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either."
Around the same time, one of Mars Hill's three cofounders suddenly left the church with little explanation and started a pizza restaurant in Redmond. Two prominent and well-liked pastors (Paul Petry and Bent Meyer) were fired during a debate over how to restructure the church—one for "displaying an unhealthy distrust in the senior leadership," and the other for "disregarding the accepted elder protocol for the bylaw deliberation period" and "verbally attacking the lead pastor." In other words, for not being submissive. (When contacted for this story, Petry simply said: "I don't really have anything to add at this time.")
The congregation was in an uproar. "That was a wild time," says Dusty Wisniew, who has since left the church but says he still respects it. "There were tons of people asking a bunch of questions." Driscoll answered questioners in a sermon: "Some adults are just always questioning... these are people with critical spirits. These are people that if you answer their question, they've got 25 more questions, and they'll have questions forever. And it's not that they have questions, it's that they're sinning through questioning. The heart is not good."
All church memberships were suspended, Wisniew says, and people were encouraged to reapply under the new organizational structure, with new requirements—or quietly leave. One day during that period, Wisniew delivered some money from the Wedgwood campus to the Ballard campus. "All over the place, there was this poster that said 'membership = discipleship.'" He decided not to renew his membership. He's still close to many at Mars Hill and still admires Driscoll. But, he says, "I believe that what unites us isn't a piece of paper. It's the blood of Jesus."
Last Sunday morning, a few hundred people filled the downtown branch of Mars Hill Church to hear Pastor Mark Driscoll deliver a sermon titled "Men and Marriage." It was the third in an 11-week series based on his new book ($12.49 at Amazon.com) and DVD curriculum ($24.99 at Christianbook.com), cowritten with his wife, Grace, called Real Marriage. I attended to see if Driscoll was going address the recent storm of criticism online.
After the band played two indie-rock hymns, Pastor Driscoll appeared on a live video feed from his Ballard church. His "Men and Marriage" sermon was relatively tame: A husband should be the firm and responsible head of his household, the leader of a "little flock called home and family." He should think of his wife as "a garden" and himself as "the gardener." If you look at your garden and don't like how it looks, Driscoll preaches, just remember: "You are the gardener."
He said he knows his views are unpopular—that he's even been called a misogynist. "And I don't even know how to give a massage," he joked, his eyes twinkling roguishly toward the camera that was beaming his image to 11 screens in 11 churches across the city, as well as churches in Oregon, New Mexico, and California.
The thing his sermon didn't address—the thing I came hoping to hear about—was when submission to human authority goes too far.
Whatever the controversies, Driscoll shows nothing but confidence in himself and in the future of Mars Hill, including a plan for the next generation called "Mars Hill Kids." "I want to start preparing our children for ministry at age 2," he said in a video last summer. He has proposed building a "Nickelodeon-type studio" to broadcast kids' shows and indoor play structures at every Mars Hill property to attract kids, "especially the boys, the kinesthetic learners, so they can get a little activity." (Imagine being the gay kid—or the kid everyone thinks is gay—at that playground.)
There would be special child worship time conducted by adults and handpicked child apprentices. That cadre of children would grow up through the ranks, studying a children's version of Doctrine, along with DVD classes and Doctrine-related homework to ensure, Driscoll says, "an integration between church and home." Driscoll has also said he wants to commission a new illustrated children's Bible. "Kinda cool, dark, a lot of the bloody Old Testament stories so the boys'll like it, too," he said on one video, winking. "We're gonna do it Mars Hill–style."
The point of Mars Hill Kids, Driscoll says, is continuity:
So that when the kids grow up, they don't do like most kids and just leave after high school, but they realize: "Well, I'm ready for the Doctrine class. I can become a member. I've been doing this curriculum since I was 2! Of course I'm going to join a community group: I've been in one since I've been in a diaper. And I know how to sing songs, and I'm okay with video because that's what I've been doing for a really long time—so I'm an old-school, 18-year-old veteran."
What does it mean that Driscoll imagines keeping people, who've been studying his Doctrine from the age of 2, in Mars Hill after high school? Does he want to keep kids from growing up and moving away from Seattle to go to college, start jobs, and begin their own lives? Or does he imagine that, in 20 years, Mars Hill churches will be everywhere?
Either way, Driscoll imagines his flock—the membership model, the community groups, the Doctrine—as permanent. Womb to tomb. Just as long as you don't ask too many questions.
This article has been updated since its original publication.