To understand the current unrest at Mars Hill Church, you have to go back to 2007. In the autumn of that year, Mars Hill was an emerging evangelical powerhouse, attracting national attention for its combination of ultraconservative theology and rock ’n’ roll posturing. It had grown over the previous decade from a Bible group in pastor Mark Driscoll’s living room to a multi-campus institution drawing 4,000 attendees to services every week. Paul Petry, Mars Hill’s pastor of families and member care at the time, says that roughly 1,600 of those 4,000 people had joined the church as full-fledged members—they’d taken the necessary Mars Hill classes, studied Driscoll’s doctrine (which he eventually codified in his 2010 book Doctrine), and signed an agreement to submit to the “authority” of Mars Hill leadership.
Driscoll’s puffed-up, chest-beating, hyper-macho interpretation of the Bible has always been big on submission and authority. He’d become the Christian equivalent of a rock star: controversial, colorful, attractive to some and repulsive to others, with profiles in major publications from Christianity Today to Mother Jones to the New York Times either just published or just around the corner.
But even though Driscoll cultivated an authoritarian, tough-guy persona, the bylaws of the church didn’t allow him to be an autocrat. He couldn’t just do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted with the church and its resources. Instead, Mars Hill was governed by what Petry describes as “distributed authority.” A council of two dozen “elders,” including Driscoll and Petry, voted on major decisions—like whether to buy a multimillion-dollar building or even whether to spend $30,000 on a new sound system. At the time, Driscoll was just one vote among 24. “He used to preach from the stage that he could be fired at any time if he did something goofy,” Petry says. “That was a huge attraction because Mars Hill was a magnet for people coming from abusive churches. They were looking for a place with some accountability.”
Talking about bylaws “will make the average person’s eyeballs roll back in their sockets,” Petry says. “But the bylaws of a church are almost second to scripture. Scripture is openhanded on a lot of things: How do you resolve disputes in the church? How do you have a process for a member to appeal something he thinks is unjust? Who determines how a pastor gets replaced?” Not to mention how thousands of people’s weekly donations are going to be spent and who gets to control the church property. “That,” Petry says, “is what bylaws are for.” Rob Smith, an ex–Mars Hill deacon, guesses the church was pulling in roughly $8 to $12 million in annual donations at that time. (In its 2013 annual report, Mars Hill claimed that 21,000 people attended Easter Sunday services and that it earned more than $26 million in income during the year, the vast majority of which came from member donations. But it’s worth noting that while Mars Hill is registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit, it does not disclose its financials to guidestar.com or other due-diligence sites, making its external reports totally unverifiable. Smith also says that the church is prone to “exaggeration” about its numbers—or at least it was while he was there.)
Besides the council of elders, the bylaws also allowed for a five-member council of “executive elders” who were elected for two-year terms to control day-to-day operations without consulting the rest—but there were also “daylight clauses” requiring the executive council to give all 24 elders 30 days’ notice before and after any major decision was made. During that time, Petry says, any elder could step up and call the entire council together for a vote if any choice by the executive elders seemed questionable.
“We called that the atomic clause,” he says. “It was never used.” It simply existed to keep everyone honest.
But in the summer of 2007, Petry says, Driscoll convinced the standing executive council to resign, replaced them with yes-men, and began to act as if those daylight clauses never existed. (Others have corroborated this version of events, but Driscoll has never responded to requests for comment from The Stranger.) Driscoll and his right-hand man, lead pastor Jamie Munson, bought a building in Belltown—formerly the Tabella nightclub—without consulting the other elders. Petry and others only found out after congregants read about the purchase in The Stranger and the Seattle Times and started asking questions. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Mars Hill paid $4 million for the property and spent an extra $370,000 renovating it.
Then Driscoll—along with right-hand man Munson—proposed rewriting the bylaws, concentrating more power in Driscoll’s hands. As an elder, Petry thought this was a dangerous idea, as did fellow elder Bent Meyer. Too much power in one man’s hands without robust checks and balances, they thought, would be “a formula for mischief,” as Petry recalls Meyer describing it at the time.
Their dissent made Driscoll furious. He fired both from their Mars Hill jobs and, as an extra punishment, put both on trial—jeopardizing their church membership. (Mars Hill has a history of secretive ecclesiastical trials, including “demon trials” to summon individual devils and put them on the stand.)
A letter from Pastor Munson dated October 16, 2007, described Petry’s trial: After a preliminary process of praying, repenting, meditating, and reading scripture, an “elder investigation taskforce” spent two weeks gathering evidence, then charged Petry with “lack of trust and respect for spiritual authority and improper use of confidential information.” The latter charge was leveled at Petry for discussing his concerns about the rewriting of the bylaws with Rob Smith, who wasn’t on the council of elders but was on a fast track to join it.
Petry was not allowed to attend his own trial, but was permitted an opportunity to respond to the charges before leaving the room so the rest of the elders could deliberate amongst themselves. They came to the unanimous decision that “Paul Petry was in violation of the biblical qualifications of eldership.” Driscoll called on Mars Hill’s congregation to shun the Petry family, cutting the parents and children off from all their friends in the church community they’d spent the past several years helping to build. Shunning—the practice of socially quarantining church members considered to be disloyal—is another long-standing part of Mars Hill culture.
The treatment of Petry produced such an outcry, according to ex-members, that Bent Meyer, the other elder who’d questioned Driscoll’s rewrite of the bylaws, was given a gentler trial but still resigned in disgust.
“That was the big shakeup,” remembers Zach Malm, a Mars Hill member from 2000 to 2009. “They fired a couple of elders who disagreed with the plan to change the church bylaws to consolidate all the power with Driscoll. Two of the guys were not going to vote for that, so they got kicked out.”
Rob Smith, who’d been at Mars Hill for five years at this point, had been asked to join the elder council just one week before Petry and Meyer were put on the chopping block. At the time, Smith was doing pastoral work with Mars Hill community groups at the Wedgewood campus and running an independent organization called Agathos, serving orphans and widows in Zambia and South Africa, particularly those affected by the HIV epidemic. “I was asked if I would support a shunning of Paul Petry,” Smith says. “My wife and I had been shunned at a church before, which is one of the most painful experiences we’ve ever had as a family, so I said not just ‘no’ but ‘hell no’—especially for some stupid, trumped-up charge. I might shun a man if he were sleeping with goats or something, but not because he’s doing due diligence.”
Days before Petry’s and Meyer’s trials, Smith had been questioning Driscoll’s angry reaction to being questioned about the new bylaws, and wrote an e-mail to the elders arguing that if Petry and Meyer did not have fair and impartial trials, that fact alone would hurt the elders, hurt Mars Hill Church, hurt the accused, and hurt the credibility of the verdict.
Driscoll turned his wrath on Smith, calling him at home and demanding that he allow the elders to come over and confront him. Smith refused, saying: “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this man-to-man.” Driscoll, Smith says, exploded and insisted that he would come over with his elders, apparently for backup.
“It was the worst conversation I’ve ever had with any human being on earth,” Smith remembers. “He was vile, he was vulgar, he threatened me with obscene language, said that he would destroy me, destroy my career, and make sure I never ministered again. I was shocked that a man of the cloth would speak that way to someone who worked with him for years. I went from a man of decent character to the worst troublemaker in Mars Hill history for simply asking that someone else have a fair trial.”
Driscoll was almost as good as his word. Agathos, which was growing from helping individual African widows and orphans to promoting economic development in entire neighborhoods, was by now heavily dependent on the Mars Hill community for funding. Because of Smith’s questioning of Driscoll’s power grab, Smith says, Driscoll told his thousands of congregants to stop giving to the charity. As a result, 80 percent of Agathos’s support evaporated. “Driscoll saw to it that his threat would be carried out,” Smith says. All because two people objected to Driscoll’s revision of church bylaws to consolidate power into his own hands and Smith had the temerity to question their dismissal.
“I am all about blessed subtraction,” Driscoll told a team of pastors and potential pastors the morning after Petry and Meyer were fired. “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or get run over by the bus. Those are the options… yesterday we fired two elders for the first time in the history of Mars Hill—last night. They’re off the bus, under the bus. They were off mission, so now they’re unemployed. This will be the defining issue as to whether or not you succeed or fail. I’ve read enough of the New Testament to know that occasionally Paul puts somebody in the wood chipper. You know?” (The audio of this talk is available on Petry’s website, joyfulexiles.com.)
Agathos survived, but the episode was eye-opening for many church insiders, and some of them quietly began to back away. After the dustup, Driscoll canceled the entire congregation’s memberships and told them they had to reapply with a special addendum specifically agreeing to the new bylaws he was proposing. He’d seen how inconvenient dissent could be. Petry and Smith say roughly 1,000 of the 1,600 members refused to re-up, but, even as Mars Hill hemorrhaged its old guard membership, new people kept arriving, drawn by Driscoll’s flash but ignorant of what he had just done to consolidate his power.
“So many people who know about Mars Hill are quiet,” Smith says, “because they think it’s the Christian thing to do.”
Not anymore. After a string of scandals in the past several months—including revelations that Mars Hill paid almost a quarter million dollars of the money its congregation put in the plate every week to buy one of Driscoll’s books’ way onto the New York Times best-seller list—many people associated with Mars Hill Church are starting to stand up. While Smith was being interviewed for this story, he was also organizing a demonstration in front of the church’s Bellevue location for Sunday, August 3, hoping to raise public awareness about the problems at Mars Hill. Another Christian named Jim Henderson, who has been a longtime Mars Hill observer but never a member, was helping. “Bellevue is the buckle of the Bible Belt in Seattle,” Henderson says. “What’s great about this opportunity is that those people are very concerned about their image and how they’re perceived. Doing something embarrassing in front of their church could be a tipping point. [Driscoll] won’t be there, he’s out of town, but we don’t need him. He’s a cartoon at this point.”
At the time, Smith was hoping the demonstration would communicate three simple demands: (1) Repeal the new bylaws, (2) exonerate Paul Petry (and, by extension, stop shunning people), and (3) return control of the church to the 24-member council of elders.
Henderson’s demand was simpler: Remove Mark Driscoll.
“He’s brought this on himself,” Henderson says. “Why do we need people like him? Why do we let people like him run things? What’s up with us? Even nonbelievers who don’t go to church ask that question. And rightly so.”
“I’ve been quiet for six and half years,” Smith says. “It’s time to demonstrate to people that there are Christians who care about other people being harmed and who will take a stand.”
Smith compares the idea of maintaining his silence any longer to the parable of the Good Samaritan. “We are walking past a wounded man on the road to Jericho—we can’t not stop and help,” he says. “And Mark is the guy who beat up the wounded man. We were wounded, we’ve been in the place a long time. I’m 56, I’m strong, but we know so many families who’ve gotten into this culture of authoritarianism, and when they leave, they’re stunned. They’re treated as if they’re dead. Shunning is so destructive and so un-Christlike. That keeps me engaged. We can’t just keep walking.”
After Petry, Meyer, and Smith left the church, other stories of pettiness and cruelty began to trickle out of Mars Hill: families shunned, the bizarre “demon trials,” friends told to abandon each other, pastors required to sign nondisclosure agreements and noncompete clauses, and church leaders spreading distrust—even beyond the church—about members whom they considered disloyal. (One young man interviewed by The Stranger in 2012 left the church after refusing his pastor’s order to break off a budding long-distance romance that hadn’t even become physical yet. After he left Mars Hill, the man said, a Mars Hill pastor called his girlfriend’s father to warn him “how dangerous I was.” That father, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marines and an evangelical Christian, was appalled, explaining: “Poor leadership is one of my pet peeves.”)
Blogs began popping up where former Mars Hill congregants shared their stories. Zach Malm, who helps run welovemarshill.com, gives one striking example of a story from his site: Back in 2008, the husband of a woman named Christine Francisco disappeared on the day before Valentine’s Day. The story was all over the news, Malm says, “and various churches were reached out to, to canvass and find the guy.” But because Francisco “had resigned her membership a week earlier, Mars Hill refused to help find her husband.”
The past year has seen a dramatic acceleration in Driscoll’s public decline. Last December, he was pressured to apologize for instances of plagiarism in his book A Call to Resurgence (but not before getting embarrassingly testy during an interview with Christian radio host Janet Mefferd when she brought up the subject). In March of this year, World magazine reported that Mars Hill paid at least $210,000 to a marketing company in California to get one of Driscoll’s books onto the New York Times best-seller list. In a July 2014 letter, Mars Hill admitted that millions of dollars donated to its Global Fund, which appeared to be bound for projects in Ethiopia and India, actually went into Mars Hill’s general fund, which raised questions about how much of the general fund goes towards Driscoll’s salary. Driscoll’s handlers have declined to answer questions about the scandal, but journalist Warren Throckmorton, who follows Mars Hill closely, reported that unnamed church insiders estimate less than 5 percent of the Global Fund actually made it overseas. Last week, inflammatory comments written by Driscoll under a pseudonym on a church message board called Midrash made the rounds on the internet.
“We live in a completely pussified nation,” Driscoll wrote in those message-board comments, back in 2000, posting as “William Wallace II” (Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart). “It all began with Adam, the first of the pussified nation, who kept his mouth shut and watched everything fall headlong down the slippery slope of hell/feminism when he shut his mouth and listened to his wife.”
Driscoll continued: “Johnny is now so terrified of women and his own penis that he sits in his room alone each night on the internet hoping to get some… because he’s so afraid of women and has no idea how to take one, or love one, or serve one, or take one to bed and make the Song of Songs sing again. One day Johnny finally gives in to the pressure of his pre-humpers singles ministry and gets stuck with some gal left on the shelf long after her expiration date… And so the culture and families and churches sprint to hell because the men aren’t doing the job and the feminists continue their rant that it’s all our fault and we should just let them be pastors and heads of homes and run the show. And the more we do, the more hell looks like a good place because at least a man is in charge, has a bit of order and lets men spit and scratch as needed.”
And for anyone who might object to these comments, he added, “I know many of the women will disagree and like Eve should not speak on this matter.”
Liam McPherson, who left Mars Hill in 2005—and, for what it’s worth, used to live in Driscoll’s basement—says he and a few others kept digital and physical copies of the comments on Midrash long after the church shut it down in an institutional attempt to scrub Driscoll’s rants off the internet. (Driscoll admitted to being “William Wallace II” in his 2006 book Confessions of a Reformission Rev.) A few years after he left, McPherson says, a Driscoll assistant named AJ Hamilton called him up and asked him to destroy the documents. “He seemed to think they’d be embarrassing to Mark,” McPherson says. (Hamilton has not responded to a request for comment sent via Facebook.)
At the time, McPherson told Hamilton that if Driscoll wanted something from him, Driscoll should be the one making the phone call. “Mark confuses being male or masculine with being macho,” McPherson says. “This ‘you’re going to submit to me or else’ attitude.”
What’s the “or else”?
“Getting kicked out of the church,” McPherson says, “and implying he could beat people up like William Wallace II” did.
McPherson says he saw plenty of heated arguments at Mars Hill but never heard of Driscoll actually fighting anyone. But Driscoll doesn’t disabuse anyone of the notion that he might. In one section of Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev, he writes about one man who was so outraged by the William Wallace II posts that “he actually showed up at my house to fight me one night around 3 am.” (What Driscoll leaves out, McPherson says, is that Driscoll wouldn’t open the door and called the police instead.)
“The Mark I knew was a pretty humble guy, one of the first guys to set up chairs at a meeting, always about giving credit to other people,” McPherson says. “At some point, Mark started believing his own press, that he was the most important part of the church. I go by what the Bible says, and he’s disqualified himself biblically.” McPherson points me toward 1 Timothy 3:7: A pastor “must have a good reputation among outsiders.” Driscoll, he says, “definitely does not.”
But the real catalyst for the August 3 protest, the ex-members say, is a video Driscoll released last week talking about “this season” of the church’s life, which he describes as “a little overwhelming and a bit confusing.”
He is talking about the recent unrest over various church controversies. “One of the things that’s been complex,” Driscoll says in the video, “is the fact that a lot of the people we are dealing with in this season remain anonymous—so we don’t know how to reconcile or how to work things out with people because we’re not entirely sure who they are.”
That is demonstrably untrue—former Mars Hill members have been writing about their experiences online and waiting for Driscoll to return their e-mails and phone calls for years. The “anonymous” comment inspired a flurry of Facebook and blog posts by people like Smith and Petry, saying they’ve never been anonymous and that to act like they have been anonymous is dishonest and a dodge.
“I think when this video came out, it triggered something,” Petry says. “They’re looking at this guy who they trust, and he’s lying to their face. People know who has been hurt, they know they’re not anonymous. When you say you want to reconcile but you can’t because you don’t know who they are—that did it. The floodgates just blew open.”
Henderson had no idea how many people would show up to the protest, which was being organized by Christians, but he was hoping that “every atheist and agnostic who wants to say something, who has an ax to grind, will stand with us.” He worked up a question-mark logo (as in, “question Mark”) for placards. The way Driscoll runs Mars Hill, Henderson says, is “malicious, it’s spiritual abuse, it’s damaging to people’s lives, it’s jeopardizing the reputations of Christians—it’s already difficult in Seattle for people to take Christians seriously. Now we have to contend with this guy.
“Christians love to portray ourselves as above everybody,” he continues, “that we’ve been transformed. Well, hell. Show me! Show me with courage! Why aren’t we leading in that process instead of following? It’s humiliating that The Stranger has to point out our faults. We shouldn’t give you anything to say. We should be saying it ourselves. When you’re breaking the news, it makes us look lame.”
But Petry thinks this is about a lot more than Mars Hill or even Christianity. “Mars Hill is a story of how something that could have been really wonderful can go sideways,” Petry says. “It’s not just a story about a church. It’s a story about life.”
He’s emphatic that whatever people say about his family’s exoneration and putting an end to their shunning, he does not want this story to be about him—which is a tall order, since his daring to question Driscoll has triggered seven years of fallout culminating in last Sunday’s demonstration.
“I don’t have an ax to grind at this point,” Petry says. “My ax, I guess, is to help wounded people get some healing and live well with my neighbors. I hope that our humble efforts will spur people to ask questions. The great tragedy of this is in the structure of the church. Any person with overnight success, if they don’t have people with enough backbone to hold them accountable, they can get in some bad places. All of us are vulnerable in some way, and I think Mark Driscoll is just a tragic case of that. I hope the best for him, but I don’t see how there’s any happy ending to all this. And that’s what’s really heartbreaking.”
On Sunday, Smith, Henderson, and roughly 70 other people—including a few of the atheists Henderson was hoping for—showed up with their signs, including ones saying “We are not anonymous” and “Global Fund: What happened to the money?” and “How many atheists will Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill produce?” There were no altercations, but a Mars Hill member came out to offer the demonstrators coffee and doughnuts. “I quipped that I hoped the Global Fund didn’t pay for them,” Smith says.
Church spokesperson Justin Dean told Smith that the church had started a reconciliation commission, but Smith grew up in South Africa—whose Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a key process in starting to heal the wounds of apartheid—and Smith told Dean, “If it’s not binding arbitration, it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Smith and Henderson say a few current Mars Hill members joined the ex-members at the protest, saying they wanted to remain in the church and change it from within by returning control to what Petry called the church’s old “distributed authority.” In the short term, Henderson doesn’t expect much will change unless other national pastoral big-shots—such as John Piper, Tim Keller, and Rick Warren—tell Driscoll that the way he’s conducted himself is driving people away from Christianity rather than bringing them toward it.
After the demonstration, Mars Hill responded with an internal e-mail to its members that began: “This past Sunday outside our building, about 60 professing Christians led a protest, left a bit of trash, and slandered good men.” Smith brushes off the “left a bit of trash” part, saying there were just a few coffee cups left on the table Mars Hill set up because they didn’t provide a garbage can. “If we left trash, I will publicly repent,” Smith says. “I’ll hold myself to never do that again, I’ll run laps, whatever.”
But just by breaking their silence and staging the protest, the ex&ndashMars Hill members showed their willingness to break ranks with the conventional Christian approach of keeping quiet about the problems within their own organizations.
“Anyone who thinks Christians shouldn’t protest other Christians, shouldn’t air our dirty laundry—I’m so over that,” Smith says. “If people know what’s going on and still want to stay silent, they’ll have to answer to God.”
Mars Hill has not responded to requests for comment.
Shortly after completing this article, we learned that Paul Petry’s 19 year-old daughter Eleanor had been in a severe bicycle accident. As of this writing, she is at the hospital and in a coma. Our thoughts are with Petry and his family.