You might have heard of Christianity Today’s podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The series is now coming to a close, and has detailed the implosion of North American megachurch Mars Hill, alongside the downfall of its disgraced pastor and co-founder Mark Driscoll.
The podcast series raises a number of important topics for individuals today considering what it means to be the Church, how and why Christian communities are formed and maintained, and how to safeguard congregation members; leadership, Christian celebrity, abuse, power, accountability, and identity all feature. In today’s social climate, this is a timely and significant podcast. Three things that struck me as I listened were the importance of power literacy, the role of intimidation in the culture of Mars Hill, and the centrality of gender in Driscoll’s teaching.
Placing blame in misuse of power
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is, primarily, a podcast about a coercive master culture headed by an aggressive Driscoll. In the first episode, ‘Who Killed Mars Hill?’, host Mike Cosper raises the question of why such a culture emerges. His answer, it seems, is wider complicity: “why do we keep doing this”, Cosper asks, “why are we regularly platforming people whose charisma outpaces their character, and who leave devastation in their wake? Something attracts us, we buy in, and then we watch the collapse like spectators at a demolition derby”.
This idea that ‘we’ are all responsible continues throughout the series. Through his narration, Cosper implies that Driscoll’s case is indicative of a wider phenomenon, in which young Christians are elevated to positions of prominence which they don’t have the personal characteristics to manage. This may be true, but the implication that the blame lies with the congregation is alarming – is it not problematic to suggest that lay church members who see the charisma but not necessarily the character of Christian leaders are equally at fault as those occupying positions of power who platformed and mentored these leaders? Consider, too, those who spoke up and were silenced. Were questioners, defectors, and doubters accepted within the culture of Mars Hill?
Cosper’s role as narrator feels significant here, given his connections to Driscoll and wider evangelical culture. (Cosper was a founding pastor of Sojourn Church, whence Sojourn Network, which was part of the Acts 29 movement co-founded by Driscoll). His ties to these circles aren’t necessarily problematic, and he usefully draws on his own personal experiences. What’s worrying is that Cosper’s ‘we’ feels more like a ‘you’ than an ‘I’. The implication is: why do you keep glorifying these people? From this perspective, the problems are external – but perhaps introspection by the very people who hold positions of power within this subculture is exactly what’s needed. I would have appreciated a stronger attempt from Cosper to call out those at fault for overlooking Driscoll’s red flags, and an emphasis on the importance of power literacy for Christian leaders.
A theological fight club
One guest on the podcast is scholar Jessica Johnson, who uses the phrase ‘theological fight club’ to describe an ethos at Mars Hill in which men are characterised as warriors for God. The podcastmakes clear that this muscular brand of Christianity was a central part of the church culture. It can be seen in the origins of the church (founded, in part, because Driscoll found others too feminine) and in the war metaphors Driscoll used to frame the outside world as the enemy. Driscoll’s language was frequently violent – episode seven features a clip of Driscoll expressing his wish to beat up members of his church during a sermon on Nehemiah – and members of the congregation would often face, in Cosper’s words, “intimidation and aggressive, confrontational behaviour”.
The phrase ‘theological fight club’ also encapsulates the way that Driscoll combined aggression, masculinity and Christianity in his portrayal of manhood – men doing God’s work, but, nonetheless, still partaking in a fight. The episode ‘The Things We Do To Women’ is a sobering look at the impact of ideals about gender, sex and marriage at Mars Hill. This episode picks up on Driscoll’s attempt to address the mistreatment of women by men. Here the screaming clip in the podcast opener – “Who do you think you are?” – is placed into its full context: Driscoll, with ostensibly spontaneous (but in actual fact, pre-planned) rage, chastises male listeners who abuse or abandon women (or fail to live up to his expectations of manhood). Yet Driscoll’s outburst appears to be driven not by care for abuse victims but by a concern that abusers aren’t living up to their potential. And the aggressive overtones remain. Cosper notes that “it was as though the only thing that could stop a bad violent man … was a good violent man”.
Womanhood at Mars Hill
Women’s experiences at Mars Hill were shaped by ideals about womanhood promulgated by Driscoll. Mars Hill taught headship in the home – to the extent that women were expected to completely avoid work outside of the home – and male leadership in the Church. The outworkings of these theologies, according to Cosper, were that many women experienced the culture as “suffocating or controlling”, and had to accept the idea that they would be dominated by a man – and simply hope for a good one.
Driscoll’s fixation on sex is well-known, and this permeates his message about women’s responsibilities within marriage. As Johnson notes on the podcast, Driscoll would preach that wives “had to please their husbands sexually whenever and however they wanted” – men were construed as unable to control their sexual desires, and women as their aides who perform to a pornographic ideal. For Driscoll, there are two manifestations of womanhood: the dutiful ‘smokin’ hot wife’, and the sexual threat there to seduce otherwise morally upstanding men. Neither of these are particularly encouraging, nuanced, or respectful.
These messages are not unique, and the construction of sexual subservience as central to Christian womanhood continues to be a problem in facilitating and enabling coercive and abusive behaviour. I therefore would have appreciated a clearer acknowledgement of the ways in which Biblical passages and theologies were weaponised to enforce ideas about gender that caused harm. Nonetheless, Cosper presents well the reality of Driscoll’s teachings and women’s experiences at Mars Hill.
Moving forward: embodying the fruit of the spirit
In a recent review of the podcast, Trevin Wax of The Gospel Coalition asks “will podcast listeners be able to untangle the unhealthy leadership culture of Mars Hill from the mainstream Christian beliefs professed by its leaders?”. What is meant specifically by ‘mainstream Christian beliefs’ is unclear, but this raises this question: should we untangle the culture from the leaders’ beliefs? Aren’t theological ideas used to bolster certain viewpoints, and Bible passages misinterpreted? Is this not one way unhealthy practices are justified and maintained?
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill could have been improved, I think, by an explicit willingness to examine the role of theology and Biblical interpretation (and Biblical illiteracy) underlying abusive behaviour.
Yet, there is clear value to the podcast in its discussion of the culture and leadership of Mars Hill. This was a place where the ends justified the means, and Cosper’s evaluation of this is both hard-hitting and prudent: “we shouldn’t ask ‘is it worth the fruit?’ but ‘is it worth the damage?’”. Alongside his various guests, he effectively picks apart the culture at Mars Hill and emphasises the need to notice warning signs of abuse, coercion, and intimidation. Overall, in the words of podcast guest Sarah Bessey, “it doesn’t matter how right you are … if you aren’t embodying the fruit of the spirit”.
Chrissie Thwaites is a PhD candidate in theology and religious studies at the University of Leeds, researching the impact of purity culture in the UK. She is also a Tearfund Young Theologian and a trustee of BIAPT. Guest blogs are invited to stimulate discussion and comment and should not be assumed to represent the views of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.