Until last fall, a 25-year-old Seattle man named Andrew was happily committed to Mars Hill Church, one of America’s fastest-growing megachurches with more than 5,000 members. He volunteered weekly for security duty at his branch of the church, joined a Bible study group, and had recently become engaged to the daughter of a church elder. Then he made a mistake that found him cast out: He cheated on his fiancee with a community college classmate. The fury over Andrew’s experience—and his decision to publicize the church’s internal disciplinary procedures—has led to accusations by other Christians that one of the most powerful evangelical voices in the country, Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll, employs a cultlike leadership style. Now, for the first time, Mars Hill is speaking out in response to its former member’s charges.
Driscoll is an unusually polarizing figure within the American evangelical community. Though he can resemble a hipster ex-wrestler as he paces the stage in sneakers and jeans, his theology is old-school Calvinist. Driscoll reveres masculinity even in matters that seem merely aesthetic: He’s a fan of mixed-martial arts but calls yoga “demonic.” If Mars Hill’s discipline practices are indeed oppressive, it’s hard not to make the connection to Driscoll's fascination with powerful manhood.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man this interested in structures of authority, Driscoll maintains a firm grip over his congregation. Mars Hill is nondenominational, which means it doesn’t formally answer to any outside institutional bodies, so Driscoll holds the power. He has preached against “sinning through questioning” and once said publicly he would like to “go Old Testament” on dissenters. He has reported that he can sometimes “see things” about his members’ past sins.
Now, as even fellow evangelical Christians express concern about how Andrew was shunned, the church must confront questions about whether its disciplinary practices are misunderstood and biblical, or disturbingly controlling. Is Mars Hill’s PR drama a lesson in how even the best institutions will have disgruntled critics, or a case of an increasingly powerful organization abusing its members’ trust?
Like most churches, Mars Hill’s right to exercise discipline begins with membership. (You’re not going to get quizzed about your sex life just for taking a seat one Sunday.) Upon agreeing to join the church, would-be members must sign a “covenant.” Part of that contract stipulates:
I covenant to submit to discipline by God through his Holy Spirit, to follow biblical procedures for church discipline in my relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, to submit to righteous discipline when approached biblically by brothers and sisters in Christ, and to submit to discipline by church leadership if the need should ever arise.
Church members agree to “practice complete chastity before marriage and complete fidelity in heterosexual marriage by abstaining from practices such as cohabitation, pornography, and fornication,” and to refrain from drug use, drunkenness, and “other sinful behavior as the Bible, my pastors, and my conscience dictate.” The church says that a version of this contract has been signed by all members since 2007, one of several changes that some critics said were designed to concentrate power among Driscoll and a few close aides. Andrew (who asked that his last name not be used) told me in an email that he doesn’t remember signing the covenant, comparing it to a user agreement for iTunes.
Andrew first told his story in January to prominent Christian blogger Matthew Paul Turner, who posted it in two detailed parts on his website. According to that account, Andrew cheated on his fiancee, engaging in some kind of sexual contact short of intercourse with another woman. Racked with guilt, he quickly confessed to both his fiancee and another member of his small group. About two weeks later, he also admitted to having a premarital sexual relationship with his now ex-fiancee. Andrew told Turner he was forced out of his original small group, which is an important touchstone for most megachurch attendees (and a requirement at Mars Hill). For the next month, Andrew met with—and received texts from—many church representatives. He was given a new contract requiring that he write his “sexual and emotional attachment history with women” and share it with his fiancee; he was also told to give her, and his pastor, a list of his sexual and emotional sins. (Turner posted the document.) Instead of signing the new contract, Andrew announced he was leaving the church.
In Andrew’s account, Mars Hill responded by posting a three-page letter to the church’s online network the City, which Andrew describes as “Facebook for Mars Hill members.” The letter, posted on Turner’s site, included instructions on how to ostracize Andrew; having a meal or going to a concert with him were deemed “not permissible.” The document included examples of how to decline the ex-member’s attempts to reach out: “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.”
Turner’s headline calls this response “cult-like,” and he’s not alone in this opinion. Driscoll and Mars Hill have long been controversial in Christian circles (the New York Times Magazine once called him “American evangelicalism’s bête noire”). With Andrew’s accusations, the Christian blogosphere exploded in outrage. Bent Meyer, a former Mars Hill elder fired from his staff position for insubordination in 2007, told his own story for the first time publicly. One ex-attendee started a blog called Mars Hill Refuge where others “who have been wounded by their experience with Mars Hill Church” could share their stories. The Seattle alternative newspaper the Stranger published another account from an unhappy ex-member, who compared his experience at Mars Hill as “how people wound up drinking Kool-Aid.”