Why I'm totally not surprised by the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast
I first heard the name Mark Driscoll when my husband was studying to be a pastor at Bible College.
It was the early 2000s and Driscoll’s reputation as a straight-talking, take no prisoners, jeans-wearing preacher had reached Aussie shores. People were reading his books, discussing his methods, and marvelling at the outstanding growth of his young, hip church called Mars Hill in Seattle.
I listened to the conversations people were having about him. But I knew almost from the very beginning that I did not like Mark Driscoll.
His marriage book, for a start. It talked a lot about sex. And while there’s obviously a place for sex in a marriage book, I do not care to read someone else’s opinion on exactly what I should be doing in my own bedroom, nor how many times I should be doing it.
When I heard Driscoll’s phrase ‘smoking hot wife’ being thrown around by Bible college students, bile rose in my throat. Clearly, Mark Driscoll’s attitudes towards women were neither respectful nor realistic. Strike one.
It was also clear, right from the outset, that he was not interested in the godly disciplines of controlling your speech and guarding your tongue. Driscoll’s language was inappropriate for the pulpit, and instead of being repentant about it, he appeared to welcome the criticism.
‘Look at the results,’ he seemed to say. His church was growing, so what did it matter if he yelled and swore in his sermons? The ends justified the means, right?
Again, I was turned off. Means are as important as ends. Often, more so. Read your Bible, Driscoll; it’s right there. Strike two.
Those two things on their own were enough for me to stay out of the way of Driscoll’s preaching and influence. I thought it unfortunate that he remained so influential amongst some fellow Christians, but hoped that perhaps he might grow up in wisdom and maturity, and change his ways.
As time went on, however, I heard about the William Wallace posts. (Google this if you must. I won’t be linking to it. The summary: MD uses a pseudonym to post a stream of angry, sexist, disrespectful rants about women on his church chat group, over a lengthy period of time.) I heard talk of his bullying tactics and exclusion of those in his church who had different opinions. I heard about his book-buying antics designed to artificially inflate sales of one of his titles so it would get onto the NYT bestseller list. I heard about the plagiarism scandals.
Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike.
None of it surprised me, because by this time, I had listened to clips of Driscoll sermons. What I heard in those convinced me once again that Mark Driscoll was all about Mark Driscoll.
Don’t misunderstand me: Mark Driscoll is a superb orator and storyteller. But when I listened to his jokes, they were all at the expense of other people, whether people who disagree with him, or church members who he characterises as immature. In one talk, he drew the comparison between being the father of young children, and having lots of nappies to deal with, and being the pastor of a church, where, similarly, he said, there were lots of nappies to deal with.
He constantly put up straw people arguments to demolish. He yelled at his congregation. He demeaned his listeners. He put himself up as the one person who could stand up to difficulties and challenges. And, of course, he played the ‘God told me’ card over and over again.
In 2021, Christianity Today dropped the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s a compelling listen, put together by Mike Cosper, and it’s obviously struck a chord because it’s currently rating #1 in the Religion & Spirituality section of Apple podcasts, as well as coming in at a healthy #24 rank across the Apple podcasts generally.
Cosper is taking his time exploring plenty of the issues around the rise and fall of Mars Hill, as well as digging into lots of Driscoll’s bad behaviour (and there is lots.) As I write, the podcast is up to Episode 8, and it’s been an interesting journey of hearing many different people’s stories.
But as time goes on, I’m feeling more and more frustrated. If enough people had recognised Mark Driscoll as unfit for church leadership; if they had taken their eyes off growth and looked at character; if they had not chased the exciting buzz of doing something new and ground-breaking, but had been content with those stalwarts of Christianity over the centuries, serving, love and faithfulness; this podcast would not exist, because it would not need to exist. Mars Hill would not have risen, and Mars Hill would not have fallen, and there would be no story.
Narcissistic leaders are controlling, self-focused and often very, very charismatic. What might start out as a group or a church can quickly become a cult in their hands. Christian groups can end up tolerating narcissistic leaders because Christians are kind, trusting and slow to get angry. We tend to not gossip, and we love to give people forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt.
But there’s a reason that the New Testament focuses hard on the character traits of a church leader; it’s because leaders who are power-hungry, cruel and paranoid lead their people to destruction.
And people who lack discernment, judgment and theology are led to destruction. MD left Mars Hill and started another church in a different state. From what I’ve read, things are not playing out any differently. There will be a crash at some point, and people will be hurt. And honestly, it all could have been pretty easily avoided.
Since the age of 14, I have carefully looked out for and avoided anyone who I feel might being using their power to manipulate or control me. I’m suspicious of preachers and churches who use music and oratory to shift my emotional state. I immediately bristle if I see leaders favouring an ‘in group’ over the rest. If someone tries to move a conversation to get me to admit any insecurities or fears, where that person has not built trust over time, I’ll get out of the conversation. If a preacher or speaker brings every point back to themselves, or makes jokes at anyone else’s expense, or shows the slightest bit of sexism in referencing women, that person will have to work hard to get my trust back.
Here’s the reason I’m suspicious of them: Jesus never spoke down to the vulnerable. He always gave people agency. He respected them as being image-bearers.
I love the trust and love that comes with following Jesus, but I think we could do some work on developing the shrewdness that he encouraged his followers to have. Let’s look carefully at the character of our leaders and what their behaviour shows about their hearts. If we do that, and we act wisely on that information, we might not need any more podcasts like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
Cecily Paterson writes uplifting, warm hearted fiction for young teenage girls. Read more of Cecily's work on her website here: https://www.cecilypaterson.com Purchase her books here: https://www.cecilypaterson.com/books