Did God tell me to write this?
Some reflections on the tragedy of Mars Hill
I woke very early this morning, as I’ve been doing more often recently, but couldn’t muster the energy or wakefulness to get up and do something productive. It’s been a long year.
So I lay there and listened to a chunk of the most recent episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a podcast series from Christianity Today. It tells the story of the meteoric growth and tragic implosion of the ministry of Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
As a friend said to me, listening to this podcast series is like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and feeling a little guilty for wanting to see what happens next. And this penultimate episode, which runs for over two hours (!), is certainly like that. It lays out in well-documented detail the final awful unravelling between 2012 and 2014, featuring extended interviews with those involved, including heart-wrenching stories of people who had invested their lives in Mars Hill and were left strewn on the side of the road as collateral damage.
The podcast series itself is by no means perfect. It’s overly long and digressive at points, and has an agenda that peeps through more than once. But it does succeed in telling the story of an outrageously gifted preacher and leader with major character flaws, and the dysfunctional and doomed leadership culture that resulted.
Two things jumped out at me as I listened, along with a nagging question that still bothers me.
The first is perhaps the most obvious. The stakes are high in Christian ministry, and for Christian leaders. It’s a ‘noble work’, as Paul describes it in 1 Timothy 3. It requires a certain kind of person—someone who not only has the ability to teach and lead, but who has the character and personal maturity to exemplify in his life (as far as we sinful humans can) the reality of the truth he teaches.
It’s not as if this is obscure in the New Testament. The characteristics and qualifications for congregational leaders are laid out in multiple places (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5).
It’s worth noting, though, that not every Christian virtue is listed in these passages. There’s no mention of joy, for example, or hope, or prayerfulness, or patience, or even love.
The ones that are mentioned seem to correlate to the demands and pressures that godly leaders have to face—their public demeanour and reputation, their family life, their ability to deal constructively and helpfully with others in the church (humble rather than domineering), their approach to conflict (not quarrelsome or arrogant but gentle), the lure of money, and the danger of getting into all of it too young and falling into the condemnation of the devil (of becoming puffed up and conceited).
The tragedy of Mars Hill is that, from quite early on, it was apparent to numerous people that Mark Driscoll had deficiencies in several of these areas—particularly (it seems) in relation to quick temper, belligerence, arrogance and domineering behaviour. And he was young. He started Mars Hill on his own, at the age of 25, without formal theological education and without oversight.
It took 15 years for it all to come unstuck, in a way that almost seemed inevitable, looking back.
The podcast is an exploration of how and why this happened. In particular, how was Mark affirmed and supported in Christian ministry for so long—by his own congregation, by elders and fellow pastors, by other leaders he was in fellowship with—when according to the Bible he seemed patently unsuited to be a pastoral leader?
The podcast suggests many of the reasons we might first think of. Success has a way of blinding us, and leading us to compromise for the ‘sake of growth’. As the movement and institution grows, the pressure to cut corners and overlook bad behaviour intensifies. We become caught up in the culture of celebrity, and in the charisma of a powerful and compelling leader. Allowances are made. No-one wants to speak up, and those who do are quickly side-lined or removed. And so on.
However, it occurred to me, as I lay in bed this morning with a growing sense of sadness, that there was also a theological disaster burbling away underneath it all.
It was a catastrophic failure to believe and act upon the word of God. We implicitly believe that great leaders ought to possess rhetorical power, personal dynamism, and the ability to cast a vision. And many do. But without the godly character required by an elder or overseer, a leader with these gifts is not just unsuitable, but dangerous.
God’s word says this quite clearly. But as with many areas of church life and ministry, we don’t really believe it—or we don’t act upon it, which amounts to the same thing.
In the case of Mars Hill, this failure was compounded by an alternative theological vision of how God speaks. Mark often told the story of how God personally spoke to him as a young man, and told him to do four things: to preach the Bible, train men, plant a church and marry Grace (his then girlfriend).
This God-given calling was one of the theological foundations of the entire enterprise, and was spoken of repeatedly. It was part of the Mars Hills story. Mark was here doing this thing because God had told him to, the implication being that to oppose or inhibit his ministry was to oppose God’s stated purpose.
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, this charismatic theology of revelation was also part of its endgame. When Mark was finally confronted with the judgement of the church elders that he needed to step down and repent and seek help for his character flaws, his response was to claim that God had audibly spoken to him, releasing him from this path. Speaking later to Brian Houston in an interview, Mark tells it like this:
On that Monday night, I was in the bedroom, Grace was in the living room. He (God) spoke to me and he spoke to her in a supernatural way that neither of us anticipated or expected …
So Grace walked in and said, “I feel like the Lord just said what we are supposed to do”. And I said, “I feel like the Lord just spoke to me and said we … it's not what we wanted …”
…and so I asked her: “What did the Lord say to you?” Because I didn't want to influence her and she said …"
"We're released from Mars Hill," interjected Grace fighting back tears.
She said, “Well, what did he say to you?’
I said, “The Lord revealed to me a trap has been set, there's no way for us to return to leadership”. And I didn't know what that meant or what was going on at the time. He said we're released and we need to resign.”
He played the ‘God spoke to me’ card to justify his vision and leadership at Mars Hill, and then played it again to justify leaving this apparently God-given calling, and avoiding a process of accountability and repentance.
Faulty theology is dangerous and damaging. In this case, a bad theology of revelation and ‘ministry calling’ only added to the problems and the damage at Mars Hill.
But then there’s the nagging question that I will close with.
How much of all this did Mark Driscoll know and understand himself, along the way? How self-aware was he of what he was doing and what was happening? Was he knowingly and self-consciously an arrogant bully the whole time?Or was it a complex mix of real conviction about the gospel and the word, along with a flawed character that wasn’t suited for gospel ministry, all blended together in a twisted mess that eventually led to disaster?
In his interview with Brian Houston he candidly admits that he started too young, and without appropriate oversight, and that “my character was not caught up with my gifting”.
Is this all part of the act—the public show of contrition, the fallen celebrity pastor being interviewed on camera by another celebrity pastor? Or is it bound up with the conflicted, complicated mess that we humans are—knowing the sin and dysfunction in our hearts, but not being able to escape it, and perhaps not even wanting to escape it, because we can’t bring ourselves to?
I’ve often pondered this question regarding the wolves and false teachers the New Testament warns us about (just to be clear: I’m not wanting to put Mark in those categories). I’ve always wondered: do these people know that they are wolves and false teachers? Or do they kind of know, but suppress that knowledge in order to function and live with themselves?
Is it perhaps like Romans 1—do they believe the big lie that they know better than God, and become darkened and twisted in their thinking and behaviour, all the while persuading others and themselves that they are worthy of approval?
God save and protect us from this kind of blindness.
There is a Sydney side to the Mars Hill story. Mark Driscoll came out here in 2008 to speak at Katoomba Convention and various other events. It’s interesting to read some accounts and reactions from that time—we published a few of them in The Briefing (here, here and here, for example). Many people were enthusiastic about him and his message; others were more cautious and even critical; none of us I think had any real idea of the problems that were already beginning to manifest themselves back in the States.
Perhaps that’s the lesson: beware the big name, international speaker whose personal life and ministry you don’t really know. In fact, thinking back over the past 25 years, Bill Hybels, Frank Tillapaugh and Ravi Zacharias all had their day as visiting international ministry gurus we were supposed to listen to. All are now in disgrace.