A couple days ago, my wife Jessica and I finished reading a rather depressing book: Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire. It’s an academic work that includes countless interviews, field research, and eyewitness accounts of the dramatic fall of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. The book does a great job dissecting the factors that led to one of the most notorious pastoral (and moral) tragedies in contemporary American evangelicalism.
Truly, it’s difficult to overestimate the intoxicating effect of an authoritarian and charismatic leader, a cult-like church culture, misogynistic teachings, and state-of-the-art, profit-driven ministry media. The combination led to unspeakable trauma and plenty of evangelical embarrassment. Many of us hoped we could leave Mars Hill in the past. Not so.
Driscoll is building up another megachurch (Trinity Church in Phoenix, Arizona) using the same “evangelical industrial complex,” he used to construct Mars Hill. He continues to pump out sermons on how boys “are missing the true essence of what it means to be a man” and “real marriage.” And he’s employing countless public tactics aimed at regaining his former popularity.
Driscoll is also a recent addition to the respected Patheos evangelical blog platform. His inclusion has inspired strong criticism from many readers who’ve demanded his removal, but his blog remains a feature on their website.
This is disturbing enough. But popular Christian blogger and professor, Warren Throckmorton, also noted Driscoll’s re-entry into the charismatic mega-conference sphere at the Charisma2018 conference. “He’s a long way from The Gospel Coalition and Acts 29,” Warren concludes, “Those were just seasons on the way to a new season.”
I was speechless at these developments. How on earth could something so public and so obvious and so notorious repeat itself in our information age? But then I remembered: I’ve seen this happen in my own former church, and it continues to happen in countless other churches across the world.
Years ago, I was assistant pastor at a church that, though much smaller than Mars Hill Church, mirrored its toxic culture. There weren’t any “sermons” on oral sex or manliness (which Driscoll famously gave at Mars Hill). But the fundamental dynamics were the same.
The sole pastor had a specific calling from God that could not be questioned. And, those who did question him were targeted for discipline, then kicked out. A cult formed around the charismatic preacher and his spiritual authority. There was talk of “accountability,” but there was none.
The language of spiritual warfare was often used to explain our church model. We were officially Baptist Calvinist and complementarian, and there was deep admiration for John Piper and similar evangelical celebrity pastors. There was also a huge focus on increasing metrics. A heavy cloud of anxiety and fear hung over much of the congregation—who were often chastised for sins that they never committed. And then, of course, there was plenty of verbal abuse behind closed doors.
I was fired in the same disturbing manner as some of Driscoll’s fellow founding elders. And, then, after the chaos and fear couldn’t be contained any longer, the pastor bailed to do the same thing all over again at another congregation in another state, leaving the first church traumatized and divided. (Months later, congregants apologized to me and my family for the whole ordeal.) After another three to four year cycle of domination at that new church, the pastor bailed once more.
Again, how could this happen? Well, in cases of tiny churches outside the city, that’s not difficult to answer: small churches are desperate to begin with and don’t have good hiring procedures.
It’s baffling. For any other job, you’ve got to have a background check, proven work history, letters of recommendations and references, etc. But in my experience, the hiring procedure for a pastor who will rule over a small church, is to “have him preach on a Sunday” and then hold a potluck with a small formal interview. The applicant presumably knows someone in the congregation, and if the church is lucky, he actually has a graduate degree. That’s it. Yay or nay a day or two later.
Larger churches are more complicated—sort of. If they’re plants, there’s sometimes no initial hurdle to cross. No interviews, references, etc. And, the church government is often set up to protect the senior pastor from criticism and scandal. For example, after Mars Hill was established, pastors signed non-complaint legal documents, and a structure was established to ensure the senior pastor ran the show.
We observe this same emphasis on pastoral authority and church loyalty in other large churches. Like any institution with centralized authority and hierarchical structure, dissenters are weeded out by those at the top. In extreme cases of resistance, a “security team” takes care of things (now commonly accepted at many large churches).
These practices—aimed at self-protection and image-control—are common denominators in large and small churches where pastors and leaders have far too much power and far too little accountability. And these are the toxic cultural dynamics Christians need to watch for and guard against.
Nobody looks good when con-artists and abusers play large groups of Christians, get exposed, and then continue to do it all over again in the name of Jesus. But if we want to prevent our past from becoming our present, we must look back and learn to identify the cultural factors that enable abusive pastors to fool us.