A disgraced Seattle megachurch pastor is being sued for mishandling church money and racketeering, stymying efforts to reinvigorate the controversy-ridden ministry career of a man once called “the Rush Limbaugh of Evangelicalism.”
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, four former deacons of Driscoll’s onetime church filed suit against the pastor on Monday, accusing him and another church official of engaging in a “pattern of racketeering” while heading up Mars Hill Church, a once thriving Seattle-based congregation. According to the lawsuit, Driscoll, who Forbes declared in 2014 to be “one of the nation’s most prominent and celebrated pastors,” repeatedly raised funds for projects without spending the money as intended, including an instance in which the plaintiffs claim he raised $2.3 million for an international missions project but only spent $120,000 of it abroad.
“[Driscoll and church general manager Sutton Turner] engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity so deeply embedded, pervasive and continuous, that it was effectively institutionalized as a business practice, thereby corrupting the very mission Plaintiffs and other donors believed they were supporting,” the complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court, reads. The lawsuit also noted that Driscoll regularly solicited such funds during his sermons.
The legal battle is but the latest in a long history of scandals surrounding Driscoll, who founded Mars Hill in 1996 and eventually grew it to an estimated 13,000 worshipers gathered at 15 campuses each Sunday. Driscoll rose to fame as the “foul-mouthed preacher,” often infusing his sermons and books with profanity and explicit discussions of sex and preaching messages that championed complementarianism — the idea that God designated men to hold traditional leadership positions while primarily tasking women with rearing children. He also sparked ire from many Christians for his hyper-masculine theology, once decrying “effeminate” pastors and arguing that Jesus Christ — typically described as a Prince of Peace — was actually a messiah with a “commitment to make someone bleed.”
“I cannot worship a guy I can beat up,” Driscoll told Relevant Magazine in 2007.
But while his brash persona won Driscoll converts early on, things began to unravel at Mars Hill in 2012, when members of the church went public to claim that the pastor had a habit of bullying his own congregants, “shunning” members his ministers declared “unruly” for questioning church teaching or governance. Others claimed he was “verbally violent” and “quick-tempered” with his staff, and when Driscoll dismissed the accusations form the pulpit as inaccurate statements from “anonymous” members, a Facebook group entitled “Dear Pastor Mark & Mars Hill: We Are Not Anonymous” was formed that quickly accrued hundreds of members.
Driscoll’s lucrative publishing career also came under fire. He was accused of plagiarizing whole sections of his book A Call to Resurgence in 2013, something Driscoll denied passionately before eventually admitting to “citation errors.” Many in his church were also outraged the following year when news broke that he had hired a company to artificially inflate sales of his next book in order to make the New York Times bestseller list.
But the most damaging blow to his public image came in 2014, when blogger Warren Throckmorton published 100 pages of comments Driscoll allegedly posted to a message board using the pseudonym “William Wallace II” in 2000. The comments, which Driscoll said were emblematic of his “angry young prophet days,” were awash with sexism and homophobia: the poster blasted LGBT people as “damn freaks,” bemoaned the descent of the United States into a “pussified nation,” and belittled another female commenter, saying, “I also do not answer to women … If you are the pastor, quit your job and repent.”
The firestorm was eventually enough to push Driscoll to resign as pastor of Mars Hill in October 2014 after members of the church’s board released a statement saying he was guilty of “arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner.”
Driscoll then laid low for almost two years, only to reemerge this February when he announced his intention to plant a new church in Phoenix, Arizona.