A growing number of evangelical Christians are standing up against what they say are the homophobic, sexist, and domineering ideas and practices of pastor Mark Driscoll, the influential head of the Mars Hill megachurch in Seattle, Washington.
Several dozen protestors stood outside the Bellevue, Washington campus of Mars Hill Church this past Sunday, holding signs adorned with slogans such as “Stop objectifying women” and “How many atheists will Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill make?” The demonstrators, many of whom claimed to be former members of Mars Hill, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that they were decrying the church’s ministerial methods, policies, and problematic theology — particularly Driscoll’s regressive teachings about women.
“I am an ex-member [of Mars Hill Church] who left a couple years ago, because my views on life and women evolved,” one protestor told the Post-Intelligencer. “I come from a Jewish family, a family with strong women. It appeared, at the church, most development attention was given to me. Women were seen as accessories in marriage.”
Rob Smith, a former program director at Mars Hill, echoed this frustration with the church’s stance on women and called for a new theology, saying, “In the church’s view, women are just objectives. They are there to please their husbands. In my theology, Jesus freed women. Jesus was surrounded by strong women.”
Sign-waving protests are a new phenomenon for Mars Hill Church, but Mark Driscoll, 43, is no stranger to controversy — or accusations of bigotry and chauvinism. He has made something of a career for being, as one protestor called it, “the Rush Limbaugh of Christianity,” building up his 17,000-member church and Acts 29 network of worship communities by delivering raunchy, sometimes obscenity-laden sermons about subjects such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and penning bestselling books with eye-catching titles such as Porn-Again Christian: A Frank Discussion on Pornography & Masturbation. He also stoked controversy in 2011 when he joked about “effeminate” pastors on Facebook, and told RELEVANT magazine in 2007 that he believed in a Jesus who has a “commitment to make someone bleed,” and that he abhorred those who revere a “hippie, diaper, halo Christ” because “I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”
Many Christians, such as influential evangelical blogger and author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood Rachel Held Evans, have criticized Driscoll since he founded Mars Hill in 1996. Most take issue with his image of a hyper-masculine Jesus, his flippant comments deriding gay people, and his embrace of complementarianism, or the belief that men and women are designated different roles by God — namely, men are supposedly tasked with most traditional forms of leadership, whereas women are primarily responsible for rearing children.
“[Driscoll] has consistently used offensive and hateful language to speak about gay and lesbian people, spoken crassly and condescendingly about women, and exhibited scary, bullying behavior toward men who fail to conform to his rigid vision of masculinity,” Evans wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “That he consistently models this type of bullying behavior to the young men in his church is deeply troubling.”
But while Driscoll has long frustrated many of his fellow Christians — particularly progressive Christians — recent years have seen increasingly grave criticisms lobbed against him and his church, with many coming from within his own community. In 2012, people claiming to be members of Mars Hill began reporting that Driscoll had a policy of “shunning” congregants he and his ministers saw as “unruly,” effectively bullying them into silence and submission. This added fuel to existing accusations of unsettling practices and behavior among Driscoll’s ministerial staff and even Driscoll himself, who was accused by a former Mars Hill leadership pastor of being “domineering,” “quick tempered,” “verbally violent,” and “arrogant.” Then, late last year, Driscoll was charged with plagiarizing sections of his new book, and upset many in his pews for reportedly working with a company to artificially inflate his book sales in order to make the New York Times bestseller list.
The charges against Driscoll appeared to crescendo last month, when a blogger unearthed what appeared to be more than 100 pages of sexist and homophobic comments that Driscoll allegedly posted on an online forum in 2000 under the pseudonym “William Wallace II.” The comments included a number of unsettlingly offensive rants, including postings that referred to the United States as a “pussified nation,” called gay people “damn freaks,” and responded to a female poster by saying “I also do not answer to women … If you are the pastor, quit your job and repent.” This slow-rising tide of allegations seemed to rock the church last month, when two prominent members of the church’s “Board of Advisors and Accountability” — which sets salaries for church elders and supervises various church ministries — suddenly resigned.
Driscoll attempted to address the situation in a 30-minute video posted on the Mars Hill website on July 21, but said that “a lot of [the accusers] that we are dealing with remain anonymous” and that he is “not entirely sure who they are.” The video sparked the creation of a Facebook group entitled “Dear Pastor Mark & Mars Hill: We Are Not Anonymous.” The group, which now claims almost 600 members, functions as forum where people who have been negatively impacted by Driscoll and Mars Hill can tell their stories, organize events like Sunday’s protest, and claim “I am not anonymous.”
“During a year of job loss for my family, I did not intend to have my tithe money spent to get your book on the NYT list,” wrote one group member. “Although those [embarrassing] moments have been scrubbed off the internet, I remember them. Please stop.”
The group joins with various other blogs such as welovemarshill.com and Mars Hill Refuge, websites constructed so that people claiming to be former members of Mars Hill can post accounts of how they have been hurt by Driscoll and his ministers. But the protests are about more than catharsis: According to the Post-Intelligencer, the growing gaggle of disaffected parishioners are preparing to release “50 specific new charges” against Driscoll, focusing on “allegations of outbursts and abusive conduct, and — particularly — the shunning of former church members.”
Driscoll has publicly apologized for the plagiarism accusations, and actually preemptively apologized for the internet comments in a 2006 book, where he first mentioned his former pseudonym. Some have called for the evangelical community to accept his apology, but Evans, who has been in contact with many former members of Mars Hill, was less sure.
“…I think we have to be really careful about telling victims of abuse when and how they must forgive, and we have to be especially careful that we not enable abusers to continue to abuse,” Evans said. “An apology without change is not true repentance, and we’ve heard a lot of apologies from Mark Driscoll without any discernible change.”
“I believe in forgiveness. But I do not believe in telling victims of abuse that forgiveness requires they endure it.”