I’d like to say I’ve lived a life enemy-free, but that would be a bold-faced lie. It’s upsetting to face the very real truth that not everyone likes you, and perhaps even more concerning to know you sit with that sort of disdain for others.
I don’t do it often and am generally quick to forgive…but allow me to share a story.
Last week, I received news that someone I’m not particularly fond of finally toppled off his pedestal in a widely public manner. Mark Driscoll, senior pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church has after 15+ years stepped down from church leadership and officially resigned.
“Joni, what the hell is wrong with you. How is a pastor your mortal enemy?!” I know, I know, but hear me out. The details of Driscoll’s resignation are not mine to report, and I am not out to kick him when he’s down. A pastor in Dallas said of Driscoll, “It’s very sad that in the church, we’re the only army that shoots at our wounded.” I agree, and that’s not the purpose here.
What I can do is use this opportunity to tell my story, as I know I’m not the only one whose life was ravaged by the teachings of Driscoll and his church. I’ve stayed somewhat quiet out of respect because I know Driscoll’s not really trying to destroy people’s lives. But like a bull in a china closet, the man has created an atmosphere built for damage. After 7 years…here we go.
“There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus…”
— Mars Hill Former Pastor Mark Driscoll
I’d suggest the biggest reason for Mars Hill’s (MH’s) explosive popularity is their socially liberal, theologically conservative mantra. This presents a weird way of going at Christianity that quickly commanded a youthful following in what is reportedly the least churched city in the nation.
Social liberalism to MH meant facilitating a hip structural atmosphere paired with similar messaging and art. Tattoos are more than acceptable – an overwhelming proportion of the congregation sports ink, full sleeves or at minimum gaged ears. Yes, part of that is because the church is based in artistically progressive Seattle, but it’s attention-getting to see the acceptance on a massive level in a church.
The music is pretty good actually, ranging from indie rock to, well, indie rock. I don’t hear the music and react how I do to all other Christian music, wanting to cut my ears off.
Additionally, alcohol is not frowned upon. Driscoll was frequently quoted in the early days with saying the likes of, “Good beer is fine in the eyes of God, but light beer, that’s a sin.” I add this to demonstrate his often tongue-in-cheek humor, which resonated well with the young audience, as well as myself. He also earned the informal national moniker as the “cussing pastor,” a title sure to turn heads as it was not uncommon to hear him drop a swear word.
This creates a kind of “cool” backdrop, and opens the door for young people to feel comfortable in a non-traditional church environment. “This ain’t yo grandma’s church, this is where hip kids hang out,” sort of thing. For instance, the fella pictured to the left? That’s Dustin Kensrue, frontman for punk band Thrice turned Mars Hill deacon.
Maybe, just maybe, this place is different.
I wound up at Mars Hill after attending a party with friends from high school. One of the girls in attendance was an old friend from junior high with whom I’d had a falling out, and at this point hadn’t spoken to in years. She extended a hand that evening and I was open to making nice with a former friend I truly cared about.
I went to the church the next day and Mars Hill was maybe 4 years old. They had just moved into their massive facility in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, a ‘hood my Eastsider* self had never been to.
*Eastsider: [eest sieyDER] n. 1. Person from the east side of Lake Washington, the body of water separating Seattle and the Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond cities. 2. Spoiled jerk face from plastic suburban area, likely responsible for the selfie phenomena. 3. Moneyless misfit subjected to growing up surrounded by the stupid rich, finds solace in music and complaining.
Immediately I fell under the Mars Hill spell. The music was good, the pastor was funny, the people were nice and looked like peers I’d run into at a punk show. I quickly found friends and assembled a robust cohort of seemingly like-minded people. We’d have potlucks, go out for happy hours, have Bible studies, go watch live music. Seemed pretty solid.
However, the allure quickly dissipated when I started to get to the meat of the teachings. I started speaking out in disagreement with portions of the sermons regarding gender. Men, he taught, were the only ones who could plant churches or take the highest leadership roles in the church. I didn’t know anything about feminism at the time except for the awful things Driscoll had to say about the movement, alleging that the feminists were the reason the church had regressed from the proper man-centric order. That American Christian church had been “wussified,” too womanly, sissy, among other words. That the men of the church needed to step up and take the lead.
I get that he wanted to get men back involved in the church. That’s good. But NOT at the cost of making fun of women and all things feminine. You don’t rise up a population by stomping all over another. For example:
In addition to being flat out mean, Mark taught that women were intended to be submissive to their husbands. That the husband’s job is to protect the woman and he would do so lovingly and she would need to obey. There was this one saying that never made sense to me with regard to the man/woman relationship, that he and she are, “Equal but different.” I kept hearing subliminally, “Separate but equal.” Gender issues were the big thing I had a problem with, but it got much worse as time wore on…
At this point, I should have run. But the church had become a family to me and I didn’t want to bail on my family just because there were a few (REALLY MASSIVE) things I disagreed with. Oh how 20/20 hind sight is.
My protests subsided when I was distracted by a friend who expressed romantic interest, and I could tell I was creating a divide in the group because everyone else was coupling up and it was kinda my turn. To make peace and because I was curious, I dated him and accepted his marriage proposal. Our first date to our wedding day was a span of 13 months. I was 22 years old…and had no business making that kind of enormous life decision.
I am concerned how many other brides woke up the morning of their honeymoon knowing they had made a grave mistake. I know it was stupid of me and I put myself in a position to be swayed by a persuasive congregation and leadership team. To not shake the boat, I signed my life over to someone else, who now had a say in all my endeavors. I felt horrible but obligated and spent the subsequent years fighting to make the marriage work. It didn’t help that we had nothing but our friend group, the church, and our university alma mater in common.
I quickly knew it was over, and when I tried to leave I was put under church discipline. I was required to attend counseling services, within the church of course, if I wanted to remain with my friends and allowed to enter the building. Again – this was my home for recent years and I didn’t want to leave the church entirely just because my marriage was bad. I was in over my head and felt trapped. The situation continued to cloud from there at an extraordinary rate. It’s hard to keep a clear head and know what to fight for when literally everyone in your life is telling you YOU are in the wrong. You are the sinner, you are making bad decisions, you are the problem.
None of my friends were interested in my depression, unhappiness, misery. “Marriage is about holiness, not happiness,” was the most frequently offered response. I genuinely tried to believe that, to obey, to make everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But night after night of sobbing in the respite of my cold bathroom floor, I realized I was fighting for my life, which would soon end if I didn’t make a move. The isolation, loneliness, and consistent heaping of overwhelming guilt was becoming too much to bear, as I was losing the desire for life as well as had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.
I am writing this because I know I’m not the only one who suffered like this at the hands of Mars Hill (MH) teaching and their obedient followers. The church operated like a cult, and I mean it when I choose that word. I didn’t agree with everything they taught and therefore I was the problem and either had to be re-educated or driven out. Period.
So finally, I ran. I fled the church and it wasn’t pretty. I moved out of state with people I hardly knew because they listened to the words that were coming out of my mouth. The church responded firmly with harsh rebuke, publicly excommunicating me until I repented and returned to my husband. I tried to reach my MH friends who ignored my calls, texts and emails. I later found out the church had issued a stern letter to the congregation regarding my case, and that as a whole the entire church was disallowed from speaking to me. I learned that the plan was to treat me like a cancer – the only way to fix it and prevent it from harming the church was to cut it out. I was effectively driven away, leaving many people in pain in the wake.
After a couple months the overwhelming guilt brought me back to Washington and to my husband. Furious with how the church treated me, I did not want to return, nor speak with the people who stood by me on my wedding day and promised to stand with me till the grave. The sound of Mark Driscoll’s voice evoked(s) a fury that I don’t know will ever go away. I came to Mars Hill, to these people for a home. Somewhere to be cared for and accepted, and was treated with a harsh cruelty I’ve never experienced from a group of people in my life.
Betrayed, disgusted with them and myself, I decided it was time to relocate. I had nothing positive to focus on and was furious with God. So I set my Bible on the bookshelf and picked up GRE study materials.
I poured myself into books and to study. Surprisingly I got into my #1 choice school, SDSU in San Diego, and was more than ready to get out of Washington forever. My husband agreed to move with me and we moved our life 1,200 miles south, far from the venomous reach of the church that changed my life in every way imaginable. I was hoping for a fresh start away from the negativity and pain.
Finally I had found solace – in grad school and at the beach. Professors encouraged me to think for myself, my colleagues embraced my words, the sun wrapped me in warmth. A long time coming, my husband and I finally separated a year later. I hear from almost no one from Mars Hill and I’m as okay with that as I think I’m going to be. I’ve built a new life in San Diego, and spend more days in peace than in pain.
7 years later and I don’t really know how I feel about God. I am upset with Mars Hill for that because the thought of stepping in a church makes me extremely uncomfortable. I was in a church for a wedding the other day and it was a strange feeling. But at the end of the day I am grateful that I have no problem thinking for myself by challenging authority and doctrine. My friends are a blend of Christians, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, you name it. And today, I’m okay with that and open to kind people who have positive outlooks unweighted by toxic dogma.
As for Mark Driscoll – I said it 7+ years ago when I began my fight with the church and I’ll say it again. Teaching that women are fundamentally required to submit to men is wrong. There are so many things I want to say right now out of anger from reliving the story but I won’t – I think telling the story is enough to bring me, and maybe someone else who’s lived through something similar, peace.
ALL of that said, the big point I want to make is that when an enemy falls, I don’t think it’s right to kick them when they’re down. I felt compelled to respond given the gravity of Driscoll’s influence in my life, and being human I can’t help but feel a tiny hint of vindication that he has finally been outed for the cruelty he used to muscle Mars Hill into a dominant force.
I really do hope that good things come for Driscoll now that he is relieved from the pressure of the church. Perhaps he can turn inward to find peace and behave toward others with kindness. Or even crazier, he will realize the damage he’s done to people’s lives and apologize.
Yet apology or no, I forgive him. Forgiveness isn’t about requiring an apology, it’s about releasing yourself and that person from a harmful transgression and moving forward. Do you know who taught me that?
Mark Driscoll. And for that I thank him and wish him the best moving forward.