Mars Hill Church in Seattle has been a large-scale experiment to shape the future of the Evangelical Movement, for good or ill. In recent months the controversy surrounding the Mars Hill founder, Mark Driscoll, gained national attention. Driscoll’s version of radical conservatism wherein he advocates a return to more conservative and traditional faith (with a particular emphasis on gender and gender roles), has long drawn criticism from more mainstream Evangelical factions, but it endeared him to many young Evangelicals.
Recently, Driscoll has been involved in a controversy regarding plagiarism within many of his books, resulting in a flurry of accusations against him (and against the leadership at Mars Hill), spanning everything from attempting to game the New York Times Bestsellers list to misuse of church funds to bullying his fellow pastors at Mars Hill into signing non-compete clauses (which would, ostensibly, prevent them from ministering at any church within 10 miles of Mars Hill in Seattle).
On October 14, 2014, Driscoll resigned as pastor of the mega-church he founded. Since then, things have come to a head with Mars Hill Church, which had spawned 12 offshoot churches, primarily in Washington State, and has until recently had a combined weekly attendance of between 8,000-9,000 congregants, announcing that it will be officially disbanding. As of January 1, 2015 Mars Hill Church will no longer exist.
The very public implosion of Driscoll’s cult of personality has brought national attention to some of his more extreme views, but his particular brand of machismo-laced theology is becoming increasingly mainstream.
What causes this interest in such regressive theology? Driscoll has defined Mars Hill as “culturally liberal and theologically conservative.” Being culturally liberal makes him attractive to young Evangelicals who do not want to have to give up their pop culture interests, but who still want a more traditional religious community. Mars Hill Church was one of the fastest growing churches in America, and Driscoll’s brand of modern ultra-conservative gender essentialism quickly gained in popularity among young Evangelicals. Certainly he is a charismatic speaker, but it is more than that. Driscoll speaks to young Evangelicals who feel disenchanted with modern Christianity. He is the heavy metal to mainstream Evangelicalism’s easy listening.
He explained to Lauren Sandler that the modern Church has made Jesus into: “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ…neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that…would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.” That is not the Jesus that Driscoll knows, and certainly not the Jesus that he preaches about. He has become known in conservative circles as “the cussing pastor”, and does not shy away from utilizing charged language (including slurs, as seen above) to make his point. He prides himself on being “Anti-PC” and his extreme theology comes with a large helping of gender essentialism.
For Driscoll, and ostensibly his followers, a woman is created destined to fulfill a very restricted role, and any deviation from that is because they cannot find a man. In a post on the Mars Hill web forum in 2000 (which he later discussed in his 2006 book) Driscoll went on a multi-paragraph rant about the ills of the modern church which (surprise surprise) he attributes primarily to feminism and “pussyfied men” (sic):
It all began with Adam, the first of the pussified nation, who kept his mouth shut and watched everything fall headlong down the slippery slide of hell/feminism when he shut his mouth and listened to his wife who thought Satan was a good theologian when he should have lead her and exercised his delegated authority as king of planet. As a result, he was cursed for listening to his wife and every man since has been pussified sit quietly by and watch a nation of men be raised by bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers who make sure that Johnny grows up to be a very nice woman who sits down to pee.
Of course, for Driscoll the worst thing any man could be is a woman. This sort of archaic theology is particularly dangerous because it is presented in such modern clothing. Driscoll attracts followers with his cultural trappings and then indoctrinates them with his ultra-conservative theology.
Driscoll’s weekly sermons were, until recently, the number one download on iTunes within the category of Religion and Spirituality, and the Church’s website looks like it would be more at home with the likes of The Daily Beast than with most religious websites. Driscoll has made himself readily available for media appearances on such diverse programs as Loveline with Dr. Drew and Nightline. His “culturally liberal” exterior and ultra-conservative values are ready-made for both secular and religious media, and it is only recently that his facade has been cracking.
It is not clear yet whether the scandal surrounding Driscoll will be enough to topple him from his Hill, but even if it is he will just be replaced by another quasi-modern essentialist. After all, John Eldredge has been preaching similar things for decades, with great success. Dethroning Driscoll will not solve the problem of modern sexist theology. That is an issue that will have to be systematically dismantled by other Evangelicals like Lauren Winner and Rachel Held Evans who do not subscribe to such extremism. Evangelicalism is so insular that outside pressure will only solidify extreme views. It seems that Driscoll, and Mars Hill, have not yet succeeded in their experiment to shape the Evangelical Movement, but that does not mean that the danger is past.
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Kate Davis is completing her PhD in Women’s Studies in Religion with an emphasis on North American Religions. She spends a lot of my time thinking about, writing about, and talking about sex, which is not always as exciting as you might think. She lives in a creaky Victorian house in Ohio with her math professor husband and two cats.