When Andover Newton alum Virginia Child encouraged me to listen to the podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,* she wrote, “I highly recommend it for its insights on leadership, particularly around authorization and authenticity.” She should have added a warning, saying, “Expect that, if you listen while driving, you’ll miss a lot of exits and get lost on your way to work.” The podcast is just that riveting.
Not only had I never heard of the podcast before, I’d never heard of Seattle’s Mars Hill. No, I don’t live under a rock. I live in the world of progressive mainline Christianity. Ask me what’s happening at Riverside Church, which is driving-distance from my home, and I’ve never worshiped there? I probably can tell you a thing or two. Want to know what William Barber is up to? I’m your girl. But Mars Hill was an evangelical megachurch on the left coast that rose and fell without me knowing it existed, and its story blew my mind.
Mark Driscoll founded Mars Hill with his wife, Grace, and built it into a multi-site conglomerate. He preached for an hour or more five times every Sunday, eventually broadcasting to multiple remote locations. His style was to scold, to alternate between bragging and humble-bragging, and to provoke. An un-churched region filled with insecure people drank in the discipline and considered Driscoll’s pointedness to be some form of honesty.
But it turns out that honesty was not among his significant gifts. Driscoll plagiarized huge sections of his books. He changed the story of his call to ministry so often that it’s impossible to know which one actually happened. But just as conservatives have a high pain threshold as relates to being lied to, Driscoll’s dishonesty was not his downfall. His board learned that he was a terrible bully to his employees, and when they tried to discipline him, he depicted himself as the victim and resigned.
I might be a mainline, rather than an evangelical, Christian; but I know this guy.
Call him a narcissist, call him a fraud, but definitely don’t mistake his direct and acidic style for blunt honesty. Honesty and authenticity come from the heart. They’re not performative, but they do give ministers a means for connecting with those in their care. I tell my students at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, where I serve as dean, “If you minister from your heart, you connect with the heart of your congregation. If you minister from your head, or your ego, that’s what you’ll draw out of them.”
I don’t usually go on to say, “Then, they’ll use their heads and egos first to love you, then to reject you, and never to find their way to God through you,” but that’s just because I don’t want to scare them. But if they listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, they should be afraid. It’s a story of institutional implosion resulting from false authenticity and insufficient accountability.
Having already said a word about authenticity, what about accountability? Several of the theologians and cultural interpreters interviewed in the Rise and Fall podcast indicated that one of the reasons Mark Driscoll rose to power, and then misused that power, was because he could. His and the church’s worship style were Baptistic in nature, but they weren’t part of a denomination that could call Driscoll to account.
As a church-planter who was part of the Acts 29 Network — a coalition, not a denomination — no structures existed outside Mars Hill for intervening in Driscoll’s ministry when supervision of staff first presented itself as an issue. Those who knew him, and even those who loved him, thought he would benefit from submitting to correction from older and wiser ministers. No one could make him, however, and he didn’t think enough of what elders could offer to take that counsel. Whenever Driscoll learned a member of his staff was asking, “To whom does he submit?” behind his back, he found out who had asked the question and fired them. Eventually, even Acts 29 kicked him out, but by then, much damage was already done.
Christian denominational structures have their flaws, to be sure. As a minister in the United Church of Christ, I often describe one thing UCC churches and members have in common with each other is that they’re not sure how they feel about denominations. There are three areas where I know the local church needs denominations and have been reinforced in that knowledge by experience:
- Identity clarification, especially in changing times
- Quality control, including disciplining clergy
- Leadership development that ideally, among other uses, makes disciplining clergy less necessary
In the class on UCC Polity that I teach at Yale Divinity School, we talk about antinomian heresy. Christians are freed from sin’s consequences by God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to run around sinning. To engage in antinomian heresy is to misuse freedom. Leadership in a covenantal but non-hierarchical tradition is a risky business. Many are drawn to the UCC by its openness, inclusivity, and creative freedom; but we must remember that we’re free to follow Christ, not just do… whatever.
Absence of accountability and megachurches go hand-in-hand, and that’s not a coincidence. The less cross-checking and permission-seeking they have to manage, the faster leaders can move to bring about life-giving change. The less accountability to which they’re held, however, the more tempting it is to barrel down the road to change, oblivious to those we hit and leave by the side of the road. That kind of barreling is a misuse of the freedom we have been gifted through God’s unconditional love.
We live in a moment where networked structures of accountability are getting left in the dust. Publishing houses are dying while an unregulated internet is a platform where anyone can publish anything. Even worse, the more money one has, the more easily one can get their ideas to the top of search results. Governments enter treaties, but then take them or leave them in each successive administration, even though the goals of those treaties aren’t ones that can be attained in fits and starts of 2–4 years.
Submission might seem like a sign of weakness to some, but really, it’s a matter of life and death for those whose lives a leader touches. A leader who chooses to submit to a circle beyond their own mind or context is one who takes their work, and their power, seriously. In our multi-religious land, it might not be right and respectful to ask people to pledge allegiance to a flag that’s “under God.” I’m scared, however, of a flag that’s not under anything.
To submit to the authority of someone or something over us is how we acknowledge that we aren’t God. Submission might slow us down. And putting the right amount of chlorine in a pool is a hassle. And car insurance is expensive. And… and… and… if something’s worthwhile, it’s worth doing safely and well. What is community but a circle of accountability, where people love us just as we are, and love us too much to let us stay this way?
*Mike Cosper, Christianity Today. Released June 22, 2021.