The allegations against Mark Driscoll are damning, and they are legion:
The pastor of Mars Hill Church plagiarized multiple books on the way to authoring or coauthoring more than a dozen of his own. He bought his way onto the New York Times best-seller list by paying a marketing firm to buy thousands of copies of his 2011 tome Real Marriage—with $200,000 in church money. He rewrote Mars Hill’s bylaws to consolidate his power and cast out those who opposed him. He misappropriated tithing funds. He posted anonymous screeds online about a “pussified” America. He bullied staff members and proclaimed that there would one day be a “mountain” of bodies behind the metaphorical Mars Hill bus: “You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus.”
So in light of those charges it came as no surprise when, in August, Driscoll began an extended leave of absence from the church. And it was hardly shocking when Mars Hill revealed weeks later that a precipitous drop in membership and donations would force it to cut staff by 30 to 40 percent and shutter a handful of its 15 branches. What is surprising, though, at least in retrospect, is how Driscoll grew to such prominence in Seattle.
“The brilliance of Mark Driscoll is that he came into a market that was really open, where no one else was providing this kind of rhetoric,” says James Wellman, the chair of the comparative religion program at the University of Washington. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, just one-third of Seattleites attend church regularly. It was into that “unchurched” environment that Driscoll stepped in 1996, when he began a bible study group out of his home. And Wellman believes the pastor’s strict evangelical teachings—homosexuality and sex outside of marriage are sins, a woman’s role is to raise children and support her husband—spoke to a generation of Seattleites who were raised without much parental guidance. “It’s a live-and-let-live city: Do whatever the hell you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” he says. “So I think one of the things that really appeals to some young people is that this church provided boundaries.” That there was a large pool of disaffected, unmoored twenty- and thirtysomethings from which to build a congregation can only partially explain Driscoll’s success, though.
An argument can be made for his oratorical skills. “I’ve interviewed a lot of pastors,” Wellman says, “and he’s the funniest and smartest I’ve ever spoken to.” But the idea that Driscoll’s message was well received in uberliberal Seattle is hard to reconcile. (Choice quote: “If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you’re signing up for a little demon class.”)
Ironically, it may actually be the dominance of progressive values that gave rise to Mars Hill. “There is always, in any culture, a reactive unit; a reactive community,” says Rob Wall, professor of scripture and Wesleyan studies at Seattle Pacific University. “So if you think of Seattle’s culture as progressive, as liberal, as nonreligious, then the chances are, you will find all kinds of communities within that culture who are reacting against it to bring balance.” These communities—or prophetic movements—“react to anything in the world around them, whether it’s religious culture, political culture, or economics, that they see as contrary to what they take to be God’s word.” Within that interpretation, you might say that Driscoll’s followers saw Seattle as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.
In fact, Mars Hill isn’t the first reactionary religious community to catch hold here and draw national attention. In 1960, Dennis Bennett, a reverend who was cast out of his California church for claiming to speak in tongues, landed in Ballard at St. Luke’s just as the tiny Episcopal church was about to close. And within a decade he’d not only expanded St. Luke’s flock to 1,000 strong, but he’d also birthed a national movement of so-called Charismatic Christians that numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Though his beliefs were considered fringe, even among the churched, Bennett never shouted for attention—a trait that Wellman of UW says might have served the brash, crude Mark Driscoll. “The very thing that got him his popularity—his charisma and his painting outside of what’s polite in conventional Christian culture—brought him down.”
Perhaps prophetically, more than 15 years before Mars Hill began its ascent Reverend Bennett gave readers of The Seattle Times this piece of advice while summing up his own career: “Stay away from anybody who wants to tell you that they have the truth and that nobody else does. Stay away from any group that claims to be the group.”
This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.