Damn, I’ve been neglecting to pay attention to Mars Hill church – which is local to me – and clearly that’s a mistake. It’s been melting down, and people have been spilling truckloads of beans.
There are emerging stories of sensational kangaroo courts and “sex demon” trials, like something out of the Salem witch hunts of the 1600s. Even more devastating to individual members are the ways in which they are shamed, taught to blame themselves and each other when they see problems, and to formally shun people who step out of favor with church leaders. Shunnings, both formal and informal, have caused the outcast to spend years in isolation, cut off from friends, sometimes suffering deep clinical depression, nightmares, disillusionment and shattered faith.
Ah yes shunning, one of the gems of human ingenuity.
The problems in the church haven’t always been so obvious. In the beginning, Mars Hill church was a grassroots Seattle start-up with a 90s indie rock approach to organized religion.
Exuding charisma, the church’s young leader, Mark Driscoll, managed to make stories from the Bible entertaining and accessible. Unlike many other Christian evangelicals, he did not think that beer, electric guitars, married sex and mixed martial arts were at odds with Jesus.
Driscoll preaches a theology that counts homosexuality as a sin. He casts females as destined to play a supporting role, always orbitting the male lead. Though many didn’t like what Driscoll had to say, or how he said it, quite a few people did.
Apparently there are always quite a few people who like that way of casting “females”; not all of them are men, by any means.
Patterns of abuse, particularly the psychologically damaging practice of shunning, first came to widespread attention for many outside Mars Hill with reporter Brendan
Riley’sKiley’s 2012 expose, “Church or Cult?” published by the Stranger, which detailed the shunning of a young man for not repenting to the degree that church authorities thought he should.
“To them, repentence is groveling at their feet as if they are god,” said former member Rob Thain Smith — who was pushed out of the church and has a blog, Musings from Underneath the Bus.
Hm, we seem to have a theme today – male personality cults and the abusive behavior they foster.
Smith’s reputation was destroyed, he said, when Driscoll labeled him “divisive.” In the highly charged environment of Mars Hill, this became one of the most feared words in the English language, akin to being labeled a counter-revolutionary in Maoist China. Repentence trials seemed more like class struggle meetings. Still, many stayed quiet, out of fear or misplaced loyalty, sometimes even coming to believe the charges against them, and quietly leaving the church in shame. Though the only weapons were words, the words were like a spiritual death sentence.
Oh gawd, even that is familiar – we (we rebels against The Cult) are constantly called “divisive.”
It was during this period, around the mid-2000s that Driscoll started using more violent language to discredit people.
“I think these guys were trying to do due diligence and to rein Mark in in a healthy way, and at some point he got tired of being reined in,” said Wendy Alsup, who led theology classes for women at Mars Hill. She recently helped start the website “We Love Mars Hill,” one of many sites where former members are posting stories, and has her own blog Theology for Women.
Driscoll would talk about an ex-elder having been “put through the wood chipper.” He also likened someone to “a fart in an elevator.” At one point, on a church social networking site, he told a man to “shut up your wife or I’ll do it for you.”
“He was just brutal,” she said. “When he said these things, we all just hung our heads.”
Alsup quickly learned to fear the power of group disapproval.
“They’re going to project onto me that I am a bitter, nagging, contentious, gossip, manipulator. I learned to rein in my own voice.”
Check, check, check, check.
We humans just aren’t very good at group behavior, are we. We rely on it but we’re bad at it.