Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Update on Conservative Evangelical’s Dirty Little Secret: Spiritual Abuse

Last year I blogged about two major denominations’ recent exposure of spiritual abuse in the media and blogosphere, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and Seattle Mars Hill Church. With new developments, I offer this update. SGM (which I attended in the 1980s and early 90s and tell the story in my book) is now the target of a lawsuit that names several pastor defendants claiming they covered up both sexual and physical abuse done by members and possibly one pastor.

First of all, this sounds eerily familiar. My friend Darla Melancon wrote a book a couple of years ago (Things I Learned After Being Kicked Out of Church) exposing a similar cover up and manipulation in her SGM church (the church I used to attend years ago). Second, after reading an amendment to the lawsuit, I discovered my old friend from that same SGM church, Pastor Mark Mullery, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit! One good thing is the church he pastors now, SGM Fairfax, VA, just voted last week to leave the denomination. I’ve reached out to him, but he hasn’t revealed anything about their specific situation (it’s been 18 years since I’ve seen him). Bottom line is, SGM is going through a huge shaking due to persistent, documented accusations of spiritual and now sexual abuse. (As catalogued by the good folks over at SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge).

Now Seattle. With SGM’s lawsuit ringing in my ears, years of following stories by SGM and now Mars Hill ex-members (see Mars Hill Refuge and Joyful Exiles), a wonderful phone conversation with a new blogger friend Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board (she’s a tigress when it comes to exposing abuse), and a new development at Mars Hill Church (they moved one of their branches closer to where I live), I decided I needed some first-hand experience getting to know Mars Hill. I visited the downtown branch last Sunday. Kind of twilight zonish, it was, going back to a conservative evangelical church after 7 or 8 years. Mostly smiling, friendly twenty-thirty-somethings, terrific upbeat music, polished and professional leaders, and state-of-the-art technology streaming video of Mark Driscoll preaching on a massive screen.

The problem of pinpointing spiritual abuse and warning people is these churches often look so good on the surface. Everyone is smiling, there’s a spiritually-satisfying atmosphere, the sermon is full of jokes and encouraging teaching. It takes a discerning eye to spot it. I was reminded of Jonna Petry’s story from Mars Hill that reveals this problem of an appealing veneer over destructive abuse behind the scenes. I also remembered the long Membership Covenant members are required to sign before they join, which lays out strict rules for adhering to church doctrine and understanding church discipline. That document was red flag number one.

Seeing Driscoll on the screen was red flag number two. All the churches in the city stream Mark for sermons. There is no local teaching at MH church plants! No need to clone. Every church gets the same guy and sermon. This fits one of the major characteristics of spiritually abusive churches—they have an ambitious, charismatic, and controlling leader with little or no accountability. Streamed sermons to all church campuses is a great control mechanism.

As sermons go, Driscoll’s was upbeat, funny, encouraging, and extremely simplistic. I had heard he had toned down his more bombastic side, so no expletives. There were the typical Calvinist fundamentalist beliefs, almost hidden behind the charismatic delivery. “We all deserve to go to hell,” he slipped in. “God chose you, predestined you to be in Christ…” [with the corollary, God predestined non-believers for eternal wrath, left unsaid]. “Don’t build your children’s identity by telling them what they are good at… but that they are in Christ.” This was the put-down-worldy-social-sciences-for-the-true-biblical approach. Why not do both, Mark, and tell them they’re good at some things because God made them that way? Red flag number three. Beware of manipulation through fear of hell and black-and-white thinking.

In a fascinating twist, one of the first people I saw when I approached the church was… my across-the-street neighbor! Despite the fact that last year I warned him about Mars Hill, he and his wife joined the church. He told me he’s now a home group leader and has meetings every Tuesday, right across from my house! It’s a small world. (As I write this, they are meeting). He revealed red flag number four. He told me they discuss the previous week’s sermon every meeting. No need to address local concerns, just reinforce Mark’s teaching. This is a tactic my SGM church used to make sure everyone swallowed the red pill and ensured the “anointed leaders” are in charge—even of what to discuss at home groups.

After the service, which included a long appeal for giving and the church’s financial situation (not pretty and which was red flag number five; members are pestered to give more and more to the church to meet pressing needs), I went up to talk to pastor Tim Gaydos, a handsome man with a friendly smile. I’m not sure what he thought when I told him I don’t believe in biblical inerrancy and am a Christian Universalist. “Is there a place for me here?” I asked, after explaining some of my background (25 years in evangelicalism before jumping ship). The conversation continued something like this:

"Sure, we welcome everyone who attends,” he said. “Not everyone is a member.”

”But I read your membership covenant,” I said. “I found it very narrow. Does that mean, someone with my beliefs could never be a member?”

I detected a switch in tone. “Well, yeah, there are doctrinal conditions for members.”


He used his hands as an illustration. “We hold on tight to the non-negotiables and are open handed to negotiables. Most large evangelical churches today don’t have membership. But we think it’s important. It tells us who our real sheep are to care for.”

Sounds like attendees are second-class citizens, I thought. “But what if I couldn’t agree with the covenant… your non-negotiables?”

“If you decided you couldn’t agree with them, why would you want to become a member?” he asked.

Good question. Why indeed? I thought. “I get that. You’re right,” I answered. Later I realized I should have said, Because I believe that loving people in community is more important than believing all the same doctrines. “But my question is,” I continued, “why are they so narrow? Why does the church see the need to have doctrinally rigid conditions for members, like believing in inerrancy? Many sincere believers don’t believe in that and consider it a negotiable.”

He didn’t answer directly. He seemed a bit flustered. Said something about not apologizing for believing the Bible is inerrant. Nice guy, Tim. But I detected red flag number six. Abusive churches don’t welcome questions—especially tough questions. And I hadn’t even gotten started! They also hate ambiguity and have a paranoid need to have everyone agree.

Bear in mind before the streamed sermon, they played an interview with an Ethiopian pastor who apparently is one of Mars Hill’s overseas church plants. I asked Tim about how that works. They pay the pastor’s salary, he told me. “What about the future of that church?” I asked, implying there is an unhealthy dependency potential.

“Well, the goal is that the church would eventually support their own pastor to make it sustainable.”

Having been a church planter/missionary myself in Africa for seven years, I am all too familiar with this model. It’s probably the worst strategy one could undertake if you wanted to plant healthy long-term churches, but the best strategy if you wanted to do something quick and easy and look really good. Typically, such a model produces a dangerous dependency (sustainability becomes a pipe dream), local residents don’t trust the pastor—they know he’s milking the white foreigners and suspect he’s only in it for the money—and oftentimes he is. I warned Tim about this problem, but he didn’t seem to take it seriously. Red flag number seven. Were appearances more important than strategic thinking? Then again, why should he trust some fallen-away Universalist?

Finally, after our conversation, I strolled over to the bookstore. Not very big, that’s for sure. Why? Well you can only fit so many Mark Driscoll books on shelves. They made up more than half the books along with a few others like fellow Reformed pastor John Piper. Red flag number eight. Control members’ library. I had also heard Driscoll on YouTube tell members not to read The Shack.

Julie Anne has spurred me to think about doing something more concrete about exposing abuse and helping to prevent it. This visit was a start. Next, I’ll talk with my neighbor. Stay tuned. Comments welcome.


Anonymous said...

"He told me they discuss the previous week’s sermon every meeting."

Yes. That is the main activity that occurs at MH "community groups." That alone should have raised another red flag.

Notice that they do not discuss the next week's scripture, to compare it to what is going to be preached - that would be too Berean. They discuss a video clip of Driscoll.

Michael Camp said...

Anonymous, you're right. I don't understand why people don't pick up on this... that they are told to only discuss what the pastor taught on and how that is a control mechanism. I love your line, "...that would be too Berean." Thanks for weighing in.

Anonymous said...

Interesting coincidence?
After your conversation with Tim Gaydos, he jumped ship, or as Mark Driscoll would say, "He's off the bus."

Michael Camp said...

Interesting, Anon. Did Tim leave because he was tired of drinking the koolaid? I have an update re my neighbor. I showed them some abuse stories. They saw how it could happen. They began attending leadership meetings and didn't like what they saw including how they treated Tim when he left. They eventually quit the church and got similar treatment.

Anonymous said...


I used to be a member of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I was there in 2002 when they just moved from a very small building to the much larger building in Ballard. They were just starting to grow, and very fast. Back then the community groups were more of an open discussion with a goal of talking about scripture as well. We would talk about our lives, pray for one another & eat together. It was somewhat structured but spontaneous. It was actually a rich time, although there were the beginnings of celebrity pastor worship. Back then Mark wasn't that big yet & there were no multi campus television screens. Mark taught in one building, sometimes 7 sermons each sunday [when it really started blowing up]. I am friends with Paul Petry, leif Moia, Bent Meyer, all pastors who were fired. Things really started to change then. MH started to make "Become A Member" T-shirts" to drive membership up. I remember when things started to change in my young mind, when Mark compared himself to Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. He said "Maybe you want to get guitar lessons from Eddie Vedder, but that aint going to happen because he's got too much going on. Maybe you want to meet with me [Mark] for coffee to talk, but that aint going to happen either because I have too much going on". I remember that being one of the first times I thought that things were going to Marks head. A few years later my wife & I met with a pastor to discuss some things with a pastor Mike Wilkerson. Though he was a nice guy, by the end of our conversation, he threw us the boot [by email] & gave us ultimatums for remaining members of MH. We declined & left the church. Other friends have been abused by Mark directly & though he says from the pulpit that he has done things wrong in his life, he never apologized to those people. My friend told Mark that he was going to go to the elders because of the abuse & Mark said to him "you will be sadly disappointed" Meaning that the elders would side with him. All this to say, my wife & I will go to community groups at Mars Hill & we will talk to people who do not know, about what happened to those pastors, fired & friends abuse. I am leaving my bitterness behind where it belongs, and learning to pray for Mark, accountability & those affected people at Mars Hill Church. My wife & I connect with the people at the community groups & many of them do not agree on everything with Mark. They certainly are not all cogs in the Mars Hill empire. I got left go for raising some very poignant points [unrelated to the church]. I am glad to not be apart of that church anymore & its made me question the meaning of church. Thanks for reading