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.