As a “Cult Leader” Disgraced Pastor Mark Driscoll Does Not Rank

Mark Driscoll used Pacific Northwest aesthetics to kindle an audience for Mars Hill Church’s conservative, neo-Reformed dogma. Now, Seattle’s creative community is tamping him down with wet newspaper.

Earlier this month, the city’s arts rag Seattle Weekly released a “Comic History of Northwest Cults,” counting the disgraced megachurch pastor as just the most recent in a long line of religious charlatans. Among SW’s wall of shame:

rajneeshseattle

The cover illo for “Predators and Prophets,” drawn by Seattle Weekly’s Seth Goodkind.

  • Franz Edmund Creffield’s “Brides of Christ” involved mostly young women and ended in adultery, murder—and the founder’s claim to have caused the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
  • Judith Zebra Knight founded the Ramtha School of Enlightenment and made millions, claiming to channel an ancient deity she says conquered the lost city of Atlantis.
  • Facing persecution on his Indian ashram for alleged prostitution, drug-smuggling and “free-love,” guru Baghwan Shree Rajneesh gathered thousands of followers to a headquarters in rural Oregon. Conflict with the natives yielded criminal charges against Rajneesh’s henchmen for wiretapping, arson, attempted murder and salmonella bioterrorism resulting in 751 cases of acute gastroenteritis.
  • Paul Erdman went on an acid trip, changed his name to Love Jesus and founded a patriarchal commune in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, with him on top.
  • Rejected as a preacher by other churches, Donald Barnett founded the Community Chapel and Bible Training Center, where worship included a “dancing revelation” and “healing touch.” Older men would kiss and fondle younger women and even children.

One man’s “cult” is another man’s treasure, but, offered the above examples, I’m not sure a 13,000-member megachurch belongs in the lineup. Driscoll was kicked out of the Acts 29 church-planting network he founded over his history of bullying  and accusations of plagiarism and dishonest book promotion tactics.

If anything, Driscoll’s cult was one of celebrity, and his sins were PG-rated corruption compared to Seattle Weekly’s sexy list. Over at getreligion.org Julia Duin suggests you can’t expect much nuanced religion coverage from the alternative newsweekly, which barely covers the subject. Driscoll might have had a cult-leader personality, but, as Duin says, what he was preaching was “hardly esoteric.” Driscoll’s is a prominent “New Calvinist” Gospel, popularized by Reformed Baptists like John Piper, Southern Baptists like Al Mohler and Presbyterian Church in America preachers like Tim Keller.

Love him or hate him, but don’t confuse Driscoll with a religious innovator. That’s Driscoll’s wicked genius—to mask your great-grandfather’s us-and-them religion with an edgy façade. What made Driscoll stand out was his loud-mouth style, espousing traditional gender roles, for example, with the crassest of language. Like Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, Driscoll breaks prudish, churchy taboos and understands millennial culture. “Mars Hill members talk about sex, drink alcohol, get tattoos, and swear,” said Bitch magazine. “They listen to Fleet Foxes; they love Star Wars and graffiti art.” The Seattle Times said, “He drew pierced-and-tattooed congregants from Seattle to … Calvinist doctrine cloaked in indie-rock, big screens and a worn pair of Chuck Taylors.”

But none of this makes for the kind of epoch-shifting postmodern church that pop historians like Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass have described. In this “new kind” of Christianity, leaders like Bolz-Weber give their power away, while Driscoll clung fiercely to his fiefdom. Driscoll has sometimes been mislabeled as an “Emerging” or “Emergent” Christian. These labels are notoriously difficult to define, but exemplars like Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver operate on communal meaning-making rather than top-down authority. In that limited sense, Mars Hill might have been more like a cult than an “emerging” church, but then, so did just about every religious community you’ve encountered—because after the Enlightenment, we’ve all been taught to ground our beliefs on something solid and indubitable, and religious teaching is no exception.

A slim-cut corduroy blazer or post-hardcore worship leader doesn’t make a truly new kind of church. Postmodern Christianity is nothing if not a tension of faith and doubt—a desolidification of authority—and no Seattle aesthetic can turn Mars-Hill-style rote memorization into Blue-Like-Jazz improvisation. One example: Many post-evangelicals flee to Emergent or mainline Protestant churches specifically in search of gender equality, while Driscoll has displayed infamous misogyny. Progressive Christians tend to ground their egalitarianism in the long trajectory of biblical narrative that seems to prophesy resurrection for all oppressed peoples. This move demands a creative attempt to see the big picture, whereas traditionalists like Driscoll find surety in those isolated proof texts that suggest a gender hierarchy. Former followers report feeling duped by the patriarchal theology hidden in Driscoll’s cool brand. One former Acts 29 member (who happens to play in my folk-rock band) called Driscoll’s legacy “fundamentalists in hipsters’ clothing.”

Driscoll gathered thousands of converts in a highly secular city using hip, millennial delivery, but now some of Seattle’s cultural gatekeepers have looked through the disguise and seen nothing but a cult leader. Putting Driscoll on the list of  Seattle’s “Predators and Prophets” might be more inflammatory than informative, but it goes to show that mismatching medium and message is playing with fire.

  • Jim Reed

    Isn’t this what you would expect from a church with a tricky name saying it is the next chapter of the book of Acts?

  • jeffstraka

    Nadia Bolz-Weber and Doug Pagitt (Solomon’s Porch) “give their power away”? No. They give that appearance of flat structure, but they are very much in control of their communities, which they continually point to to demonstrate their “success”.

  • Whiskyjack

    What constitutes a cult is often a matter of perspective. Most often, the only difference between a cult and a religion is simply the number of adherents. If you have enough people believing the same stuff, you transform the cult to a religion.

  • Jim Reed

    The only fair way would be a popular election. List all the religions, and let everyone vote each one religion or cult. If 50% of the people say one is a cult, then it is a cult.

  • conjurehealing

    The term “cult” is a designation that is used to disparage the other and is virtually useless as an analytical category for religions. Not precise, dude.

  • Jim Reed

    The exception is it is precise for those religions that commit suicide.

  • Jim Reed

    The only way to make it precise would be to say those religions with false doctrines are cults, but that would go against the concept of having a religion. The concept is only of value if it is left open for religions to judge each other. I guess this is what you already said, a little more precisely. I am just expanding it out a little to help religious people understand the concept.

  • joeyj1220

    True… and this usually involves time. Today’s cult becomes tomorrow’s mainstream

  • Jim Reed

    This could be a good time to try a new form of popular internet election. You can register to vote, and then on the list of religions you can vote religion or cult. You can also change your vote at any time. The totals for each religion would be immediately displayed. You could see which religions are on the borderline, and enough votes could make them flip. If this works well, it might some day be a new way to elect presidents. There would be no election cycle, everyone in the nation just registers their vote. Any time a person wants, he or she can change their vote. This can flip the president, and the people can have their new president elect. If the votes stay for that new person for a period of one month, then the change of office happens. We can have a new president as often as we want, or keep the president in office for as long as we want. It is the power of the internet. Before changing the presidential election this way, we should probably first try it on the governor of one of the states and see what happens.

  • Evan Derkacz

    Thank you for this valuable comment which was, I believe, what was intended by saying “One man’s “cult” is another man’s treasure.”

    For further reading:

    “CULTING”: FROM WACO TO FUNDAMENTALIST MORMONS

  • conjurehealing

    Only if you think that suicide, as in giving up one’s life willingly for a sacred/higher cause, applies to cults as it does to Jesus

  • Robert Burke

    It’s new, it’s smart, it is against “Progressive-Retardnation,” it’s from an olde USC J-school grad… see “In That Day Teachings” as something a lot smarter than Driscoll’s pabulum. Just google “In That Day Teachings” of Reno, and stimulate your spirit and mind!

  • Jim Reed

    Religious cults sometimes kill themselves in mass suicide. I haven’t thought about if mythical suicide makes it a religion or a cult.

  • Abide

    Driscol seems like a normal human compared to the people in the list, but just because he isn’t as out-to-lunch as they are, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a cult leader. The true comparison isn’t his church to a group like The Family – it’s between his ilk and actual Christianity. The problem is, you have to find an example of actual Christianity to set the benchmark. Aside from Christ, Pope Francis looks like a good option if you want one with flesh on. I’d stay clear of his church, though. Many of them are just as hateful as southern baptists – hell, they’re even turning on him now that he’s spoken out in favor of science and environmentalism.

  • conjurehealing

    It is a good historical question. The zealots at Masada, the People’s Temple at Jonestown. To depict the myth-makers as a “cult” does little to our enhance our understanding of the deep religious meaning therein. We only scratch the surface.

  • conjurehealing

    Honest question: what is “actual” Christianity and who determines that? And when and where did this “actual” Christianity emerge?

  • cranefly

    To me the difference between a religion and a cult has to do with whether the religion could survive as an ethical/moral philosophy without a Leader, and how much control the leadership claims over the life decisions of members through pure appeal to authority. This is why pentecostal/evangelical groups are at risk; because the stronger the emphasis on “revelation” or its equivalent under a different name, and the stronger the emphasis on obedience (to living authorities), the more cult-like a group is. I don’t know enough about Discoll to know if he would qualify under my non-academic definition, but the cultural trappings he manipulated to seduce followers seem relatively arbitrary to me.

  • Jim Reed

    Maybe the meaning behind the myth is an illusion that we construct from working for centuries to figure it out. We keep enhancing it until the meaning is there.

  • conjurehealing

    I agree. Study religions and myth, all of the answers are there.

  • cranefly

    Part of that is because the bigger the population of adherents, the less power a leader can wield over each one individually, and the more likely you are to find differing cultural patterns within the group. The pope has no ability to police Catholic believers individually, so Catholicism becomes a self-policing, self-sustaining culture with great variety. When a group is small enough that a leader can use direct revelation to control individuals personally, then we’re more likely to think of it as a “cult.”

  • Abide

    Christ is the Prince of Peace to represented to humanity a God who is beyond loving – God is Love itself. This is authentic Christianity and nobody who claims Christ but lashes out at the LGBT community, for example, is acting from authentic Christianity. Who determines it? Christ already did. It is always emerging – he said the Kingdom of God is always emerging and from within us.

  • Whiskyjack

    Excellent point.

  • bexgee

    Agreed – see the research from Brad Saregent (futuristguy) and David Hayward (nakedpastor) that illuminate how both Driscoll and US emergents both represent church structures ultimately controlled by white males despite the presence of the occasional compliant female token leader. Both groups (which emerged from the same young leaders network) promote their respective brands via the Xn industrial media complex that elevates a few people to the status of of celebrity pastor. (This designation tends to wane rather quickly once the brand expires similar to the rise and fall of any pop icon.) Not surprising, both US emergents and Driscoll have a documented history of abusive tactics employed against those who question the group culture.

  • Matthew Kilburn

    Driscoll’s genius is in marketing…not theology. As for defining a cult…a good measure would be whether it inflicts self harm on its members – see Jonestown, Heaven’s gate, religions where sex with underage girls is permissible.

    You can offer criticism of Christian doctrine, but by and large, obedience to a traditional Christian domesticity and moral code produces quite good results.

  • seashell

    Harm is harm. whether sexual or spiritual. Driscoll didn’t bring 13,000 people to Jesus, he brought them to Mark Driscoll’s moral code and domesticity, which was spiritually flawed and harmful.

    I’m not sure that there’s much difference between a Christian moral code and any other moral code based on a conscious form of ‘treat others as you would yourself’, rather than blind obedience.

  • seashell

    Thank you for that eye-opening link. Any chance it could be linked in this article for those who don’t read comments?

  • Evan Derkacz

    Done, thank you for a great suggestion!