When I began attending Mars Hill Church in 2006, its main facility in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood was headquarters and clubhouse—a 20,000 square foot renovated hardware warehouse seating over a thousand where young guys loitered in the parking lot and rock music from worship band practices thundered outside after gospel class.
On Sundays, the sight of security guards monitoring the entryway with the impassive self-importance of club bouncers was routine. The church’s foreboding black box exterior contrasted with the soft contours of its cream-colored lobby; further inside, the sanctuary’s dim lighting and vast stage loaded with high end sound equipment and beat up guitars affected the atmosphere of a nightclub. Large screens surrounding the amphitheater issued pronouncements concerning service opportunities, including the need for male volunteers to ‘protect the body.’
What media reports and distant bloggers often miss when they attribute Driscoll’s preaching on gender and sex to a “system” of “male headship” or an “ethos” such as “muscular Christianity,” is how such a system or ethos is circulated and travels well beyond the church’s facilities. Placing blame on “particular beliefs” or a “ministry that grounds itself in inequality” is just as limiting as pinning the blame for prolonged abuses of power on a single man or his “moral and spiritual failings,” as Hollis Phelps argues in his recent piece for RD.
I appreciate Phelps’ overall point that the tragic events surrounding Mars Hill need to be examined beyond Driscoll and entail a closer critical engagement with the church’s culture, but as a cultural anthropologist I’m also sensitive to discussions that view a ‘culture’ as containable, bound, or self-regulating within a given institution.
Additionally, as a feminist who teaches courses on gender and sexuality, I appreciate that Phelps draws attention to the inequalities perpetuated by a doctrinal reinforcement of “male headship” expressed in “overtly misogynistic and homophobic terms.” But this ‘culture’ isn’t relegated to evangelical churches where the doctrine of male headship is preached from the pulpit. The degree and depth of control leveraged at and beyond Mars Hill’s facilities is too complex to be “blamed” on a given doctrine or particular religious ethos, whether it be “muscular Christianity” or the doctrine of male headship.
Instead, I suggest we turn a critical lens back onto ourselves; that we look to a culture writ large in the United States that is misogynistic, fearful of risk, and calibrated to ensure we shirk the vulnerability and empathy necessary to listen to and learn from others who do not share our worldview.
I have no desire to defend “muscular Christianity” or the doctrine of male headship; nor do I consider myself a hater or follower of Driscoll’s. However, as a non-believing researcher who attended Mars Hill Ballard from 2006-2008, and has continued to gather empirical, audio-visual, and textual evidence since, I do want to mention that I have been inspired by the testimonies of ex-leaders online. As these men confess to their roles as abusers and abused within the church’s administration, there’s hope in their willingness to publicly repent and live the gospel as a perpetually transformative process.
In recent months, I have sat with some of these men (and women), who still believe in male headship within the church, but do not subscribe to the doctrine as preached or publicized by Driscoll. The courage of ex-elders to step forward, challenge authority, and openly admit they sinned and were sinned against is humbling. While I may not see eye to eye with them on some political issues deemed those of the ‘culture wars,’ I am glad to have had the chance to look them in the eye as they spoke the gospel, perhaps in ways they did not realize at the time.
The misogynistic and fearful broader culture is a detriment whatever our gender or beliefs—religious, secular, or otherwise. We have a lot more common ground and spiritual affinity than we may think, and exploring that potential may just be the best way forward.