Who Killed Mars Hill Church? There’s One Suspect Evangelicals Simply Aren’t Prepared to Interrogate

In the fall of 2014, Mark Driscoll resigned from his position as pastor of Mars Hill Church, a multi-campus megachurch in and around the Seattle area. Boasting membership in the thousands, Mars Hill was viewed widely among evangelicals as a promising new style of church planting. But the church was also beset by allegations, from insiders and outsiders, that Driscoll and those around him had fostered a culture of abuse. Driscoll resigned when these allegations reached a breaking point for church leaders. Shortly after Driscoll’s departure, the church itself collapsed. 

In the new podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, host Mike Cosper, himself a former pastor, attempts to reckon with what happened to this megachurch: What made it grow? What made it fall apart? What contributed to its culture of abuse? The show doesn’t merely recount the story of Mars Hill’s problems, it sees in Mars Hill a cautionary tale for other white evangelical churches. This reckoning then is also a diagnosis of problems that the show’s writers see in evangelicalism writ large. 

My aim is not to evaluate what Cosper’s show gets right or wrong about Mars Hill or Driscoll. Others have written about Mars Hill, its culture, and its infamous pastor. What I want to focus on is what The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (RFMH) tells us about changes in US evangelical discourse. 

RFMH is a production of Christianity Today (CT), a magazine that has long been a central player in evangelical culture. CT emerged through the combined efforts of figures like famed evangelist Billy Graham, who sought new ways to bring a conservative, anti-communist form of Christianity to the masses, and J. Howard Pew, scion of a prominent oil family seeking a platform to sell American Christians on libertarian economics. As a CT production attempting to reckon with problems within evangelicalism itself, RFMH offers us a window on what evangelicals view as problems and as solutions to what confronts their movement, as well as the gaps and contradictions in their self-analysis. 

Gaps often indicate something profound about a group or an author. They point to that which cannot be said or thought because it would cross lines that are policed more rigorously by insiders. From this perspective, RFMH helps us understand evangelicalism more than it helps us understand Mars Hill itself.

RFMH is, by its own admission, directed towards insiders. Its goal, as the title states, is to look at the complexity of Mars Hill’s rise and fall but also to tell a “story about the mystery of God working in broken places.” This marks it as a different kind of analysis than can be found in the popular true-crime podcasts that RFMH is mimicking. For a podcast like Serial the goal is to figure out who killed whom and why, perhaps providing some insight into our collective human nature, or at least our culture, along the way. Metaphysical agents are not generally invoked as part of the story.

RFMH wants to figure out who killed Mars Hill but also wants to find God amidst that investigation. When Cosper answers the question at the heart of Episode One (“Who Killed Mars Hill?”) the answer is “all of us.” In the context of the show, Cosper’s “us” refers to evangelicals. His is an analysis, then, offered within the epistemological limits of membership in US evangelicalism. As listeners like Aline Mello have noted, the absence of evangelical communities of color from the narrative further marks the podcast as  operating within the limits of white evangelicalism. 

The podcast situates Mars Hill and Driscoll within a wider history of white evangelicalism in the US. The rapid growth of Mars Hill is seen as an outgrowth of the demographic and cultural shifts of the post-war period that led to the emergence of seeker-sensitive models of church growth. Informed by the scholarship of Jessica Johnson (who has also written about RFMH for RD), the podcast also shows how Driscoll’s sermons were suffused with themes of Islamophobia, violence, homophobia, and misogyny that drew liberally from Hollywood filmsmost notably David Fincher’s Fight Cluband fed on post-9/11 anxieties. Finally, the podcast explores how Mars Hill built a multimedia branding platform around Driscoll that used high-end production values and social media. 

These dynamics, Cosper suggests, led to a culture at Mars Hill, and among evangelicals more broadly, that privileged celebrity and branding over character and spiritual maturity. Throughout the podcast this juxtaposition remains a point of anxiety, since the show struggles to clearly demarcate the line between mature and immature forms of church success. Cosper notes on several occasions that many both within and outside Mars Hill failed to address the numerous allegations against Driscoll and other leaders because the fact of the church’s rapid growth justified the means. The show wrestles with the tension inherent in evangelicalism’s mechanisms for measuring successful ministries: How is it that thousands of people are drawn to abusive leaders? Are numbers a sign of God’s blessing or merely an effect of good branding? Are successful churches merely sites of savvy capitalist exploitation?

The show addresses this anxiety by drawing a distinction between character and charisma. Driscoll, Cosper tells us, was spiritually immature, yet possessed of intoxicating charm. Driscoll’s ministry would have been different, the audience is told, if he had possessed “character” accrued from a slower rise under the guidance of other men who had done likewise. This would have given Driscoll “character” that was not outpaced by his charisma. The problem with parsing ministerial malfeasance around the category of character is that it’s unclear how character can be discerned, except after the fact. 

For example, the podcasters suggest that if Driscoll’s church had grown more slowly (say, over the course of twenty to thirty years) and if he had been discipled by older men along the way, then things might have turned out differently. Apparently, Driscoll needed to swap the wrong form of patriarchal hierarchy for the right one. It’s not explained how this would translate into “character” or what “character” even looks like, apart from being not what Driscoll or a whole litany of other pastors have done amidst toxic church cultures of their own creation.

Given the evangelical emphasis on the sole sufficiency of the Bible for belief and practice, one might find it surprising that the podcasters don’t often appeal to biblical verses as the standard by which they assess Driscoll. This is particularly strange given that Christianity Today’s official statement of faith says that the Bible is “inspired of God, hence free from error,” and constitutes “the only infallible guide in faith and practice.” Perhaps the best explanation for this curious lack of biblical assessment is that the very practices that Driscoll is critiqued for find sanction in the Bible.

The absence of the Bible from the story of RFMH suggests an unwillingness on the show’s part to wrestle with the role the Bible played in Mars Hill’s culture and in evangelicalism more broadly. RFMH spends a good deal of time contextualizing, diagnosing, and critiquing Driscoll’s bad behavior, ranging from his narcissism, bullying, and toxic leadership to his misogyny and homophobia to his obsession with church discipline, authority, and control. Listeners are presumed to see these as disqualifying behaviors, not in keeping with (an unstated model of) Christian “character.” 

But what’s left unexplored is whether Driscoll’s worst offenses were themselves faithful interpretations of the Bible that both he and Cosper venerate. The failure to interrogate the role the Bible played in the rise and fall of Mars Hill represents perhaps the show’s biggest gap, and a crucial key to understanding white evangelicalism itself. 

One of Driscoll’s pastoral sins, according to the show, was his bullying of church members and subordinates. Such behavior can also be found in Paul’s letters, as when Paul threatens his Corinthian congregants with a beating if they remain resistant to his authority (1 Cor 4:21) or when he charges that those who don’t practice the Lord’s Supper as Paul wants are the reason that people in the congregation have become sick and died (1 Cor 11:30). Driscoll is condemned for creating a toxic culture of abusive church discipline, in which offenders were ejected from the church and cut off from fellowship with members, yet Paul offers an almost identical admonition to the Corinthians regarding a man who was engaged in sexual immorality in their midst (1 Cor 5). 

Driscoll’s sermons have taken heat for their misogynistic jokes and calls for wives to be submissive to hyper-masculine husbands, but again, Paul’s letters make similar assertions about the role of women in the church: 

“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Cor 14:34-35 NRSV) 


“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15 NRSV) 

One could find similar parallels between Driscoll’s theology and behavior elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, the fidelity between Driscoll’s teachings, disposition, and behavior and biblical passages is part of what drew congregants to his church in the first place. Mars Hill members were not simply fooled by a clever branding scheme. Many were primed to listen to a pastor whose brashness, misogyny, and violent rhetoric mirrored that of the Bible itself. 

This gets at the heart of what’s missing from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: a rigorous accounting not only of the cultural, political, and economic systems that formed Mars Hill Church or the dispositions of its flawed human members, but also of the role played by its sacred texts. 

It’s not that the Bible only includes verses that mirror Driscoll’s rightly-condemned behavior. There are competing, less abusive, models for ethics, leadership, governance, and piety that can be constructed from biblical passages because the Bible doesn’t reflect the perspective of a single author. It offers the perspectives of many. Without wrestling with the fact that the Bible says things that don’t make it an “infallible guide in faith and practice,” RFMH’s detective work leaves an important suspect unaccounted for. 

Who killed Mars Hill? Maybe the Bible did it.