The following is a transcript of the Q&A from the WWUTT podcast episode 1490, dated July 30, 2021, which opened with the following e-mails:
Dear Pastor Gabe
I was wondering if you had the chance to listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and what your thoughts were. It’s a short run podcast put out by Christianity Today about what made Mars Hill Church in Seattle the success that it was and how it collapsed so suddenly. I’m kind of liking it in that “It’s hard to turn away from staring at a car crash” sort of way. But I can’t help but notice how little correction or Bible it actually contains. And are all the interviewees false teachers?
Thanks for your podcast!
Billy from North Carolina
Great to hear you back on the podcast! You were missed. Hey, did you get the chance to review The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill? I think I saw on Twitter that you were going to do a critique, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it.
Carter from Chandler, AZ
Thank you for your e-mails. Billy, you are correct in that this podcast—though it is produced by a Christian publication about the rise and fall of one of the most famous pastors in the new millennium—contains no Bible. There is no biblical correction whatsoever, which is a shame, because the Bible speaks plainly about a false teacher like Mark Driscoll was and still is.
Driscoll is currently the pastor of The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, AZ, which is a fairly large church of several hundred people at least, according to the photos I’ve seen. He’s currently going through a series in Romans. He has a successful ministry website. All in all, Driscoll is doing pretty well for himself despite his infamous public reputation and Mars Hill’s epic collapse in October, 2014. I still remember all of that quite plainly.
But Driscoll does not meet the qualifications of a pastor given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. He is not qualified to teach at Trinity or Mars Hill or anywhere else. First of all, according to 1 Timothy 3:2, a pastor “must be above reproach,” and Driscoll is not. He is not above blame or guilt. His teaching and behavior have been reprehensible. From the very first time I heard Mark Driscoll, which was in the mid 2000s, doing the silly gimmicks he was doing even back then, I knew he wasn’t qualified.
Going on in 1 Timothy 3:3, a pastor must not be “violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Does any of that describe Driscoll? We know Driscoll used nearly a quarter of a million dollars in church funds to cheat his way up The New York Times bestseller list with his book Real Marriage—a book so scandalous, by the way, so pornographic and outrageous in its subject matter, that book alone would be enough to disqualify Driscoll. He’s still pushing that book on his website.
What Mark and Grace Driscoll permit as far as sex goes in your marriage, without so much as a blush, I find so disgraceful I don’t want to give the details and put those ideas in your head on this podcast. So let me just say that if you’re interested in reading all the problems with the book, Heath Lambert wrote a review for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It’s entitled The Ironies of Real Marriage, and I’ll put a link in the show notes of the program.
Shame on everyone who endorsed that book, by the way. Now, some are no surprise: Andy Stanley, Darrin Patrick, Perry Noble, James MacDonald. But there’s Danny Akin, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), who said in his endorsement, “This is a book we will gladly use and recommend to others who care about healthy, biblical marriages. We believe both husbands and wives will be blessed by and benefit from its content.” Yeah, I’m going to make you own that one, Dr. Akin.
By the way, Tom Buck found an article written by Alvin Reid, who was professor of evangelism at SEBTS. In 2009, he defended Mark Driscoll and called any blogs or articles or warnings against him “witch hunts,” “disunity,” and “Pharisaical legalism.” Which is hilarious, because that was what J.D. Greear was saying at the Southern Baptist Annual Meeting last month, which I covered on this program. He was calling his critics Pharisaical legalists. It’s the same play book they’ve been using for decades—when someone points to the Bible, just call them a Pharisaical legalist!
Whatever the Southern Baptist elites are calling you a Pharisee for today is what they’re going to be apologizing for tomorrow. If someone in the good ol’ boys club of the SBC is calling you a Pharisee, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
Back to Driscoll’s disqualifications, 1 Timothy 3:7 says, “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” If Driscoll’s public reputation were not so reprehensible, this podcast would have been unthinkable. It’s because of his reputation that The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill was made and why it’s so popular.
I’m going to come back later to the absence of any biblical weight. That is, of course, the program’s most inexcusable omission. Because Christ, His gospel, and His word do not have primacy over the story being told in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you also don’t have any theological heavy-hitters like John MacArthur and Phil Johnson, or articles like the one I mentioned from the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who were sounding the alarm about Mark Driscoll long before Mars Hill’s collapse.
But let me speak of what I do like about the program. Why am I listening to it and why would I continue to the end of the series?
High Production Value and Quality Story Telling
Many of the reviews you will hear about this podcast talk about its stellar production quality, and I agree—it’s well produced. I’m not real crazy about the song selection, but that’s a personal thing. This is like the E! True Hollywood Story, but distributed by Christianity Today makes it more like CT True Mega Church Story. I would probably listen to more programs like this one if they did them.
Now, Christianity Today has a reputation for having become a theologically liberal publication. I don’t think anyone at Christianity Today would argue with me when I say they would sooner prop up Rachel Held Evans than John MacArthur (which, by the way, is exactly what happens in this podcast). Mike Cosper, the show’s creator and narrator, is egalitarian. He believes women can be pastors. So of course the show has an anti-complementarian objective. Episode 5 in particular aims to punch patriarchy in the mouth, with help from Kristin Du Mez, Rachel Denhollander, and LGBTQ advocate Sarah Bessey (whom CT editor Kate Shellnutt calls “godly”).
I expected this kind of crowd going in. Somehow I was able to stomach Tony Jones and Ed Stetzer in the first episode to keep listening. The production quality and unfolding drama are what keep me and many others coming back, no matter what your doctrinal convictions. I have learned some things about Driscoll and Mars Hill I did not know before, and there have been some interesting stories.
I must add this though—the show is not nearly as structured or as organized as it comes across. Episode 4 was published late, and Cosper gave a disclaimer about that at the opening of the program, saying that they were doing “real time” reporting. He took a week off to get ahead on production.
This is one of those programs that I think needed to be a little more “finished” in production before it went to publication. This is a personal opinion, but that’s just the way I feel. The kind of approach they’re taking seems a little wandering—like they don’t have a clear destination. We’re just seeing the sights as we go. It’s fascinating, it’s just not a well planned-out tour.
In the first episode, Cosper did say that they’ve reached out to Driscoll for an interview and they’re hoping to hear back from him. I hope they do, because that would be wild, but I would be shocked if he actually participates. However, that kind of thing you could always tack on to the end of the series like a bonus episode. You don’t have to adjust production for something like that.
Why Make a Show Like This?
That question is actually answered at the end of the first episode. In the closing eight minutes, Cosper interviews Christianity Today news editors Kate Shellnutt and Daniel Silliman. He tells them that listeners will ask, “Why make stories like this?” Shellnutt says, “When we don’t tell these stories, we communicate something that we don’t believe which is that the church is perfect” and we only tell stories that make the church look good.
She also says that by sharing the accounts of people who have been abused by the church, it helps others identify these patterns of abuse earlier or stop them from happening again. I would argue that the program does neither of these things. Again, the Bible is not consulted as the ultimate authority. How arrogant to think that by their own merit, Christianity Today believes they can stop sin and effectively help others identify it.
Silliman’s answer was quite silly. He begins by saying, “As a Christian and as a journalist, I’m committed to the truth, and that has to come first and last.” But then he’s downright incredulous toward anyone who would even ask, “Why make a program like this?” As if that’s offensive or exposes false motives just by questioning. Huh? So you’re committed to journalism and the truth, but a person shouldn’t question anything? That doesn’t make any sense.
What neither Cosper nor Shellnut nor Silliman answer with is the Bible. There are plenty of passages to justify a program like this: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11); “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22); regarding pastors, we are told, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20). But again, Christianity Today—a misnomer if there ever was one—will not take a stand on the Bible. Their own judgments are the authority, not God’s word.
Silliman does make a reference to the cross, not according to Scripture but according to theologian James K.A. Smith (who, like Shellnutt and Bessey, is approving of homosexuality and transgenderism). Referencing Smith and not Scripture, Silliman says, “The answer to evil is Christ dying for the world,” but he doesn’t explain what that means, and unless I missed something in the next 4 episodes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, I don’t remember them ever coming back to that.
Mars Hill was a ship without a rudder and a megalomaniac for a captain, and that describes Christianity Today as well. I hope they change course, but I highly doubt it. I came into the program believing that it would be a vessel to take shots at patriarchy and complementarianism, and that’s what they’ve been doing. So you can expect great production value and good storytelling. But…
Do Not Expect Any Sound Doctrine
That brings me back to the problem I mentioned toward the beginning. Because Christianity Today does not submit to the authority of God’s word and because the gospel is not the focus, Cosper does not bring in any solid pastors or teachers to help explain what went wrong and how to solve it. Instead, we get pop psychology and pseudo history and personal opinions. It’s all very one-sided, and that side must lean anti-complementarian.
Since this is the approach, there are many people listening who have the impression that no one reformed or complementarian sounded the alarm about Driscoll when they should have. Said one listener on Twitter, “Why did it take a (heterodox) Rachel Held Evans to bring to light his abusive words? Maybe something is lacking in reformed eccelesiologies with regards to women?”
Phil Johnson, director of Grace to You, responded and said, “Some of us were criticizing Driscoll’s brutish ways and inappropriate fixation with women as sex objects while Emergents—including Held Evans—were not only looking the other way, but also attacking us for not being ‘progressive’ enough. Google it.”
Wendy Alsup, a former Mars Hill member and guest interview on the podcast, responded to Johnson and said, “Phil, your methods of criticism were exactly like those that eventually got Mark disqualified from ministry. Angry. Without love. You created stumbling-blocks for real repentance as those of us who loved Mark and Mars Hill confronted him privately.”
Isn’t that utterly astounding? Wendy Alsup actually blamed Phil Johnson for being part of the reason why Mark Driscoll didn’t repent, and that Phil Johnson was every bit as disqualified as Mark Driscoll.
In case you missed the irony, her comment affirmed everything Phil just said! He said, “We warned people, we called out a false teacher, but we were attacked for not being progressive enough.” And then Wendy Alsup attacked him for not being progressive enough!
Mike Cosper “liked” her comment. So that should tell you everything you need to know about where this program stands. They’re not committed to the truth. They’re committed to a narrative. And I get the distinct impression they’ll be digging their heels deeper into the narrative as the program unfolds.
So we’re not going to hear from the heavy hitters—those men who exposit Scripture, exact sin, and exalt Christ. If they were put on the program, they would call Driscoll a false teacher, and I don’t think Mike Cosper believes Driscoll was a false teacher. He was a charismatic guy with a great vision who got messed up by hierarchy and patriarchy, in their minds. But God created the universe to be a hierarchy and God created patriarchy—1 Corinthians 11:3, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” So hierarchy and patriarchy are not inherently corrupt. The human heart is inherently corrupt.
The people who got fooled by Mark Driscoll—including Cosper and Alsup and Christianity Today, et al—do not want to hear that they follow false teachers because those teachers tell them what they want to hear and give them what they want to have. As we are told in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
That was exactly everyone who followed Driscoll. And I’m not being sanctimonious or self-righteous here. I’ve been fooled by false teachers, too. I used to follow Rob Bell because I was ignorant in my unbelief (as Paul says of himself in 1 Timothy 1:13). The Bible tells us why we listen to false teachers. And God gives us false teachers to either test us or judge us.
The people who followed Driscoll do not want to admit that the reason they liked him—and you’ll hear this in the program—the reason they liked him is because he was cool: “Oh, I love this music. Oh, I love how this isn’t like my grandma’s church. I love the lights, I love the vibe, I love the community, I love the way we’re all dressed, I love that I can drink my coffee, I love the Pacific northwest, I love the way he preaches that it’s a little bit irreverent, I love that I can be this way and have this style and still have a little bit of Christianity too.”
The focus isn’t Christ. And I’m not saying that no one was focused on Christ. I know there were some genuine Christians who loved Mars Hill. Nor am I saying that Driscoll was never biblical. Sometimes he did preach some really solid sermons. I’ve heard him preach the gospel. Sometimes he hit people exactly where they needed to be hit. But respectfully, I’m not convinced he was ever qualified to be a pastor.
Mars Hill began when Mark was 26 years old. He was leading seminars on church planting while he was still in his 20s. People were clamoring all over him, “How do we do what he did?” when 1 Timothy 3:6 says of a pastor, “He must not be a recent convert,” he must not be too young, “or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” And that happened.
Driscoll claimed that at age 19, God spoke to him, audibly, and told him to marry Grace, his wife, to preach the Bible, train men, and plant churches. Over and over in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you hear Mark Driscoll say, “God told me this, God told me that, Jesus says this, Jesus says that,” and none of it is ever corrected with what God actually says in the Bible. Because everyone wants to believe, “Who needs the Bible? If God speaks to Mark Driscoll, he speaks to me, too!”
Again, the problem for Christianity Today was not that Driscoll was a false teacher. The problem was heirarchy and patriarchy. The problem was corrupt systems, not corrupt people. All the philosophy, sociology, and psychology of Critical Theory is right here in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
And the reason people were taken with Driscoll and they let the problems go on for so long is not because they were lured in by superficial, carnal, worldly trappings—no, it’s because they cared too much. Our problem, they will say, is we just loved him so much, we were blinded by our own love.
That’s exactly what was in Wendy Alsup’s answer to Phil Johnson: “No, you were the big meanie head, Phil, because you were calling out false teachers. We were the ones who were truly loving because we confronted Mark in private, not called out false teachers publicly like the Bible says.”
Titus 1:9-11 says that a pastor “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers, and deceivers,” who “must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.”
The Scripture tells us what went wrong at Mars Hill. But that’s not what The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is interested in.
Some Other Recommendations for You
Before wrapping up, I’d also commend to you an article written by Samuel Parkison, pastor of Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He raised some good concerns about the program—I’ll link to his article in the show notes. Also Jesse Johnson’s article in the Cripplegate, What Would Jesus Say About the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill?
By the way, I just have to highlight something about that article. Jesse also draws attention to the fact that Cosper seems to deliberately want to ignore the warnings MacArthur gave about Driscoll, long before anyone else did. MacArthur talked about the way Driscoll twisted Scripture, the way he talked about sex and marriage, how disparaging he was of women.
In 2009—this was before I became a pastor—MacArthur did a four-part series of articles just destroying Driscoll’s approach to the Song of Solomon. The series was entitled The Rape of Solomon’s Song. About the way Driscoll preached, MacArthur said:
“That is not exegesis; it is exploitation… It is spiritually tantamount to an act of rape. It tears the beautiful poetic dress off Song of Solomon, strips that portion of Scripture of its dignity, and holds it up to be laughed at and leered at in a carnal way. And Mark Driscoll has boldly led the parade down this carnal path.”
Let me share with you Jesse’s next three paragraphs here:
“How did people respond to MacArthur’s warning? Well, the week after he gave it, Driscoll was a keynote speaker at The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference (where he was assigned the topic of a pastor and pure speech—some things you cannot make up!). John Piper said that while he was concerned about Driscoll’s sex sermons, all pastors say things they regret, and Driscoll has shown himself to be a quick learner (after listening to the podcast, going back and re-reading Piper’s excusing of Driscoll’s sex language is frankly even more incredible now than it was back then, a feat I didn’t think was possible)…
“Jonathan Merritt even ran a column picked up by The Washington Post (!!!) calling Driscoll’s demeaning attitude toward women ‘a gaffe,’ and said that the Christian thing to do is to accept his apologies. He specifically referenced the feud between Driscoll and MacArthur, and I can’t help but wonder if Merritt regrets that column today.
“Allow me an analogy: It is as if there is a man outside yelling ‘your house is on fire, your house is on fire, everybody run!!!,’ and instead of running, the leaders of the house come up with fanciful excuses for ignoring the man. Later, when the house has indeed burned down, those who escaped get together to talk about what went wrong. It is, at the very least, disingenuous for them to ask, ‘how come nobody warned us?'”
I would go a step further than Jesse Johnson and say: Not only are the Christianity Today folks asking, “How come nobody warned us?” they’re downright blaming the people who did issue warnings as [feeding the fire and] being just as bad as Mark Driscoll. Their “consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). Paul goes on in verse 16 to say, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Thank you for listening, or if you’re reading the transcript on the blog, thank you for reading. You can find my blog at PastorGabe.com. This has been “The Rise and Fall of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” That’s my unofficial title.
There’s a lot of potential in this podcast to use this popular and well-known story to preach the gospel and convict of sin, to show what the Bible really says about these things and point people to Christ. But I’m not convinced Christianity Today really knows what the gospel is. It would probably sound more like Richard Rohr than R.C. Sproul.
The direction of the program is not even about asking what went wrong and how do we ensure this never happens again. They’re telling their version of the story for their own purposes. The way Christianity Today and Mike Cosper tell that story might be entertaining with great production value. I hope it makes Christian podcasters step up their game in creating content like this. But don’t be fooled into thinking Christianity Today is biblically sound or honest and balanced journalism.
Heaveny Father, thank you for your kindness and your goodness. Thank you for demonstrating your love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. All who turn from their sin to Jesus Christ will be forgiven, we will be saved from judgment, the wrath you will pour out on this wicked world, the wrath that every one of us deserves, yet we who are in Christ are given the righteousness of God, and we will live forever with you, reigning on high in glory.
Lord, I pray for Mark Driscoll. I pray that there are some men around him he will listen to, that he may truly repent, he will humble himself, and step down from his pulpit. He will humble himself and admit his faults, and confess that Christ is a great Savior. I pray for the people he hurt. As “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” has mentioned, many people have walked away from the faith altogether because of what happened at Mars Hill. May their hearts be convicted, may their consciences not be seared, but that they still would be pierced with the gospel of Christ, believe it, and live.
I pray for Christianity Today—may they also humble themselves, repent of their heresy, fire people who need to be fired, and get back to testifying the true faith once for all delivered to the saints. Keep us from stumbling and present us blameless before the presence of your glory with great joy. “To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 25).