See Signs A Church is Becoming a Cult, Part 1
LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY STRUCTURES AND FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY
While the leader may claim on paper that he is accountable to others, in reality he is responsible to no one. For example, the executive elders sit on Mars Hill’s Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA), so they end up policing themselves. In addition, the church’s public financials list personnel costs of $12,047,038 without revealing salaries and other benefits paid to the executive elders. Also, the owner of all church properties is listed as “Mars Hill Church, a nonprofit corporation” though the actual members of Mars Hill Church LLC are the three executive elders and not the church by name.
SQUELCH ALL DISSENT
On his blog Naked Pastor, David Hayward points how a regime like Mars Hill works if the silence of the masses is kept. Amy Laura Hall, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Duke University, adds via email, “The word ‘reconciliation’ is used to squelch open accountability to injustice and domination.” Driscoll often talks of unity at Mars Hill as though they are a family though anyone who questions this narrative faces retribution.
This dynamic was on full display at Mars Hill in 2007 during the first of many staff purges when Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were abruptly fired and shunned for questioning changes to the church’s original bylaws. Former staff cannot speak publicly about Mars Hill because they are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Driscoll’s supposedly tongue-in-cheek suggestions for dealing with those leaders who question his authority included
breaking their noses, adding, “There’s a pile of bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by the grace of God, it will be a mountain when we’re done.” According to Robert T. Smith, a former deacon, “The same abusive tactics we’ve seen today where elders are immediately dismissed if they dissent was what was used to change the bylaws in 2007.”
EMERGENCE OF BLACK/WHITE GROUP THINKING
Hayward expounds on the appeal of black and white thinking that enable abusive churches like Mars Hill succeed. “In a culture that is increasingly fuzzy in its spirituality, beliefs and ethics, it can be nice to be a part of something that is clear about what it believes and how to live.” Furthermore, Churches with cult like tendencies keep their members in line by promoting a polarized us-versus-them mentality. Members like those attending Mars Hill are encouraged to avoid television, newspapers, and put blind trust trust in their lead pastor.
Since Turner came on board, at least 42 elders have left Mars Hill with Turner arguing that those who resign should not receive any severance pay. Currently, the church counts 65 elders among its leaders. This high percentage of ex-elders coupled with the other staff and volunteers who have departed led some staffers to give Turner the nicknames “Sutton Turnover” and “The Hatchet Man.” According to a reliable unnamed source, Bruskas told dozens of former elders and staff, “No elder or staff has ever left and regretted it and all wish they left sooner.”
MOVING BEYOND MARS HILL
These cult like attributes extend well beyond Driscoll as an individual pastor. They can also be found in other hipster and New Reformed Christian leaders including Driscoll’s colleague Steve Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, Acts 29 Network co-founded by Driscoll with the late David Nicholas, former president C.J. Mahaney of scandal riddled Sovereign Grace Ministries and one of Driscoll’s mentors for a brief period of time, and the Emergent Village that sprung out of the Young Leaders Network where Driscoll was once a member of its official vision group.
Pete Evans, private investigator of the Dallas based Trinity Foundation, an organization known for exposing televangelists like Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn, broadens the negative doomsday imagery often associated with cults. “A cult is considered a small, evil religious group, often with a single charismatic leader, that engages in techniques such as mind control or peer pressure to exert a measure of control over its members. A cult often utilizes its members for the benefit of its leadership (person or persons) and often tells its members what they cannot and/or can do in their daily lives.” At times, a particular religious group has the resources that enable them to market their message well beyond their tightly knit group and impact the larger culture.
Take for example, Seattle based Mars Hill church, a global network promoting a firebrand version of New Calvinism with 15 church plants stretching from the Seattle area to Albuquerque, as well as an online podcasting network that ranks among the top 10 religion audio podcasts in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway. In a recent sermon, co-founder Mark Driscoll proclaimed, “When felt called to plant, I went through a full assessment. Pastors oversaw me, a team interviewed me, a church sent me, an overseer had authority over me.” (James Bold Little Brother, Part 1, 2014) Warren Throckmorton’s ongoing
analysis of the problems plaguing Mars Hill indicates Driscoll fails to practice what he preaches.
On his blog, former Mars Hill staffer Mike Anderson adds, “If you’ve been part of Mars Hill or a church like it, you should read these warning signs that help identify if you are in a cult.” According to the International Cultic Studies Association
and ReligiousTolerance.org, this megachurch network demonstrates a number of characteristics found in churches that fit Evan’s definition of a cult.
CHURCH REVOLVES AROUND WORSHIP OF A CHARISMATIC LEADER
Mars Hill Church, a grassroots church plant launched in 1996 by Driscoll, Lief Moi, and Mike Gunn, slowly morphed into a megachurch model with multiple campuses with Driscoll’s
bio now listing him as the sole founding pastor. Also, he took on the moniker "father" of his church household and proceeded to discipline his staff and members whom he viewed as wayward sons. Often these men
viewed Driscoll as a surrogate father, and the private stories of those who left Mars Hill depict how they felt as though they had been abandoned by their father once again.
As king of Mars Hill, Driscoll’s name became synonymous with the Mars Hill brand. His quest for power continued via an agent and a publisher known for branding pastors into best selling authors. This combined power backfired when investigations revealed Mars Hill paid ResultSource to manipulate Real Marriage (Thomas Nelson, 2011) so this title achieved #1 status on the New York Times bestseller list.
Over time, lead pastors revealed off the record that they were required to follow the same order of service and televise Driscoll’s sermons at all Mars Hill campuses. According to a reliable unnamed source, when questioned by an elder, “Have you considered having the lead pastors preach more?” Driscoll replied, “No, and I haven’t considered them having sex with Grace, either.” Mark would joke in sermons about how he said something wrong and would then have to "fire himself.”
SHIFT IN LEADERSHIP TO ELECT GROUP OF LEADERS
In an email exchange, futurist Brad Sargent cites the danger when leadership moves from a congregational to a CEO style of leadership and all official input and oversight is placed in the hands of a few individuals. “This change results in a significant shift over time in the culture and environment to feel more closed in, shut up, locked down, exclusive us-versus-them, no one else is right like we are.” In 2007, Driscoll changed the bylaws which shifted church oversight from a plurality of shared leadership among 24 male elders to a select group of executive elders. Following the appointment of Sutton Turner as Executive Pastor in November 2011, this triumvirate that now includes Dave Bruskas continued their reign as though they were anointed by the divine right of kings.
Those who confronted any decisions made by this trio got fired and shunned. Also, elders can be fired if they refuse to sign their contracts which contain a Unity of Mission statement that prohibits them from planting a church within a given radius of a Mars Hill campus.
Continues with Signs a Church is Becoming a Cult, Part 2
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