In the nation’s fastest-growing megachurch, Mars Hill Church, faith and feminism don’t mix.
When Jess came to the University of Washington as a freshman, she was a feminist economics major whose postcollege goal was to land a position at an organization dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Now in her early 20s and just a few years out of college, she is married, looking forward to a life as a homemaker, and involved full-time at the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, one of the hippest, fastest-growing, and most conservative evangelical churches in the nation.
Mars Hill might as well be named Mark’s Hill, after its founder and leading pastor, Mark Driscoll. Its home campus is a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Seattle’s Ballard district, the neighborhood where hipsters go to raise families.
The church’s blend of pop culture and strict Calvinist doctrine allows congregants to occupy a unique, rebellious niche between middle-aged conservative Christians and their secular liberal contemporaries. Mars Hill members talk about sex, drink alcohol, get tattoos, and swear. They listen to Fleet Foxes; they love Star Wars and graffiti art. They also believe homosexuality is a sin, men are meant to lead, and wives must submit to their husbands as the church submits to God.
Mars Hill is part of a movement of “emerging churches” struggling to keep Christian faith relevant in the postmodern world. They typically meet in nontraditional locations (coffee shops, concert venues, living rooms), sermonize through rock music, and connect to their congregants via Facebook and Twitter accounts. Lauren Sandler, author of the 2007 book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, calls them the “Disciple Generation…[an] ever-growing population of people ages 15 to 35 who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an evangelical end.” Cloaking the gospel in pop culture is a model most often associated with televangelists of the 1980s, like the Lakewood Church’s Joel Osteen, who modeled churches after shopping malls, playing on capitalist culture to make God’s message palatable. Mars Hill is not a commercial center, but an indie concert where the Kool-Aid comes with a PBR chaser.
A writer for the Christian blog ConversantLife.com called Driscoll, with his stocky frame, six o’clock shadow, and torn jeans, “the original cussing hipster pastor.” It’s Driscoll’s snarky straight talk about everything from oral sex to yoga to God’s eternal wrath that has ignited passion in the hearts of his millennial disciples. After Driscoll and his wife, Grace, founded the church in 1996 in their Seattle home, it grew at a rate of about 60 percent a year—all the more notable when you consider that Seattle is one of the most left-leaning cities in a state that, according to a 2004 Gallup poll, ranked as the third least religious in the nation after Oregon and Idaho (Washington dropped to eighth in 2012). Mars Hill now has more than 5,000 members, with campuses in Portland, Orange County, and Albuquerque. In the late 1990s, Driscoll founded Acts 29, a “church planting” network that trains men who wish to open churches; this led to the creation of the Resurgence, an online training resource with links to sermons, blog posts, music, and forums—essentially, a Mars Hill starter kit. Affiliates of the church are now spread out all over the world, with disciples everywhere in between.
New converts often discover Mars Hill by stumbling upon Driscoll’s sermon podcast. For evangelists, who essentially devote their lives to making Jesus go viral, social media has literally been a godsend, and it’s what Mars Hill does best. In addition to Driscoll’s podcast, the church has a presence on nearly every social media platform, from Facebook to Pinterest to Instagram, as well as a YouTube channel and an iPhone app that launched back in 2009. The church’s website has an entire music section devoted to Mars Hill’s indie worship bands; in May, Driscoll announced the church’s plans to start a record label. A church with an online presence is nothing new, but Mars Hill’s statistics would make a small media company jealous: as of May 2012, it had 43,245 “likes” on Facebook, more than 10 million views on YouTube, and 39,356 Twitter followers.
In the early 1990s, fresh out of college, Driscoll saw a problem with the state of Christianity: There were no men. In a 2006 interview with the organization Desiring God, Driscoll said, “Church today, it’s just a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chickified church boys. Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks.” The main reason Driscoll himself had a hard time accepting Christianity was that he couldn’t bring himself to worship “a gay hippie in a dress.” But as he read about Jesus and Elijah and Paul, the gospels started to appeal to him—and he saw a way for them to appeal to other self-proclaimed macho men. “I’ve gotta think these guys were dudes. Heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes.” This revelation became the foundation for his narrative of a masculine, tough-love Christianity. “If you want to win a war, you have to get the men,” Driscoll preaches in a 2006 promotional film on church planting called A Good Soldier.
Driscoll is more general than soldier. Heavily influenced by both Martin Luther and John Calvin, he presents himself as telling the hard truth to a generation raised with the pick-and-choose, postmodern notion of Christianity in which “the God of the New Testament is nothing but hugs and muffins, and we’re all going to go to heaven, except maybe Hitler, but it’s a coin flip for him, too.” As Sandler puts it, Mars Hill offers overwhelmed millennials “liberation from liberation.” The church’s success comes from the hyper-masculine way it brands itself not as Jesus’s religion, but as Jesus’s rebellion—not only against the stuffy Christianity of its members’ parents, but also against the free-for-all liberal culture of their peers.
That men lead the movement is key according to Driscoll, who ties myriad modern spiritual and societal problems back to the failure of female leadership. Driscoll traces his theory all the way to Genesis—in a 2004 sermon, he said Eve’s eating of the fruit of knowledge was “the first exercising of a woman’s role in leadership in the home and in the church in the history of the world. It does not go well. It has not gone well since.” What’s more, Driscoll describes Satan’s encouragement of Eve as “the first invitation to an independent feminism…the first postmodern hermeneutic.” For Driscoll, then, feminism and postmodernism are not only demonic, they are inherently linked; two revelations in the bite that led to the fall of man.
Driscoll’s views on gender roles, adulthood, marriage, and success in American society are almost identical to those in a flood of articles released between 2010 and 2011, like Newsweek’s “The Boy Crisis,” the Atlantic’s “The End of Men,” and Kay Hymowitz’s 2011 book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. In an interview with the Christian magazine Relevant, his theory of male twentysomethings’ extended adolescence echoes Hymowitz’s: “We’re finding more women are getting better grades, more women are graduating high school, more women are graduating college, more women are buying homes, more women are doing things that are more adult and responsible.”
But unlike his counterparts in secular media, Driscoll believes that current gender discrepancies are not the result of the growing strength of women, but of the weakness of men. By abdicating their God-given role, men have allowed for the demise of the traditional family structure and the spawning of a generation of unsupervised, unmotivated, Internet porn– and World of Warcraft–addicted young adult males, melting into their parents’ couches while women blow past them to lead the nation.
As Sandler points out, Driscoll identified the “man-boy crisis” as a spiritual problem nearly a decade before secular media came to see it as a societal one. His method for addressing it involves restoring male leadership, relieving women of all financial and critical decision-making responsibility, and placing high value on marriage and children.
At Mars Hill, as in most evangelical churches, notions of gender are founded on complementarianism—the idea that men and women are equal, but have distinct and complementary roles. Both leaders and members of Mars Hill reinforce gender stereotypes and assumptions with the gusto of a 1950s-era ad for laundry detergent. Men need respect, women need love. Men are messy, women are neat. One member describes her relationship using a driving analogy, in which she drives her hot-pink car alongside her husband’s blue one, occasionally pulling behind to let him take the lead. Becoming a deacon is the highest leadership position available to women at Mars Hill, a role between congregant and pastor that exists mainly to offer support to the elders (and a word whose Greek origins literally translate to “servant”).
It’s hard to see 21st-century women signing up for this, and many of them were surprised about it themselves. Jess, who was raised in a secular family, discovered Christianity when, in middle school, she attended church with a friend’s family and found herself drawn to the warm atmosphere and sensitive discussion. When she came to UW as a freshman, hungry for community, she joined a religious group on campus but simultaneously, like many other freshmen, started going to parties and experimenting with alcohol and sex. After several months of feeling lost and unhappy, Jess tried attending a few services at Mars Hill, a church she heard about through friends. She hated the church’s ideas about women and gender roles, she hated that they told her that Jesus was the only one who knew how best to live, but most of all, she hated that she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Mars Hill challenged her and she wanted to prove them wrong, so she kept going back. Eventually, just as an experiment, she began to follow some of the church’s advice. And as she changed her actions—stopped partying as much, started reading the Bible, became less promiscuous—Jess realized she felt happier. The pastors told her that at some point she would have to make a decision: believe in Jesus or don’t. Jess looked at the community around her, weighed her skepticism against the risk of an eternity in hell, and decided to sign a covenant and become an official member of the church.
Mars Hill leaders are aware that complementarianism poses a problem for prospective female converts like Jess. A questionnaire handed out as part of a church seminar preparing couples for marriage asks women to consider the question “Does helper seem like a high calling or a diminished calling to you?”
“You’ll hear this a million times: If you don’t submit, you’re prideful and rebellious,” says ex–Mars Hill member Kailea. Though she was raised in a strict evangelical household, many of Mars Hill’s views—especially those regarding gender and homosexuality—never sat well with her. Nevertheless, Kailea started attending Mars Hill in high school, since it was the cool church to go to. “I liked that there were a lot of people smoking outside,” Kailea says. “The pastors were giving each other beer for Christmas.”
When she turned 18, Kailea became a member, along with her boyfriend, Jeff, whom she married shortly after, when she became pregnant. A year later, she became pregnant again (Kailea used birth control, despite the church’s encouragement of the rhythm method, otherwise known as “Catholic roulette”). Mars Hill’s emphasis on traditional gender roles began to strain their relationship. “[Jeff] felt like he was failing as a leader; I felt like I just couldn’t submit enough.” At the time, Kailea was working as a manager at a coffee shop and Jeff was staying home to take care of the kids. “There was a lot of pressure to change that.” The couple started going to marriage counseling with one of the pastors, who continually suggested that all their marital problems were rooted in their denial of their God-given roles. “No matter what we told him, that became what our issue was,” Kailea says.
She eventually quit her job and Jeff started working as a manager at a hardware store. Their relationship continued to deteriorate, and when she confessed an infidelity to Jeff, the church leaders took action, drawing up a “spiritual discipline contract” for Kailea. It promised, among other things, that she and Jeff would move back in together immediately, and that she would stop seeing her therapist, who was unaffiliated with Mars Hill. When Kailea refused to sign, she was kicked out of the church. The leadership posted a letter on the church’s member website asking her friends to stop contacting her, and she has not heard from a single one of them since.
Kailea’s story echoes dozens of testimonies that have been released from former Mars Hill members in the past year. In January 2012, Seattle alternative weekly the Stranger published a front-page article (“Church or Cult?: The Control-Freaky Ways of Mars Hill Church”) featuring interviews with ex-members describing abusive treatment, as well as publicizing a network of blogs in which ex-members tell their stories, disclose disciplinary documents, and speak out against Mars Hill’s practice of “spiritual abuse.” The stories repeatedly liken the church to a cult, revealing extreme manipulation and over-exercising of authority, as well as verbal assault and blackmail.
Kailea says it’s no secret that one of the church’s main draws for women is the men—what she calls “the Christian Prince Charming” and what Driscoll calls “real men.” A two-part series on the Mars Hill blog called “What Women Think of Mars Hill Men” acts as quality assurance, featuring testimonies from Mars Hill women on Mars Hill–produced males. Ashley, a single 23-year-old, says that when she heard Pastor Mark preaching to the men to grow up, get jobs, leave their homes, and then pursue women, she thought, “If the guys in this room take half of what he is saying, they’re already better than the men I’ve known.”
The catch, though, is that if you want a Mars Hill man, you have to agree to a Mars Hill relationship. “When you’re submitting yourself to God, you’re submitting yourself to something that’s in you; [but] women are submitting themselves to another person. They look at that as though it’s equal submission. It’s not,” says Kailea. Mars Hill members counter that secular culture gets their understanding of submission all wrong. In the evangelical world, submission has much more positive connotations—it is near synonymous with trust, respect, humility, and thinking the best of others. Mars Hill appeals to women to submit by first presenting this evangelical definition and then by emphasizing that submission is their independent choice; as Jen Smidt, a church deacon, puts it, “The strongest man on the planet cannot force an unsubmissive woman to be led.” By defining submission as a brave, independent choice in which women abdicate power despite their capabilities, Mars Hill gives women a new framework of female empowerment.
“There’s a narrative within the church that the women are actually very strong because they have to deny the pressure of the outside world to be independent,” said Christine Marietta, a therapist who attended the Seattle School of Psychology and Theology (which used to be called Mars Hill Graduate School before changing its name to avoid association with the growing church). Marietta attended Mars Hill several times while an undergrad at UW and now blogs frequently about women, Christianity, and Mars Hill. When Marietta writes posts that critique Mars Hill’s gender theology, she says the women react strongly, attacking her with variations of “How dare you think me weak!”
Irene is not your typical Mars Hill member. In her mid-30s, she is above the average age and she prefers traditional African-American spirituals to Mars Hill’s brand of indie folk. Initially put off by the whiteness of Mars Hill (Irene is Chinese American), she reconsidered when they opened a location in Seattle’s Rainier Beach, a neighborhood whose diversity was reflected in the congregation’s demographics. Most surprising, Irene attended the all-women liberal arts college Wellesley, and moved to New York after graduation with a group of friends, including her girlfriend at the time. Similar to Jess, Irene’s return to Christianity “was preceded by a huge kick of massive sexual liberation” during which she went out almost every night, sleeping with men and women. “I thought I had all the right ideas,” she recalls.
Also like Jess, Irene approached sex with a mentality she attributes to societal pressure from a culture of female empowerment. She talks about feeling somewhat alienated by the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude that boiled down to, as she puts it, “I’m more sex-positive than you.” For Irene and Jess, the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.
“I think a lot about how feminism has failed Christian women, or [hasn’t] reached out to Christian women,” says Marietta. “That makes a place like Mars Hill appealing, because the message of their strict gender roles is a way to rebel against the values of the women of the previous generation.”
Both Irene and Jess describe unhappiness as being evidence of a failure of their initially “feminist” way of thinking. “What starts out looking like a good plan, if it’s not God’s idea, we deceive ourselves in thinking there is going to be any salvation,” says Irene. “Life is not going to get any better because of our ideas. Women aren’t happier now.” This is submission in a nutshell—choosing to accept God’s plan rather than your own. And while those at Mars Hill might call it brave or humble or beautiful or trusting, it’s hard to see it as anything else but giving up. Because feminism has never really been about happiness, it’s been about choice. And with choice inevitably comes judgment and self-doubt: Am I doing it right? Could I be doing it better? Can I do it at all?
Jess, Irene, and Kailea are hardly the only ones looking for answers to these questions. When Sandler met Mark Driscoll in 1999, she recalls that he took one look at her band t-shirt and Doc Martens and said, “You’re one of us.”
“He was recognizing my style, but he was also recognizing my emotional searching,” says Sandler. “We’re all looking for meaning, we’re all looking for purpose, we’re all looking for lives that feel fulfilling and challenging and engaged. There are women who have tried that in other secular places and that works for them, but it doesn’t work for a lot of them,” says Sandler. “And so they look for something else.”
That’s the thing that secular, liberal Americans don’t want to recognize about Mars Hill, and other emerging churches: The line between us and them is incredibly blurry. “We have this understanding of women who make these choices as somehow just being dumb or inferior,” says Sandler. “But the reality is way more complicated and way more systemic. There is a reason this [mass-scale religious movement] does not happen in Europe.” Sandler points to the network of supportive services offered in many European countries—most notably childcare, a service the Mars Hill community offers to its members along with book clubs, communal dinners, support in decision making, and spiritual counseling. American women, by contrast, live in a cultural and political climate that is asking everything of them—successful careers, families, social lives—and giving them nothing.
“[Mars Hill] seemed to play right into my fear of becoming an adult woman,” wrote Kaelee Bates, a founder of the blog Mars Hill Refuge, in an e-mail. “It appeared to me as an easy way out. I didn’t have to finish school or try to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I could stay home, clean, have babies, and ignore all of [the] things I was struggling with.”
Given that ambivalence like Bates’s often leads women to join Mars Hill, it’s worth questioning to what extent women ultimately integrate the church’s doctrine into their lives. When Irene’s religious beliefs changed, for instance, she lost almost all of her friends in the gay community. Her inability to reconcile her old liberal identity with her biblical beliefs has also proved challenging in the voting booth. In 2008, unwilling to vote for either Obama or McCain, Irene selected a random candidate who aligned with her religious ideals, but she knew it was a throwaway vote: “These women fought so hard to earn me this right, and here I am not voting. It [feels] wrong.”
There’s also the question of how the choices these women have made for themselves will influence those they present to their children. For Kailea, this was what convinced her she made the right choice in leaving Mars Hill. “Your daughters and your sons, they’re never going to go in and see a woman speaking, they’re not going to see a woman leading worship,” she says. “That has to tell them something about who women are.”
And would women feel as comfortable submitting to Mars Hill if they no longer had a secular safety net to push back on? The larger cultural context continues to validate women’s abilities and remind them that submission is, in the end, a reversible choice; if Mars Hill suddenly ruled the world, it would no longer be one. When I ask Jess what she imagines a Mars Hill world would be like, she is genuinely baffled—it’s not something she’s ever thought about. Kailea, however, has: “It takes about five minutes of reading through [ex-member blogs] to see what that world would be like. It would be a dictatorship.”
It’s easy to shrug off the growing population in churches like Mars Hill and repeat the American mantra of religious freedom: “They have the right to believe whatever they want.” But that these movements are gaining momentum in conjunction with a secular discourse that inadvertently validates them is not a coincidence that can be ignored. The current social climate is pointing young people down a tunnel, and Mars Hill offers a light at the other end—and that light is blinding.
Mars Hill women are smart, strong, and in many ways pro-women, but they will most likely not be voting in favor of Washington’s marriage-equality referendum, or for legislation supporting easy access to abortions, or, when the day comes, for a female president. And for that, they are also dangerous. I feel similarly to the way Sandler writes of an evangelical woman she interviewed: “She’d make a formidable feminist, and maybe would have…if only leftists had offered the promise of love articulated within a genuine expression of youth culture.” If only the current social climate offered more support to women managing the choices available to them, if only feminism had felt less divisive, if only they hadn’t stopped trusting their own capacity to figure things out, if only they’d had faith that there would be other women—or, dare I suggest it, a government—there to support them. Not only is that a great awakening I could own and lead, it’s the only one worth submitting to.
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