What lessons can Midway Presbyterian Church learn from the dramatic fall of Mars Hill Church?
Anyone following Christian media in recent years is no doubt familiar with the Seattle based megachurch Mars Hill and the rapid and public fall of its founding pastor Mark Driscoll, whose controversial style resulted in a public scandal that ultimately collapsed his church. Perhaps what was most shocking to the hundreds of thousands of of Mark Driscoll’s followers, many of whom were attracted to his charisma, was discovering that this firebrand pastor was in fact a spiritual abuser. Ultimately it cost him his reputation, his church network, and did great damage to the witness of Jesus Christ.
Driscoll’s use of procedures and bylaws to control his leadership team has been well documented. Recently, Christianity Today produced a 10 part series of on the rise and fall of Mars Hill and its pastor Mark Driscoll. The series chronicles how the clear lust for power and insatiable need for submission to the majority of the leadership team of the church under the direction of the Senior Pastor led to an exclusionary attitude that their worship style was superior to all others, persecution of the innocent, the removal of dissenters, secret tribunals, and ultimately – the total collapse of the church.
Members at Midway Presbyterian Church who are paying attention will no doubt recognize the aforementioned themes at their church. It’s called spiritual abuse. It is sin. And it always ends badly for God’s people and the church. Christianity Today reports that “spiritual abuse is what you call it when someone leverages issues of eternal significance for power. Including the power to crush dissent. It’s because people are invested in their spirituality so deeply that they are susceptible to the manipulations of someone who knows how to traffic in the language and emotions of religion and religious experience.“
Mars Hill & Midway: Sobering Parallels
As one discovers when learning the tragic story of Mars Hill, it is impossible to separate the church’s downfall from the dominating personality of the church’s Senior Pastor. Over time, Mark Driscoll developed a brand of worship that became boastful. Seemingly no other churches outside his network were worshiping properly or Biblically. This arrogance was most apparent around the music used in worship. A sense developed among the members that everyone else was doing it wrong.
Similarly, Midway Presbyterian Church’s leadership since the arrival of Senior Pastor David Hall has been characterized by a close association with the Regulatory Principle of Worship and a very particular style of music that is dogmatically adhered to (even with regard to what instrumentation is permissible). Other reports have documented David Hall’s statements from the pulpit denigrating the worship styles of other local churches. David Hall has used Midway Presbyterian Church as a platform for his annual Reformation Worship Conference, which is known for promoting the theme of worshiping “God’s way, not ours”. While that sentiment is neither wrong nor contrary the Scripture – the elevation of Midway’s worship style to the detriment of other Bible believing churches (even others in the PCA) from the pulpit is arrogant and needlessly divisive.
Christianity Today describes where this sort of thinking led at Mars Hill saying “The result is an enmeshed perspective on the work of God and the work of the church. Not the capital C church, as in the global or historical church, but this particular local church, by transmutating the call to follow Jesus as a call to the duties of membership at Mars Hill, Driscoll is borrowing capital from the Scriptures to call people to give, serve, and submit to authority as his church. And on one level that’s a perfectly normal thing for pastors to ask of their church members, but there is an absolutism that comes with it in this context too: that ethos that communicates that Mars Hill has gotten so many things right that everyone else is getting wrong.”
Eventually at Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll’s self-perpetuated sense of having all the answers and doing it right led to his need for submission to his authority as a spiritual leader. At Midway Presbyterian Church the same theme is alive and well. Submission to the desires of David Hall’s Session is demanded. Any attempt to challenge a misstep that has occurred, or even the expression contrary opinions will result in persecution at the minimum, and church discipline at the maximum. David Hall preaches that the congregation must be pruned and that this is a good thing. The congregation at Midway is habitually subjected to the theme of officer qualifications and how good the elders (the preferred ones being campaigned for by the pastoral staff) are and how well the pastors do their jobs.
If unchecked, this aura of absolutism among Senior Pastor personalities naturally begins to foster a fear of losing control. For this reason, Mark Driscoll controversially sought to modify the church’s bylaws to consolidate more power in the Senior Pastor’s hands by having his hand picked “Yes Men” on his leadership team champion the idea. Those who opposed Driscoll were brutally persecuted and suspended from office. Driscoll formed a secretive “executive council” that was empowered to make decisions without the other elders. Elders that disagreed were pressured to resign.
While David Hall is unable to rewrite the PCA Book of Church Order so easily, his “Yes Men” have certainly done their part to aid in the power consolidation that takes the primary form of amassing Session votes he controls combined with the conviction and suspension of Ruling Elders whose vote he cannot control at the local church, and then using political maneuvers to influence the Presbytery that is supposed to hold him accountable (BCO 13-9). There have been instances in the past where the “Yes Men” of Midway’s Session have gathered to make major decisions without the counsel of the whole. The controversial decision to elevate three Assistant Pastors to Associates as a slate in July 2020 (restructuring the church leadership to a major degree) is one such instance. Not long after, just like at Mars Hill, elders who disagreed were pressured to resign as a matter of policy. Similarly, David Hall has a long history of submitting the list which of the Ruling Elders are allowed as delegates to Presbytery and General Assembly – not surprisingly the “Yes Men” make sure they elect themselves.
As was the case at Driscoll’s Mars Hill, and is proving to be case at Hall’s Midway, pastoral absolutism thrives in this environment and necessarily leads to attempts to eradicate dissenters.
Mars Hill & Midway: Bodies Behind the Church Bus
With Mark Driscoll’s arrogance and pattern of superiority established, the Christian world was rightfully shocked when he expressed the following deplorable sentiments from his pulpit:
“Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission and if people don’t sign up you move on, you move on. There are people that are gonna die in the wilderness and there are people who are going to take the hill. That’s just how it is. Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff-necked stubborn obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus. And by God’s grace, it will be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options.
But the bus ain’t gonna stop. I’m just a guy who is like, “look, we love you, but this is what we are doing.” There are a few kinds of people. There are people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off because they want to go somewhere else. There are people who will be on the bus, leaders and helpers and servants, they’re awesome. There’s also just sometimes nice people who sit on the bus and shut up. They’re not helping or hurting. Just let them ride along…
You need to gather a whole new core. I’ll tell you guys what, too. You don’t do this just for your church planting or replanting, I’m doing it right now. I’m doing it right now. We just took certain guys and rearranged the seats on the bus. Yesterday, we fired two elders for the first time in the history of Mars Hill last night. They’re off the bus, under the bus. They were off mission, so now they’re unemployed. This will be the defining issue as to whether or not you succeed or fail. I’ve read enough of the New Testament to know that occasionally Paul puts somebody in the wood chipper. You know?”Church as a Big Business – https://andyjohnson2013.wordpress.com/tag/mark-driscoll/
Driscoll was referring to the removal of two elders that would become part of the public scandal that would eventually lead to his and his church’s complete destruction. These men opposed the blatant power grab that his rewrite of the church bylaws represented. Driscoll celebrated the “pile of dead bodies” behind his “bus” of church power and highlighted the need to “gather a whole new core.” While his style is less direct than Driscoll’s, David Hall has shockingly suggested yoking the stiff-necked and that those who complain do so under the direction of devils. It is notable that the pile of bodies behind the bus he is driving is now taller than Driscoll’s with 4 Ruling Elders having been suspended at Midway in recent days.
Note the similarities in the actions taken by Mark Driscoll’s leadership team and David Hall’s Session. After determining which opponents are to be metaphorically crushed under the bus “by God’s grace”, the call for new fresh leadership is made. How similar this sentiment seems to David Hall’s insistence from the pulpit that God “prunes” his church and that the removal of church leaders is actually God’s will and clears the way for new ones. While only Driscoll recommends a “wood chipper” for opponents, both he and Hall associate the removal of those who oppose them while evoking apostolic connections.
Regrettably, the removal of leaders isn’t all that Mars Hill and Midway have in common. The manner in which the leaders were removed is unsettlingly similar. Regarding the two elders Driscoll removed, it has been reported that “Their dissent made Driscoll furious. He fired both from their Mars Hill jobs and, as an extra punishment, put both on trial—jeopardizing their church membership. (Mars Hill has a history of secretive ecclesiastical trials, including “demon trials” to summon individual devils and put them on the stand.)” In one of the trials, the prejudice was so great that the elder accused was not allowed to attend his own trial, and following conviction, Mark Driscoll announced that the family of the accused was to be shunned.
Under David Hall’s leadership, Midway has its own problems with transparency. The highly prejudicial trial of Ruling Elder Philip Dudt was held in secret and his wife was removed from his side for the proceedings and the members of the church who showed up to the trial were dismissed in favor of a so-called “executive session.” An apparent refusal to avoid the appearance of evil to be sure.
Popular author and speaker Paul David Tripp of Westminster Theological Seminary predicted the downfall of Mars Hills because of this sort of behavior saying “This is without a doubt the most abusive coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with. In fact I would say this: any local church, whether it is 50 or 50,000, whose leadership culture is not shaped by the same grace it said it believes, is unbiblical and heading for trouble.” He then went on to prophetically state that Mars Hill Church either “deal with its sins or it’s done…there’s a firestorm coming…” The church collapsed fantastically not long after.
Is there a firestorm coming for Midway Presbyterian Church if it’s leadership doesn’t repent of its sin? Surely, as Paul David Tripp highlights, the size doesn’t matter. The sin of spiritual abuse leads to the same disastrous outcomes regardless of the church size.
Mars Hill & Midway: Peas in a Pod
Mark Driscoll’s encouragement to his church to shun of the two elders his leadership team disciplined was particularly insidious because the church members acted on the suggestion. Good men were shunned, and their families suffered terribly because the average church member believed the slander coming from the top. All the while, there was a report that concluded that the men were innocent and no evidence had been found that would disqualify the men from office. Christianity Today reports that Driscoll and his “Yes Men” ensured that the details shared with the congregation were sufficiently ambiguous about the men’s disqualifying sins and yet all the while, the men’s reputations were destroyed and the congregation was told not to ask questions or it was tantamount to gossip.
Christianity Today reports it as “Everything that followed in the aftermath was an exercise in systemic gaslighting. Sure you were mocked in the pulpit, you were verbally abused behind closed doors, your reputation was soiled with the church at large, and now you’re forced to defend yourself in a tribunal surrounded by 20 elders. But why are you so mad? As for the rest of those elders, they were caught up in it.”
At Midway, David Hall’s Session has damaged the reputations of Ruling Elders Dudt, David, Barnett, and Scott upon their issuing of false charges. Did the secret report the Session produced exonerate these men like the one at Mars Hill? Maybe time will tell. In the meantime, David Hall and his “Yes Men” have ensured that the details shared with the congregation are ambiguous to non-existent, with many unaware that they lost their shepherding elders.
Midway members should attempt to circumvent this slanderous behavior and prevent David Hall’s Session from succeeding in their own version of Mark Driscoll’s “blessed subtraction”. They should approach the Ruling Elders suspended and speak to them. Let the members of Midway judge for themselves whether these men, who are known to be honest men and have served well for decades, are the villains they are painted to be. After all, this is not the first time Midway’s Session has gotten it wrong when persecuting its own officers. If Midway members are unconvinced after taking these steps, they should confront their leadership and call for their repentance or immediate resignation.
Eventually, people awakened to what was happening at Mars Hill. 21 brave men brought charges against Mark Driscoll that called out his spiritual abuse and in part said that he led in a manner that “created a culture of fear instead of a culture of candor and safety” and that he was “verbally abusive to people who challenge him, disagree with him, or question him.” The firestorm had arrived. The megachurch network and the hundreds of thousands of viewers — all buckled under the weight of Mark Driscoll’s cult of personality and the spiritual abuse he had unleashed on the innocent.
Eventually every spiritual abuser’s church bus will run out of gas. ‘But David Hall is different‘ some might argue, ‘Mark Driscoll was a part of the emergent church, it’s nothing like Midway.’ Prayerfully examine the pattern. All the signs are there. Mark Driscoll is exhibit A that a pastor can have correct theology in many ways, promote Biblical worship, invite all the right speakers to their conference — and yet lose the blessing of God. Pride always comes before destruction. Remember the warning of Paul David Tripp – God will not long bless a church where coercive and abusive leadership is entrenched.
As church counselor Andy Johnson said “There is only One qualified to be the true Leader of the church. My concern is that the real Shepherd said He’s coming back to see how we’ve taken care of his flock. I’m not sure He’ll be happy to hear us talk about the trail of dead sheep behind the bus, considering He knows each one by name and has written each name on His hands.”
This was said of Driscoll’s Mars Hill but could just as easily be said of Hall’s Midway. It is not too late for Midway Presbyterian Church. Spiritual Abusers can be confronted and it is possible that they may repent. If you are a member of Midway Presbyterian Church, might you be the person God uses to hold the leaders of His church accountable to the Biblical standard? Pray that their hearts would soften, and that they would repent so that fellowship might be restored among the brethren if it be God’s will. But if not, then know that it is the congregation’s responsibility to select new leaders in a PCA church.
Pray that Midway may be spared the firestorm of judgment that brought low the proud at Mars Hill.