Was The Rise And Fall Of Mars Hill Podcast Series A Mistake?

This is the argument of Jason Estopinal. He appeals to Proverbs 10:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Philippians 4:8, Proverbs 3:30, and Matthew 18 and concludes that Christians should not be fascinated by what one critic has called the “failure porn” of the Christianity Today podcast series, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Jason asked directly for my response and here it is:His argument proves too much. By his reasoning we should have to remove a good bit of Scripture and much of church history. I have not only listened to the series (I have three episodes to go) but I have encouraged HB readers to listen to it as well. The series is a sort of very early draft of church history. It illuminates the nature of the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed, New Calvinism, and Emerging Church movements as well as it illuminates the nature of what Carl Trueman has called “Big Eva.”

The podcast series is not failure porn nor is too harsh. If anything it is too soft on Driscoll. Jason wants the church as an institution to deal with Driscoll but his argument assumes something that it must prove: that Mars Hill was a church. I think not. On sociological terms we we should describe Mars Hill (and its satellites) as a congregation but not church. It lacked the marks of the true church (see Belgic Confession, art. 29). It was not disciplined. Kim Riddlebarger has argued that Driscoll did not even have elders to whom he was accountable. Did Driscoll preach the pure gospel? Sometimes, perhaps but not consistently. Were the sacraments purely administered? No. Even Driscoll’s current congregation (more on this below) lacks the marks as defined by the Reformed churches. Mars Hill tried to discipline him and he defied them. Which ecclesiastical body would discipline him now? It certainly would not be his current congregation which is controlled by Driscoll and family members. He is not accountable to anyone but he continues to pose a danger to many.

Further, Mark did not merely sin as a private person. He abused the sheep and he often did it publicly. He made himself a pastor, though he was by his own admission, unqualified and then proceeded to use his position as well as those around and under him. According to a group from his current congregation, he continues to do these very same things in Scottsdale, AZ. As our Lord Jesus said, “to whom much was given, much from him  will be required” (Luke 12:48). It is not too much to say that he is a false teacher and to be marked out as such. In this respect the podcast series and the several critiques published here and elsewhere perform a valuable service: warning vulnerable sheep about dangerous figures in the church.

The Apostle Paul did not follow Jason’s advice. He not only confronted Peter in front of others he recorded the confrontation in Holy Scripture for all to read and for all time. It must have been a source of mortification for Peter to know, as he was writing and dictating 1 and 2 Peter that the the Spirit had inspired Paul to record yet another of his failures. As I understand the chronology, the Spirit used that episode and Peter stood up to the Judaizers at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Scripture records errant figures by name, both laity and officers. Recently my pastor, Chris Gordon, has been preaching through Philippians, which was probably written for two purposes, one of which was to address a controversy between two of the founding women in the congregation, Euodia and Syntache (Phil 4:2). Paul records other names of false teachers and errant persons. He mocked the self-described Super Apostles in 2 Corinthians (and implicitly perhaps in 1 Corinthians).

Mark Driscoll is not only a public figure, which Jason concedes, but he is a pubic figure who has influenced thousands of people and perhaps more. Those people ought to know a few things: 1) Mark Driscoll is not a pastor and never was; 2) Mark Driscoll in no way represents the Reformed churches, our theology, our piety or our practice. If I have a regret about the CT podcast series it is that Mike Cosper repeatedly describes Driscoll as Reformed despite the fact that Driscoll was never actually Reformed in his doctrine and has never been recognized by any Reformed church as a Reformed minister or even a member of a Reformed congregation. Were Mark Driscoll to appear at a Reformed communion service, it is possible that he might not might not—he should not be—be admitted to the table since he is not a member of a church and he is a publicly scandalous person; 3) Driscoll is an abuser of the sheep.

As part of his argument against the the CT podcast series, Jason invokes Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). This is strange because, were Kuyper alive today, he would be running the world’s largest Christian website, which would certainly be covering the Driscoll saga. He would probably have produced a podcast series himself. After all, Kuyper published not one but two newspapers, one  ecclesiastical and the other political-cultural. There was little that Kuyper would not discuss in public and he certainly would be warning us about the likes of Mark Driscoll and his lot.

Jason might have a case had Driscoll repented of his abuse of the sheep in Seattle and gone off the live quietly as a truck driver or taken up some other honorable vocation but he has not. Like Tullian Tchvidjian, James MacDonald and others like them, he has moved on to the next grift.

Therefore we should be thankful to Mike Cosper and the folks at CT for exploring the significant of Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll and the whole YRR/New Calvinist movement. It has been salutary to turn the spotlight on Driscoll. Perhaps doing so has kept one of Christ’s lambs from wandering into his congregation in Scottsdale to be fleeced.

I agree that we should pray for Driscoll, that the Lord would convict him and produce in him fruit worthy of repentance but we can and may also warn the sheep about Driscoll and others like him and we may explore important and influential movements and phenomena not for mere voyeurism but so that we may learn from them.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I don’t know Jason Estopinal. It’s entirely possible that he believes Christianity Today — not generally considered a publication within the camp of confessional Calvinism — has made serious errors that more Reformed publications would not make.

    But after reading his article (to which Dr. Clark links above), I’m hard-pressed to see that his arguments wouldn’t just as much apply to my own work reporting on the liberals as they took over the Christian Reformed Church in the 1990s, or to J. Gresham Machen’s attacks on Pearl S. Buck, or even to John Calvin’s extensive recounting in the Institutes of the history of the collapse of biblical truth in the Roman Catholic Church of the medieval period.

    Estopinal quotes Liam Thatcher about the Christianity Today series on Mars Hill, saying this: “That’s not normal for religious journalism.”

    On that point I agree.

    Failure to call false teachers to account is a major part of what’s wrong with modern religious journalism. That’s a new development. It’s hard to read the religious polemics and church magazines of earlier eras and find the deliberate turning away from problems that characterizes too much of religious journalism today, and that’s a major problem.

    Reformed people are quick, and correctly so, to condemn much of modern Christian music as moralism and feel-good pablum. The same criticism can correctly be applied to much of modern Christian “news” media which cares about news only if it’s “feel good” fluff.

    That may be consistent for charismatics and broad evangelicals but it’s certainly not consistent with a Calvinist view of total depravity.

  2. There’s a subjectivity to the “failure porn” category that makes it hard to apply well. Could someone listen to this podcast simply for the delight of hearing about someone fail? I suppose so. I imagine that is what some have done.

    As a pastor, however, I have always come away from each episode thinking about, not Mark Driscoll, but ministry and how I approach it. It has been a constant reminder of why it is so important to submit to our elders – AS PASTORS. The session is not a group to work around but the men who better everything we do and keep us on track.

    So, inasmuch as the series has pushed me to think carefully about what I want in ministry, why I want it, the way that I treat people, the way that it seems that I treat people, and indeed how easy it would be to be corrupted by church politics and power grabs, I have no enjoyed hearing of Driscoll’s failure in the slightest. I have been rebuked that I am never more than the measure of God’s grace away from failing just as bad – albeit on a smaller less noticeable scale. I am reminded that people in the church will use each other and that authority issues are truly rampant in the church today with men pushing others around and beating on those around them to feel better about themselves and keep the upper hand.

    It is a reminder why the Scripture calls us to watch our lives carefully and why those who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

  3. Thank you, Dr Clark for your thoughts: ALWAYS are rooted and helpful.

    I only have 2 thoughts:
    1. I think you are wrong on Kuyper. He believes in sphere sovereignty and would not want us to overstep the two. Further, Ive read a lot of Kuyper in English, his issue is at the denomination level. And, when you said “were Kuyper alive today, he would be running the world’s largest Christian website” hehehehehe, you are spot on!!!!
    2. You said “It must have been a source of mortification for Peter to know, as he was writing and dictating 1 and 2 Peter that the the Spirit had inspired Paul to record yet another of his failures.” O man, I have often thought this as well!

    • Jason,

      1. As I said, sphere sovereignty For Kuyper meant publishing two newspapers, one secular/political and the other ecclesiastical. What do you suppose those newspapers did? They covered the news. They would have covered and editorialized about a character like Driscoll.

      2. I don’t see how sphere sovereignty keeps us from calling out bad actors in religious sects. Please explain this to me.

      3. I have been reading Kuyper off and on since the early 80s. I don’t recognize the man you are describing.

      4. As a minister in the GKN he would not even recognize Mars Hill as church.

  4. I will make just a couple of comments. My comments come as a current pastor and also having been a former pastor in the Seattle area when all of this was happening.

    1. I agree with Dr. Clark, if anything the series ignores completely one of central issues in the entire history of Mars Hill, the money. In the years when his was happening there were always massive problems with the money that went way beyond just the financing schemes around the book purchases.
    2. As it relates to the money, ignored by the podcast series, much of this would never have been known if had not been for the work of WenatcheeTheHatchet. That was a blog site that became a site at which the elders that had been fired and kicked out of Mars Hill would provide documents that showed what was happening. It was this Blog site that eventually became so big that even the Seattle Times got involved in a series of Sunday articles on the front page of the Newspaper. It was the public disclosures between the blog and the newspaper that the church attendance and giving dropped by 50% in the period of a few months. To understand what impact this had on the end, one has to understand, as revealed by WenatcheeTheHatchet, every year Mars Hill would run deficits of multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then, late in the fall, Driscoll would pressure the people to increase their giving to make up the massive deficits. Every year Driscoll was the head of Mars Hill they had been able to make up most of the deficits in the final months of each year. Fast forward to that last year, WenatcheeTheHatchet revealed later that the treasurer of Mars Hill informed Driscoll just weeks before his departure that they had expanded to the nineteen campuses and that their past effort to make of the deficit would never work that year. They were going to have to do something drastic, especially in light of that 50% drop in giving that had taken place because of the Seattle Times articles. It was in the context of this that one can understand why Driscoll left, along with all of his ill gotten gains. The ponzi scheme was all going to come crashing down and Driscoll used the discipline issue as the final straw that led to his departure. All of this was taking place late in the summer. Any delay in the fundraising pressure would have made matters worse. So Driscoll got out while he could get out with all of his millions of dollars.
    3. Why are the comments about the money the central issue? Jason himself gives the answer in his article. Jason stated the following:
    Then let the church know, yet they already know! Let the authorities know, yet they too were already notified, and it was investigated! If legal justice was still not served, by all means, shout it from the rooftops!”

    Jason himself states what should have been happening all along, people shouting from the rooftops what Driscoll and his allies had done to appropriate all of the money. The Seattle Times and WenatcheeTheHatchet stated that prosecutors in Seattle did not want to go after Driscoll because it would have been hard to prove that it was a ponzi scheme since it involved finances in a church. In a traditional Ponzi scheme it is the new investors who prop up the scheme by continued new investments. In this kind of Ponzi scheme it is the people in the church who are pressured to give more so those at the top can keep siphoning off their proceeds.
    4. Unfortunately the real problem with the series was that is tried to focus on his personality issues as if everything else he had done was OK. This could have been an excellent example of how to have a conversation about church finances and the impact of leaders who are becoming wealthy at the expense of the sheep. I understand why Christianity Today would avoid that discussion since that has been one of their failings too. Another story that is rarely told is just how wealthy Billy Graham and his children have become so wealthy. Graham died with an estate of about 75 Million and Franklin Graham has become even more wealthy.

    • Another key player I forgot about was Warren Throckmorton. He also made public much of the history of the financial abuse. His site can be reached at https://www.wthrockmorton.com/. It is amazing as the headline of his latest post is Driscoll is up to the same games at his new church. It highlights on example of how Driscoll raised 3 million dollars under the pretense of a “party.” Then the party was never held. A Party in December was always a big thing at Mars Hill. Every year they would have a huge New Years Eve party where the church served champagne and a lot of young 20 somethings would get drunk at the church.

  5. I appreciate and agree with your take here, Dr. C. I’m not sure if you remember, but as part of an independent study with Peter Jones, I visited Mars Hill Church in 2007 and interviewed several of their “pastors” (and met my eventual wife). I came back with two conclusions: Driscoll was preaching broadly Reformed theology (loosely speaking) and people were soaking it in AND as the Pope of that church, if he went down, all would come crashing down with him. As an additional data point: Of the dozens of “pastors” alongside Driscoll, only one had ever taken a seminary class.

    A HUGE storyline missed by the podcast: How Driscoll channeled teenage rebellion in Seattle. There you find the culture of permanently adolescent parents who don’t believe in imposing rules or any sort of belief system on their kids. “Believe whatever you want,” which was in essence, “Nothing is worth believing.” It was a soul-crushing dogmatism. Teenage rebellion in Seattle thus became “Screw you, mom and dad, I’m going to church.” Driscoll perfectly conveyed that sense of betrayal. He gave everyone the right to be angry, gave them ample opportunity to wrestle with truth–even if offensive, and to be the grown-ups in that infantile, narcissistic culture. He gave voice to a movement opposed to the spirit of the age but succumbed to the same spirit with his own inability to grow up.

    • Stephen,

      I did not remember that you had made that trip. This is interesting.

      I will not concede the word Reformed in any respect to Mars Hill or to Driscoll. It was predestinarian. That’s it—and if Wanatchee the Hatchet is to be believed, even that commitment might be in doubt.

      I think the strength of your argument is in his ability to channel the rebellion/youth culture of which of which you speak. he was an overgrown youth leader gone bad.

      • I read Recovering the Reformed Confession. 🙂 Strictly (confessionally) speaking, of course not. I think Dr. Jones was wondering if there was some sort of gimmick. There wasn’t as it pertained to the preaching. He preached on the propitiation of God’s wrath by Christ’s righteousness the week I visited. He was following Horton and Piper and generally distilling theology that was more akin to our theology than to other movements, including the Emergent Church. Of course, his theology was still quite flawed and his praxis with it!

          • Fair enough. I was encouraged by the direction he was heading at the time, but he was still weak in the issues you mention, and sadly, it has only gotten worse.

  6. a belated follow up to “Aftermath” thinking through some criticism I’ve seen from Jessica Johnson alongside some criticisms a friend from my Mars Hill years have had about the podcast.


    It’s not exactly a “mistake” but for any of us who were actually part of Mars Hill at one point Cosper’s work has seeds that can be built on but falls short in a lot of ways, like he was so set on “lessons learned” from the outset he didn’t end up doing justice to a decades long and complex history.

    A lot of responses to the CT series have fallen into a “take trap” where my sense has been that people use the history of Mars Hill as a springboard to talk about whatever they already wanted to talk about. Progressive American exvangelicals, for instance, might really believe that the only kind of exvangelical has blue state politics and theology and that nobody who left Mars Hill would have gone Eastern Orthodox or actually landed in Reformed church traditions.

    There’s still useful and helpful stuff in the series, particularly the David Nicholas bonus episode but much of the series seems stymied by thematic “lessons learned” foregone conclusions until the last couple of episodes. It’s not something to not hear but it’s been a profoundly frustrating listen that I’m ambivalent about.

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