The more people talked about Christianity Today’s new podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the more I knew I eventually would need to listen to it. In 2004, my wife and I left our families and friends behind to move across the country and help start a church in Denver, and the Mars Hill saga rang all too familiar to us.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill tells the story of how pastor Mark Driscoll planted and grew Mars Hill Church in Seattle to more than 15,000 members by weaving together Reformed theology, toxic masculinity, celebrity culture and power until it collapsed virtually overnight after Driscoll resigned amidst allegations of abuse.
But Driscoll’s story went far beyond simply his own local church. He also helped found the Acts 29 church planting network, which was heavily involved with planting more than 500 Reformed, complementarian churches and shaping an entire generation of new conservative evangelical churches before Driscoll was removed in 2014.
Like the story of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, our story in Denver ended with scandal and abuse by a pastor obsessed with hierarchy and power. And like many whose stories have been told in this podcast, we felt we had to bear our wounds in silence for years.
Because our story involved leaders who were shaped by the Acts 29 and Mars Hill philosophies, I knew that listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill would be triggering. And sure enough, despite some theological differences I have with certain moments of the podcast, I found myself seeing our story in every episode. For the first seven episodes, I felt seen, and I experienced some deepening levels of awareness and healing.
But then they released an interview titled I Kissed Christianity Goodbye with Joshua Harris, the author who helped shape the 1990s purity culture under the direction of CJ Mahaney and eventually became a megachurch pastor before deconstructing his views of dating and eventually leaving Christianity.
“I have a unique glimpse into what’s really going on in all three of these worlds. And I am deeply concerned about what I heard in this episode.”
As somebody who spent more than a decade either in or around Driscoll’s Acts 29 churches and as a member of one of Josh Harris’ Sovereign Grace churches, and as someone who now identifies as an ex-evangelical, I have a unique glimpse into what’s really going on in all three of these worlds. And I am deeply concerned about what I heard in this episode.
Pushing a false narrative about victims of abuse
My concern about this episode is not about defending Harris. Harris is not a spokesperson for progressive Christianity, deconstructing Christians, ex-evangelicals or marginalized communities. In fact, many progressives have voiced their concerns over continued patriarchy in Harris’ public engagement, including over a controversy this past week in which Harris released a $275 course on deconstructing, then offered it for free, and then pulled the entire course after hearing feedback from ex-evangelicals.
My concern about this episode is regarding how Christianity Today used its conversation with Harris to further push a false narrative about the hurting people conservative evangelicals have abused.
Grouping Mark Driscoll, Josh Harris and deconstructing Christians together
Mike Cosper, who is the podcast’s producer, begins early in the episode by setting Driscoll and Harris side by side, saying: “The personalities of Josh Harris and Mark Driscoll couldn’t be more different. If Driscoll’s Christianity was defined by masculinity, Harris’s was defined by a vision of holiness. And if you wanted to think in terms of branding, Mars Hill’s was bold and aggressive, and Sovereign Grace Ministries, the network where Harris served, branded itself as friendly and humble. And still, there’s a lot of common ground. Both men were talented, charismatic leaders who achieved a significant level of national attention before they turned 30. Their communities had a strong vision of pastoral authority, as well as a central emphasis on Reformed doctrine. Harris and Driscoll both served as council members for The Gospel Coalition, spoke at many of the same conferences, including Harris speaking at Mars Hill. They were both young, ambitious leaders in the same movement with many of the same influences around them who tried to help guide them on their way.”
In other words, Cosper is painting a picture of these two seemingly different men being virtually the same at some deeper levels that are explored throughout the podcast.
At this point, Cosper details Harris’ deconstruction journey that included “leaving the pastorate,” “apologizing for the impact of his book,” announcing that he and his wife were getting divorced, and then sharing that “he no longer identified as a Christian.”
Then Cosper immediately pairs deconstructing Christians with Josh Harris, saying: “That story has countless parallels in the lives of other Christians who experience ruptures in their churches, abusive leadership cultures, and other spiritual disasters that led them away from the church.”
For Christianity Today to pair the people Harris’ teaching has wounded with Harris himself is completely inappropriate and abusive. Many of us have been listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill with skepticism and a vulnerability to hear, process and grieve over the men who abused us. To draw us in with that story and then pair us together with our abusers that conservative evangelicalism platformed as celebrities is simply appalling.
We were hurt by these men. They are not our celebrities. They are yours.
Duped by social media celebrities?
The episode hints at where it’s going in the introduction when Colin Hansen, who wrote Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, calls Harris “one of the most spectacular boy wonders of evangelical history,” a title that is given to Harris multiple times in the podcast.
Later in the episode, Cosper takes the opportunity to use the theme of celebrity to pair Harris and ex-evangelicals together again, saying: “As I’ve thought about Josh’s story, there are two things that come to mind for me. The first is the degree to which it’s shaped by his status as a celebrity, or in more modern terms, an influencer… . To what degree are Instagram posts from influencers a window into the divine for a secular age, ways of worshiping a little pantheon of gods that represent sex or money or beauty or power or spiritual enlightenment, including the enlightenment of having deconstructed?”
By focusing on Harris’ social media skills and pairing ex-evangelicals together with Harris, Cosper categorizes those who have deconstructed their faith as worshiping the gods of sex, money, beauty, power or enlightenment. He also implies that those of us who deconstruct are being duped by Instagram posts. This is the same demonstration of ignorance about deconstruction that The Gospel Coalition has been putting out.
Cosper continues: “The other thing that comes to mind for me is how the exvangelical phenomenon is itself an expression of evangelical culture. It has its own gathering of celebrities, its own code of ethics, its own sense of who’s in and who’s out, and … its own gatekeepers.”
In other words, Cosper seems to think those who have left evangelicalism after being deeply wounded by evangelicalism are virtually no different than the stories they left behind.
Stories and experiences
One of the common tactics conservative evangelicals use to delegitimize outsiders is to contrast between subjective experience and objective truth.
“Today, you’ll often hear the word ‘exvangelical’ in these conversations. That represents a pretty wide spectrum of people who no longer want to identify with evangelicalism,” explains Cosper. “Some simply want to reject the term. Others have rejected the faith altogether. And some of them going so far as to gather online around hashtags like #EmptyThePews, arguing that the church itself is a destructive force in the culture. What seems consistent, though, is the degree to which people’s stories and experiences have driven their process.”
While Christianity Today has done a powerful job of telling the stories and experiences of people being wounded by hierarchy throughout the podcast, they are clearly setting up a dichotomy in this episode between deconstructing ex-evangelicals who they claim base their beliefs on stories and experiences, and committed Christians who base their beliefs on the ground of truth.
Cosper once again says: “What I think is visible in the phenomenon is the centrality of people’s stories and experiences as the core impetus for the movement … I hope that conservative evangelicals can listen to those stories before they go about defending their doctrine.”
What Cosper and conservative evangelicals seem totally unaware of is how stories and experiences were the core impetus for the development of the doctrines they espouse. Sure, they’re willing to put defending their doctrine on hold long enough to listen to some tough stories. But eventually, they will get around to defending their doctrine without realizing how culturally situated the development of their doctrine was.
Certainties vs. doubts
In one of the more confrontational moments of the interview, Cosper tries to paint Harris and deconstructing Christians as evangelists of a different kind of certainty: “So you feel the confidence then that, as someone who was an evangelist before and now in a sense like you’re still evangelizing, but you’re evangelizing in another direction. You feel confidence, the convictions now are the right convictions.”
Of course, while conservative evangelicals desire certainty, doubts will arise. Cosper’s desire is that “when we face a crisis of belief, to see it as a challenge to not only address our pain, as essential as that is, but to address the doubts themselves by seeking truth. This isn’t to say that we master our fears and our doubts, particularly on the other side of deep woundedness. But it does mean that there’s a kind of faith filled willingness to look to God, to the Scriptures, to the church, and to seek the truth where it may be found.”
By placing our doubts within the context of deep woundedness, Cosper delegitimizes doubt and labels ex-evangelicals as not able to see clearly because of their pain. It never seems to dawn on him that perhaps it’s our pain that has allowed us finally to see the reality of the theology conservative evangelicals have been abusing us with. By calling us to look to the Scriptures and the church, he tells us to submit to the tools and people that abused us. It never dawns on him that perhaps we’ve seen the hierarchical thread of power that runs through their culturally situated interpretation of God, the Scriptures and the church.
The episode then tells the story of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress being tempted by Atheist who simply wants to “entertain (himself) with the stuff (he) threw away when (he) thought there was a city,” and then Christian ends up in Doubting Castle through Despair.
It does not occur to them that perhaps there are disconnections between the conservative evangelical theological narrative and the reality of the universe. And they certainly do not see any connection between their theology and their ethics.
Living out the gospel
The conversation the episode should have been about but ultimately missed was the gospel.
Cosper reflected on Harris’ days as a pastor: “For as many times a week as you probably used the word ‘gospel,’ there was a whole lot of law in the culture you were teaching and a very sort of moralistic set of expectations. … The solution to your awakening could have been, ‘Oh, I need the gospel,’ instead of the floor coming out.”
“The conversation the episode should have been about but ultimately missed was about the gospel.”
After I left the independent fundamentalist Baptist world of my youth, I spent 17 years in conservative evangelical churches. We were consistently taught that eternal conscious torment was what we all deserved but that penal substitutionary atonement satisfied God’s wrath against us for being born in Adam and breaking the law. Our ethics were framed not as obeying the law to earn favor with God, but as “living out the gospel.”
In other words, conservative evangelicalism discipled us to believe that theology forms ethics. Their retributive, penal substitutionary theology was “the gospel,” and their ethics were “living out the gospel.” Now that so many of their leaders are being exposed for abusive ethics, they want us to pretend that abusive ethics are not a sign of abusive theology.
They say they want to “grieve the pain and repent of the ways we’ve contributed to it.” But then they are unwilling to examine the theology their leaders said fueled the ethics.
Isn’t it worth asking how the cultures of Anselm and Calvin affected their interpretation of the gospel?
Isn’t it worth wondering about the connection between hierarchical theology and hierarchical ethics?
Harris tried to point this out, saying, “It’s still good news that, if you don’t receive, you go to hell forever. If that is at the very core of the message, does that justify the kind of manipulative, controlling, abusive behavior?”
Cosper responds with: “Part of the reason we’re in this project is to try to sort of as strongly as we can say that it absolutely doesn’t.” Notice how uneasy those words are. He’s not denying that theology. He’s simply disconnecting the ethics from that theology, as if a justice of violence and power is merely coincidental to a people formed to celebrate and embrace violence and power. Harris should have recognized how uncomfortable Cosper was and focused in on this point.
But Cosper then immediately pivots back to reflecting on celebrity culture, claiming that it’s about a “syncretism around cultural power and influence … the phenomenon of celebrity.” And rather than putting Cosper on the defensive about conservative evangelical theology, Harris falls for the rabbit trail, and they end up comparing Jesus to Kim Kardashian.
“What if the abusive ethics these men lived out actually were born from the abusive theology they claimed they were living out?”
But what if the abusive ethics these men lived out actually were born from the abusive theology they claimed they were living out? And what if those of us who are deconstructed have, through the abuse we suffered at their hands, recognized this power dynamic? If our wounds have allowed us to recognize this hierarchical power game, then what else can we do other than leave it behind and open up to something better?
Leaving behind and opening up
In a totally unexpected twist of irony, Cosper concludes: “Christians have been wrestling with deconstruction and doubt from the very beginning. Maybe the most famous example of how to reckon with it comes in the Catholic mystical tradition.”
If you have read many of my articles, you may have noticed that I often quote the likes of Ilia Delio, Richard Rohr, Meister Eckhart, St. Francis of Assisi and others. These are all leaders within the Catholic mystical tradition.
I believe the path forward for Christianity is to marry the Catholic mystical tradition with liberation theologies. But Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition cannot marry the Catholic mystical tradition of the relationality and belonging of all things with their Reformed tradition of the hierarchy and power dynamics of all things. You can’t simply quote a mystic for a podcast and feel better about your hierarchy.
The episode ends with a song about wounded people who are lost. But we’re not lost. We’re here. We finally see the hierarchy of your power games. And we’re done with it. We’ve kissed it goodbye.
We’ll never unfeel what we’ve felt. We’ll never unsee what we’ve seen. And because of that, we’re free to open up to ourselves, our neighbors and God with a complexity, depth and union that we never had in your hierarchy.
Rick Pidcock recently served as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. He is a freelance writer based in South Carolina and recently completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five kids, produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder and may be found at his website.