Is @MarsHill church a cult? What IS a cult, anyway???

Unknown-1This past week, a 16-year, devoted member of Mars Hills Church (the group of churches founded by Mark Driscoll) wrote a blog post repenting of his complicity to and participation in spiritual abuse . He writes:

We were grieved by our own sins of complicity to systems and structures we could not in good conscience support anymore. The overall philosophical idea we could not support anymore was an “ends justifies the means” mentality.…I admit I would get passionate about these things thinking it was the Gospel. I then would manipulate more. I was so blind to this form of Spiritual abuse I would even get upset with people who disagreed…Everything became pragmatic tyranny. I truly believed that if this “Gospel” was moving forward I was justified in my actions. (emphasis mine)

I know a little something about cults. I grew up in one. What this former member so bravely exposes are the “systems and structures” that perpetuate spiritual abuse and create cultic groups.

What this former member is telling us is that Mars Hills Church OPERATES in a harmful manner; uses abusive METHODS and justifies it by saying the Gospel is moving forward.

This is terribly wrong and should raise huge red-flags to anyone involved with Mars Hills Churches.

Is Mars Hill Church a cult? Well, let’s talk about that.

In Chapter One of my book, “Girl at The End of the World,” I explain why I call MY childhood church a cult:

…when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts. (p.9)

When talking about cults, Christians have often focused on theology. I don’t find this very helpful.

Identifying a cult based on What Beliefs Are Believed is far too subjective a standard of measurement. Beliefs vary widely–even among Christians who hold generally similar beliefs about foundational doctrines like the Bible, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, etc.

What is far more useful and easily identifiable is looking at the WAY a church operates. I mean, any two groups may disagree about whether Jesus IS God but if one group beats its children into submission while the other group doesn’t, I’m gonna say the violent group is a cult–even if its beliefs are considered orthodox.

Now, just a caveat, here: often, harmful beliefs DO lead to cult-like behavior. For example, my childhood church beat children so harshly because it BELIEVED children were inherently wicked sinners who NEEDED to be spanked in order to be saved from Hell. Obviously, I don’t believe that belief anymore. So, yes, sometimes beliefs feed the cultish behavior.

People have told me that I need to “be careful” about labeling churches as cults. I absolutely disagree. If a group ACTS like a cult and OPERATES like a cult and HURTS people like a cult–then let’s call it what is is: a cult.

There’s a huge reason for this: calling a cult a cult is empowering for the victims inside it. Yes, it was initially VERY difficult for me to call my childhood church a cult, if only because the cult was also my family. There was a lot of personal shame involved. But, in the end, I found it absolutely liberating to call my church what it was: a cult.

Naming the cult for what it was helped me UNDERSTAND my experience and place it into context. I was so grateful to know that cults exist outside The Assembly and that my story wasn’t so super-extreme-unique that nobody could understand what had happened to me.

In fact, it wasn’t UNTIL I started calling my childhood church a cult that outsiders understood what I was trying to tell them. When I said: “I grew up in a cult” they were like: “Oh, OK, I get it.” But if I said: “I grew up in a strict church” they were like: “Didn’t we all? Isn’t ‘strict’ the very definition of church?”

Um. Nope. After this happened a bunch of times I knew I needed a better descriptor. Yes, the word “cult” is heavy. But so is spiritual abuse. Maybe it’s time we started taking spiritual abuse seriously.

I understand why fellow Christians might feel confused or reticent about calling Mars Hill Church a cult, or even a “cultic” group. They’ll probably say something like: “But Mark Driscoll loves Jesus and is passionate about making disciples!” All I have to say to that is: the ends don’t justify the means. The noblest and holiest goals NEVER excuse abusive means.

Another excuse we might hear: “I attend a branch of Mars Hill Church and that stuff doesn’t happen here.” Well, if this were the first time we were hearing troubling news out of MHC, then this might be true. But the truth is that the stories have been slowly eking out over several years.

I think it’s time Christians took a serious look at what is happening inside Mars Hill Church; paying special attention to the SYSTEMS and STRUCTURES and METHODS of operation.

At the very least, the Gospel deserves THAT.


A helpful resource for identifying cultic groups and relationships can be found in “Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships.” In this book, the authors describe the Top 15 Characteristics of Cultic Groups. This list is BY FAR the best compilation of cultic characteristics I’ve ever seen. I’ll mention a few, here, as they pertain to faith-based cults, specifically:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices such as speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader (s).
  • The leadership dictates–sometimes in great detail–how members should think, act and feel (ie. members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry…leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children…)
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities
  • ..requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are required to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

–from Appendix A, Take Back Your Life, pages 327 & 328

And to read about my real-life experience inside a Christian cult, here’s my book:

The Girl at the End of the World 

  • KatR

    The church/jail I eventually escaped from was the International Church of Christ. As I started becoming aware of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, I was struck by the similarities between the ICC and Mars Hill (and the Acts 29 network) and the similarities between Mark and the leader of the ICC, Kip McKean. The harshness, the obsession with growth, the obsession with masculinity, the gay bashing, the control exercised over women….all of it was a very familiar to me. What is going on right now with Mars Hill is also exactly what happened in the ICC – as Kip’s overwhelming pride and ego finally took him down, as soon as people realized that the boot had come off the neck just an inch, stories started pouring out. A well respected teacher in the ICC wrote a twenty page letter exposing the abuses of the church. The apologies that I’m seeing from former Mars Hill pastors are almost word for word what was said by leadership under Kip once they felt free to start speaking.

    I think Mars Hill, at least in it’s current form, is done. The problem with ruling with an iron fist is that you always have to rule with an iron fist. I have a feeling Driscoll’s attempt to be a “father” now is an emotionally manipulative attempt to stave off the revolt that he won’t be able to stop.

    No, none of this is new. I’m sure that there are others who have experience in spiritually abusive environments and cults who felt familiarity in the way Mars Hill and Driscoll operate. That’s one of the eye opening things about leaving a cult – you are told all the time that you are special snowflakes, when you are really just cogs in the machine.

    • elizabethesther

      None of this is new, sadly. And wow: “You are told you are special snowflakes when really you are just cogs in the machine.” YES, THIS.

  • Janelle

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on IHOPkc? Mike Bickle’s “church”.

  • Tamara Rice

    You’ve said something so wise here, Elizabeth, about the need to label it what it is acting/operating like in order to empower victims within to find their way out. I’ve heard a lot of people trying to say outsiders should “stay out” and peddling the “it’s not your church” line. But you’re so right … those people deep on the inside who know it doesn’t feel quite right (like the pastors now coming forward after they were pushed out), might be emboldened and empowered to hear others call it what it is. People inside need to hear it. Some will ignore it, of course. But others won’t and they might be hurting right now from their most recent dust-up with the leadership and they are scouring the internet right now trying to make sense of it and looking for answers. Because it doesn’t feel right, but they can’t quite wrap their arms around the problem. Because it’s so big and because it’s so close to them right now.

    I hope some will realize they aren’t alone and that there is a God who loves them and offers them freedom on the other side of Mars Hill.

    • elizabethesther

      THIS is why I write these posts: for the people scouring the Internet at night looking for the answers, trying to understand, wondering if they’re alone. I really could care less what church apologists have to say. I write for the ones sitting deep inside their church feeling scared and lonely and wondering why they keep feeling like something isn’t right. Thanks for understanding that, Tamara. I <3 you.

      • Laura

        I’m pretty sure you wrote that book for me. ;-) I have been shaking and in tears while reading it, and reliving my childhood that I tucked away in a dark corner of my mind. I had no idea how much it was sneaking out and affecting my everyday life. I’ve suddenly realized that other Christians do not have this fear and self loathing. You’ve helped shine a light on this, and although it hurts (I developed an ulcer by the fourth chapter), I’ve begun to heal by recognizing that I am NOT alone. Thank you.

  • rachel lee

    “All I have to say to that is: the ends don’t justify the means. The noblest and holiest goals NEVER excuse abusive means.”

  • Alli Parfenov

    Yes. Amen. Plus I’ve never been able to listen to one minute of Driscoll without feeling his condescension and shaming. He feels like a bully to me…

    • elizabethesther

      His style of preaching triggers me very badly. I can’t even watch the videos or read the quotes anymore. :(

    • ari

      He comes across as VERY arrogant, jerk-like, un-Christ-like to me. I also cannot tolerate reading anything of his, hearing or seeing him speak. It also just makes me SO very sad that to some, they believe this poison is gospel.

  • Jessica Harmon

    Not to make light of the discussion, which I think is essential in order to help abuse victim as well as improve the Church herself, but about halfway through this post I fell victim to the “semantic satiation” of the word ‘cult’. You know when you hear a word too many times in a row and it starts to sound like gibberish? Yeah. Semantic satiation.

    Seriously though, this is a very important discussion to be having. When people call something what it is, whether it is a cult or abuse or rape, it empowers them to do something about it. When your problem has a name, whether it is addiction or thirst or procrastination, you can more easily see what you have to do to fix it. Speaking of procrastination, I had better get off the internet for a while and finish grading this stack of papers.

    (P.S. it was so great to finally meet you on Saturday, Elizabeth!)

    • Shaney Irene

      “You know when you hear a word too many times in a row and it starts to sound like gibberish?”

      My first thought: “THERE’S A WORD FOR THAT??”

      I didn’t realize other people experienced this. :P

      • Jessica Harmon

        Right? Language/brains are so interesting! Other good terms that come up in conversation more often than you would think:

        “lexical gap” – a concept that there is no word for, (people like to make the “eskimos have more words for snow” argument here, just know that modern linguists no longer believe that language constrains culture in this way)

        “paralipsis” – saying that you’re not going to talk about something at the same time as you bring it up. e.g. “I’m not going to talk about my opponent’s youth or inexperience.”

        I hope you will continue learning about the wonderful world of language!

    • elizabethesther

      Jessica! Ha! This is EXACTLY why I need my editors–to help me avoid “semantic satiation.” Thank you! :) So wonderful meeting you, too. I hope you had a good time! I think someone passed up your record, though. I heard today that someone else read the book in 2.5 hours! WHAT?!!!! Dude. Let’s meet up again IRL, ok? Because I LIKE YOU.

      • Jessica Harmon

        Yes, let’s meet up again! I like you too! After I finish my MA thesis next week I will have all the free time. :)

  • Shaney Irene

    I left a comment on a friend’s Facebook wall mentioning that I don’t think it’s necessarily accurate to call Mars Hill church as a whole a cult, at least not according to my understanding of what makes a cult. I think the church as a whole is too big for that, and it seems like there are a lot of people who come, attend for awhile, and go, or even who attend for years but never really get all that involved. These individuals wouldn’t experience the cult-like nature of Mars Hill. It seems that as you get more involved through membership, leadership, etc., that’s when you see the cult-like aspects of Mars Hill.

    This could explain why so many people who have gone to Mars Hill don’t recognize it as a cult–Mars Hill is too big, and cults are generally small because it’s easier for the one charismatic leader to maintain a high level of control over fewer people. It seems like Mars Hill really becomes cult-like, if not a cult outright, once you move a few circles closer to the innermost circle of leadership.

    • elizabethesther

      Yes, this makes sense, Shaney. People who were on the “outer fringes” of my childhood church had a completely different (and even positive!) experience of The Assembly. Since I was on the “insider circle” i got to see the inner machinations up close. I’m guessing that those who are closest to the inner circles of MHC would have some very disturbing stories to tell. Perhaps the truest measure of a cult is found in its innermost circle?

      • Cassie Chang

        Maybe it’s more helpful to decide whether a church displays cult-like behaviour? I don’t think my former church was a cult, but there are definitely things in that list that I think it displayed. While questioning was never discouraged, I don’t think you would be liked much unless you eventually agreed with the party line.

        • elizabethesther

          Yes, I can see how this would be helpful, Cassie. Sometimes before we can label something unequivocally, we just need to be able to identify “cult-LIKE” characteristics.

      • Sheila Connolly

        From my study of cults, they ALL have varying circles of membership. The “normal” outer circles exist to give legitimacy to the cultish inner circles. No one would ever leap right into the middle — you join the outer circle, where everyone seems pretty normal, and slowly you start getting drawn further and further in. I’ve never heard of a cult that didn’t do this.

        • elizabethesther

          YES, Sheila!

  • Virgil T. Morant

    People have told me that I need to “be careful” about labeling churches as cults. I absolutely disagree. If a group ACTS like a cult and OPERATES like a cult and HURTS people like a cult–then let’s call it what is is: a cult.

    I think that, for every time (other than in passing) you call a church a cult, you should have some illustration of its abusiveness. Otherwise, you’re just using a word that will conjure up varying interpretations in your readers or will simply put off those who could be more drawn in by the evidence of the evil. If, for example, I tell you that Podunk Trail of Blood Church of Nowheresville Ohio is a cult, what does that mean to you? If I say, “Well, there was this time when a twenty-five-year-old woman went to her pastor for advice about work and moving out of her home, and he told her, ‘I’ll have to talk to your parents and see whether they’ll allow you to do any of that,’” then you have a pretty good first clue what I’m talking about when I say cult: that I’m not talking about a rock and roll band or the Peoples Temple in Jonestown. I’d say that falls in the category of “being careful,” and I think it’s useful and wise.

    There’s one other note on being careful that occurred to me. You can say what you say in public commentary about public and well enough known entities like Mars Hill, and you can say what you say about your own background, but I think the word cult may very well require a specific care when you’re talking personally to someone. The only reason I, a simple Orthodox Christian who has never belonged to a cult, spend as much time as I do in the spiritual abuse blogosphere is that I know people who are spiritually abused and I happen to care about one or two of them. It might not in every case be the best method to tell someone that he is in a cult or even indeed just to try to explain it directly to the person without using that word. People tend to cover their ears when things like that are said to them. In fact, many will run back into the arms of their abusers, perhaps enticed by a bit of “love bombing” or by the threat of punishment (the two methods have a way of working together, and they both seem effective for keeping the abused with their abusers) when the matter is so perfunctorily put to them. Perhaps here too it is better to talk about what makes an abusive group abusive than it is to tell someone his church is a cult, but also I think talking to someone directly is its own special case of caution, because it is best to exercise care, if you want to be able to get through to someone. You talk a bit about “empowering” victims within abusive religious groups, but it is also possible to terrify or make things worse for some of them: not every victim is just immediately empowered by hearing a cult called a cult, and sometimes the effect can be the opposite.

    In any of these cases, it’s good to remember that a good many people will hear certain words as sheer pejorative. It’s scarcely useful to one’s cause or to the needs of the abused to do anything to encourage that view: that is, that all you’re doing is issuing invective. I think all of that qualifies as being careful.

    Of course, probably some who say, “Be careful,” really just mean, “Shut up.” I’m talking about what careful actually means. I have no truck with those who just want to shut down the discussion.

    • elizabethesther

      Yes, great insight, here, Virgil. I’ve written before how if someone told me I was in a cult, I would have shut down and stopped listening. So, while I think that writing in a more general, public way about this is helpful–when we are one-on-one with people, you’re absolutely right; it’s important to be cautious and careful.

    • Sheila Connolly

      The name “high-demand religious group” can be useful, if people are familiar with it. You can also say you believe it is abusive.

      Me, I use “cult” when talking to people outside, because it forces them to take what I’m telling them seriously. Talking to people inside, I might say “it’s unhealthy” or “there are some issues” or something mild like that. You have to really watch what will trigger the lockdown response. All cults seem to have some sort of (sometimes unspoken) rule that you can’t listen to criticism of them … so it’s very, very hard to break through.

  • Marty Coleman

    Wise and important distinctions made here Elizabeth, thank you for taking the time to expand on them.

  • Mary DeMuth

    I wrote a post about 10 ways to know if you’re in a spiritually abusive situation:

    • elizabethesther

      Mary! THIS IS SUCH GOOD STUFF! Thank you for writing this!

      • Mary DeMuth

        Thanks Elizabeth. I wrote it a few years ago, and it’s the most visited post on my site. Odd, because I haven’t had the experience, but I’ve had enough friends walk through it that spiritual abuse made me MAD. It’s wrong. And it shouldn’t happen.

    • Living Liminal

      I read this post about a year ago and it really helped me. I’m grateful.

  • Teryn O’Brien

    Never been a fan of Mark Driscoll. I’ve always had a sensitive spirit, and I could never tolerate his obvious pride, egotism, and bullying. I don’t like how so many people worshiped him (simply because he’s been successful?). I hope this whole time at Mars Hill will help him become a humble, contrite man. I believe God is moving, and hopefully good things will come of it. It does give me comfort that so many abusive systems are being overthrown and exposed right now across American Christianity (the Spirit is definitely moving, and God is NOT okay with abuse).

    • elizabethesther

      Wow, Teryn. You bring up a great point. What IS the definition of “success” as it pertains to Christianity? Are our measures of “success” almost identical to measures of success in BUSINESS? It’s so troubling to me how a church’s success is often measured using business metrics. Is that really Jesus’ standard? Thanks for bringing up this important perspective.

  • Jim K.

    Add one more to the list… The cult tries to grow but frequently finds that very few visitors tend to stick around. In the cult in which I grew up, it was virtually guaranteed that if there were visitors, something way weird would happen during the service.

    • elizabethesther

      LOLOL. Oh my goodness, YES. The ONE DAY like 5 visitors show up is the day Brother Joseph decides God has given him a “special revelation” about how credit cards are a sign of the Anti-Christ. Or something. HA.

  • Dral

    I read the original piece you are referencing after reading your piece. I generally agree with the idea of expanding the label of cult, and I find it odd that all the comments are positive with no questioning or disagreement. In reading the OP it seems like there is some weight to what he is saying with him having been the church for 16 years and not just someone who walked in and didn’t agree with a specific event.
    But I have a couple of thoughts that cause me a little skepticism on the OP and in the reference of this post. The first being, is that the OP is not specific on which practices he is labeling, other than being concerned about the numbers and that causing you to try to influence people. The 2nd not seeing where he was pressured to focus on these numbers and such.
    As someone who is a part of a similar style church (in full disclosure), it seems to me that this gentleman became distracted with a focus on growth or doing the tasks of a leader and burnt himself out not being in relationship with Jesus (not saying that he isn’t a Christian) and allowing Jesus pouring into his life to affect his ministry to others. That is the quickest way to burn people out, and I think this depends so much on the “leader’s” personal relationship with Christ. We have to be careful that we don’t label a church a cult, just because they have some structure and systems. The question needs to be, are the systems and structures more important than everyone abiding in the vine. As a church, naturally grows (which explosion happens when the gospel is preached and lives are transformed) there has to be some sort of organization or everything falls into Chaos. Look at scripture. Pastors/Elders were appointed, servants in the early church were called deacons and sheparded other leaders.
    Do imply that the pastors (shepherds really) should be accessible to everyone and a church is healthy at 50-75 people (which the OP does), I think is missing the example set by the early church. In fact, you still see frequent instances of spiritual abuse in small church when the one pastor has all the power and no other leaders to hold him accountable to his own sin. Pastors need pastors. If you lead a community group, you should have someone pastoring you and you are pastoring your group. Its apparent from scripture, Jesus didn’t intend for us to do it alone.
    Any leader is called to “pastor” the people that are “under” them. I use quotation marks because that these terms just simply imply that actual relationship that takes place in a non-forceful way. I’m held liable to pastor the people that look up to me spiritually, just as I expect that same guidance from those I look up to. You are discipling somebody whether you realize it or not. The question is what are you discipling them and how intentional are you being in it. As pastors (or just Christians) really we don’t rule over people, but lovingly guide them to Jesus. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t do this perfectly and have sinned against others. I’ve hurt people too, when I take my eyes off the Cross and lose sight of what God has done for me. But people are so shocked when they are hurt by others in the Church, when the only perfect one of the Church is the one who leads it, Jesus.
    When a bunch of Christians are pastoring each other well within an organized church it grows, sometimes very fast. But just as in the early church, a portion of that growth, are people that are attracted to the glitz, popularity or just having some physical needs met (A lot of people showed up to hear Jesus, because they heard that he fed a bunch of people and they were hungry). I think that we have to be careful, in how we label other churches because people may be falling victim to doing ministry apart from Christ.

    If all the leaders in MHC were not preaching Jesus, or pursuing Jesus themselves, then I might agree more with the OP, but having visited and known people a part of that church, and met leaders in that Church that love Jesus deeply and desire nothing more than life to lead others to the same living water and what to see them meet Jesus.
    What causes hurt is when you have leaders that burnout (like I have before, but was surrounded by people I looked up to, pointed back to Jesus and my need for him) and are not bringing people to the well of life that Jesus offers, but instead run their ministry like a business focusing on the metrics and run it into ground because at that time, the leader isn’t pursing Jesus (again speaking from experience).
    I think that as we don’t just look to the theology, we don’t just look to the system either, because in doing that you could look at the early church as a cult. But look at the heart of those involved. Its easy to see the early church the true church because the intention is apparent in scripture. The focus is on Christ and bringing the broken to him, not just counting how many people’s names end up being in the book of life and how many pages we need to add to the book.

  • Coco

    I too grew up in a cult. Mars Hill is not that. People who are doing big things for Christ and the gospel are always persecuted. And, Mars Hill, a church so large, is full of infallible people who are bound to make mistakes along the way–trying their best to take care of the means well to reach the end. I’ve been attending and involved in MHC since 2006. The amount of people I’ve seen who have been incredibly blessed by the church and its outreach and the anointed teaching from Driscoll and the rest of the church’s team, is astounding.

    • Marie

      Care to comment on the the traits of a cult that Elizabeth listed, and how based on those critiera, Mars Hill Church is not one?

    • elizabethesther

      Just a note, here, Coco: “doing big things for Christ” does not exempt Driscoll from behaving abusively toward his staff. And also, how about we save the word “persecution” for, I dunno, REAL persecution. Former members sharing their real stories does NOT equal persecution omg.

      • Joshua Rosenkranz

        You said it Esther, you should also remind Coco that no human is infallible (unless they happen to be the Pope of course haha….and that he also contradicted himself :P “infallible people who are boud to make mistakes along the way….)

  • Ron Marinari

    Thanks for the interesting post & views. I’ve said for several years now, “In some sort of way, Mark Driscoll is the Jimmy Swaggart of this generation.” I highly doubt that Mark had a recent epiphany and is now all grown up. My guess is that he’s a man that’s fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4) and has paid the price of that – meaning, he’s committed a moral sin and is close to being found out. His so called “epiphany” is most likely a move to make more friends. When the gavel falls, he’s going to need as many as he can get.

    • Dral

      So is Mark beyond repentance? Is he only able to repent and change if he’s publicly made a fool? Without knowing his heart behind his “epiphany” how can you claim such a statement?

      • Ron Marinari

        “Beyond repentance,” nice spin. As far as your legitimate question: time will tell.

  • Living Liminal

    “Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. ”

    I hadn’t looked at it this way before, but I see the truth in what you say. Thank you.

    • elizabethesther

      You’re welcome!

  • Scott Morizot

    There’s always a piece of me that initially reads ‘cult’ or ‘cultic’ in its classical rather than its modern sense. (In its original sense, it simply meant religious practice, as in the ‘cult of Athena’.) ;-)

    Anyway, we were never in a cult, but I do remember being around charismatic, ‘cultic’ leaders of the non-Christian sort growing up. (My mother in particular had a penchant for attracting interesting people.) Think more of “The Master” sort of vein, though rarely as elaborate.

    I think it’s my observation that the beliefs (Christian or otherwise) do not lead, at least originally, to ‘cultic’ behavior. Rather, cultic leaders (and groups) gravitate toward beliefs that support and reinforce the desired behaviors.

  • Scott Morizot

    At the heart of true Christian belief lies the unending love of a God who desires communion with all, who does not infringe the freedom of human beings, and which holds that man is the icon or image of Christ who is the icon of God. It’s that portrait of reality that was part of what made Christianity so radically different from the ancient pagan cults (using cult in its original sense). Christianity does not seek to manipulate and does not seek to control the person. Rather, the church is the hospital that seeks to minister and heal all and restore their communion with God and with each other. Beliefs that degrade the human being (e.g. total depravity) are really as bad as those that twist God (e.g. that God ‘punishes’ sinners). But the beliefs don’t cause groups to manipulate, control, and abuse. I still think it’s the other way around. The beliefs attract those who see them as a useful tool for manipulation, control, and abuse.

    • elizabethesther

      Great point, Scott. So happy to see you back here in my combox.

  • Ianhimself

    Love this article. Actually I love pretty much everything you write! Long ago I was part of a movement that pretty much sanctified all of that same shit …. ‘directive’ leadership who needed to be ‘served’ by grateful acolytes, dutifully subservient women trying to somehow rationalise how it was that god had made them somehow of lesser value than the immature men who kept cocking things as they tried to wear the garb of ‘headship’ in the family, the undermining of member confidence in their own ability to make choices, the casting of demons out of children ffs; and so on to the point of complete insanity …. so it kinda pains me to see that the merry-go-round is still whirling.

    Maybe there’s a flaw in the psyche of those of us who want to have some connectedness to a faith dimension that makes us susceptible to the sellers of snake oil and their institutionalised hijacking of our ‘wild and precious lives’ as Mary Oliver might say. Maybe there’s something inherent in christian faith itself starting as it does from the point of inherited human flawedness/sinfulness/whatever that drives its followers to the place of accepting that denigration and denial of the self is somehow an effective pathway to holiness.

    Who knows …. and maybe there’s really no need to give a shit. Worrying about why the fire started doesn’t always help you find the emergency exit!

    Your stuff is so refreshing – both in content and delivery. I’m introducing pretty much everyone I ever knew to it.

  • Joshua Rosenkranz

    It’s funny…at one point I thought he was actually a decent pastor. I listened to him give a sermon on his book “Real Marriage” and afterwards didn’t think anything else of him but a fairly good public speaker/pastor. But after reading all of the stories and testimonies of people who have survived Mars Hill…I have to say I’m more than disappointed with Mark Driscoll. One thing that I keep hearing about is abuse..what kind of abuse was going on?? Everywhere else on the internet that I’ve looked just mentions it but doesn’t give any details, KatR, what abuses were uncovered? I’m seriously just trying to find out because as I said most of the stories I’ve been hearing/reading are pretty vague about it.

  • Handsfull

    I resonate with your experience of how using the term ‘cult’ helps outsiders make quicker sense of what you’re trying to convey, that has been my experience too. I also know that when I was in the cult I grew up in, when outsiders used that word around me, it just reinforced my beliefs that they were poor, misguided things who really needed the ‘true light’.
    Sigh… brainwashing sucks!

  • Leah

    Just as it took you a while to refer to your childhood church as a cult, it took me a while to hesitantly refer to my past relationship as abusive. Strangely protective, I didn’t want to view my ex in that way. But you’re correct; labeling the experience/person/church as such does help others to understand, and in my case, to understand why I’m still disfigured emotionally. I’m five years removed & still feeling the aftershocks. But it is getting better; not all is lost. I’m still me.. just different.