This 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: