taking the words of Jesus seriously

A recent podcast is making the rounds in the Christian world: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, from Christianity Today. It documents the meteoric rise of pastor Mark Driscoll and his church/brand Mars Hill, and then the thundering collapse of the whole empire.

Now, this podcast comes from an evangelical outlet. So it is a deeply flawed exploration, in my opinion, because it bends over backward to point out the benefits of megachurches and Mars Hill despite all the patriarchy and harm. Setting that aside, it is a well-made, honest, and informative look at one of the most hyper-masculine, toxic, and influential church leaders of our generation. If it’s not too triggering for you to hear about this stuff, it is probably worth the listen.

One of the questions that the host, Mike Cosper, asks many times throughout the program is some version of what’s wrong with us?  Why do we keep empowering, following, and fawning over this type of leader? Why was Mark Driscoll, despite all the damage he was doing, catapulted to fame as a preacher, pastor, speaker, and author? 

An obvious answer is talent. He was and is a charismatic, funny, and brash public speaker. But that can’t be the full explanation. There are plenty of funny and talented people of faith. Why do the ones who are also narcissists so often rise to prominence as leaders within (white, western) Christianity—a faith tradition named after Jesus Christ, who taught and modeled humility and meekness?

Like most big questions, there are probably many, many reasons for this phenomenon. But one we must confront as a culture is the relationship between the nature of churches and the types of leaders who are chosen to lead them.

READ: Reaching Past the Obvious to Find Belonging

What is a church? The answer to that question will determine, of course, who is best-suited to lead one:

  • If a church is mostly about people getting their doctrines right, then a brilliant theologian would be a good pastor.
  • If a church is mostly about people helping each other, then a compassionate therapist would be a good pastor.
  • If a church is mostly about working toward justice, then a tireless activist would be a good pastor.
  • If a church is mostly about people’s relationships with each other, then a socially gifted connector would be a good pastor.
  • If a church is mostly about getting more people into the pews (i.e. more people “hearing the gospel,” converting to the faith, donating to the church, etc.), then a savvy business leader or talented entertainer would be a good pastor.

Of course, a church is not just about one thing—and so in reality, a good pastor will have a varied skill set. But to the extent that growth, brand, and empire-building are emphasized, the ideal pastor will be a CEO type or at least a compelling orator.

Unfortunately, this is a massive problem to try to untangle. One of the reasons we keep seeing toxic, egomaniacal leaders is that they are the best at leading the type of churches we’ve created! So we’ll keep on seeing precisely those leaders until the nature and purposes of church are deconstructed.

That work of deconstruction will take significant time and effort. But perhaps we should begin with this thought: the reason white churches in the USA have been constructed this way is that they are deeply entwined with America’s white supremacist corporate culture. In the article “White Supremacy Culture,” Dr. Tema Okun lists 15 characteristics of cultures steeped in white supremacy.

At a glance, my last evangelical church exhibits at least 14 of them. This is something that deserves our attention.


 A version of this article first appeared on the Harbor Online Community blog.

About The Author


Jon Mathieu (MDiv, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Harbor Online Community, an inclusive online church. He is also the community engagement editor for the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine. He lives in Chicago, IL.

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