When institutions lose accountability: the case of Mars Hill Church

Mars Hill Campus, 2012. Photo by Frank Brown | CC BY-SA 3.0

A news feature about Mars Hill Church, a large Christian evangelical organization mostly centered around Seattle, Washington, was published this week by the  alternative weekly The Stranger. The church and its head, pastor Mark Driscoll, have gone through several controversies since 2007, with the last couple months being the period of most intense criticism.

The feature summarizes what has occurred, though if you want a more detailed long-term investigation I suggest reading Warren Throckmorton at Patheos.com. Writ large, Mars Hill is a cautionary tale. When organizations move towards authoritarianism, whether religious, social, or political, they often sow the seeds of their ultimate demise.

Protestantism has a long history of democratic church governance. I’m currently reading a book about Scotland’s evolution since the Reformation, and one of the most radical ideas that came was the idea that an elected body had ultimate power over the minister in a given parish. If the minister was abusive or incompetent, they could be fired. Their power was well-regulated. Many churches in America still have that system, where church bylaws create a structure that is self-regulating and sustainable.

Driscoll changed Mars Hill from a strong council style where his influence was checked, to one where he had vast executive authority and little opposition. Two elders who opposed this shift were shunned and discarded.

What has happened since is a a clear lesson of why checks and balances are required in any complex institution. Driscoll has been aggressive and confrontational with critics, often using pseudonyms. His books have faced allegations of plagiarism. Last month came the most disturbing revelation:

In a July 2014 letter, Mars Hill admitted that millions of dollars donated to its Global Fund, which appeared to be bound for projects in Ethiopia and India, actually went into Mars Hill’s general fund, which raised questions about how much of the general fund goes towards Driscoll’s salary. Driscoll’s handlers have declined to answer questions about the scandal, but journalist Warren Throckmorton, who follows Mars Hill closely, reported that unnamed church insiders estimate less than 5 percent of the Global Fund actually made it overseas.

Recently he claimed that opposition to his authority has been anonymous and hiding, which led to a protest outside of their Bellevue campus showing that opposition was no afraid of showing itself in public.

Having lived in a place with many large corporations, I have heard stories about CEOs stocking boards of directors with family members or yes-men. From there, they can act with impunity, from their hiring and firing decisions to personal compensation. In Silicon Valley this system survives in times of record prosperity, but under any pressure stars to buckle. People who only hear what they want to hear will in time lose a grip on larger society. For a body that must maintain membership and gain new followers, the tone-deaf policymaking that comes from insular leaders creates an organization that lurches from crisis to crisis.

Radical democracy has its just critics, but it can help prevent the harmful path that Mars Hill has taken in the past several years. As long as churches, businesses, and governments are in the hands of a few elites, the common people will suffer the most from poor decisionmaking. There are few things more demoralizing than being in a community in which your opinions are not solicited and not valued. Hopefully other groups will see the embarrassing state of Mars Hill and take its story to heart. We all have much to learn, for future society will depend on learning from what has worked and avoided what has not.