Cult of the Seattle sex pastor?

From Christianity Today to The Tennessean, Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has been making a ton of headlines lately. Most, but not all, concern a new book by Driscoll and his wife, Grace, titled “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, & Life Together.” (Just to be clear for those not paying real close attention, Driscoll is not the sex-on-the-roof pastor, although both were mentioned in the same ABC News report on Valentine’s Day.) magazine produced one of the more interesting pieces on Driscoll that I’ve seen. Fascinatingly  (or strangely?) enough, the 1,650-word report published Friday does not even mention the sex-in-marriage book, even though the story is about a disgruntled former member who alleges Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church subjected him to heavy-handed church discipline after he violated the megachurch’s sexual conduct covenant.

The Slate story — dubbed “A Shunning in Seattle” — bills itself this way:

A powerful megachurch’s harsh tactics raise questions about how much control churches should have over their members’ lives.

It’s intriguing subject matter, but sadly, the report falls short as a piece of serious journalism, assuming that’s how the magazine intended it.

There’s too much innuendo — and too few named sources — to deem this an accurate, evenhanded accounting of the facts and key players involved. That’s unfortunate, given that — in some ways — the writer flashes remarkable insight into the makeup and mechanisms of the modern megachurch.

The top of the story:

Until last fall, a 25-year-old Seattle man named Andrew was happily committed to Mars Hill Church, one of America’s fastest-growing megachurches with more than 5,000 members. He volunteered weekly for security duty at his branch of the church, joined a Bible study group, and had recently become engaged to the daughter of a church elder. Then he made a mistake that found him cast out: He cheated on his fiancee with a community college classmate. The fury over Andrew’s experience—and his decision to publicize the church’s internal disciplinary procedures—has led to accusations by other Christians that one of the most powerful evangelical voices in the country, Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll, employs a cultlike leadership style. Now, for the first time, Mars Hill is speaking out in response to its former member’s charges.

My three main problems with the story:

* The squishy approach to the facts:  About one-third of the way into the story, the ex-member — indirectly — gives his side of what happened:

According to that account, Andrew cheated on his fiancee, engaging in some kind of sexual contact short of intercourse with another woman. Racked with guilt, he quickly confessed to both his fiancee and another member of his small group. About two weeks later, he also admitted to having a premarital sexual relationship with his now ex-fiancee.

Slate takes that side of the story and uses it as the overriding narrative. Not until the next-to-last paragraph — roughly 900 words later — does the report present the other side of the story:

Dean describes Andrew as “a man who cheated on his fiancee, lied about it, and only confessed after being pressed about suspicious details.”

* The ‘cult’ label without adequate probing: In the lede, the story introduces the C-word, attributing it to “accusations by other Christians.” Later, “fellow evangelical Christians” are cited as those concerned about Driscoll’s practices. In another case, “some critics” is the all-encompassing attribution used.

The only actual named source using the term “cult-like” is a blogger, while a separate reference cites an unidentified ex-member who compared his experience — in a separate newspaper report — to people “drinking Kool-Aid.”

Is there true concern that Mars Hill Church is a cult? If so, more serious — and more in-depth — reporting is needed.

The Religion Newswriters Association’s stylebook guideline on cults is helpful:


A term that has come to be associated with religious groups far outside the mainstream that have overly controlling leadership or dangerous practices. For that reason, journalists should use it with the greatest care and only when they are certain it fits. On rare occasions, cult is an appropriate description. Two groups whose members committed mass suicide are examples: the Peoples Temple (Jonestown in Guyana, South America, 1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1997, California). Another example is the Branch Davidians, whose founder, David Koresh, died along with 75 followers in a 1993 standoff with government officials.

* The one-sided perspective: From beginning to end, it’s pretty clear in this piece who’s right (hint: it’s not Driscoll) and who’s wrong. That approach works great for an editorial, but not for a news story.

It would be interesting to see an actual mainstream news report on these allegations and Mars Hill Church’s approach to church discipline. In seeking to uncover the truth, such a report would, of course, need to quote actual church members by name — and not just one disgruntled ex-member identified by his first name only.

Such a piece also might explore questions left unanswered in the Slate story, such as the role of church elders at Mars Hill. It’s telling that the ex-member’s fiancee was the daughter of a church elder. Did that connection change the dynamics of how this particular situation played out? Hey, such a piece might even quote the fiancee and her father and seek to tell a fuller, fairer version of the truth.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I won’t be covering this story because it’s too far away from Pittsburgh. However I saw Mars Hill’s response to this before I saw the actual story. If I recall correctly, it said that of several media outlets that had reported the story, only Slate had bothered to call the church for its side of the story. It also said that elders in the church had been disciplined or removed for stepping beyond the bounds of their authority. I wonder if we will see some follow up?

  • Mike

    Two problems with this story: Insufficient reporting, including basing much of its work on other bloggers. Sadly, this is probably a sign of what’s in store for more and more reporting in the future.

    Second, it never presents a compeling case as to why I should care about a church in Seattle that disciplines a guy who cheated on his fiancee. So what?

    Is there a bigger, broader story to be told?

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Ann, I would love to see a follow-up just because of the unanswered questions.

    Mike, I agree wholeheartedly with your first point. On the second point, the fact that the story involved a prominent, nationally known pastor and one of the higher-profile megachurches made it interest me. Granted, I may not be the typical reader.

  • michael henry

    I agree with your points, they are well taken, However, the statement
    “It would be interesting to see an actual mainstream news report on these allegations and Mars Hill Church’s approach to church discipline.”

    causes me to question whether that would make a difference. From a reader point of view, I see little difference between a new blogger with a website, and “MSM”. There is virtually no source that doesn’t have to be taken with a grain of salt (and double checking) anymore.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    causes me to question whether that would make a difference. From a reader point of view, I see little difference between a new blogger with a website, and “MSM”. There is virtually no source that doesn’t have to be taken with a grain of salt (and double checking) anymore.

    The difference between any blogger with a free website and a mainstream journalist with formal education, training and reporting experience is still more than a “grain of salt.” Yes, there are issues with much MSM reporting, but those of us at GetReligion remain firm believers in journalism, and journalists.

  • Justin

    This story has been troublesome for quite awhile, even before Slate lazily solo-sourced 2nd-hand information. In the past week or so a few bloggers who intially reported/reposted part of Andrew’s story have either retracted their posts or posted rather strong apologies. It turns out that there actually was more to the story, and a few people appear to have been less than honest in the process.

    I don’t expect Slate to pick up on people backing away from this story, but it would be nice if those who initally propigated it would be more careful in the future.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    It turns out that there actually was more to the story, and a few people appear to have been less than honest in the process

    If that’s the case, I can’t say that it surprises me. I mean, you’re granting anonymity to a primary source who admits cheating on his fiancee. What reason does the reporter have to believe that the source will be any more truthful in an interview than he was in his personal actions?

  • Dee

    You said “What reason does the reporter have to believe that the source will be any more truthful in an interview than he was in his personal actions.” Hmm, Andrew confessed his sins. How many posting here (including myself) have been so honest? Perhaps Andrew is more truthful than many.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    A reminder to newcomers that GetReligion is a place to discuss the journalism and media coverage. Off-topic comments and statements from advocates will be spiked.

    Dee, my point is a journalistic one, not a judgmental one. Before granting anonymity to a source, a reporter needs to make sure the source is credible. That includes considering any potential red flags. In this particular case, I see no reason to grant the complaining party anonymity – assuming the goal is to treat all sides fairly.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I probably should say “make as sure as possible” rather than “make sure.”

  • Earl

    I find this strange that a major news outlset is reporting on the private membership affairs at a church. IF this exact same situation happened at the Elk’s Lodge, or the Eagle Post, would that be in a major newspaper?

  • WenatcheeTheHatchet

    I finally had a chance to learn about and read the Slate article that links to my blog. If I may suggest a fourth problem, the Slate article links to my blog entry in a way that strongly suggests they didn’t actually read it.

  • Brett

    I agree that the story is lazily researched, relies too heavily on a single unnamed source and is more advocacy than reporting. Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe if we were to take a survey of all of the newspapers and magazines in the country we would find this kind of work — in every area of reporting, not just religion news — to be the exception rather than the rule.

    But on the other hand, it seems like it’s one big ol’ honkin’ exception and getting bigger every time I look.

  • michael henry

    I always have more questions than answers when, as is so often the case, reporters insist on using “raises questions”, without the scare quotes of course. It immediately leads me to wonder if, and it never happens, who is asking the raised questions except the reporter, and if this is a first year journalism mantra. I sometimes read “raises fears” in the same manner

  • AuthenticBioethics

    “A powerful megachurch’s harsh tactics raise questions about how much control churches should have over their members’ lives.”

    Actually, these appear to be the wrong questions raised. It is a kind of journalistic loading of the deck toward a particular kind of ideology. A church, whether powerful or mega, has only that much control as a member gives it and never any more. It has a right to articulate its doctrines and codes of conduct for its members, and to deal with its members accordingly. Just like any organization with voluntary membership.

    “A powerful megachurch’s harsh tactics raise questions about….”

    ….about the relation of its teachings/policies/expectations to their biblical principles. About whether members understand what they’re agreeing to. About their legality with respect to civil law. But not about how much control they “should” have over members’ lives.

    Also, the word “tactics” appears loaded and inappropriate. A powerful megachurch’s harsh policies… harsh discipline…. But harsh “tactics” sets an adversarial tone between leadership and membership that smacks of, well, proletariat and bourgeoise.

    Even “harsh” has an ideological trajectory. Are they really harsh? Are they unfair? Are they a violation or exaggeration of the policies the member knew?

    In fact, the same could be said of the use of the words “powerful” and “megachurch.” How powerful is it outside of its membership? Probably not very. So why use the word? And “megachurch” sounds a little pejorative to me.

    “The stern discipline of a large church raises questions about whether its members should be expected to adhere to its polices,” however, just doesn’t have the same flash.

  • Karl Winterling

    A church discipline case is similar to a court case. Someone allegedly did something scandalous, the local church has a reaction to it, and people seem to have competing “stories” of what happened. Therefore, you can’t take it lightly or use second-hand reporting from blogs.

    Whether people like it or not (well, he’s not a psalms-only Presbyterian or a Cranmer Anglican), Driscoll is the most visible Calvinistic pastor around now, so the media will be interested in him.

  • MJ

    I’d like the administrator to publicly explain why my comment was deleted. It said nothing offensive, obscene or disrepectful. The only problem was that it challenged everything else that has been written.

  • John M.

    I would expect nothing but abominable coverage of a church discipline case. Church discipline cuts do contrary to what our culture thinks churches should do (“help poor people but shut up about morality and sex and such”) that I would be amazed if it got fair coverage. Heck, the. number of -churches- that would practice or understand Matthew 18 church discipline is vanishingly small.


  • MagicLady

    I wouldn’t necessarily call Mars Hill a cult, but I do think that much of what they are doing is in error because of misunderstanding of Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Many of the late 20th/early 21st Century ‘megachurches’ are in error because they tend to make things up as they go along. They interpret Scripture according to their own understanding and they overlook the teachings of the early Church fathers that are part of Sacred Tradition. What that pastor did regarding Andrew is in reality a form of gossip, and that is a sin in itself. The idea of confession is being abused by that church! In the churches were the Sacrament of Confession is available, the understanding is that Confession is not an inquisition or a jury trial, but rather a way to seek healing and counseling. If a priest is hearing confessions, he is to keep what is said to him in confidence. If it does come down to having an excommunication because a parishoner in blatantly and willfully unrepentant, then that, too is to be kept in confidence and not talked about with other parishoners. Gossipping is a quick way to cause damage to a church…so I would say Mark Driscoll needs to be careful in that respect.