I still have them. By “them” I mean the slew of copy-and-pasted text messages I sent to several brothers in Christ the morning of July 9, 2021, soon after listening to the first episode of Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast. The text message I sent to each of these men was the same – “Highly recommend.☝🏼” (The upward-pointing finger was referring to an embedded link to Episode 1 – “Who Killed Mars Hill?”)
As a man who typically takes his time in typing out texts, the uncharacteristic brevity of this particular message was significant. There simply wasn’t time to waste. This podcast was excellent, and these men needed to hear it!
Fast forward four weeks, and I am writing this article, and doing so at a decidedly slower pace, and with a decidedly more measured tone. And why? Because while “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” certainly has many things going for it, six episodes in, the podcast also presents many areas of concern for the biblically-minded and discerning follower of Christ.
To be clear, this article is not meant to be a hit piece written by a disillusioned former fan. Rather, it is meant to provide a balanced assessment of a resource which has become a phenomenon in American Christendom over the past two months – and to do so both by drawing out praiseworthy aspects of the production, while also highlighting a few perceived problems with the podcast.
This article, then, is both complimentary and cautionary. It presents both the highs and the lows of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” We’ll begin with the highs. Or, to borrow from the title of the podcast itself, we’ll begin with where the podcast “rises.”
WHERE THE PODCAST RISES
First, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is an incredibly well-produced podcast from a technical standpoint. From the teaser clip leading into each episode, to the crisp transition into the theme song (“Sticks and Stones” by King’s Kaleidoscope), to the narration work done by the show’s writer and producer (Mike Cosper), to the overall recording quality, to the stitching together of cuts from different interviews – the production quality of the podcast as a whole is excellent. It tells a gripping story, and it does so in a virtually flawless manner (technically-speaking).
With the release of this podcast, Christianity Today is saying—rightly—that gone are (or gone should be) the days of Christian content being subpar from a production quality standpoint. There is no reason why Christian-themed content ought to be qualitatively cringeworthy. The bar has been raised for future releases of similar Christian-themed content to aim objectively for excellence in production, which is a good thing.
Second, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” skillfully spotlights the toxic blend of an ambitious church planter (Mark Driscoll) with an obvious pride problem and a church structure (and culture) which enabled this lone ranger leader to become increasingly swollen with a sense of self. The creators of the podcast, through interviews of various former members, servants, and employees of Mars Hill, clearly portray Driscoll as a man who openly refused accountability (for example, by going so far as to call those who suggest he seek accountability “heretics”), who dismissively refused mentorship by more seasoned pastors (for instance, refusing to seek out John Piper as a mentor because Piper’s church was smaller than Driscoll’s), and who refused to implement at Mars Hill anything approaching the biblical model of shared, plural eldership.
Though the podcast is light on Bible references, several passages of Scripture come to mind which, had they been taken to heart by Driscoll and those in leadership at Mars Hill, surely could have helped prevent the disaster which eventually befell this church. These passages include Proverbs 16:18 (“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling”), 1 Corinthians 10:12 (“Therefore let the one who thinks he stands watch out that he does not fall”), and 1 Peter 5:2-3 (“shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not with greed but with eagerness; nor yet as domineering over those assigned to your care, but by proving to be examples to the flock”).
Third, another strength of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is embedded in its title. The podcast truly is about Mars Hill as an institution. It does not overly focus on the embarrassing tumble Mark Driscoll took as an individual public figure toward the end of 2014. It steers clear of celebrating the downfall of an individual. It is neither scurrilous nor muckraking.
Instead, the podcast presents more of a wide-angle perspective on what was happening at the church as a whole as it tottered under Driscoll’s leadership, and as the timeline marches forward the podcast highlights the wreckage the church’s collapse caused not only to Driscoll and his personal and pastoral reputation, but to the countless individuals and families who lost jobs, lost church community, lost biblical fellowship, lost hope, and in many cases, lost their faith.
In a way, then, the podcast attempts to remedy what plagued Mars Hill from the beginning—a singular focus on Mark Driscoll—by setting Driscoll off to the side, as appropriate, in order to showcase the real hurts, trials, and difficulties that various members and employees of the church experienced both during the rise and the fall of this now-defunct church.
To summarize, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” has many strengths—strengths that have led to it receiving much well-deserved praise. But as many strengths as it has, there are major weaknesses and concerns. These are—again, to borrow from the podcast’s title—where it “falls.”
WHERE THE PODCAST FALLS
First, one key area of concern with “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is its obvious bias against Reformed theology. Though it is incredibly difficult to capture its tenets in a single sentence, “Reformed theology” is defined here as that set of theological beliefs which affirm the five solas of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus, Soli Deo Gloria), and which affirm the exclusively divine (or “monergistic”) origin of a person’s salvation. On more than one occasion, the podcast attempts to link whatever sins of personal pride that Mark Driscoll was battling during his time at Mars Hill to his eventual embrace of Reformed theology.
This supposed link comes out in the third episode, where references are made to Driscoll’s embrace of Reformed theology as somehow being the catalyst of his increasingly churlish behavior. According to one interviewee, it was when Driscoll embraced Reformed theology that “the windows shut into his heart.” The implication is clear – if a person is not careful, their embrace of Reformed theology will eventually, like Driscoll, lead to a deadness of spirit and a numbness of heart.
The podcast’s bent against Reformed theology also comes out in the sixth episode, which describes Driscoll’s links to the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, and in doing so not only paints Driscoll in an unflattering light (particularly in relationship to his increased self-awareness of his celebrity), but paints the Reformed movement itself in unflattering terms. Even John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Life” sermon is somehow lumped in with the discussion of Driscoll’s obstreperous behavior – which to the undiscerning (or rushed) listener might lead one to believe that the high and eternally-minded theology that Piper powerfully preached in his now-infamous sermon on a grassy Memphis field in May 2000 somehow influenced Driscoll for the worse.
At best, the podcast’s attempts to draw connections between Driscoll’s Reformed theology (if it could even be called that) and his personal foibles and failures represent sloppy journalism. At worst, these attempts reveal an axe to grind with Reformed theology, which, as Charles H. Spurgeon once remarked, is nothing other than biblical Christianity.
Second, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is far from precise in its treatment of the relationship between how Mark Driscoll viewed (and preached on) male-female roles and husband-wife relations, and what the Bible clearly teaches about these matters.
On the one hand, the podcast rightly calls out the lurid ways in which Driscoll was known to describe how husbands and wives are to relate to each other in the marriage bed. Driscoll clearly engaged in exegetical gymnastics and took many theological liberties to arrive at many of the homiletical conclusions and points of application which he laid down for his congregation at Mars Hill. Not only that, Real Marriage, written by Driscoll and his wife (Grace), was nothing other than pornographic in many places. Surely, through his sermons and his writings, there were men and women who came away from Driscoll’s teaching with a warped view of biblical sexuality.
But the podcast goes beyond merely critiquing the many ways in which Driscoll overstepped biblical boundaries in his teachings on roles, sex, and marriage. The podcast broadens the critique by taking multiple stabs at complementarianism as a whole. It does so by suggesting that Driscoll’s views were representative of all complementarians (including such revered theologians as Wayne Grudem). And it does so by facetiously undermining the notion that women and wives might actually find true joy and freedom in submitting to their husbands, leaving the secular workforce in order to work at home and rear children (Titus 2:3-5), and otherwise thriving and finding joy in the primary areas of responsibility for which the Lord has designed them to function and to flourish. An undiscerning listener could come away from this podcast thinking that because Mark Driscoll was wrong on certain points, complementarianism is wrong as a whole. The podcast, in other words, throws out the complementarian baby with the Mark Driscoll-infused bathwater.
Third, a final word of caution about “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” boils down to these three words: consider the source. The podcast is a production of Christianity Today. Originally founded by Billy Graham in 1956, this publication has (like Graham), over the decades, attempted to fold professed Christians of all shapes, sizes, and stripes under one big tent. The result, especially in recent decades, is that various forms of aberrant theology have made their way into its pages and other productions (including podcasts).
Christianity Today has platformed people who deny the inerrancy of Scripture, promoted those who ignore the plain teachings of Scripture on various matters (e.g., six-day creationism, the Bible’s prohibition on women serving as pastors, etc.), highlighted the writings and teachings of those who are part of denominations which have become openly liberal while embracing the spirit of the age, and championed those who seek to advocate the intrusion of various forms of non-gospel-oriented political ideology into the church (e.g., wokeism).
In other words, Christianity Today, through its various media, does not speak for all Christians, and certainly not for those who are committed to the sufficiency of Scripture and a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic. “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” needs to be evaluated rightly in light of its source.
Will I continue to listen to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”? Yes, I will. As a man whose life is devoted to pastoral ministry, the podcast has already given me many opportunities to pause, reflect, and meditate on my own walk with the Lord, my own focus and effectiveness in ministry, and potential pitfalls to my faithful service to King Jesus.
Do I recommend that all Christians listen to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”? No, I do not. I cannot give the podcast such a broadly-ringing endorsement – particularly when there are countless resources which are far more biblically-faithful, and profitable, than this one.
But if you do decide to listen to the podcast, my recommendation is that you do so with a raised eyebrow, an open Bible, and a heart that is willing to be corrected—through God’s Word—as you listen to the gloomy account of the slowly-derailing train known as Mars Hill. As you do so, you (as I) must be willing to say, “there but for the grace of God, go I.”