Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch That Tells Modern Women to Submit
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As Sandler points out, Driscoll identified the “man-boy crisis” as a spiritual problem nearly a decade before secular media came to see it as a societal one. His method for addressing it involves restoring male leadership, relieving women of all financial and critical decision-making responsibility, and placing high value on marriage and children.
At Mars Hill, as in most evangelical churches, notions of gender are founded on complementarianism—the idea that men and women are equal, but have distinct and complementary roles. Both leaders and members of Mars Hill reinforce gender stereotypes and assumptions with the gusto of a 1950s-era ad for laundry detergent. Men need respect, women need love. Men are messy, women are neat. One member describes her relationship using a driving analogy, in which she drives her hot-pink car alongside her husband’s blue one, occasionally pulling behind to let him take the lead. Becoming a deacon is the highest leadership position available to women at Mars Hill, a role between congregant and pastor that exists mainly to offer support to the elders (and a word whose Greek origins literally translate to “servant”).
It’s hard to see 21st-century women signing up for this, and many of them were surprised about it themselves. Jess, who was raised in a secular family, discovered Christianity when, in middle school, she attended church with a friend’s family and found herself drawn to the warm atmosphere and sensitive discussion. When she came to UW as a freshman, hungry for community, she joined a religious group on campus but simultaneously, like many other freshmen, started going to parties and experimenting with alcohol and sex. After several months of feeling lost and unhappy, Jess tried attending a few services at Mars Hill, a church she heard about through friends. She hated the church’s ideas about women and gender roles, she hated that they told her that Jesus was the only one who knew how best to live, but most of all, she hated that she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Mars Hill challenged her and she wanted to prove them wrong, so she kept going back. Eventually, just as an experiment, she began to follow some of the church’s advice. And as she changed her actions—stopped partying as much, started reading the Bible, became less promiscuous—Jess realized she felt happier. The pastors told her that at some point she would have to make a decision: believe in Jesus or don’t. Jess looked at the community around her, weighed her skepticism against the risk of an eternity in hell, and decided to sign a covenant and become an official member of the church.
Mars Hill leaders are aware that complementarianism poses a problem for prospective female converts like Jess. A questionnaire handed out as part of a church seminar preparing couples for marriage asks women to consider the question “Does helper seem like a high calling or a diminished calling to you?”
“You’ll hear this a million times: If you don’t submit, you’re prideful and rebellious,” says ex–Mars Hill member Kailea. Though she was raised in a strict evangelical household, many of Mars Hill’s views—especially those regarding gender and homosexuality—never sat well with her. Nevertheless, Kailea started attending Mars Hill in high school, since it was the cool church to go to. “I liked that there were a lot of people smoking outside,” Kailea says. “The pastors were giving each other beer for Christmas.”
When she turned 18, Kailea became a member, along with her boyfriend, Jeff, whom she married shortly after, when she became pregnant. A year later, she became pregnant again (Kailea used birth control, despite the church’s encouragement of the rhythm method, otherwise known as “Catholic roulette”). Mars Hill’s emphasis on traditional gender roles began to strain their relationship. “[Jeff] felt like he was failing as a leader; I felt like I just couldn’t submit enough.” At the time, Kailea was working as a manager at a coffee shop and Jeff was staying home to take care of the kids. “There was a lot of pressure to change that.” The couple started going to marriage counseling with one of the pastors, who continually suggested that all their marital problems were rooted in their denial of their God-given roles. “No matter what we told him, that became what our issue was,” Kailea says.