Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch That Tells Modern Women to Submit
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She eventually quit her job and Jeff started working as a manager at a hardware store. Their relationship continued to deteriorate, and when she confessed an infidelity to Jeff, the church leaders took action, drawing up a “spiritual discipline contract” for Kailea. It promised, among other things, that she and Jeff would move back in together immediately, and that she would stop seeing her therapist, who was unaffiliated with Mars Hill. When Kailea refused to sign, she was kicked out of the church. The leadership posted a letter on the church’s member website asking her friends to stop contacting her, and she has not heard from a single one of them since.
Kailea’s story echoes dozens of testimonies that have been released from former Mars Hill members in the past year. In January 2012, Seattle alternative weekly the Stranger published a front-page article ( “Church or Cult?: The Control-Freaky Ways of Mars Hill Church”) featuring interviews with ex-members describing abusive treatment, as well as publicizing a network of blogs in which ex-members tell their stories, disclose disciplinary documents, and speak out against Mars Hill’s practice of “spiritual abuse.” The stories repeatedly liken the church to a cult, revealing extreme manipulation and over-exercising of authority, as well as verbal assault and blackmail.
Kailea says it’s no secret that one of the church’s main draws for women is the men—what she calls “the Christian Prince Charming” and what Driscoll calls “real men.” A two-part series on the Mars Hill blog called “What Women Think of Mars Hill Men” acts as quality assurance, featuring testimonies from Mars Hill women on Mars Hill–produced males. Ashley, a single 23-year-old, says that when she heard Pastor Mark preaching to the men to grow up, get jobs, leave their homes, and then pursue women, she thought, “If the guys in this room take half of what he is saying, they’re already better than the men I’ve known.”
The catch, though, is that if you want a Mars Hill man, you have to agree to a Mars Hill relationship. “When you’re submitting yourself to God, you’re submitting yourself to something that’s in you; [but] women are submitting themselves to another person. They look at that as though it’s equal submission. It’s not,” says Kailea. Mars Hill members counter that secular culture gets their understanding of submission all wrong. In the evangelical world, submission has much more positive connotations—it is near synonymous with trust, respect, humility, and thinking the best of others. Mars Hill appeals to women to submit by first presenting this evangelical definition and then by emphasizing that submission is their independent choice; as Jen Smidt, a church deacon, puts it, “The strongest man on the planet cannot force an unsubmissive woman to be led.” By defining submission as a brave, independent choice in which women abdicate power despite their capabilities, Mars Hill gives women a new framework of female empowerment.
“There’s a narrative within the church that the women are actually very strong because they have to deny the pressure of the outside world to be independent,” said Christine Marietta, a therapist who attended the Seattle School of Psychology and Theology (which used to be called Mars Hill Graduate School before changing its name to avoid association with the growing church). Marietta attended Mars Hill several times while an undergrad at UW and now blogs frequently about women, Christianity, and Mars Hill. When Marietta writes posts that critique Mars Hill’s gender theology, she says the women react strongly, attacking her with variations of “How dare you think me weak!”
Irene is not your typical Mars Hill member. In her mid-30s, she is above the average age and she prefers traditional African-American spirituals to Mars Hill’s brand of indie folk. Initially put off by the whiteness of Mars Hill (Irene is Chinese American), she reconsidered when they opened a location in Seattle’s Rainier Beach, a neighborhood whose diversity was reflected in the congregation’s demographics. Most surprising, Irene attended the all-women liberal arts college Wellesley, and moved to New York after graduation with a group of friends, including her girlfriend at the time. Similar to Jess, Irene’s return to Christianity “was preceded by a huge kick of massive sexual liberation” during which she went out almost every night, sleeping with men and women. “I thought I had all the right ideas,” she recalls.