Following Jesus After the Rise and Fall of a Leader: Reflections on Mars Hill

“We no longer trust authorities, in part because we used to trust them too much.”
–Michael Specter

A.J. Swoboda Part 5 of 7

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Falling Leaders

Through the summer heat of 2021, the American Christian podcast scene was taken by storm by “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Curated, narrated, and edited by Mike Cosper—with support from Christianity Today—the documentary style podcast explores the meteoric rise and eventual cataclysmic demise of the Mars Hill Church movement under pastor Mark Driscoll from the early 2000s through 2014. The show’s impact is impossible to escape in my neck of the woods—the Pacific Northwest. Virtually everyone has binge-listened to it, taken it as a companion on some long road trip, or listened to it with their spouse or small group.

Why has the podcast been so riveting for so many?

I’ve been almost singularly curious about this in recent weeks: how could a podcast about a church in Seattle, Washington I’ve never attended or even given much attention be so interesting? Is it the long-form journalism it provides—an increasing rarity in sound-bite culture? Is it the laudable production quality? Or, is it its breathtaking story-telling or poignant commentary?

No. Quite simply, I’ve come to believe that the podcast provides something conservative Christians traditions like my own have long yearned for—a vulnerable expression of communal confession for communal church sins. Granted, Evangelicals have not struggled to confess individual sins. But, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” hits a different nerve. As the listener finds out, the sins of Mars Hill Church are cast not as those of one individual alone. In some sense, these are our sins. We allowed this to happen. We played some role either by standing by, observing, or inaction.

The podcast almost seems to crescendo into a critical moment for many Christians who are coming to grips with the ways their own tradition has enacted harm. A friend likened the moment as a kind of “reckoning” for unbalanced and dangerous leadership styles we’ve let go unchallenged. But mostly, it is a critical moment in Christian history where we are coming to terms with how fundamentally flawed, broken, and often inhumane our leaders and leadership structures can be to real people. For many of us, these issues provoke a really important question:

How do we follow Jesus after being hurt by the person who showed us how to follow Jesus?

Bitter: Deconstructing Leadership

The fallout from being hurt by the sin of a trusted leader can be jarring, traumatic, and often overwhelming. When we look long enough, one only has broken heroes to follow—as I discuss in my recent book After Doubt.

My heroes are broken. Karl Barth (a theology hero) is widely believed to have had an inappropriate (perhaps even sexual) relationship with his secretary who dictated his Church Dogmatics. Aimee Semple McPherson (the founder of my denomination) divorced two times and died of a sleeping-pill overdose. Martin Luther (the father of Protestantism) finished his illustrious theological career with an anti-Semitic rant entitled On the Jews and Their Lies. John Howard Yoder (whose theology of peace changed the trajectory of my life) was posthumously discovered to be a womanizer. Even the most important theological dictionary to date—used by theologians, biblical scholars, and pastors alike—entitled The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich added to my crisis. Notice their names are German? It is sobering to realize that one of the most important theological works in Christian history was commissioned by Hitler and the Third Reich during World War II. My favorite theological dictionary, it turns out, was funded by the Nazis.

When we discover these unsightly details about our heroes, we can be thrown into a crisis of faith. And these are just my theological heroes. I didn’t know any of these people personally. What is one to do when our pastor, spiritual director, counselor, or trusted spiritual guide betrays us with their own sinfulness?

It exposes. First, it exposes the sins of the people who impacted us spiritually. And, secondly, it exposes waves of great pain. The pain of the sin. And the pain of regret that we ever placed our trust in them in the first place. The results can be disastrous. It can lead to broken relationships, cynicism, an all-out rejection of faith, or even a total deconstruction of one’s faith in the Christian narrative.

But there can also be a bright side to this—the wound exposes our even more pressing need for God. In the years following World War II, a radical Christian renewal captured the minds of the likes of T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden, and Graham Greene. C. S. Lewis himself discussed how the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War awakened his need for God. This is why churches were full in the aftermath of 9/11. These crises can be personal too: a lost spouse, death, a divorce, a child coming out of the closet, loss, broken trust, being hurt by the church. Something about a crisis awakens our need for something we can trust in.

Imperfect leaders, perplexingly, reveal our deep need for God.

 

Israel Had No King

This harkens us back to the Old Testament narrative of the judges. At a time when God’s people “did what was right in their own eyes,” caught in cycle after cycle of sin and idolatry, God sent a series of fifteen judges (or, redeemers) to “rescue” them. The cycle goes round and round. Israel sins. Israel commits adultery. Israel gets beat in battle. God sends a judge. Israel repents. Then the cycle begins again—fifteen times.

Sadly, the revivals that the judges bring are never permanent. A judge can momentarily solve a situation—but they don’t have the ability to solve the problems of the human condition. The people slip back into their old ways time and again.

One line sums up the book of Judges:

In those days . . . there was no king in Israel” (21:25).

It’s as if the author is saying that no matter how many judges God sends, there was one thing that they weren’t—kings. But that was what Israel needed. Israel needed a righteous kingly leader who could bring Israel back. The reader is left longing for some kind of future leader who could be the judge that would restore order to the chaotic world of Israel. One is left wondering if people could ever be trusted.

One can see the New Testament picking up this theme by casting the righteous king Jesus as the answer to the Judges question. Now there is a king in Israel. This king was a human—but this king was also God. That is why the incarnation is such a pivotal movement in human history. To trust in God is to trust in a person—namely, Jesus.

Hence the beauty of Christ’s words: “Trust in God . . . trust also in me.” That is the miracle of the incarnation. God has come. And God has become a person. Finally, we have a king in the flesh.

Everyone else was just a measly judge.

Sweet: Trusting Leaders Rightly

How can we follow Jesus after having been hurt by his people?

Most importantly, we learn how to discern the difference between a judge and the King. We will all have imperfect judges in our life—those who come alongside and offer momentary help. We need pastors. We need spiritual directors. We need counselors and godly teachers. But our problem becomes when we confuse them with the only one who can be our king—Jesus of Nazareth. God sends judges. But a judge is not the King.

Years ago, I read that Eugene Peterson once said that the single greatest sin of American Christian leaders is that they demand everyone follow them but they themselves never follow anyone else. There is a depth of wisdom to that that nearly brings me to tears. I have been hurt by fallen Christian leaders. And I am a fallen Christian leader. I have hurt people too. My assignment is to own that. I will give an account. So will all of us. This means I do the hard work of opening myself up to people who can skillfully and gently guide my own soul into pastures of grace. And in so doing I can become a more well-equipped and sanctified leader so as to serve God’s people well.

We need leaders. And it takes great risk and trepidation to trust a leader after having been hurt by one. But that is often where the greatest healing can take place. We are often healed where we have been hurt. This does not mean we return to places of abuse and trauma. But it does mean that we open ourselves up again to the risks of trust when it becomes appropriate.

I’ve heard it said that being a leader is basically letting people down at a rate they can handle. If that’s true, then being a follower is just preparing to be let down on some real level. But that is okay. Because when you’ve spent time under the lives of the judges, you get really well prepared to desire the soon-coming King.

Suggested Reading

Suggested Practices

  • Begin to see a spiritual director. Find a safe person with whom you can discuss your church wounds—particularly if the person who has wounded you is your pastor.
  • Learn to cry. A good way to access those emotions is to immerse yourself in what are called the “Lament Psalms” of the Old Testament.
  • Let your prayer life become very raw. God invites you to bear before him the most real and honest cries of your heart. He can handle them. He made you to be honest with him.
A.J. Swoboda (PhD, Birmingham) is assistant professor of Bible, Theology, and World Christianity at Bushnell University and lead mentor for the Doctor of Ministry Program at Fuller Theological Seminary on the Holy Spirit and Leadership. He is the author of many books, including After Doubt (Brazos). He lives, works, and raises chickens in Eugene, Oregon.
Listen to all parts in this Bittersweet series