Benjamin Petry goes where angels fear to tread.
Benjamin is the son of Paul and Jonna Petry, former members of Mars Hill Church. Back in 2007, former elders Paul and Bent Meyer resisted the changes Mark Driscoll wanted to make to the governance at Mars Hill. You can hear their story on episode seven of Christianity Today‘s podcast series, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. A more complete description of their story is chronicled at the Joyful Exiles blog (start with the Timeline).
Fourteen years ago to this day, Paul Petry and Bent Meyer submitted feedback on the proposed by-laws changes at Mars Hill Church. For raising questions, the orthodoxy of Paul and Bent was questioned and they were fired. There is more to the story but suffice to say that Paul and Bent became symbolic of principled dissent at Mars Hill. They were perhaps the first two elders thrown under the proverbial Mars Hill Church bus Mark Driscoll spoke about here.
It wasn’t just the two men who were tossed under there. Their wives and children went too. They were shunned and their church was taken away from them for no good reason.
Fourteen years later, enter Benjamin Petry.
As he explains in this Facebook post, Benjamin decided to respond to the invitation he received to attend the 5th anniversary of the opening of The Trinity Church. He wanted to call Bible teacher Mark Driscoll to recognize the character of Christ. This is his account of how that turned out.
As noted, Benjamin first posted this on his Facebook page. He gave me permission to post it here as a part of the Postcards from Phoenix series.
I went to The Trinity Church. The purpose of this post is to give many people an answer as to how my trip went because I keep getting questions. This writing may also serve as an insight in however you as the reader may find it insightful. Trinity’s website made it pretty clear I was invited to their 5-year birthday so being the social butterfly that I am I happily accepted. The first and foremost goal was to face Mark and leave Mark. In a sense, this was a sort of cognitive healing. It felt good (though it was hard) to confront something that damaged my parents and family in such an extreme and violent way.
The second goal (and looking back much of this aspiration could be classified as wishful thinking) was enabling reconciliation between my dad and Mark. I did and still do believe that if Mark wants to make right, it is within his ability through Christ to do so.
So with these goals in mind, it comes down to my execution of how I go about attempting to achieve them. I believe in radical love and assuming the best in people, even when I have every reason in the book to think otherwise. I find that oftentimes even people who act terribly towards you are trying the best they can, and there’s only so much on the surface we can see. And even when they’re not trying their best, well, that’s not up to me to decide – and I’ve realized I’m happier when I don’t. Jesus said to love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you. And I don’t try to follow this belief religiously just because Jesus said it, but because it gives results – even when the results may not be the ones we think we want or need initially. By putting the best foot forward, you take away the other person’s ability to claim in good faith that you’re overstepping them. Like all of us, Mark is created in the same image and likeness of God that I am, so I can’t really help but empathize with everyone a little, including him.
After figuring out my goals and intentions in addressing those goals, I bought my ticket. I’d be flying in from Sacramento (after a friend’s wedding) to Phoenix for the 11am service. My plane was set to land at 8:15am and was on time. When I got outside the airport I got an Uber and off to Trinity we went. My original plan was to grab breakfast around the area but after pulling up at the church curb I was greeted by a church helper and they let me know the 9AM service just started. So with that information I walked out a bit, grabbed a selfie of me at the church, and then walked back.
(I’ll mention here that there were a lot of people who wanted me to have cameras and/or recorders and make more of a scene out of the whole ordeal. If I were to act in this manner it would eliminate the notion of me coming in good faith and with a message of love and peace, so I didn’t do that. No YouTube video; no views.) Turns out I opted to fill my appetite with Mark’s preaching rather than McDonald’s that morning. This also meant I’d be in for one more extra service than the one I was attending at 11.
The guy who greeted me outside the church this time was extremely nice throughout all of my visit there. I told him my name is Benjamin. We’ll just call the guy Ted because 1.) I don’t remember his name and 2.) I don’t want him or anyone else at Trinity harassed or treated in an unGodly way, “unGodly” being defined as that which is lacking agape love. However, on that note, I do think there is certainly a lot to be said about those proclaiming Love to those around them and then carrying out actions of unLove against them. In other words, those who proclaim God and then do the unGodly in his name. As my heart goes out to the adrift perpetrators of this abuse, it also goes out to those who innocently get cut down by it. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres, even when we don’t perceive it to do so.
Getting seated was next. The church was packed so they had extra rows of chairs they were putting out (I guess their 5th anniversary advertising worked out great – I mean, I was there and I was from Seattle). Since I was 10 minutes late I missed the early worship and it felt like I was thrown into a fiery Christian stand-up gag. Mark was preaching on the book of James, but you couldn’t tell unless you were there for the start of his performance. The sermon devolved into entertaining anecdotes and emotional epiphanies – with fully voiced characters. Mark is a gifted public speaker. I won’t go into all the details of how I felt sitting there for what felt like a decade, but my mind was flying, especially when he started ranting about “trials.” What I perceived as scriptural hypocrisies, lies, and manipulation kept my heart racing up and down. At times I was laughing with the crowd, at times I wanted to weep, at times I wanted to get up and confront him directly on topic with something like “Real men apologize Mark!” (I’ve interrupted speakers before, let alone pastors, so this wouldn’t be new to me.)
Again though, to act in this way would not be inline with my goals of love, or what I think would honor my father and mother for lack of a better phrase. I chose to go with philia sophia over philia nikia. If this were something that happened directly to me though, who knows how I would have responded. I already empathized greatly with my parents, but I was more in their shoes now when it comes to the Mars Hill situation than I had ever been before, and it shocked me. This great practice in restraint was actually a pretty fun and good experience for me from a psychological perspective all things considered. I was quite literally confronting the past, and being present with it.
After the sudden flow of emotional ups and downs, it mellowed out into a feeling of sympathy, empathy, and sadness for Mark. There was a sadness for how the past was repeating itself at Trinity. Mark had learned all the wrong lessons from Seattle and was tying in his dogmatic hyper-calvinistic overly sexist ideology with conservative Christianity, and doing it all from a business perspective where he had complete domination and literally owned everything. And what better place and time to do that than with all the ex-Californians moving to Phoenix to avoid the crazy Earth-loving heathens. I mean, religion aside, his marketing is great. I wouldn’t mind if Mark retreated down to AZ to start a Christian comedy career. The problem is that it is not comedy, and I know there are people in the chairs around me who are going to be spiritually crushed and/or have really messed up beliefs enforced by Mark’s laissez faire self-destructive doctrine in the name of Yeshua.
As in the past, there was a big focus on the specific numbered growth of the church, even numbering it down to the baptisms. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a big show out of Church growth, I could tell that it was going to be used here more than anything else to hammer down dissent. (i.e., “How could you accuse me of destroying marriages – look at all these numbers!”) Everything felt so hollow, and Yeshua is not hollow, and His church is not hollow. It is full of life. The acceptance and manifestation of agape Love is not a hollow process, and the guy who is shepherding you as a believer should not be the guy also running people over he claims to love. While that might work for some people, that, to me at least, seems rather empty. It could be that as a culture we’ve become so enveloped in authoritarian hierarchies structured by the love of profits that when they appear in what we call our religion, their corruption is invisible to us. Jesus never justified existentially destroying people who are acting in good faith, and he certainly never justified it with utilitarianism. However, Mark is not alone in this. Just look at all the megachurch pastors and “leaders” of the modern evangelical movement in the US. If Jesus was walking around churches He’d be flipping over the head pastor’s book sales tables in all of them, or not, I don’t know for sure – only God knows the heart.
From sadness for my brothers and sisters who may become a part of great distress brought on by Trinity and Mark, my mind shifted to a broader picture. Some of the very reasons why Protestantism came to be was because of the rigorous authoritarian structure and outdone aesthetic of the Catholic church. The experience of the Catholic church as a whole was more about keeping others in-line and abusing the aesthetic of Christ, rather than recognizing the raw, radical character of Christ Himself. Idealistically, people wanted Christ, not comfortability backed up by mere man-made aesthetic symbols of Christ in an attempt to get people to subscribe to the Catholic machine at the time. The character of the evangelical movement in the US has grown to become more and more conglomerate, rigid, and away from God. I mean, just look at all the big names – most of them actively abuse Love, abuse scripture, and thus abuse God. But hey they own three private jets and multiple homes so who cares they must be adding value to society because they’re creating wealth right? Live and let give.
Prosperity theology is antithetical to the character of Christ.
The problem with aesthetics is that they can project an illusion of bondage in Christ, when in reality, most people at a church don’t actually have any empathy for you at all. Then again, I’d argue most church goers are in it for the whole comfortability and aesthetics thing. In that regard, Christianity in America is still sorta thriving – if we’re to use shallow utilitarian polling standards. Around 65% of the US identifies as Christian now, opposed to 70% in 2015. I’ve been in a lot of churches and this is the only one where no one who wasn’t volunteering bothered to say “Hi” or shake my hand. But hey, maybe that’s your jam, man.
One thing that terrifies me about very religious people is that they are particularly notorious for saying in one breath to your face that they love you, but in their next course of action actively cut you off, write you off, brush you off, avoid you, lie about you, and shun you. This is not how Jesus acted. These are actions of someone attempting to protect their perceived comfortability – and the scary thing is that it totally works on a bigger scale most of the time. Turns out tribalism is pretty effective, and especially effective when combined with religion. People are more fearful of what physical things they can lose in life than they are, if at all, of God.
The culmination of these thoughts left me with a sense of lostness. We are so far away as a society from embracing the character of Christ. And in fact, we have intertwined it with the love of money. It’s all political. It’s all sad.
Yes, the church in Acts was not forced into selling some of their properties and giving to whoever was in need in their community, and that’s the point. Because they believed in Agape, the rational action they took to follow in their empathetic recognition that we are all made in God’s image and saved through Him, was altruism. They did these things willingly and altruistically to spread the Love and Word of Christ. The manifestation of God’s Love should end up being something along the lines of the best in me serving the best in you. So the million dollar question (or however many millions Joel Olsteen has) is, how do you skip out on the whole interpersonal love thing and still be a Christian, not to mention a spiritual leader?
If you’re asking me? Well, I don’t think that’s really possible. But Mark and a lot of other, let’s just say, questionable pastors seem to have found a key for themselves. If you take Calvinism and believe that you know the hearts of individual people as their Creator does, it makes a pretty nice narcissistic cocktail. Why attempt to make right with someone when you can just know that their heart is full of great sin towards you and excommunicate them from your life and gossip about them? I mean, who wouldn’t do that? (They’ll end up in Hell anyways am I right? Wouldn’t want them to get any more chances at leading ME there!)
The evangelical Calvinist movement in the US is antithetical to the character of Christ.
The problem is that only our Lord knows our hearts and he has instructed us to be vocal carriers of our feelings and transgressions towards one another, and to do so intentionally and in private if we can help it. Amen to judge not, that you be not judged. Most evangelical leaders in the US (if they’re acting in good faith, which I’ll do them the service of assuming so) judge others by their own individual standards. How can you possibly understand someone when you judge them by your own standards? How can you understand someone when you lean only on your own understanding?
It’s important to note that understanding is not necessarily agreeing. It’s the mental work of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you cut people off after judging them by your own imperfect standards, you cut off the opportunity to understand them. You cut off empathy to that person, and thus cut off altruism. You eliminate the opportunity for God to do his work through you. You eliminate the opportunity for apology and forgiveness. You eliminate, in that moment, the Love that could have taken place. You’re doing yourself a disservice that will only proliferate its problem within you. You cannot be content if you’re lying to yourself, and you cannot love if you won’t accept Love to thrive. Love does not grow where Love is not shown. We love because Christ first loved us.
One of the elephants in the room is that there’s so much religious freedom here. One would think in a country that is apparently largely Christian and has so much financial freedom, the elimination of many social ills would take place. I’m somewhat convinced the legal monetary framework for religious institutions in America was invented by narcissists. And if not, it’d sure make a lot of sense. Being a “pastor” or CEO in general are some of the only positions where having undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder can actually help increase revenue. From a business viewpoint, religion in America is bound to attract the absolute worst people on Earth and reward them for taking advantage of others through the love of money. It’s sorta like how politics works. It’s always interesting for me to see how many Americans have their dogmatic religion tied completely to their dogmatic political beliefs. And politicians take advantage of those people in similar ways, although that doesn’t bother me as much because politics aren’t nearly as personal to me as God is.
What Mark is doing in Phoenix is indicative of a bigger problem. And a lot of these things I’ve written about and thought about, but it felt so real at Trinity. In fact, the more surreal it felt, the more real I realized it was. What goes on here goes on all over the country. In many regards, it’s all an act. As much of an optimist that I am, I can’t help but feel it’s an upward battle. I mean, people think they agree with what Mark is saying. And people don’t mind sacrificing their time for this guy’s agenda, a lot of whom are unpaid. Mars Hill destroyed marriages and this guy is teaching classes on marriage and how to be “real men”.
Mark’s also a gifted manipulator. I’ve had friends in religious organizations like ICC (International Christian Church) and I’ve attended many brainwashy services and youth groups. When Mark says things along the lines of “Don’t look at outside things, look at God,” over and over again, what he’s really saying is “Don’t look at my past or listen to anything people say about me, just showup for Church and be happy”. And the repeating of messages like this is how the behavior gets reinforced in a group, notably because it is tied to the group’s spiritual beliefs.
I did have several brief conversations with other church goers that I initiated – I couldn’t help myself. One guy told me he did a little bit of research on Mark and that it was “Just some drama – Mark’s a great guy!” I had some good conversations with Ted. One got weird when we started talking about love and he was like “Well but like when do you decide to just not interact with someone anymore?” And I don’t know about you but to me agape Love is unconditional Love and as soon as you start adding conditions you mess the whole thing up, plus cutting someone off is usually just a scapegoat for not pursuing reconciliation. I mean having boundaries for people is good, but I could tell he was talking about that whole hyper-Calvinist-saved-unsaved-I-know-the-heart-cut people-off stuff. Just weird and surreal conversations all around. The music was good and loud but of course the audience was basically all rich white people so the dancing (or lack thereof) was C- at best. Everything just felt a little forced.
The devotional was written by Mark and a lot of people were carrying that around. Both sermons were practically exactly the same – although in the second one I sat right in front of Mark and there were significantly less people there. I didn’t see Mark after the first sermon which was weird. Like, it’s the 5th anniversary you’re not gonna come say hi to your first service people? Forget Sunday school it’s just a straight up daycare with toys and slides. They had amusement park rides out front. There was this cool Ford truck outside. They had cupcakes inside all over for people to eat. They played videos after the sermons each time of Mark and the history at Trinity. It was alright, but again, felt very forced and targeted. Like just talk to me man and tell me about the church don’t play a stupid video. A lot of show and aesthetic.
A leader with a drive for painting the church in the colors of the mystics, artists, and philosophers is a very attractive thing to their followers. Experiences of the mystical, the artistic, and of the philia sophia are some of the most powerful ways we can express and experience agape Love. That’s why it’s so shallow and crushing when you realize it’s not an attempt to bring more glory to God, but to get people to conform, submit, and get lost in the illusion of love that has intentionally been structured to keep you from holding your leader(s) accountable.
After the second sermon I waited around for a while. I had good conversations with whom I found out later were security guys, but they were nice enough at first, especially Ted. I asked about the church and told them I wanted to meet Mark. I definitely appeared to be really intrigued – I mean I was. I stayed for both sermons. It was just weird though with how they talked about him. Like “Oh I’ve talked with Mark a couple times!” or just stuff like that. I’m not a fan of megachurch pastors but it’s one thing if you’ve got thousands upon thousands of people attending your church. However, if you just got a regular sized church and you got all this uber security and bigshot status ego complex thing going on – it’s sort of awkward. Just my two cents.
Then finally he came out. Ted saw him and told me he’s right there behind me in the doorway. He was in a conversation with someone who was touring the building, but the security guys put a good word in for me about this “Benjamin” character and Mark turned around saying “Oh yeah Benjamin” as his arm reached out for me to shake it. And I shook that hand. As we were shaking he recognized who I was and made the connection between my familiarity and my name and I’ve never seen his eyes wider. He then said something to the effect of “Ohh thaat Benjamin”.
I told him he was a gifted speaker, that everything looks really cool, and that I came down to see him. I told him that there were things that happened to my dad that were not entirely his fault but that he largely contributed to, and that I’d really appreciate it if he could just give my dad a call and just say that he’s sorry and that that’d mean a lot to my dad. By this point Grace was there and noticed me. She said something like “Oh hey long time – Benjamin – wow,” and made eye contact very quickly and then made sure to not make it again. I was still looking down at Mark in the eye and told him that I’ve got no cams or monkey business and that I come in love. I gave him a hug.
I tied in a little of my request for a phone call with his sermon on tackling your avoidance and dealing with things in the past. He said something to the effect of “Well your dad’s a great guy but yaknow he’s got some things,” then I said “But do you think you could just give him a call – I’ll give you his number it hasn’t changed?” He brushed me off after this and started back in the same conversation. Facing him like that, man, I never knew how short the guy was, and the funny thing is that all his security guys are taller too. That’s the first thing I noticed when they stepped in. (They stepped in automatically once Mark brushed me off.)
At first I was a bit puzzled but then I realized they were just acting as a barrier. Can’t have heretics harassing the sacred leader am I right? And I’ll just reemphasize, I conducted myself in an extremely calm and loving way. I know there were no cameras or anything, but I know how I carried myself and I kept my composure. I came in good faith and I acted in good faith and I left in good faith. At first with the security guys I just talked with them. I enjoy having conversations with those selflessly propping up and guarding authoritarian figures. For the most part, I could tell they didn’t really know what they were doing – they were just following orders. There was one guy who had been with Mark for 15 years so he probably knew what had happened to my family. I asked him how he could stand by this guy knowing all the things he did and the guy just kinda had a blank stare on his face – like trying to explain long-division to a Kindergartner. Ironically enough, I think he probably kept doing security for Mark because of the security it brought him – pretty sure he was paid (I mean, I’d hope so if he’s been with this guy for 15 years).
At this point I could tell the other men were a bit confused. They could tell I was being genuine and that I was calm. They didn’t like it when I asked them “Is guarding Mark Driscoll really what you believe God has called you to do with your life?” I sat down for a bit just to process the disbelief I was going through, and the humor of the entire thing. I couldn’t believe it. The perceived hypocrisy of Mark I had just blatantly witnessed. And guys all over the country are doing exactly what he’s doing – it’s all business (albeit many are more successful or unsuccessful than him depending on your definitions). I told the security guys about the Christianity Today podcast and a couple were interested – two said they’d give it a listen so I don’t know if that happened. One guy said that Mark says to look at God only and not other things online or some rubbish like that. I mean, I guess the guy who’s not gonna question the leader is a good security guy? I got up and decided to leave on my own volition. After all, that was one of the goals: Face Mark, Leave Mark.
The guy walking me out was the same guy walking me in. I asked him if his family was involved at this church. He said yes. I told him he might want to think twice about that.
Thanks to Benjamin for permission to post this account.
See also: Seeds of Change: The 2007 Purge