Daniel walks his girlfriend Danuta to the door after dinner. They say goodbye, but they don’t kiss goodnight.
For the devout Mars Hill couple, practicing premarital abstinence means more than just abstaining from sex. It means eliminating any temptation that may lead to it.
Daniel and Danuta, who asked that Crosscut only use their first names, admit they don’t fit into a dating era where “chivalry is dead,” and “hook-up” culture is alive. Outside of Mars Hill, their abstinence may seem foreign, their lip-lock ban bizarre. Inside, they are the ideal product of its Christian doctrine preaching premarital physical and emotional boundaries. With peers more likely to have a one-night-stand than go on a date, they are the inverse of the exterior dating world.
The church, which began as a Seattle-based bible study group, has now become a national megachurch sensation. Despite its conservative Evangelical stance, Mars Hill has collected more than 5,500 members since its 1996 founding. According to the evangelical Outreach Magazine, it is the third fastest growing and 28th largest church in the nation.
Led by the dynamic and often-controversial Mark Driscoll, the church sees high weekly attendance (In early 2012, Mars Hill reported a weekly attendance of nearly 15,000). This number is bolstered by the group's tech acumen. Pre-recorded video sermons are projected to all 14 Mars Hill locations in 4 U.S. states. The Bellevue Mars Hill is the only one where Driscoll regularly appears in the flesh.
Appealing to a young and tech-savvy audience, his sermons can also be streamed online. Advice and personal testimonies can be found in church blogs. Worship is cushioned by live rock music, Driscoll addresses his congregation in a graphic tee and the church has held enormous Easter baptism sessions on the field at CenturyLink. The members of Mars Hill themselves share a private social network and Driscoll’s sermons consistently top iTunes’ Religion and Spirituality list, with over 10 million downloads each year.
Mars Hill’s confining gender roles, though, have been criticized as counter-progressive. Last April, graffiti appeared across its U-district location’s walls: “Mars Hill is anti-woman.” In 2006, critics of Driscoll’s doctrine protested at the Ballard location.
“We live in this confused culture…where men don’t provide for their families,” Driscoll said in a September 2008 sermon regarding the dos and don’ts of marriage. “A woman needs a protector.”
Biblically, Driscoll says, men are to provide and protect, and women should serve their husbands and children. Aside from the possibility of illness or other hindrance to the husband’s ability to do this, this theology is absolute. In sermon after sermon, he says, any variation is sinful — both in his own eyes and in the eyes of God.
In the same 2008 sermon, Driscoll and his wife Grace answer anonymous questions sent in from Mars Hill members. The projector displays one man’s inquiry: “What are your thoughts on stay-at-home dads if the woman really wants to work? Or even if both want/need to work?”
Driscoll received the question with a grimace. “This is where our attendance goes down,” he said. His wife, Grace, helped answer the question through biblical means: “[A man is] worse than an unbeliever” if he fails to provide for his family. “It’s a serious sin,” she said.
She joked about how different the Driscoll children would look if her husband assumed the stay-at-home role. “As women, we’re built to be home with our kids … loving our husbands,” she said. “We should be pure. Kind. Self-controlled — so as to not malign the word of God.”
Driscoll chimed in. “You live in an absolutely perverted, corrupted, stupid culture,” he said. “It’s a culture in which men act like Peter Pan and they’re boys way too long. A lot of boys think they’re men just because they can shave. If you cannot provide for your family — you’re not a man.”
While Mars Hill advocates for the nuclear family dynamic, Danuta says it doesn’t mean she is confined to stay-at-home momdom or cooking every meal. “It’s not about a man trying to exercise his power or authority over his wife,” she says. “It’s about men loving their wives as Christ has laid out for them.”
While this does mean the man acts as the head of the household, Mars Hill husbands make decisions in terms of how to “best care” for their wives.
Danuta plans to use her degree in Latin America and Caribbean studies potentially toward a career as a counselor. When she has children, she plans to be a stay-at-home mom until they leave the house. She says this decision is not a reflection of Mars Hill’s values, but rather what she has always wanted.
She believes that Mars Hill men respect women more than others. Entering from the streets where she is subject to catcalling, she finds a world free of misogyny and oppression. “It’s not that men are better. It’s just that we want to love and care for each other the best we can,” she says. “To me, that’s not chauvinistic at all.”
Beyond the roles that men and women play in a relationship, Driscoll is fighting a seductive societal trend: casual sex. “Our culture is hook up, shack up, break up, repeat,” he explained in a 2008 sermon.
His claims do parse out: A third of college women reported partaking in just two or fewer traditional dates during their college careers, according to a 2001 national study sponsored by the Institute for American Values. Yet 72 percent of college students reported having at least one casual sexual encounter, according to a 2011 Stanford study.
In Seattle, Driscoll says, this form of non-Christian dating is even more normalized than on a national scale — except at Mars Hill. That would be “Godless, horrible, evil, nasty and vile,” he said.
Along with their shared relationship values, Danuta and Daniel have matching warm eyes and welcoming smiles. Casually dressed in jeans, they look like any other happy pair in a coffee shop. Save the contrast between Danuta’s dark features and Daniel’s lighter ones, they are a tall, trim, look-a-like couple suitable for a postcard.
Daniel explains the driving question behind the Mars Hill approach to dating. “How would I want my wife to be treated by her [previous] boyfriend before I marry her?” he asks.
For the blue-eyed Christian, the answer is obvious, prompting him to suggest the physical boundary with his girlfriend. He likens kissing to a highway on-ramp. “I’m still a guy,” Daniel says, “So, why get on the on-ramp if we can’t get to the freeway? It’s just going to be harder for us.”
The highway, of course, is sex. While Mars Hill does not prohibit all kissing, premarital intercourse is not allowed, and the church encourages members to take any preventative measures necessary to avoid temptation.
Daniel admits sex is a powerful force. “It’s binding and unifying and really beautiful,” he says, “but outside of marriage, there’s not enough level of commitment.”
In today’s society, Daniel says, the common dating trend is to “try this person out” — primarily on a physical level. Instead, Daniel and Danuta choose to abide by the bible’s teachings, recognizing that, while beauty is fleeting, personality is forever.
In addition to physical limits, they instill emotional ones — a practice driven to maintain Jesus as a first priority. When Danuta comes to Daniel with personal problems, it’s only before running through a moral checklist: Where is your heart in that? Have you gone to Jesus first? Should you want to talk to your best friend Audrey about that instead?
Danuta admits to “oversharing” personal information with her significant other before he redirected her to asking these sorts of questions first. For them, this is just another part of “emotionally guarding” their hearts. Their romantic relationship is not to be all-consuming or overly personal until marriage. Even then, Jesus is to be the priority.
MARS HILL’S WALLS
The evening Mars Hill services often facilitate more sensitive discussion. At a 6 p.m. Mars Hill Sunday service in the U-District, aisles are devoid of youngsters and possibly anyone over 30.
Guests wear flannels, North Face jackets and beanies. Twenty-somethings greet friends with hugs and newcomers with handshakes. The lights dim and a rock band with a bearded lead singer and guitarist wearing thick-rimmed glasses consumes the audience. The young crowd moves modestly to the beat; a few hands wave in the air in praise. Without the prayer, pastor and projected image of Driscoll that would soon appear, it could be any other popular venue for young Seattleites.
An assortment of pictureless statement frames of varying sizes, shapes and colors make up the stage’s backdrop. Enclosed beneath arched, soaring ceilings and Romanesque stained glass walls — the modern art display visually depicts the church’s clash between progression and tradition.
Danuta deals with this divide in everyday social settings. Most within her social circle attend Mars Hill, but not all. One such friend is 21-year-old Alina Bischin. Also deeply religious, Bischin has a serious boyfriend and favors serious relationships to casual hook-ups. She identifies as Romanian-orthodox, sharing Danuta’s love for Jesus. Still, they don’t share the same beliefs regarding pre-marital abstinence.
“I don’t believe that’s conducive to our society at all,” Bischin says. Even if she did believe in abstaining from sex before marriage, she doesn’t think she would be able to find someone outside of Christianity and Mars Hill who practices that lifestyle. “It’d be impossible,” she says.
Though the friends share nearly everything else, Bischin says that’s one topic they usually avoid. They already know their conflicting stances on the issue, halting further discussion.
Once possessing an air of superiority over non-Christians, Danuta says Mars Hill helped her transition her mode of thinking from judging to loving. Religious beliefs — or lack thereof, no longer affect how she views a person.
“I need Jesus, just as much as they do. But we’re all on the same level,” she says. “The difference is God has saved me.”
Her and Daniel’s six-month relationship grows each day. From the exterior, it seems like any other. They don’t live together, but they go to the grocery store and to dinner, go camping and go to parks; they watch movies with friends. They go snowboarding and play ultimate frisbee. They do share meals, but not a tent; they might have a drink, but never too many. Both recent UW graduates, Daniel works at Boeing and Danuta is an HR coordinator.
At Mars Hill, they “date with intention” to marry, rather than for pleasure. Further down the road to potential matrimony, Danuta and Daniel say their boundaries might change.
During engagement? They might kiss. They haven’t decided yet.