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When the Christian radio host accused him of plagiarism, the quick-witted preacher sounded flabbergasted — and annoyed.

“Man, I thought we’d have a better interview than this,” Mars Hill Church Pastor Mark Driscoll said.

Driscoll’s heated November 2013 exchange with radio host Janet Mefferd would prove a crucial turning point in his explosive rise and recent fall, igniting a chain of events that would begin unraveling the Seattle megachurch he founded.

For years the edgy, blue-jeaned, hipster preacher used charisma and combativeness to barrel through turmoil, once bragging that he’d mow down all who questioned his vision: “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done,” he once said in a meeting. “You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus.”

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Behind the scenes, former church members said, Driscoll could be vicious, abusive and controlling. Some charged that he refused to promote an overweight elder because Driscoll said his “fat ass” would tarnish Mars Hill’s image.

But for years, Driscoll’s outward style charmed many. He was dynamic and funny, with a potent mix of reverence for Jesus and irreverence for every­­thing else. He drew pierced-and-tattooed congregants from Seattle to a church that espoused a conservative Calvinist doctrine cloaked in indie-rock, big screens and a worn pair of Chuck Taylors.

Mars Hill grew to 15 branches in five states with 13,000 visitors on Sundays. Driscoll appeared on Nightline, preached at Seahawks stadium, threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game, and founded a network of evangelical leaders who started hundreds of other churches.

But after 18 years of stunning growth, an escalating string of bad news finally started driving churchgoers away. Mars Hill leaders last Sunday said attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff 30 to 40 percent.

And the Highline High School honors student who started the church as a Bible study in his home wasn’t the one making the announcement.

Driscoll had stepped aside temporarily in August so church leaders could investigate whether he was fit to lead, following new accusations that he bullied members, threatened opponents, lied and oversaw mismanagement of church funds.

While the seeds of the storm swirling around Driscoll date back years, many elements can be traced to his November grilling by Mefferd, which inspired fresh critics to start poking around the church.

Again and again that day in 2013, Mefferd pushed Driscoll to be contrite after accusing him of lifting material for 14 pages of his book from another pastor without proper credit. Driscoll apologized but peppered his concession with indignation. When Mefferd said she believed accusing him in public was appropriate, Driscoll — as critics said he often did — tried to turn the issue back on her.

“I don’t. I don’t,” Driscoll snapped back. “I think it’s rude and I think the intent behind it is not very Christ-like. But I’ll receive it and I’ll try to receive it graciously and humbly. But I wouldn’t allow you to pretend to take a generous, gracious moral-gospel high ground. I would not just give you a pass on that — out of love for you. Because I want you to grow as well.”

In the months that followed, Mefferd and a handful of bloggers would uncover more questions about Driscoll’s books. A Christian magazine would discover Mars Hill paid a company $25,000 to buy up and distribute his latest book in a scheme to vault the title onto best-seller lists.

That prompted more questions about how the church handled money — and about whether Driscoll and his organization were too slippery when accused of misbehavior.

Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August Driscoll was hounded almost daily by people recalling bad exchanges.

“Some have challenged various aspects of my personality and leadership style, and while some of these challenges seem unfair, I have no problem admitting I am deserving of some of these criticisms based on my own past actions that I am sorry for,” Driscoll said when announcing his six-week leave of absence in August.

“The Brand”

Driscoll is not granting interviews, but the church has tried to distinguish between past mistakes and how Driscoll runs things now.

“There is a well-documented list of past actions and decisions I have admitted were wrong, sought forgiveness, and apologized for, to those I hurt or offended,” Driscoll said in that August address.

But recent formal complaints from 21 former pastors include anecdotes from the past two years.

They charged that Driscoll referred to himself as “The Brand” and said Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.” They said he threatened to shred a former pastor’s new church “brick by brick,” and they said he lied about how much he’d known about the book-sales-contract fiasco.

With nearly a dozen blogs or online groups dedicated to critiquing Driscoll’s every move, church leaders said it’s almost impossible to keep up with the accusations.

“The hard part is that some of what’s out there is true, and he’s owned it and apologized for it and is trying to correct it, and some is not,” said Mars Hill Pastor Matt Rogers, who chairs the church accountability board examining accusations against their leader.

“If someone went through and dragged out every example of where I’d been short with my wife, or rude to a co-worker or done something stupid, and trickled that out week after week after week for months, you would have no respect for me, either.”

It’s not that Mars Hill is new to controversy. For years, Driscoll seemed to revel in being outrageous.

He dubbed yoga “demonic,” and he dismissed mainstream depictions of Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”

He preached that homosexuality is a sin, and he once said anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was a step toward voting in “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He’s joked on stage about masturbation and oral sex.

In 2006, after evangelist Ted Haggard was caught with male prostitutes, Driscoll appeared to blame Haggard’s wife, writing, “It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband … is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.”

Driscoll “is Chris Rock,” said former Mars Hill member Rob Smith. “He has told us in the pulpit and in private that he admired comedian Chris Rock and learned a lot from him. He’s crass, and he’s an extremely gifted orator with a good sense of the gospel. But he also in some ways has always been a street bully.”

Smith left the church in 2007, after the first major internal Mars Hill scandal, an event that current leaders admit left deep wounds.

Back then, Driscoll and several dozen elders ran the church. With decision-making growing unwieldy, the church changed bylaws to limit power to a smaller group.

Two pastors objected, arguing it concentrated authority with little accountability and made it easy for Driscoll to steamroll opposition. Driscoll fired both men, held a church “trial,” and urged members to shun one pastor, leaving some aghast.

Rogers, not affiliated with Mars Hill at the time, said looking back, “There were a lot of wrong things done that shouldn’t happen in a church.”

But much of the strife remained internal, until after the Mefferd interview.

Plumbing the depths

As an evangelical Christian and a psychology professor in Pennsylvania, Warren Throckmorton had little association with Mars Hill.

“I’d never been to the church, never heard a sermon, never read a book by Driscoll,” he said.

But after Mefferd’s show, he thumbed through Driscoll’s books, finding more instances of what he considered plagiarism. He blogged about them and burrowed ever-deeper into church practices. When World magazine, a Christian publication, found the church had hired a company to get Driscoll’s new book onto the best-seller list, Mars Hill’s contract with the company wound up on Throckmorton’s blog.

Church officials had told the magazine they’d hired the company to get Jesus’ word into as many hands as possible. But that week, church leaders quickly apologized.

Soon, Throckmorton and other bloggers were posting almost daily, spreading the word about many internal church questions.

“Once I get on a subject, I plumb the depths,” Throckmorton said.

When World magazine revealed that Mars Hill had tried forcing departing pastors to sign nondisclosure agreements, Throckmorton and other bloggers noted it.

One who had opposed the agreements was pastor and former Driscoll confidant Dave Kraft, who had started attending Mars Hill in 2001 and came on staff in 2005.

By 2013, Kraft was concerned. He heard tales of Driscoll’s bullying, which he said created a culture of fear. Staff turnover was high.

Kraft was supposed to be Driscoll’s “coach,” the man Driscoll confided in about life.

“Was it his fame, or had he been the same guy all along? I didn’t know, but what was apparent was he was verbally abusive and arrogant and not interested in changing,” Kraft said. “And a lot of people were being hurt.”

With Driscoll no longer listening to him, Kraft said, he filed a formal complaint, arguing that Driscoll’s behavior disqualified him from church leadership. He urged church officials to interview specific people and hear their stories. Instead the church sent a questionnaire to departed staff seeking feedback.

Kraft left the church in September 2013 but kept silent until this spring, when he shared his story on his own blog. Within weeks, another 19 pastors joined him in complaining about Driscoll’s management.

Driscoll apologized to his congregation for the snowballing problems and for the book issues. He declared his “angry-young-prophet days are over.”

Still the accusations snowballed.

Throckmorton wrote about a tithing fund some congregants had believed was designated to start overseas churches that instead had been used for regular church expenses. Church officials again apologized but have maintained the issue was a misunderstanding.

In July, critics unearthed a cached church website from 14 years ago, in which Driscoll made dozens of posts under the alias “William Wallace II.” He described America as a “pussified nation” of “homoerotic worship loving momma’s boy sensitive emasculated neutered” men raised by “bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers” and made other, cruder statements about women.

Driscoll apologized two days later: “While the discussion board itself was a bad idea, my decision to attack critics who were posting there … was an even worse idea — indeed, it was plain wrong.”

By then, many churchgoers had had enough.

Judy Abolafya and her husband had joined in 2000 but quit, disillusioned, this spring. Reading the William Wallace rants rattled her.

“I was shocked,” Abolafya said. “Mark officiated our wedding four days after he had initiated that thread. It really upset me to know that was the kind of stuff that was going on in his head at that time.

“I’d had no personal beef with Mark Driscoll,” she said. “But his preaching had really done a number on my head. It permeated our marriage, affected how I looked at myself as a woman, how I viewed my husband. I wasn’t able to view it for what it was while I was inside that environment, but within a matter of days since deciding we weren’t going back, it was like a cloud was lifted. All of a sudden I could breathe again.”

For Driscoll and Mars Hill, August and September were worse.

Former members protested outside Sunday services. An assistant who worked closely with Driscoll until 2003, wrote an account of Driscoll pushing her out, shunning her and calling her a heretic because she’d suggested he hire someone to “go toe to toe” with him.

Acts 29, the network Driscoll helped found that opened hundreds of churches around the world, booted Driscoll and Mars Hill, arguing that associating with them discredited the network.

Kraft and 21 pastors lodged the new complaints, which Rogers and the board are investigating. Driscoll announced his six-week sabbatical.

Then a group of nine current pastors urged Driscoll to step down, quoting an internationally recognized Christian author and conference speaker who called Mars Hill “the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with.” Within weeks, eight of the nine pastors were gone from Mars Hill.

“If Mark were to acknowledge and own his mistakes, all of them, from the depth of his heart and repent and step down for a minimum of sixth months,” Kraft said, maybe then Driscoll could lead again.

Rogers said his board is still investigating but he concedes the church’s very future is in the air.

So many people want Driscoll punished, his return could drive away more congregants. But losing a celebrity preacher with Driscoll’s oratorical gifts could drive away others.

“I can’t predict how it’s going to go,” Rogers said. “My prayer is that God will keep the church open no matter what.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch