The Vulnerability of Pain When Church Looks Like Dr. Death
Graduating medical students, wearing new white coats and their accompanying authority, will often recite a version of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s an ethical statement that includes this commitment: “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm.” This line is more popularly known as the principle of “do no harm” in medicine. But, for all the good that medicine hopes and aims to do, withholding harm feels like a low bar of success. However, the story of “Dr. Death” revealed how difficult it is for some doctors to even accomplish this.
In her podcast about Dr. Christopher Duntsch, entitled Dr. Death, host Laura Beil exposed how much damage one unethical doctor could cause and how neglectful the medical system was in upholding this low ethical bar of doing no harm. Released in 2018, the series detailed the doctor’s history and, more specifically, the two-year period of his practice when thirty-three of his patients had adverse effects from surgery and two even died. As an athlete and later a medical student, Duntsch was committed to success. He was both ambitious and hardworking, but his most defining characteristic was his unwavering confidence in himself. Duntsch had no doubt that if he simply applied himself to a task—whether it was perfecting a football play or performing brain surgery—he could accomplish it. This confidence would lead him to advertise that he was the best neurosurgeon in Texas; he had glowing reviews from former patients, as well as a medical degree and a PhD, to back up his claims.
Potential patients came to him desperately in pain, and Dr. Duntsch promised relief. However, instead of deliverance, their bodies endured even more harm during surgery and were often in worse condition than before. More pain ensued. Even Duntsch’s best friend, Jerry Summers, became one of the victims of the doctor’s over-confidence and lack of skill. Summers was nearly decapitated during surgery, but he survived and remains paralyzed for life. Even in the face of Summers’s deteriorated condition, Dr. Duntch continued believing he was an impeccable surgeon and explained away the damage of his work.
This story of neglect and harm garnered even more public attention beyond Beil’s podcast. In 2021, Peacock released both a drama miniseries and a documentary, featuring Duntsch’s victims, their families, and Beil herself. Former patients and their loved ones attested to the accolades Duntsch proclaimed about himself prior to surgery as well as his promises of his performance as a physician. They also recount their dashed hopes when they were left hurting, paralyzed, or even dead.
Medicine is not the only area where we see those in power taking advantage of the vulnerable. From political circles to Hollywood and even in average workplaces, the characters of the powerful and the vulnerable change but the dynamics and the damage remain the same. Dr. Death is striking because it visibly shows the physical damage of those who misuse their power. We cannot deny the damage done to someone who is now dead. We cannot ignore the effects of Duntsch’s dishonesty and his self-delusion. Regarding each hospital that let Duntsch quietly leave, Beil observes, “They got rid of him and solved their problem, but they didn’t prevent him from becoming someone else’s.” Hindsight betrays the truth that the damage could have been mitigated or prevented.
As America watched the retelling of Dr. Duntch’s damage on television, another podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill asked who caused the death not of a patient but of Mars Hill, a megachurch started in Seattle. The episodes detail the story of the meteoric rise of Mark Driscoll, another man who was also committed to success at any cost. Driscoll was a popular but controversial pastor in Seattle for years; then, in months, the multisite campus of churches dissolved, as the damage he caused to elders, staff, and congregation members came to light. Mike Cosper, the podcast host, interviewed those most harmed by Driscoll’s unethical behavior and attempted to decipher the failure of its leadership to protect its staff and members from Driscoll’s arrogance, ambition, and willingness to sacrifice others for his own goals.
These two stories are so striking because they show the exact reversal of what these men were supposed to do for those in their care. Instead of healing, they both wreaked havoc on bodies and souls, creating damage that was often irreversible. There was an incredibly unequal power dynamic between these men and those seeking their help. Doctors and pastors tend to have more education than those they work with; their titles and positions also give them greater positional authority within a community than the average person. The exchange of money creates even further vulnerability. All of these factors increase the threat of the misuse of their authority over those they come into contact with.
Like Duntch, Driscoll was unwavering in his confidence and unwilling to receive correction, which also left a myriad of hurt people in his wake. Both men at different points admitted to their awareness of the damage they would cause. Mark Driscoll bragged, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus . . . Either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus, those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop.” Likewise, Dr. Duntch’s emails to his colleague and girlfriend asserted, “I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer” and then continued to assert he could “go faster, do better, and catch more respect and honor” if he were to abuse those around him. They weren’t unconsciously acting; both men used abuse strategically and were aware of the lack of accountability around them.
If we want to prevent the Dr. Deaths and Driscolls of the future, we cannot simply label these two as isolated actors within their respective fields. But lurking behind both tales are a hospital system and a church that enabled and encouraged these two bad actors for far longer than necessary. In both the retelling of the Dr. Death story and the Mars Hill story, these individuals never acted alone. They were surrounded by systems that were meant to keep them in check and hold them accountable for their actions, systems that ultimately failed to do so. Despite the harm they caused, both men were retained by the systems, at least for a time, because the institutions needed them. Driscoll was an increasingly popular pastor whose name and notoriety brought the church growth and money. Likewise, neurosurgeons are “cash cows” for a hospital, representing millions of dollars per year, another neurosurgeon admits in episode 5. The medical system and the church overlooked the red flags because they began to calculate the cost of their losses.
Focusing on success caused those who should have been holding these two men accountable to lose sight of those who they were meant to prioritize. Instead of protecting the vulnerable, they prioritized the powerful. This reversal is what we see God’s prophets criticize most harshly. Amos condemns the nation of Israel by saying they “sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” as well as “deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7). This is why James rebukes the church’s favoritism toward the rich in their congregation; such actions put them all at risk of neglecting justice and mercy at the expense of the poor. Whether in a medical system or a church, it’s clear that the people involved have a choice to prioritize power and wealth to the detriment of those they exploit.
Some part of us is drawn to the confidence and promises of these figures of false confidence and authority. Chuck DeGroat affirms this idea in When Narcissism Comes to Church, stating, “There is a dangerous collusion with power, and I’m mindful that amid our own anxiety and shame, we unwittingly align with unhealthy powerful leaders who offer us a false sense of control and identity.” This kind of unhealthy partnership is not a new problem. Paul warned in a letter to Timothy, another church leader, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Maybe we can’t do away with false teachers, but we can be aware of how our pain and deepest desires make our ears itch for soothing words that we want to hear and who we’re willing to trust to get them.
Our ability to be swayed and soothed by smooth words reveals both our vulnerability and our potential power. Bad actors—in the Bible, the clinic, or the pulpit—are put there by our precious attention and trust. Their confidence and self-assurance tells us we will be okay—someone else has the answer for us. He will show me the way. This is the cycle of supporting a narcissist that DeGroat also describes: “The leader relies on the adoration and respect of his followers; the follower is attracted by the omnipotence and charisma of the leader . . . the followers feed off the leader’s certainty in order to fill their own empty senses of self.
Many hear these stories and think they wouldn’t, even couldn’t, be taken advantage of like these victims. However, we leave ourselves even more vulnerable to abuse with this view. Often, this is how we view the Pharisees of scripture; with the benefit of hindsight, we can assure ourselves that not only could we not have behaved like Pharisees—we can’t understand why anyone would have followed them instead of Jesus. In Jesus’s warnings about them, they’re characterized as men who perform for others and love the accolades they receive; they are filled with greed and self-indulgence, but believe they are better than their predecessors. Worst of all, Jesus testifies that they lost their commitment to their ethical baseline: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. At the same time, however, they were viewed as those with religious authority. Even Jesus affirms this when he states that they “sit on Moses’ seat,” a place of teaching authority. These are the same kinds of men, because of their tenuous power provided from the crowds, that would help to plot to kill Jesus—a real physician but also a real threat to their power and privileged position in society. Matthew also tells us they feared the crowd (21:46), the very people who provided them with power. In return, the Pharisees assured the people that deliverance from the daily pain of oppression was just on the other side of their faithfulness to God’s law.
Pain is powerful, and the vulnerability it causes can make people easily fall into the enchantment of confident but abusive authorities. Sutton Turner, a former executive pastor at Mars Hill, admits to being “overly consumed with approval of authority” and it’s understandable how this core desire of his kept him from pushing back. He goes on to recall, “So much hurt happened by me not doing anything and allowing things to happen and unravel . . . there’s times I feel very shameful.” In episode 3 of the Dr. Death podcast, patient Barry Morguloff recalls, “Those are magic words: ‘I can fix you.’” Morguloff is also featured in the documentary video, interviewed alongside his wife together retelling the pain he had been experiencing, its effect on their family’s life, and the relief they experienced upon being assured by Dr. Duntsch that the pain would be over soon. This is the same spiritual promise abusive leaders, including Mark Driscoll, provide: I can fix you if you follow me and these steps. The promises abound of what pain can come to an end, fixing your marriage and your meaninglessness and your life. Driscoll’s self-assurance, confidence, and simple recipe for a faithful and fulfilling life were attractive. However, as Mike Cosper exposes the damage and destruction that even continues well after the church is closed, it’s clear Driscoll’s gospel of power and masculinity did not deliver on its promise of a better life for those who followed him.
Dr. Death and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill are both entertainment; they’re stories woven to keep our attention enwrapped. But we’d be amiss to overlook the clear warning signs they provide. Beil and Cosper are prophets of a new age with an old message. Their implicit warnings range include “Woe to the system that lacks accountability” as well as, “Woe to those who are willing to trust anyone in charge.” The warnings matter because we know this won’t be the last Dr. Duntsch or Driscoll, but now we know the power and responsibility we have to stop their path of destruction. In each concluding episode, Cosper and Beil leaves us with an even greater gift than only warning or empowering their listeners though. Cosper highlights how many other churches and nonprofits now exist because of the individuals whose faith survived after the closure of Mars Hill. The damage could not be undone, but these survivors could move forward in their lives for the good of the world. Correspondingly, Barry Morguloff, whose body still bears the harm of Dr. Duntsch, mercifully insists, “There’s no winners in this deal. It’s sad all the way around. I mean I do have empathy for the doctor’s family. I have empathy for him even though he ruined a substantial part of my life . . . I think I have to for my own soul.” Despite the damage, these victims weren’t marred beyond their humanity. Powerfully, they still land on hope.