When someone asks, “What’s the name of the church you pastor?” and I respond, “Mars Hill,” three things happen:
1. A blank stare.
2. They ask, “Are you affiliated with the church that disbanded in Seattle, Washington?” (NO! We were Mars Hill before they were.)
3. They ask, “Are you affiliated with Rob Bell and the church in Grand Rapids, Michigan?” (see No. 2)
History makes one’s life richer by giving meaning to the origin. It broadens one’s outlook and enables one to grasp an understanding of one’s being by shedding light on its past.
Here is the history behind why we chose Mars Hill as our name.
The Origin of Our Name
The Areopagus or Areios Pagos is the “Hill of Ares” or “Mars Hill.” It is located northwest of the Acropolis in Athens.
In classical times, the Areopagus functioned as the chief homicide court of Athens. It is known as the location where Ares was supposed to have been tried by the gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son, Alirrothios. Also, the hill was said to be the site for the trial of Orestes, who was accused of killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, his stepmother and her lover.
In pre-classical times (before the 5th century B.C.), the Areopagus was the council of elders, in the city, who were much like the Roman Senate. Similar to the Senate, its membership derived from those who held high public office. In this case, that would be the Archon. In 462 B.C., Ephialtes put forth reforms, which deprived the Areopagus of mostly all of its functions, except the murder tribunal.
At the foot of the Areopagus was a temple dedicated to the Erinyes, where murderers would find shelter, in an effort not to face the consequences of their actions. Near the Areopagus, the Basilica of Dionysius Areopagites was constructed. The basilica was a rectangular building used as a town hall and law courts. It was used in the Christian period and served as the blueprint for early churches.
Mars Hill in the Bible
The Areopagus, like most city-state institutions, continued to function in Roman times, and it was then, the apostle Paul delivered his famous speech about the identity of “the unknown god.”
A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute him. Some asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news of Jesus and his resurrection.
They took and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners, who lived there, spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul stood in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” … When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. (Acts 17:16-32)
As a traveling apostle, Paul’s custom was to preach the gospel, first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles (Acts 17:1-4). Paul was smart enough to know the importance of relating the gospel to different people and when working with the Gentiles, he employed different methods and language to convey the same gospel. A good example of this was in his approach on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34).
Athens had been the home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great; it possessed a proud heritage as one of the greatest cultural centers in the history of the world. As Paul first entered Athens, he was burdened by the great need of a people who had unparalleled philosophy, literature, art and education; but lacked Jesus. As he made the five-mile walk into town, he was troubled by the numerous idols that littered the land. Upon seeing this, he longed for the transformation of Athens.
After proclaiming the gospel to the Jews, in the synagogue, he continued his proclamation in the Agora marketplace; where vendors, farmers, healers, magicians, performers and philosophers collected in the open courtyard, which served as the gathering place for the city. It was also the easiest place to draw a crowd.
Since the Athenians had never heard about the Jesus, whom Paul was preaching about, they brought him before the Areopagus (“Mars Hill” in Latin), which was the Athenian court of perhaps 30 philosophers, who sat as judges of Athens. The judges were entrusted with guarding Athenian philosophy by evaluating any new ideas brought into the city. Paul stood before the court in the same place where Socrates had defended his own teachings some 450 years earlier.
They asked Paul to explain his teachings, and a crowd gathered to hear the exchange. The scene was similar to how someone might be questioned today on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Courageously, Paul stood alone to proclaim the gospel, beginning by respectfully establishing common ground with his listeners, in an effort to work from their culture to the Scriptures. This method was the reverse of his approach, taken in the synagogue, where he worked from the Scriptures to the culture. He noted that the Athenians were a spiritual people, as was he. But he also noted that their spirituality did not include an understanding of who God is.
Mars Hill Today – Our Church
Research today shows how the emerging generation is very spiritual; believing in God and committed to a life of prayer. However, when you ask them what they think about God, their answers are very Athenian. They study and believe in God and speak of him, but have no idea who he is.
Today, we live in our own Mars Hill, as do all of God’s people. Surrounding us are multitudes of lost people who hold false notions of spirituality, God and salvation. Many of them, unfortunately, believe they are Christians. The Mars Hill Baptist Church of Chicago continues the tradition of making Christ known to a world who has no idea who he is. We do this by leveraging the innovation and technology given to us by our Creator.
© 2016, Clarence E. Stowers, Jr. All rights reserved. Originally published at www.clarencestowers.com.
Clarence Stowers is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Chicago, Illiniois. He has been in full-time ministry for 20 years.