Over the past months there has been a good deal of back and forth on the blogs (good blogs from people I respect) about the dangers of “celebrity pastors.” As is often the case with these matters, there are many legitimate concerns to be made and many overreactions to avoid.
So, in no particular order, here are seven theses to keep in mind.
1. Celebrity is not a terribly helpful word. A celebrity is simply someone who is well known and easily recognizable. So in one sense, there are celebrity pastors. But “celebrity” often carries negative connotations, especially in Christian circles. A celebrity is someone who is famous for no substantial reason. We hear “celebrity” and think “vain,” “status-seeker,” “important for superficial reasons.” Unless this is what we want to say about some well-known Christians (and maybe it is), we should avoid calling them “celebrity pastors.” Both were famous and influential in their own circles, but there was a difference between Macho Man Randy Savage and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
2. Popularity is, to use Jonathan Edwards phrase, a non-sign. Noting that Pastor X is popular should not be seen as a value judgment. Hitler was popular for a time, but so was Jesus. It’s no necessary sign of faithfulness or faithlessness that many people go to Pastor X’s church or love to hear him speak or want to buy his books. Bigger may be better or it may be badder.
3. Factionalism is a danger, but factionalism is not the same as having a following. Many people are quick to bring up Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians about those who said “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos.” But Paul is rebuking the church for divisions (v. 10) and quarreling (v. 11), not for having teachers. Being drawn to a certain preacher does not by itself mean you are committing the sin of factionalism. If you think your favorite teacher is the only one worth listening to, if you are passionate about following him rather than following Christ, if you get into pointless arguments for the sake of defending your teacher, then you are making the mistake Paul warned about.
4. The human heart is desperately sick; who can understand it? Popular preachers and teachers are not immune to vanity, pride, and self-absorption. Those who follow them are not immune from idolatry, gawking, and completely missing the point. And the critics of all this are not immune from jealousy, cynicism, and undermining the work of God just because it seemed to be working.
5. Men follow men. (And by this I mean, less elegantly, humans follow other humans.) So long as we remember the Hero, it’s good to have human heroes (cf. Hebrews 13:7). Show me any great Christian in the history of the church and I guarantee he (or she) learned at the feet of some other great Christian. For some it’s Whitefield or Hodge or Warfield. For others its Augustine, Aquinas, or Athanasius. For others is Susanna Wesley, Sarah Edwards, or Elisabeth Elliot. For others it may be Lloyd-Jones, Lewis, or Machen. Why should we be surprised that some current names will be added to the list of God’s special instruments?
6. Give glory to God for his gifts wherever you find them. This entails three things:
1) We must always remember—and not just give lip service to the fact—that God is the one who apportions gifts to teachers, pastors, and authors. The churches get edified. God gets the glory.
2) Some Christians are more gifted than others. That’s not just reality; that’s the way God designed things. It will be better to learn about John Calvin from some teachers than from others (one of the reasons speakers are advertised at conferences). Often those with the more pronounced gifts are those with more pronounced influence. And those with more influence are usually better known than those with little influence. So as long as God apportions gifts as he sees fit, we will not escape the fact that some men have more notoriety and are used more powerfully than others. If you had to teach a class on the Reformation you’d certainly spend the bulk of your time on the likes of Luther, Calvin, Know, and Zwingli. The human mind can only comprehend so much, so we tend to focus on the men who (to our imperfect eyes) seemed to be used uniquely by God in his plan.
3) We ought to find ways to give great honor to the parts of the body that lack it (1 Cor. 12:24). This may mean thanking your faithful pastor more often even though his sermons will never be in a preaching anthology. It may mean writing a note to the servants at our churches with behind the scenes gifts. It certainly means that those with pronounced up-front teaching gifts should look for ways to direct attention away from themselves in order that they might honor “those other parts of the body.” Senior Pastors in particular should find ways to publicly praise the rest of their staff. They should develop the habit of thanking others in private too. And they should pray for wives who aren’t easily impressed (and recognize God’s grace when they’re not!).
7. Shame people only for what you are certain is truly shameful. Following your favorite speakers like teenage girls followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo is silly. But let’s be careful not to make every Christian who’s ever gotten an autograph or a picture taken feel like a dope. There are stupid reasons to wait in line to talk to a popular person. But there are God-honoring reasons too. Many people simply want to say thank you, or ask for prayer, or get a quick piece of advice. Judgments easily turn into judgmentalism when we don’t know all the facts (1 Sam. 16:7). If in our desire to warn against the cult of personality we forget that God uses persons, we won’t be doing the church any favors. Or God for that matter.