Celebrity pastor worship


Anyone aware of the alarming state of American evangelicalism's celebrity-driven church culture would not have to try hard to draw parallels with the church in Corinth. The "big name" pastors, as we sometimes call them, thanks to the Christian conference circuit, book publishing, the internet, and so on, tempt many evangelicals to cannibalize each other in the spirit of following "Paul" or "Apollos." In today's terms, these could be men like John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, R.C. Sproul, Tony Evans, or whomever people would rather download and listen to instead of their own pastor.

The problem is not the wonderful ways God uses these men. The problem is with us, the people holding these great preachers and teachers of our time too highly and using them to attack other Christians who might not believe whatever we consider to be the "right" interpretation of what "the gospel" says the church should be doing in the world. I go through seasons of falling into this myself. It's embarrassing but I do it.

Quarrels, dissension, and divisions are plastered all over the internet as Jesus followers poke passive insults at each other in the name of whatever peripheral minutiae we determine as "getting the gospel right." For example, not being Reformed enough, or not "traditional" enough, or too traditional, or too literal, or too involved in social issues, or not evangelistic enough, and so on. Paul challenges the Corinthian church saying:

"You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe-as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:3-6)

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Matthew Henry wrote wise words about this passage:

"Contentions and quarrels about religion are sad evidences of carnality [worldliness]. . . . Many professors, and preachers also, show themselves to be yet carnal, by vain-glorious strife, eagerness for dispute, and readiness to despise and speak evil of others."

Here's the rub: Contentions and quarrels can make you famous among evangelicals. Evangelicals love strife. Marketing for Christian publishing, the speaker circuit, and the like, all feed into this pathetic trend. If you're a Paul or an Apollos you can easily get a book contract and draw large speaking fees, even if you're a dissension starter. If a preacher does not have a following like an Apollos, he will get no book contract and he will not be invited to speak at conferences. Have you noticed the various Apollos sections of the Christian bookstore? It's no wonder that many young preachers are busy trying to be like a famous Apollos instead finding contentment with their own gift-mixes.

I've actually seen an evangelical Pauls and Apolloses speak together at the same conference about "the gospel" and then read blogs where their "followers" attack "followers" of the other guys. Again, it is not that admiration, respect, nor celebrating the gifts of any of today's great teachers is necessarily a problem. The problem is neither books nor conferences. The cancer in the church is the disunity created with "fans" of certain preachers create dissension over minutiae that we reinterpret as "the gospel." Maybe, then, it's not a good sign when large crowds gather to hear their favorite preachers speak together.

A short column like this is clearly insufficient to cover this topic, which is worthy of much discussion in book form at least. I'm not sure, however, who would be brave enough to write it and which publisher would be bold enough to publish it. However, I can't imagine that Jesus is smiling on a church in tension because of trifling Paul and Apollos followers. Something needs to be said soon. While Christians are busy fighting over which preacher is "right," evil in the world roams free without opposition.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of The Political Economy of Liberation and Black and Tired. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.


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