Karl Marx was a mediocre writer, but his reference to a great philosopher has been quoted and re-quoted: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
If we could laugh off current evangelical scandals, our situation would not be so dim—but we cannot. Historians lecture on the Great Awakening (1730s-1740s) and the Second Great Awakening (1800s), but in our time we could mutter about the Great Embarrassment (1987-1991) and the Second Great Embarrassment (2006-present).
Both embarrassments involve sex and money, in varying combinations. The first one, featuring Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, was a farce, because both had over-the-top personalities. The current one, which began with Ted Haggard, continues with Doug Phillips, and includes others once widely respected, is a tragedy.
The link among all of them comes out clearly in the materials of pastor Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. One smoking gun is a document entitled “Reasons Elevation Church Is the Best Place to Work.” Reason #1: “We serve a Lead Pastor who seeks and hears from God.” Reason #3: “We serve a Lead Pastor we can trust.” Reason #7: “We serve a Lead Pastor who pours into us spiritually and professionally.”
All this is biblically odd. As Virginia pastor Todd Pruitt points out in a Reformation 21 blog post, “The Cult of the Visioneer,” Christians “have a Lord who came not to be served but to serve.” Chapter 20 of Matthew’s Gospel also says those who go first will be last, but Elevation Church reason #16 is,“We serve a Lead Pastor who goes first.”
There’s more. Pruitt discovered an Elevation Church coloring page (designed to decrease child squirming during services) that has at its top “UNITY: We are united under the visionary.” At the bottom the page states, “Elevation Church is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will protect our unity in supporting his vision.”
All that is also biblically odd. We’re only three years short of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which emphasized that we should follow only God’s vision as shown in the Bible. Roman Catholics responded, in essence, We will protect our unity in supporting the vision of the Pope, or perhaps the College of Cardinals.
The link among perpetrators of both Great Embarrassments is their followers’ tendency to see them as inerrant mini-popes. After a while such adulation goes to men’s heads, leading many to think, I can do anything I want. Some want to be served sexually, some financially, some both.
This idea of protecting unity by supporting the vision of a human being, rather than relying on the vision of God as shown in the Bible, was anathema to Reformation products like the Puritans, who honored pastors but listened to sermons with Bibles on their knees, lest their leaders offer a vision not of God.
For that matter, Barnabas and Paul would have been horrified by those Elevation Church materials. Chapter 14 of Acts describes how crowds in Lystra treated the two evangelists like gods—“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you.’”
I began this column with Marx, so let me conclude on a personal note. As many WORLD readers know, I was a Communist before God mercifully pulled me out of that in 1973. As I started to read the Bible and think about churches, Roman Catholicism had no appeal for me because I equated its procedures with that of a Communist central committee (which often turned into one man of supposed steel) establishing a “party line” that all members had to toe.
I understand more about Catholicism now but am still firmly in the Protestant camp, and find it odd that evangelical comrades are demanding unity in support of a leader’s vision. Or, maybe not so odd. It’s tragic but unsurprising, given our sinful natures, that the church had fallen to a point 500 years ago where unity could continue only at the expense of truth. It’s tragic today that some Protestants are selling our birthright.