The Cult of Personality

In a recent discussion with several Christians, I heard a sense of personal betrayal due to the number of moral failings by men who claim to be evangelical leaders. One such man was mentioned in particular, a very high profile case. The feeling was a trust had been broken. Some felt violated. All were very sad. The problem, it was agreed, has something to do with a disturbing trend in evangelical Christianity today, the headlong rush to agree a Christian leader is “anointed,” to form a cult of personality around these high profile preachers.

In the big picture, I certainly agree that the cult of personality within the church is wrong. But it’s no good blaming the people on the TV set. After all, we are the ones who put those people way up on those pedestals. The problem lies in us.

Here are two mistakes we Christians make when we put men up so high:

Unhealthy allegiances. When it comes to trust, there are only three levels, which I will call “divine, human and inanimate.” Inanimate trust would be the belief that a chair will support our weight, for example, and does not apply here. Regarding divine trust, the Bible says we can learn from great teachers and prophets, but spiritually our trust should be in God alone. And common sense suggests that healthy human trust can exist only when we have an actual relationship on a personal level. Regardless of how much we feel we have in common with a religious leader or how wise they seem to be, to feel a bond of trust with a stranger on the television is unhealthy, like the poor souls who form obsessive attachments to movie stars. This means the only legitimate forms of trust that can be broken when a Christian leader falls are limited to God first, and then the leader’s family, friends, and (in many cases) the direct members of his ministry. If there is no personal relationship, there is no real trust to betray. Yet the cult of personality often leads to talk among Christians about “forgiving” Christian leaders whom we do not even know, and who have done absolutely nothing to us personally. Since these men are total strangers and not our pastors, family members or friends, since they have violated no personal trust with us, the “forgiveness” we discuss must mean forgiveness on the spiritual, or divine trust level. This reveals two flaws in our thinking. First, we are not God, and “who can forgive sins [against God] but God alone?” Second, no fellow sinner could betray our spiritual trust if our spiritual trust is truly in God alone, so unless we have made little gods out of these men, what is there for us to forgive?

Doing God’s job. We also should not let the “cult of personality” trick us into pretending we have a right to hold Christian leaders to a higher spiritual standard. Paul makes it clear that Christian leaders must meet certain strict criteria, but they are all earthly, in the sense that they can be seen or heard and verified. True, James warned that a higher standard is required of teachers, but what he actually wrote is they “will be judged more strictly,” and only God can judge the sins within a human heart, because only God has the moral right to do so in a world where “all have sinned and fallen short.” Yet when these leaders fall, we so often dig a spiritual pit at least as deep as the pedestal was high. For example, the Christian leader my friends were discussing had already confessed and repented as the Bible says he should, and as far as we know his actions since then have given no reason to doubt his sincerity. Nevertheless, many Christians continue to speak about the man as if his remorse and his desire for spiritual healing are insincere. How could we know that? Some say they know it because he only confessed and repented after he was caught, as if God will not accept a Christian leader’s repentance if it comes along that way. But such thinking ignores the David/Bathsheba story (among others), since repentance after being caught in sin is just what David did. Of course David's remorse and plea for forgiveness was accepted by the Lord. Indeed, it’s very common for God to begin the confession-repentance-reconciliation process by first “catching” believers in their sins. (Who among us has not experienced this personally?) So it’s unwise to let the cult of personality tempt us to skepticism about a fallen leader’s remorse, as if they are a special case, as if we have a right to demand some added proof before God will take them back. The Lord will indeed judge them more strictly (God might take a son’s life as he did with David, for example) and we must certainly require (with sadness) that they step down from their ministry, but we create our own danger from the cult of personality when we presume to make judgments about the condition of their hearts before the Lord.

It is important to note that one of Paul’s requirements for an “overseer” is that “he must have a good reputation with outsiders.” Yet evangelical Christianity has become a laughingstock among unbelievers in America today. This is partly because we have followed human leaders' agendas instead of remaining focused on the Gospel. It has happened before, and God’s solution is always the same, as Samuel once said to the whole house of Israel. "If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." (1 Samuel 7:3, NIV)

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:12 AM  


BJ said... June 1, 2007 at 11:32 AM  

Commit to Him *only* ...
Worship Him *only* ...
Serve Him *only* ...

Our failure to heed the above has gone far to establish the celebrity cult and its weakening, destructive influence on the Church as a whole and individual Christians as well.

Excellent post, Athol.


J. Brisbin said... June 1, 2007 at 12:22 PM  

It seems we're taught, from an early age, to live spiritually vicarious lives. First through our parents, then through our pastors and elders, and sometimes, through the personalities that emerge in the fad-happy world we live in (where Christians are fooling themselves if they think they're any less potentially guilty of this than the "rest of the world").

When a spiritual "leader" falls from grace, it seems quite a few of the most critical people have (foolishly) invested themselves too heavily in that spiritual vicariousness (is that a word?). It's almost like we want to delegate our spiritual relationship to the Church, so we can be unburdened to do our own thing. I think this, because I've done it. I know somewhat of which I speak. :)

Great post, Athol!

Michelle Pendergrass said... June 2, 2007 at 8:18 AM  

Great post, Athol. Spot on!

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