Avoiding celebrity and treating pastors humanely
This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand.
1 Samuel 17:46–47
In our men’s study this past week, the video mentioned how 1 Samuel is very clear about the point of David and Goliath story. If we’re going to draw application out of the story, David Helm suggested that we at least can’t miss, 1. That David’s act should make the earth know the God in Israel, and 2. That the battle is the Lord’s. He specifically mentioned how easy it is for us to be deceived in churches and leadership. David went without a sword, and Goliath mocked him. Saul thought David was a bit young, and his brothers wanted to send him back, but David knew that God was the one to deliver Israel, through his simple sling.
But in churches around the world, we’d rather have a Goliath as leader than a David. We’d rather have a leader whose work makes the church great again. Now I think it’s important to realize there are structural things that accentuate such celebrity. When the pastors are not known as humans and fellow members in the local congregation they serve, this is a problem. I have met pastors who drive one direction to pastor and the spouse goes a different direction on Sunday morning. In other words, the pastorate has become a job, and the calling of membership is low for them. He only needs to step up to the pulpit, fulfill his responsibilities and be gone. Some pastors neglect carrying a pastoral burden since they are completely siloed into a specific ministry. I knew of a pastor who was once a children’s pastor and his office was in the children’s ministry wing and not with the other staff pastors. A pastor is almost forbidden from pastorally caring for the flock. My pastor growing up (for all his faults) took me to the nursing home with him to visit an elderly fellow and read scripture with him. He told me it’s not good for pastors to hand off all this work to others. Now this was a church of 800, and he very likely could have handed this off, but he knew the importance of a pastor knowing the church.
But for some reason we’re drawn to perfected images of the thing. I just watched some of the Apple phone release thing (I’ve never bought an apple product), but the whole presentation was in a theater (since they believed in human contact), but was mostly high-production video obviously done with many takes. The presentation was the perfected thing without any stutters or hiccups or squeaky floors. But we’ve grown to expect this of everything. Even screensaver photos on our TV’s and computers are a more perfect image of the tropical paradise or of a city with oversaturated glorious light. When we visit a place, then, the sight of the place is a disappointment compared to the photo taken especially of some of the more mundane, plain places turned glorious through the lens of a camera. And isn’t it easy for pastors to accidentally fit the mold. A family member at Bethlehem noted, ‘Well, John Piper’s been wearing the same suit forever.’ In other words, he’s not trying to overly polish his image. Perhaps even it has been his way to attack the celebrity position. But it happens in other ways too: when a pastor preaches for multiple services, his sermons get slicker quicker. And so a pastor can become a better Rhetor before his maturity catches up with him, and again be vaunted into celebrity. It’s interesting because many of these things aren’t necessarily bad, but they structurally but unintentionally can push immature men to places of unhealthy celebrity. And the internet now the past 20 years has raised up the prettiest and most engaging speakers to a place of celebrity outside of a pastor’s local church. Now Christians can be ‘fans’ of a pastor from New York City, Minneapolis, or Los Angeles. Whereas before you’d have to visit or maybe read a published sermon, it is much more easy to be a follower of someone outside of your context.
And then the next step is to realize that we imagine that these men are pastoring well because they sound good. And we can listen to them without having to rub shoulders with them and smell their breath which they accidentally forgot to clean this morning. The videos aren’t clear enough even to show us their imperfections, and the home feel of their fireside chats don’t allow us to actually feel the warmth of their hospitality in their homes. I’m not fully sure the answer, but I do think one of the most neglected of the pastoral expectations in Timothy is the expectation to be hospitable. It is not enough to be warm and fuzzy on a stage. Even the great bishops of old like Augustine would have taken such a thing on as a sacred duty. The bishops of the 4th centuries had become patrons for the poor who had no one to care for them. Emperors were lenient on the bishops sometimes in the last 3rd century in times of persecution since they were actually providing for so many people that to have killed the bishop would have taken away welfare.
So what can we do? I think the first answer is not to lean much on video and audio preachers outside of where you’re at. It doesn’t hurt to listen to other sermons, but when you become a follower of someone so much that you’re impatient with the pastoral leadership in your church, something may be wrong. I think a second thing would be to remember that your pastor is also a church member, and so seek to know him (and his family) as brother and sister in need of grace and fellowship. It is a self-reinforcing loop that pastors encounter that end up isolating them. Don’t neglect loving, caring for, and knowing your pastor as a human in need of human fellowship! And this is because the pastor is in need of God’s imputed righteousness just as much as you: we need a savior, and it’s going to be God not that man. And the church needs a deliverer and it’s going to be God not man. When the pastor neglects his duty and strays from devoting himself to exhortation, teaching, and reading scripture aloud, when he is not setting an example in his conduct and speech, faith, love, and purity, what can we do? If we’ve cared for his soul as a church member and know him as a human we’re not shocked but might actually have a place to call him to account. If not, we may not be able to say much. You see we all need the gentle correction of life together, and when we don’t it is not a good thing. I am grateful to the Lord though that he is at work even in the imperfect structures and world that we have set up for ourselves. Because God is stronger than Goliath, he’s also stronger than anything we might imagine that could attack his church, even this celebrity problem.