July 3, 2011

Evangelical Hagiolatry: Is there a Cure for Christian Celebrity Culture?

by Clint Archer

What Justin Bieber is to a bevy of giddy schoolgirls, John Piper is to star-struck seminoids. My first meeting with Piper was a brutal guerilla ambush. He was taking a tour of the seminary library where I worked, unaware that he was being stalked like paparazzi prey. As he entered the elevator I stealthily shot up the emergency staircase and was waiting for him when the doors opened. His experienced entourage was no match for my shamelessness. Before they could wriggle him out of my request, I had him. So Piper, in the hallway, with one sprained finger in a splint (I kid you not), leaning on the back of his bent-over assistant, patiently autographed the proffered copy of Desiring God before retreating. I felt dirty. I had treated a man I deeply respect like a rubber stamp. And I vowed that my next meeting would be infused with a modicum of dignity. [A goal I almost accomplished. See next week’s post “The Day John Piper Touched My Chin.”]

Let me be clear: Piper is not to blame for my giddiness at meeting him. I am. It’s groupies like me who create the need for bodyguards. Hagiolatry is seldom the fault of the venerated saint. Mary is turning in her grave over the teaching that she was “assumed into heaven.” I imagine meek Moses rolling his eyes at the release of Spielberg’s “Prince of Egypt.” In the same way John MacArthur squirms as he endures florid conference-speaker introductions that rob him of eternal reward. CJ Mahaney deflects effusive compliments by his trademark humble replies, making you feel dumb that you misdirected your praise. And Mark Dever dilutes attention by memorizing the name of everyone who ever approaches him, which makes them feel significant and thereby appropriately blurring the line between commoner and celebrity. Paul Washer simply delivers a verbal head butt to the brown nose of any flatterer. Francis Chan temporarily relocates to Thailand to escape the temptation to revel in his new-found fame (a curious move that will undoubtedly elicit a future Cripplegate post).

With the possible exception of Mark Driscoll—and Acts29ers I’m sure will correct me if I have misread overconfidence for narcissism—every Christian “celebrity” I’ve met has seemed genuinely uncomfortable with attention directed at them. By the way, I am aware of how ironic my name-dropping must sound, but please remember that I confessed up front that I am part of the problem in many different ways.

One famous anti-celebrity, Derek Webb, observed in one of his less controversial songs that Satan’s strategy in contemporary evangelicalism is to turn “shepherds into sheep and leaders into celebrities,” (the half-rhyme sounds better when he sings it). Why is this Satanic? Because it is the opposite of what Jesus taught us to do.
Rom 12: 16 “…Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” You don’t see conference attendees flocking around the lowly convention center staff for a photo opp.

James 2: 1 “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. …4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Do you ask your church ushers to sign your Bible? Me neither.

Matt 23: 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. …10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. My wife tongue-in-cheekily suggested that I put that verse on my business card.

It’s hard to glean from these passages how Jesus could have meant that it’s ok for us to tolerate a church culture in which Bibles are being autographed by preachers. It’s difficult to imagine our Instructor smiling at the blogs and Twiteratti that elevate some of his servants and criticize others, which is tantamount to the very I-am-of-Paul-ism that the Holy Spirit condemned through Paul’s own hand in 1 Cor 3.

How does undue adulation happen? When we focus too closely on the instrument we miss the hand that is wielding it. A weekend golfer who researches which clubs Tiger Woods uses, is missing the point. The contribution of his putter to Tiger’s success is negligible. St. Paul (excuse the title), somewhat of a reluctant celebrity himself, tried to point this out to his fans: 1 Cor 1:12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? …3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

I don’t think the responsibility to cure our celebrity culture falls to the celebrities. They are mostly victims. I mean, if Mahaney refused to autograph your copy of Humility, would you admire him for practicing what he preaches; or would you think he’s being a jerk? Exactly. I like MacArthur’s solution. When I asked him to sign my MacStudy Bible, he included a verse reference under his name, which I received as a subtle and good-natured rebuke: 2 Cor 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

The remedy to this disease must be sitting in the pocket of the populous. We groupies are the ones that need to stop admiring jars of clay and rather adore the treasure of Christ within. I doubt this post will fix what’s broken. Maybe Challies.com will take a stab at it with his scalpel of discernment. But then again if he successfully started a grass roots movement to then Tim Challies would reach celebrity status as the guy who ended Christian celebrity. You see the conundrum.

So instead of inviting a panel of renowned experts on the topic to pontificate while we snap photos of them,  I open the floor to you… How can we cure Evangelical hagiolatry?

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • I really digged this post Clint. In all truthfulness I think we ought to stir up ourselves in reminding each other of the scriptures that you have given, with regards to being “humble” and not making “distinctions” between each other. Association with the lowly is very true as well. I guess this verse from Jesus sums it up in a very cliche-y way, which I wish didn’t come across as a cliche – Matthew 23:11 – “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” And personally I think we can learn a lot from Paul and John the Baptist who sought after Christ’s elevation and glory above their own. 1 Peter 4:1-11 is also a great passage. See you tomorrow brother!

  • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

    This is really interesting, Clint. I think the simple answer to the question you posed, is to become something that paradoxically looks on the surface to be the same thing. Learn to become an encourager. Some people naturally have this gift in the body of Christ. And it can often be confused with being a brown noser.

    When you are an encourager, you are typically drawn to the downtrodden, the hurting, those who are trapped in a state of either self-inflicted misery or tribulations and afflictions. Encouragers often look for ways to lift the spirits of others. And across the board, encouragers tend to make no distinctions and are no respecter of persons, they’re like heat seeking missiles, who seek out opportunities to shake anyone’s hand, give anyone a hug, praise anyone’s efforts, offer anyone their services and support, and understand implicitly, that even the most visible Shepherd’s among us low grazers, need a boost, too.

    Often times what is “wrongly” conceived of as hero worship is actually a very deep appreciation for Christ in that person’s heart and ministry. This is exactly why I am drawn to pastors like John MacArthur. Christ is so evident in the ministry and the heart of JM. His commitment to truth and the glory of Christ is something every believer can and should strongly identify with, and this should never be misconstrued with something that is slavishly fawning. Like is attracted to like, I believe is the old saying. When a burning flame is in someone’s heart for Christ, such as JM, we all tend to gather round for the warmth and glow of it, like campers to a campfire, a moth to a flame. And if Christ is visible in the heart of every believer, is it ANY WONDER why we are drawn to and love the brethren so much?

    What say others? Come on don’t be shy.

    Nice article, Clint!

  • This was great. Thanks for the laugh.

  • Rbotes

    Well said, Clint!

  • Another fantastic post, Clint. Thanks for taking the time.

    I’m wondering where we can draw the line between deep appreciation and hero worship. Like Mary said above, (we hope) what attracts us to these men is the fact that we see Christ so clearly in them. I don’t know if that means we need to corner them in elevators, but I would love to spend 3 minutes speaking with John Piper about how much he has affected my walk by showing me how to “see and savor Jesus Christ,” as he put it. I hope that if my ushers affected me in the same way, that I would express that to them as well. But the gifting of pastors and teachers seems to put them in the position of presenting what’s attractive to people (Christ) by proclaiming His Word.

    I dunno. I’m kinda rambling. Do you have any thoughts on where the line is drawn between deep appreciation of someone for Christ’s sake and hagiolatry?

  • Pat Howell

    Kudos, Clint. Well perhaps that’s not the best way to express it, but u get my point. I appreciate the perspective. Sycophants abound, often blithely assuming that somehow the “shekinah” doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

    The sense of revulsion is not limited to the “celebrities” and Clint’s comments are charitable in that regard, however there are many who are repulsed by the increasingly pervasive creep of celebritism extant in conservative evangelicalism.

    I have seen it up close. I’ve been a part of it and I have been guilty of it. I’m brought low by the thought that Heaven is not nearly impressed with us as we may be with ourselves–or our heroes.

    I’m also struck by the knowledge of so many through the ages and today as well who labor in obscurity and die utterly unknown by men, but well known in heaven.

    To use a Southern colloquialism, we’re a mess–and we don’t know it.

  • Share the pulpit with preachers from your own neighbourhood, your own city, your own country. The idea is that people get overexposed to individuals because our super stars have the most popular blogs/radio shows/TV slots (sometimes this is because they honor God and deserve them but often times not)… so expose your congregation to a wider selection of edifying books and speakers than just gty/desiringgod/gosplecoalition*.
    I make sure that for every MacArthur/Piper/Ryken** sermon I download I download 1 dead guy (Whitefield/Edwards/Wesley***) and one South African guy (de Kievet/Holdt (Martin)/Morison… and many more).
    And then because I’m exposed to a variety of speakers and preachers so is my congregation.
    Books are the same. Yes put Tozer/Spurgeon/Stott on the shelf but make sure you make room somewhere for Murray/Moffat/Studd (yes I know the later list is a bit light in comparison).
    * What am I saying? Any pastor exposing his flock to those resources is fine in my book.
    ** Yes, I know he’s Presbyterian :).
    *** Yes, I know he’s Arminian :P.

  • Anonymous

    I very much appreciate your article Clint! I am sure a lot more can be said on the issue (maybe Tim Challies will take a stab at it? I’d be interested in reading his thoughts).

    I guess one way or another we all have been guilty of putting people who we admire on the pedestal. Some people do that more than others, and not only for the reasons that Mary suggested. We are not the first to do this (Apollo? Peter? Paul?) and won’t be the last. I think celebrities don’t make themselves, their followers make them.

    I myself don’t “follow” a variety of godly man (I am not adverse to the term following, as long as it has the biblical connotation of 1 Cor. 11:1). I admire John MacArthur and a few others, but not to the point of hagiolatry. I was very surprised to learn that Christians ask famous pastors/teachers to sign their bibles?! The thought never crossed my mind. On the other hand, is it bad that when Tim Challies’ book The Next Story was released I asked him to sign my copy?! =)

    I’ve been called a MacArthurite in the past. I am not blind or follow the man MacArthur. His teachings, however, have been very important to my Christian life, and very often I direct people to his teachings. I’d like to have the opportunity, one day, to meet him in person, and so does my husband and kids – his voice has filled our home regularly for almost 2 years now. It’s his love for Jesus Christ, his unmoving faithfulness to the truth that make me such a follower – I try to imitate him as he imitates Christ, and his godly example has been very encouraging to my own life.

    I know someone who got a book sent by MacArthur. He wrote the person’s name on the first page, followed by “Grace to you”, his signature and 2 Cor. 4:5-7. I know he is a humble man, but it must be very hard to deal with all the undue celebrity worship. I think if we really love these godly men, we should remember that they are not perfect and they too loose an eternal reward here and there. =)

    To God all glory!

    Grace and peace,

    • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

      Everyone has such good comments. I love it!

      Scripture seems to put great emphasis on the least of these: the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and those in prison. It kinda makes you wonder where our focus really should be. If we could get the stars our of our eyes, more of the least of these could be served better (speaking to myself, here), and truth be known, this is the remedy for hagiolatry.

      I, too, like many of you (Mike, Clint) owe such a debt to John Piper for deeply broadening my appreciation for God’s glory. His books, sermons, and articles are replete with nuggets mined from the depth of Scripture. He has a special genius. But ask yourself, if the person(s) we admire so much were to drift in their doctrine, and embrace some pretty far-fetched, faulty theology, would you still be star struck? I think not, because a true born again Christian is not a people pleasure. His or her first loyalty is to God alone.

    • Tim

      “(maybe Tim Challies will take a stab at it? I’d be interested in reading his thoughts).”

      Here’s some irony for you: http://www.challies.com/guest-bloggers/4-remarkable-things-about-john-macarthur.

      • Anonymous


  • Tim

    “… John MacArthur squirms as he endures florid conference-speaker introductions that rob him of eternal reward.” Is an unsought compliment that makes one squirm robbing that person of eternal reward? I think not. Jesus’ lesson in Matthew 6 explicitly states that the people giving, praying and fasting were doing so in a way designed to attract attention and admiration.

    I’ve been in that position of squirming when introduced or having my ministry acknowledged, and I squirm too. I also try to figure out how to avoid that the next time. As long as someone is not setting themselves up for adulation, I don’t think the fact that some conference host or meeting chair can’t understand the wrongfulness of such introductions acts to devalue the person’s service in his kingdom.

    • Anonymous

      “As soon as you just announced your humility you lost it.” (JM) =)

      • Tim

        I’ve heard variations on this humlity theme over the years, most notably from CS Lewis. Which leads me to a question as it applies to the main post above: is the fact that John MacArthur visibly squirmed to be taken as an announcement of his humility? I don’t think so, nor would be an effort to encourage conference organizers to avoid this type of hagiolatry in the first place. It’s one thing to announce one’s humility (or trumpet one’s prayer life, charitable giving or fasting), and another to discuss and spur one another on to developing true humility.

        • Anonymous

          Tim, I don’t think living under constant scrutiny is an easy thing, don’t take me wrong, but every little word and every little eyebrow movement is out there for the public to interpret as they wish when you are popular. I’d say that JM is not comfortable with hagiolatry, but I am sure he also knows that sometimes is not hagiolatry but a real appreciation the pupils have for their teacher. Sometimes distinguishing one from the other is tricky.

          But I can only talk with some certainty about my own life. It has been suggested to me, by a person that didn’t know me well or long, that the fact I was hesitant to share my conversion testimony with a lot of people was pride. The person’s argument when I tried to say I didn’t see it as pride was that if it’s for the glory of God it should be put out in the open. As I thought about all that and searched my heart for a couple of weeks after that conversation, I still stuck to my first conclusion: I am just on the shy side, and I don’t agree that everything that’s done for the glory of God is supposed to be out in the open (i.e, things that you mentioned, prayer, giving, fasting), as a matter of fact I believe that there are more things done to His glory that no one will ever know than otherwise.

          So you see, at the end is kind of hard because all that we do, in one degree or another, is left at the hands of other people’s perception.

          My quote to you was not to critic your attitude, was to show that even when we think we are not being proud, other people might look at it on a totally opposite way. And the same is true when we show true humility and people look at it as pride. The line is very thin and blurred at times (maybe most of the time?), and our own hearts deceive us.

          I do agree with you, we should discuss and spur one another on to developing true humility. I think that’s a great topic for a blog. =)

  • Great post. Spot on, especially as I am part of the exceedingly large group of believers who feel “born again” only in the tail end of college. It often happens that a certain speaker, author, or pastor finally cracks us…and although they do lead us back to the bible, they also have a tendency to be above “normal Christians” for us. It becomes commonplace to spend hours arguing the merits of one “celebrity Christian” against another, while altogether missing the points that both of those men or women were trying to make.

  • Good article. It’s a fuzzy line between respecting or even being a fan of someone’s work/talent – and idolizing them in some way. Even Jesus fought against the hype – withdrawing when people got too excited. Every person needs to be cognizant of the tendency to put faith in people.

  • Karl Heitman

    I have the solution. Let’s ask MacArthur and Piper to take their name off of every book, article, website, blog, and radio broadcast and let them be completely anonymous from now on….

    [just kidding…]

    Seriously, if we’re complaining about true Christians giving too much credit to men, then where is the BALANCE between appreciating and esteeming our elders highly (1 Thes. 5:12-13) and loving them too much? Honest question.

  • Thoroughly enjoyed this article…and it fuels my fire for obscurity and “smallness”

  • Not that I am in disagreement with your thoughts here, but a few questions;

    1) Why is it wrong to seek after being successful and being the best that you can be at something, whether it is in preaching, or, whatever your job may be? If I am capable and have been gifted with the abilities to be the most influential pastor in the world, and I refuse to responsibly live up to my God given gifts, would I not be under condemnation for wasting what I was given? Do I not want to pursue hearing “well done good and faithful servant” ?

    2) I agree that it is not necessarily the fault of a celebrity that they are a celebrity. I always get annoyed with the “Brittney Spear’s” of the world who get mad when people criticize their behavior because they never “asked” to be a role model. Sure, they didn’t, but they are and they can’t change that. But what is the normative that we can use to rightly discern between sinful motivations for self-promotion and righteous men who have a unique calling and responsibility to be a public face to the world?

    3) I am not sure if I am ok with a christian celebrities being “uncomfortable” with their status. I think they should instead be humbled by the responsibility that they have been given and also that they should embrace it. People love to criticize LeBron James because it is obvious that he is immensely talented, but when it comes to crunch time he is not willing to embrace his role as the best player on the court. He is now poorly contrasted to Michael Jordan who refused to “share” the ball with anyone when the game was on the line. He recognized that it was up to him to lead, and he couldn’t just chill on the sidelines and hope Scottie would carry the load for him! In a world where so many people are being taught terribly destructive “truths” about life, God, religion and the message of Christ, should those who have been thrust into the spotlight, for better or worse, be bold to use their public pulpit to speak truth?

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