It’s no secret that we live in a celebrity-driven culture. In our modern Western lifestyle we look for people to place on a pedestal and revere as famous. We love to either vicariously live the life of fame through our celebrity heroes, or we like to pretend that the stars are just like us.
This fact is even true in the modern church. The influence and power that a church can bestow upon its leaders can lead to placing those leaders on a pedestal. Local church leaders aren’t immune — I’ve detailed my own struggles with resisting what I call the “ministry celebrity trap.” But it goes even further to believers who are famous across the nation and the world. We can easily embrace Christian celebrities and turn them into idols.
Over at Relevant, a site with which I have a love-hate relationship (love because of its insight into faith and culture and hate because of its occasional swerve into Leftism), Kallie Garrett has penned an insightful article entitled, “The Danger of Idolizing ‘Christian Celebrities’.” Garrett writes:
We have seen the rise and fall in popularity of many Christian celebrities. They develop a following because of books or blog posts they’ve written, funny tweets they have shared or profound Instagram posts amassing a multitude of likes. But when fame becomes equivalent to holiness, we set them up to fail.
We should be concerned when our expectation of a Christian leader becomes more about what they can provide for us and less about who they are leading us towards. We base our faith off of a celebrity, rather than our actual God. We have created false gods in His place.
What about famous Christians who wind up turning their back on the truth of God’s Word in some way? I wrote a few months back about Christian “celebrities” who come out as gay or lesbian. In most of those cases, they weren’t really that famous, although the mainstream media paints them as more influential and important than they really are.
But there have been believers who have abandoned orthodox Christian beliefs, in essence knocking themselves off the pedestal whether they wanted to or not. Remember a couple of years back when Michael Gungor of the worship band that bears his surname declared that he didn’t believe much of the Bible? From The Christian Post:
“I have no more ability to believe, for example, that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago. I have no ability to believe that there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago and that all of the animal species that exist today are here because they were carried on an ark and then somehow walked or flew all around the world from a mountain in the middle east after the water dried up,” he continued.
“I have no more ability to believe these things than I do to believe in Santa Claus or to not believe in gravity. But I have a choice on what to do with these unbeliefs. I could either throw out those stories as lies, or I could try to find some value in them as stories,” he added.
And then there’s Rob Bell. I remember showing his Nooma videos in youth group and small group settings not too many years ago and having nary a theological problem. And then he wrote Love Wins, his book which denies the existence of hell and props up a dangerous universalist message. The reviewer at Baptist Press quotes Bell’s heterodox thoughts:
Sometimes, Bell said, people who are saved use Jesus’ name but “other times they don’t.” Jesus, he said, “is bigger than any one religion.”
“As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true,” Bell wrote. “… What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.”
Not long after that, Bell took up with Oprah to help peddle her vague, feel-good spirituality.
Christian “celebrities” don’t have to go off the deep end in their faith to fall off the pedestal. Think back to the televangelism scandals of the ’80s: Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker disillusioned countless followers and provided the cynical with fodder for years afterward. More recently, the appropriately named Atlanta pastor Creflo Dollar became a laughingstock when he began a fundraising scheme for a jet for his use.
Other more serious scandals rocked churches and hurt the reputations of megachurch pastors. In 2014, Mark Driscoll resigned from the 15-location, 13,000-member Mars Hill Church mired in controversy involving plagiarism, misuse of church funds, and reports of an abusive management style. Two years later, Perry Noble of NewSpring Church, with locations all over South Carolina, left his pastoral role over problems with alcohol addiction. Noble has since returned to consulting and speaking after just a few months in rehab and therapy.
Here’s the thing: we Christians cannot allow ourselves and our churches to make an idol of any leader or celebrity — whether he or she be a pastor, writer, musician, or any other type of leader. Fallible human beings, regardless of their intentions, will let us down in small or large ways. The only One we should place on a pedestal is Jesus Himself, because He will never let us down, and He provides the perfect example for us to model our own lives after.