A musing from several years ago.
When is honor dishonorable?
A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”—whether they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).
There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few flare-ups of this phenomenon here (N.b.: Since writing this in 2013, the list of fallen Christian celebrities has sadly grown longer and longer).
Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?
Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ—He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.
The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7).
To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire—pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological übermenschen, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).
It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.
The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses—pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. When other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws, he sees it not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.
Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.
The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.
Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”—without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.
As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.