November 25, 2020

American Idolatry: “Men”

calf.jpgRead Two Books. Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, an absolutely wonderful book, and John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. The writing of Gordon Macdonald is also good in this area.

What I mean are leaders, so excuse the sexist language, but I’m wanting to get at something the Bible talks about a lot using Psalm 118:8 and similar verses: It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. Evangelicals are trusting more and more in men, what they can do, what they say and where they are leading.

Can we legitimately call the treatment of leaders in evangelicalism idolatry? Certainly not in every case, and certainly not in many cases, but the problem is pervasive and common.

Idolatry is as likely to be self-worship as it is the worship of an alternative god. In fact, at the root of idolatry is the desire to have a God, not to serve, but who will serve us. Christ comes to serve us as a servant, but he comes to wash our feet of the guilt of our rebellion and to bring us to God, not to become our genie or our butler. To be served by Christ is to come into the Kingdom of the sovereign creator, and not to put him on a leash.

The idolatry of leaders comes from the desire to have a God who comes to us, serves us and gives us success in the person of our chosen leaders. Where Moses had a grumbling Israel- and I certainly know that is still a problem- today’s churches want their leaders to be Moses and more, standing before them and saying “This is what God has told me to tell you”. In one sense, it sounds like what any preacher should do, but in real life, many evangelicals want their leaders to give them “the word” beyond the word of scripture expounded and applied.

It is some measurement of this problem, that many will balk at the idea of a minister who is an ordinary Christian, not supernaturally gifted, not hearing special voices or receiving special leadership. The contemporary evangelical scene is developing a standard of leadership that demands a kind of idolatrous pretense to a higher spirituality.

Idolatry does need, at least in most cases, an idol to serve. The word “idol” has ambiguity in American English. Our most popular television program is “American Idol”, and the result is an entertainer, who, interesting, we created by our vote. If “idol” doesn’t suit you, the why not another religious word: “icon”, a word that parallels the “imago dei”. Of course, turned upside down, an “icon” is a person whom we elevate to the status of some kind of deity.

It seems that American Protestantism and recent evangelicalism have shown alarming weaknesses in the area of making human beings, particularly pastors, into idolatrous figures. Despite the Bible’s unmistakably clear and repeated teaching about the common fallibility of all human beings, particularly leaders, evangelicals persist in increasingly treating their leaders as celebrities, “anointed ones”, and a special class of infallible mouthpieces of the Spirit.

It would not be hard to find evidence that evangelicals will follow their leaders into every kind of error, ranging from mere foolishness to danger, cultic abuse. For many churches, particular small, non-growing, Southern Baptist churches, the primary activity of a church is the continuing attempt to find a “preacher” who will fill the pews, bring in money and hold the young families. Ministerial turnover in the SBC is high because Baptists put so much emphasis on their leaders being pastoral supermen.

An entire class of SBC leaders has taken this idolatry of human leadership and turned it upon churches with variously increasing versions of “the authority of the pastor”. This is a direct result of an acceptance of a kind of church leadership that has nothing to do with the kind of Jesus-imitating leaders desired in the New Testament. It has far more in common with the failed kings of the Old Testament.

How does a church wind up with someone who behaves more like King Saul than the one who washes feet? Many of these leaders misread the Apostle Paul at every opportunity, taking it upon themselves to relate to their churches as if they were founding Apostles and not undershepherds of the Great Shepherd.

Unfortunately, Christians increasingly ask- even demand- a leader who promises to take the church to the promised land of church growth by the shortest route possible. In other words, these kinds of leaders are invited to bring their idols with them to get the job done.

The idolatry of entertainment is influential in the creation of the contemporary pastoral “icon”. In the last few years, the image of a pastor has radically changed. This change is part of a spiraling evolution of ministerial models that shows no signs of halting or reversing.

Today, there is almost no church that wants a pastor who is post-50, pastorally sensitive and a competent preacher. Instead, churches want leaders who are in their twenties and thirties, with the skills of entertainers, comedians, CEOs and entrepreneurs. Pastoral leadership has been redefined into a set of skills that are subservient to the agenda of church growth.

Church health consultant Lovett Weems made an interesting comment about church leadership:

“I am coming to believe that all leadership is local. There is a sheer presence required for effective leadership. Leaders must stay close to the people with whom they work and close to the details of what is happening in their setting of leadership. When too much time and emotional energy are being given to endeavors outside that setting of leadership, there is almost always the deterioration of the quality of relationship and leadership.”

The trend of today’s leaders is to spend less and less time with the actual pastoral needs of congregations, and more time with the “big picture” of visionary church growth. I want to be very clear that I believe there is a level of “apostolic”, missionary church leadership that deals with this level of church development, but this is NOT the level of the work pastor of the small local congregation.

The root of this problem is the desire of so many evangelical church members to have the kind of pastor they see at the biggest, fastest growing churches in town. The accumulated effect upon American churches is predictable: Church growth is king. Church health is an unknown subject. All things in a church are subject to the personality and leadership of the pastor. Pastors increasingly justify their idolatrous approaches to leadership as necessary.

American evangelicals are asking for leaders that behave in an idolatrous manner, and they demand these leaders because such leadership is the primary means to perpetuate these idols without challenge or repentance. No one has to walk for to see evangelicals putting men in the place of God, nor should we be surprised that we are increasingly finding personalities who are prepared to fill the role.

Aaron prepared the Golden Calf because he tired of waiting. The grumbling Israelites demanded the idol so they could have a god that worked for them and their felt needs. What kind of leader could say yes to God’s Gospel (and its timing) and no to the people demanding a god they can see?

That is a rare man these days.


  1. This is a really insightful post. I’m glad you wrote about it, because it verifys my own thinking on the suject.

    I’m a former evangelical, convert to RC and friend of Emergent, and have thought a lot about the almost superstar-status of some evangelical pastors, and what sometimes looks like a cult of personality.

    In the Catholic world, pastors get reassigned every few years, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, and congregations don’t have any control over the process. There are pros and cons to this system. On the downside, you can get stuck with a pastor you don’t like for a long time, or lose a pastor you do like after a short time. But if you’re lucky you get a pastor you love for a long time.

    Regardless, however, sooner or later every pastor moves on, and you learn not to get attached to the pastor himself as your leader, though you may love him and get attached to him as a person, but to be attached to Christ as the leader, because although pastors change, Christ always remains.

    This, I think, is healthy. Not sure how you would apply this in your world, but I think you’re on to something. Thanks again.

  2. I like your usage of Aaron and the golden calf; the calf being the image they fashioned out of that which they plundered, by God’s command, from the Egyptians. IOW they worshipped the image of their own making with what God had given them when they left Egypt. Regrettably, it looks like the same old problem today.

    The true Shepherd came to point us to a right relationship with to God. It really wasn’t about finding another “system”.