Theology

Israel, Gaza and Iraq: Where are the Celebrity Pastors now?

Industrial revolution image 1.

It can be easy to forget how unhealthily prosperous we are in Western society. Much of humanity has drifted away from the ‘hunter-gatherer’ context in which we were created to thrive, and is now largely dependent on office jobs, fast food and mortgages to survive. Our minds and bodies protest in depression, obesity and drug or alcohol addictions – conditions that result almost entirely from our drab capitalist environment, inspired by the industrial revolution. It’s an intriguing crisis of modern society, intriguing because much of our society is still willingly ignorant of it.

The hardest work is now perceived to take place in front of computer screens for 8 hours a day or more. Time off is considered being able to watch some television or drive to the gym in your car to jog on a machine before driving home again. You will continuously hear that all of this is necessary, in order to ‘make a living’. To earn money for paying off mortgages and supporting your families, or to make a difference, whether it is ultimately for the world, God, or yourself. This is what we are told it is all about; some greater good that you are striving for. Your ‘prosperous’ life may seem terrible now, but it is all for a great purpose.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with my title for this piece. Well, I thought setting some context for one of the contradictions of Western society (that being the fact that we are prosperous, but profoundly unhappy about it) might be useful in making my overall point.

Never has our collective prosperity been more apparent for me than this past summer. As news emerged of people regularly being beheaded in Iraq, civilians blown up in Israel and Gaza, Christians fleeing from their homes all over the Middle East, the disconnect between our side of the world and theirs couldn’t have been more obvious.

Western ears perked up rather late to the atrocities. Even once they did, our leaders – you know whom I mean – have been very hesitant to take any action in regards to fighting for justice, for fear of resurrecting bad memories of their own historic failings. Only once it became apparent that these religious extremists intended to bring the war eventually to us have we truly accepted the urgency for action.

Forget the unfortunate thousands who have already been brutally murdered, beheaded in many cases, in their home countries; the security of our own shores is of paramount importance here. This is the philosophy we’ve been taught, and it is one you may subconsciously adhere to even if you have chosen to write a blog or article about the horrors of it. Only in hindsight will these horrors truly come to light in ways that will make people say, how could we have let this happen?

At this time, I can only regard such matters from the perspective of my own Christian worldview. I’m aware though, that writing a blog entry about how horrible these atrocities are is ultimately not going to have any more impact than the various secular news articles – most of them as well written and emotive as anything I could do – that cover the same thing. So this is not what I intend to do. Frankly, I just don’t have the kind of influence that could make a real difference globally.

There are others in my ‘field’ that have been gifted with this kind of far-reaching influence; a platform that could, and should, be used to guide other Christians in how we should react to these matters. They are the well-known Christian pastors that have shaped this generation of evangelical leaders.

I’m talking about the likes of John Piper, Francis Chan, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, to name but a few, though I could list off twenty more. Any of you ‘fans’ of these famous pastors will rightly have just put your guard up and wonder, with apprehension, where I am going with this. Am I about to join the club that criticizes other Christians and therefore supposedly harms the integrity of my faith?

Well, yes, if that’s how you want to put it. Though I won’t be taking any sides. I won’t be saying MacArthur is right and Driscoll is wrong, because as in most cases, neither is ever entirely right or entirely wrong.

The common accusation that we are harming the faith by criticizing each other openly must also be subject to context. In many cases it has proven simply to be a convenient loophole, especially when the Christians we are referring to have willingly engaged with secular culture up to this point.

When it’s going well, and the wider community is growing to love them as much as their church congregation does, they may talk about how much of a blessing the Internet is in this modern age. How they are thankful beyond words to a graceful God for the amazing impact their ministry is having both further afield and closer to home, as their church continues to grow.

But as soon as they realise that this global exposure also means global accountability that could have a less than positive effect on their ministry… well, their attitude may change somewhat. All of a sudden the Internet becomes troublesome. All of a sudden, certain issues should be dealt with ‘inside the church’, and certain people should ‘keep their opinions to themselves’. Unless their opinion is a positive one; in that case, they may become useful again.

For me the truth of this, is that the church can’t have it both ways. If we are going to open ourselves up to our culture, in any context, then we must accept that our failings will be subject to the same attention. After all, isn’t this one of our motivations not to have failings? Isn’t it why our leaders need to be beyond reproach?

So let’s admit the problem here is not that everyone talks about those failings; the problem is that they are there at all. And no, I am not saying that I don’t have failings myself, and I understand John 8: 7. But the sinful woman in that passage was not someone with the kind of influence that the average Pastor has, let alone one with Celebrity status.

I am going to use Pastor Mark Driscoll as a case study, not because I have anything against him personally, but because it seems he is the best example of this in evangelical Christianity today. Others have been in his position; unfortunately it seems few have made quite as many mistakes as Pastor Mark.

Driscoll originally opened himself up to the exposure he has gained, and accepted the accolades (from both Christian and secular sources) when they came. He was interviewed on secular news stations about his New York Times bestseller Real Marriage when it was released. This was admittedly a fantastic opportunity to discuss Christian values in a forum that Christianity, certainly the reformed brand of Christianity that Driscoll aspires to, rarely receives otherwise.

At the time it was, anyway. All of the positive recognition Driscoll received (both for himself and the values he preaches) through the success of this book was arguably undone earlier this year, when it emerged that Mars Hill, the Seattle church where Pastor Mark is locally based, had paid a marketing company a significant amount of money in order to manipulate sales figures of Real Marriage.

You may protest that this is actually quite a normal and common thing to happen in the publishing industry. In which case, I would then ask if you think it’s fine for Christians to go along with something because it is normal and common by cultural standards? The answer to which has perhaps been distorted more than ever over the past decade.

Driscoll’s reputation has only been harmed further in recent months, as more disconcerting stories began emerging from Mars Hill. There was the leaking of some disparaging comments Driscoll had made on a forum back in 2000, although that happened fourteen years ago and should not, I think, factor too much in our opinion of a clearly more mature man today.

Much more concerning for me were the numerous rising accusations of a bullying culture at Mars Hill, coming both from fellow members of the leadership team and former congregants of Driscoll’s flock. These rumours have existed for a while, but it seems that as more people have spoken out, the more were given the courage to also talk about their experiences. Because now, with everything else that has emerged, they feel that the rest of us might actually listen to what they have to say.

As a man, I am sure that Driscoll is, on the surface at least, a cool guy to hang around with. But I wonder if he is cut out to be a pastor at all. The problem is, as I think the rest of us are starting to realise, the ability to embody masculinity and connect with people as a charismatic talker does not make a good pastor. In fact these things should be secondary to a caring heart that wants to leave no sheep behind.

Unfortunately I suspect these lines may have been blurred by Driscoll’s celebrity status and presence among other Christians. Blogger Adrian Warnock conducted interviews with him first in 2006, and secondly in 2008 after Driscoll had spoken at a Newfrontiers leadership conference in the UK. Warnock has been firmly defensive regarding every single Driscoll controversy, probably because of this personal attachment; a connection that many other Christians feel they have despite never having met him.

It is hardly surprising in Warnock’s case. Newfrontiers as an entire movement have been pretty enamoured with Driscoll since he gave them a heartfelt prophecy at that 2008 conference, which has shaped their subsequent direction and overall vision. It reportedly left most of their leaders in tears as they stood to give him a standing ovation, so moved as they were by Driscoll’s mode of deliverance when he spoke from the stage.

I have no doubt that many of the younger leaders subconsciously aspired to be like him. It is only natural; they wanted to grow their churches as Driscoll has done with Mars Hill. Driscoll himself told them they needed to be doing this better and faster at their own conference, almost coming across as one of the wise apostles; a trusted sage at the grand old age of 36.

Many of these leaders would now be very quick to speak up for their dear brother’s strengths over his weaknesses, as other fine pastors such as the universally respected John Piper have done, though it saddens me that this happens seemingly without much care given for those who have been gravely hurt by Driscoll, whether it be as a result of his impersonal leadership style or oppressive extended ministry.

Of course, you may say I just don’t understand. You may say it is inappropriate for me to even give an opinion on this, just like all of those other bloggers who apparently ‘don’t have anything better to do with their time’. I should perhaps stick to my fun little film reviews and let the intellectual, theologically trained, more experienced grown-ups deal with these mature issues away from the prying eyes of those who criticize.

Well, if that is the case, if Christianity is becoming something that the ‘common people’ on the ground level are discouraged from giving an opinion on, then I should think we are truly on our way back to the dark ages.

This, you see, is the greatest gift the Internet can give: a voice to those who previously would have had none. A voice, therefore, to those who have been hurt by Mars Hill church, and who have thankfully not been brushed completely out of sight, out of mind by aggressive ‘church discipline’.

I can understand how frustrating it is for those in authority – especially because not everyone can know all of the facts at any one time, and usually end up having an emotional outburst rather than approaching issues with open thoughtfulness. But the moment those in authority try to use it to take away our voices is an overstretching of that which God has given to them. For even He has not used his authority to take away our dissenting voices – despite the fact that, when it comes to God, none of us yet know all of the facts regarding his majesty.

When you take the stance that these kinds of issues should be dealt with exclusively in-house, you risk creating situations like the infamous child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which was covered up for years due to a tribal attitude that said this is our problem; we’ll deal with it ourselves. Despite the fact that this was a crime for which the perpetrators should have been jailed long before any of the news emerged on secular media. This is not simply a problem confined to the Catholic Church either, as this story, involving another bestselling Christian author (Joshua Harris), shows.

The church is not above the law of the land though and, bearing those former details in mind, I almost dread to think what the world would be like if it was (in fact, we need only look back through history to see the clear answer). Fallible leaders lead imperfect churches, and they are subject to flawed people.

And here, finally, I hope to have fully illustrated the real problem I have with ‘Celebrity pastors’. They are not called this by accident. The attention they have gained is only what we have given them. In the end, one realises that Mark Driscoll and the hype surrounding him was our creation, not his. This normal yet charismatic preacher gained momentum as more and more people fell in love with his well-practiced yet dynamic style.

We evangelicals apparently find it more interesting to talk about doctrinal issues and church discipline, than the fact that Christians in the Middle East are dying without the basics of food, water and shelter.

I have not heard Piper or Driscoll or any of the aforementioned pastors use their platform to call Christians to global action in light of recent events. They seem more caught up on issues of personal integrity or biblical application in the context of the Western workplace. And they have little choice, because many Americans trust these pastors to help them cope with the unhappiness of their prosperous lives.

In fact I would not be surprised if they thought the long-term solution to the Middle East crisis was to ‘gradually make them more like us (Americans)’. This is, after all, how Western society has traditionally approached such issues. It all makes me start to wonder whether we are in danger of losing sight of who Jesus really was, by carving out this industrious, self-assuring culture for ourselves. For as long as we continue to focus on the names and the allure of celebrity pastors over His, I fear we may already have.

 

*Others have written more eloquently than I have here, about what we can learn from Driscoll’s problems specifically. Check out this article as among the best of them. Now, I take my leave of this contentious issue.

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