Kevin’s Conversations: On Celebrity Christians
Most of my writing efforts of late have taken place on Facebook as I would rather not clutter up this space with subjects people are just going to argue about, often times in demeaning and condescending ways.
Even though I believe I’m pretty consistent in the things on which I write and the manners in which I write them, I still often find myself having to clarify over and over and defending myself against false assumptions and attributions. I often will call out the bad behavior of a high profile person or people or organization, but my intent is not to primarily bash that person or people or to take them down. Rather it is to call attention to how the rest of us Christians react to such conduct. My biggest focus and concern is with the behavior, particularly public behavior, of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, most especially my fellow conservative evangelical Christians. Nonetheless, when people take the time to comment, particularly Christians, discussion will often devolve into a defense of the person or organization or behavior and/or criticism for me for criticizing. So often the core meaning of my writing falls to the wayside as people are apparently blindingly consumed with defending these people or things they ostensibly hold dear and continually miss the bigger picture. One of the reasons for that is seemingly the Christian subculture’s infatuation with celebrity and fame and popularity.
As I move about numerous settings with many conservative evangelicals, I hear and see plenty of castigation of the “worldly” or “anti-Christian” culture in personal conversation or social media or even the internet as a whole. Abortion supporters and the LGBTQ lobby and the Democrats and the liberal media and Hollywood and Muslims and illegal immigrants and the Deep State and the Socialists and anyone else who’s not Christian or perceived to be not Christian are fair game to be belittled and blasted. And I share some of the same concerns and believe some of the critiques are legitimate. By comparison, I see very little concern expressed, and certainly not with the same type of bluster, by these same segments of people when there are ills and corruption in the Christian culture. These ills are the ones that are often overlooked or rationalized or even applauded. Oft times the rationalizations include reasons like we shouldn’t be judgmental or divisive or air “dirty laundry” or hurt the church or the cause of Christ. So we have little to no concern about being judgmental or divisive or airing the dirty laundry of those we see as the “world” or the opposition or the enemy, but plenty of concern to avoid judgment or dirty laundry when it comes to our own.
And then I reflect on I Corinthians 5:12-13 – “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'” We are given many warnings in Scripture about being judgmental or the manner in which we judge. Yet at the same time, God in His Word still calls us to use judgment and to judge. And here we see that when we are to judge, our main focus should be on those within the church, not outside of it. And I look at so much of our Christian culture and think we’ve really got this one wrong. I do not claim any perfection myself in this matter or the manner on the whole in which I pass judgment. But I am dutiful in trying to follow what God calls us to do. And I hope I can, in whatever little ways I can, to help open the eyes of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to the failure in our Christian subculture to be faithful to God’s Word in these regards.
This aspect of infatuation that our Christian culture has with celebrity or personality or popularity or power was strongly brought to mind by a recent video posted here in a Linkathon of Naghmeh Panahi, former wife of Saeed Abedini. While watching this video, our cultural problem with celebrity was really validated to me as Naghmeh attested to the many struggles she has gone through in her life and how some of the biggest and most recent ones involved what she came to realize was her own idolatry, which in many ways had been aided and emboldened by the Christian celebrity culture. She testified how she had always had her guard up against the world, but it was the Christian subculture that ended up deceiving her and taking advantage of her and hurting her the most.
Our Christian culture in many ways is beguiled by celebrity; be it the megachurch pastor, or the big time parachurch organization or mission agency or the leader thereof, or the music artist, or the movie star, or the athlete, etc., etc. Now, not all these celebrities or organizations are bad, in fact many of them are probably pretty decent people who are genuinely striving to serve the Lord. However, these celebrities have a power and pull over us that they never should have. When they do wrong, we so often act so much differently than when some celebrity or high profile person outside of our admiration does wrong. And many of these celebrities know this, too, and will take advantage of it, often conspiring with each other to do so when they are acting unrighteously. And the cycle just becomes increasingly worse.
Now, I am not saying we should be out there hunting for the sins of the celebrity Christian and always looking to tear them down from their position. However, when a celebrity or celebrity organization does sin in a very public fashion, sometimes doing so in a manner that encourages others to follow their lead, or sins in a manner that biblically disqualifies them from the position of ministry or leadership, or sins in a manner in which they are taking advantage of many other people for their own personal gain, then the church needs to stand up and call out such sin and call for repentance. Accountability and biblical discipline should occur. Rather what so often happens is we try to overlook these things and brush them under the carpet. Or we place undue faith in our celebrity and refuse to believe they have done wrong or go to all kinds of extents to rationalize and justify and excuse their behavior. In some of the worst cases, we even applaud their misdeeds and go on to imitate them ourselves. We show little to no concern for those who were harmed by the wrongful actions of the celebrity, but only show concern for the harm we believe is being done to our admired one. And when their sins are righteously called out, we will instead attack those who are doing the calling out. We will change the focus to be on those who are doing the calling out to find whatever wrong we can with them and charge them with hypocrisy and judgmentalness and tell them how pitifully their good deeds stack up against the proclaimed great many good deeds of the celebrity. Tear down the messenger and then we don’t have to deal with the message, no matter how right it may be. These are all manners we employ to protect our celebrities. And it has become very ingrained and accepted within our culture.
Some very recent stories from just this past week only reinforce this significant problem we have in our culture. Many of us are well aware of the many moral failures and biblical disqualifications of celebrity preacher James MacDonald, who as has been reported here at the Phoenix Preacher, is now being given the chance to get back in the pulpit and to be “restored” by Calvary Chapel South Bay. This “restoration” is taking place even though MacDonald has done little to nothing in regards to public repentance of his many public sins, or even admitting to his wrongdoings, or making amends to the very many that he hurt and considerably abused. If MacDonald was not a celebrity, it’s hard to see him ever getting such a chance like this.
And then there was this story about very popular preacher, David Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was just elected into the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Hall of Fame. The irony here is that about 10 years ago Jeremiah had to resign from the NRB because he wouldn’t meet their ethical standards. Over time, the NRB has apparently been losing members and money and so a few years ago they loosened up their standards to let more in and so Jeremiah was able to get back in despite to this day never rectifying the ethical standards that he would not meet. And lo and behold, he is now in their Hall of Fame.
The ethical standards that he could not meet are rooted in unethical and greedy practices that he and his organization, Turning Point Ministries, were found to be committing in regards to selling his books. This was the exact same type of scandal in which Mark Driscoll had found himself entangled. The linked article gives more detail to explain the situation, but the short story is that these practices were in violation of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) which requires its members to meet what are relatively soft standards of financial accountability and integrity (yes, the same EFCA from the GFA scandal). Since Jeremiah and Turning Point Ministries refused to change or even admit to their unscrupulous methods of selling and promoting Jeremiah’s books, they had to resign from the ECFA. In turn, they then had to resign from the NRB which until a few years ago, required membership in the ECFA in order to be a member of the NRB. At the time when this was occurring, the Christian culture barely batted an eye. And the Christian culture trait of adoring their celebrities was a big reason for this. Jeremiah never had to and never did repent or even admit to his wrongdoing which unjustly enriched him even more and wrongfully portrayed him as a more successful author than he really was, all at the expense of the Christian public that buys his books and cherishes his teaching. And then, of course, comes this Hall of Fame honor from an organization that he had to resign from due to unethical conduct for which he never corrected, repented of, or made amends for. But the NRB is a struggling organization and they need celebrity power. And so, here comes the “honor” of being a Hall of Famer..
I could go on and on with so many examples of high profile Christians and Christian organizations who commit significant wrongdoing and corruption and yet suffer little consequences because of their popularity and position, many of whom are quite familiar to the regular readers here. But Michael wants me to be concise and mentioned something about maybe we even need to start using stick figures to quickly and effectively get our points across in this age of short attention spans. So I won’t name all the scoundrels in order to be “concise”, as the rest of my writing rarely meets that definition. 🙂
Sometimes these people and organizations suffer some consequences, but many times they are able to continue on with business as usual. And this is because our Christian culture loves celebrity.
“But he’s such a good teacher.”
“But they do so much good for the Lord.”
“But God uses him to save so many people and touch so many lives.”
“Touch not God’s anointed.”
“Don’t bring shame on the cause of Christ.”
The list goes on and on. But the bottom line is that we are often enabling sin and continuing to allow our fellow man and often our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to get hurt and be taken advantage of. And a big reason for this is that our Christian culture is in love with the big-name celebrity and the big-time Christian organization. And in many ways, our culture is blind to the ways that this “love” enables and causes harm. My hope is that we can begin to be enlightened to these realities and make some positive changes. I reckon that this won’t be quick or easy, but you’ve got to start somewhere.