As old as the rebel, is the human tendency to create idols. And often within evangelicalism this can easily show itself in the cult of the celebrity. Whether it is an innate predilection to displace worship rightfully due our Creator or whether it is merely the enduring temptation to mirror the world, we can dangerously enthrone and celebritize leaders. Ignoring their faults and exaggerating their gifts, the public fall of a figure can therefore come as an even sharper dagger to the consciousness of that community.
We should always expect genuine Christians to display fruits of the Spirit and an abundance of Christ-honouring work and therefore subject those who assume concrete roles within the church to greater scrutiny. But we should also acknowledge that there is only one faithful, unblemished high priest and true shepherd of the church; Christ. While simultaneously affirming the truth and social good of Christianity, the transforming power of the Gospel in individuals and societies, we also affirm that until the arrival of the perfect and justified church of the New Heavens and Earth, the contemporary church will be forever flawed and mangled by sin.
Just as there is sin in corner stores and in real estate offices, so there is going to be sin in the church. Because, after all, people exist in the church. In fact, we might think that the church would have a higher concentration of brokenness, as people in need realise the nature of their condition and gravitate towards support and healing. We go astray when we think that the church is anything other than a wounded community gathered around the life-restoring power of our Saviour. The church is the bark of a tree, as Frederick von Hugel illustrated – we know there is no life in the bark. It is merely dead wood. We can only point others to the Spirit of Christ that animates within – the true sustaining life.
As easy as it might seem to hew the descent of Christian leaders into a measuring stick of the truth of Christian ideas, we must resist the impulse. It is wrong to read the poor behaviour of the followers of Christ into the rightness or wrongness of who Christ was and the historicity of his life, death and teachings. As Augustine said, one must not judge a religion by its abuses. Of course, this does not permit us to ignore the tough issues that are raised in such circumstances. And with two Christian figures occupying attention in the last few weeks – for the wrong reasons- we should not pull away from such questions.
One of those leaders is Todd Bentley, of Fresh Fire Ministries. He has been the centrifugal force of the Florida Lakeland revival and behind the claimed outpouring of massive healings. About a week ago it was announced that he was separating from his wife. I’ll avoid commenting on Bentley and the revival movement; Michael Spencer has some thoughts, suggesting that perhaps the revival leader, in finding mercy through this time of hurt, might treasure and glorify Christ much more than he might have through months of miracles. The Desiring God blog, I think, has some good observations, concluding with this challenge:
Our test for every Lakeland that comes along should first be doctrinal and expositional. Is this awakening carried along by a “love for the truth” and a passion to hear the whole counsel of God proclaimed?
The other leader who has been in the public glare over the last few weeks is Joel Osteen and his wife Victoria. Joel Osteen is one of America’s most popular pastors and the author of best-sellers such as Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You. His wife was the focus of a lawsuit, filed by a flight attendant, who alleged she was assaulted by Mrs Osteen. Pastor and blogger, Jared Wilson, skewers the heart of what is wrong with the whole situation and why this reveals not just a set of characters that are flawed, but a theology that is even more deeply so. First, a quote from the news story (McKamie is the attendant’s lawyer, cross-examining Joel Osteen):
McKamie also asked Osteen whether his family was used to getting special treatment, making reference to an anecdote in one of the pastor’s books in which he wrote about being allowed to take an expensive television camera onboard a flight to India even though it was against the rules.
“You feel that you’re entitled to the favor of God … to do things other people can’t do,” McKamie said.
“All of God’s children are,” Osteen said.
Here’s Jared: “That’s how Osteen and his variety of prosperity gospelism position Christian identity — to be better, higher, more favored by the world than anybody else. It is a position of entitlement. And it is the antithesis of grace. Because they believe they deserve special treatment.”
This is the problem with the gospel that Osteen presents: it’s not the Gospel of the Bible. It’s a self-centered philosophy filtered through positive psychology and completely unmoored from what Christ taught. It knows nothing of the cross, of self-denial, or of bearing the reproach that fell on Christ. Sean Michael Lucas is right to raise the question John Piper presents in his book God is the Gospel (download the whole book for free on Piper’s website): does Osteen’s gospel delight more in the fact that God makes much of us or does his Gospel free us to make much of God?
And any excuse to show this great Piper video, about the prosperity gospel, cannot be passed up.