By Paul Moldovan with Linda Moldovan, Photo courtesy of Brynn Anderson from the 2020 memorial service for Ravi Zacharias in Atlanta.
I’m a big fan of Chuck Norris, and in particular the classic series Walker, Texas Ranger, in which Norris played a silent-type, justice-yielding karate cowboy who scared the criminal underground world. Now Norris is not a big man, but when facing off against often-gargantuan henchmen, you would find the saying to be true: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
There are three big names that have been creating online buzz since this past summer: Carl Lentz for his casual affair; Ravi Zacharias for his prolonged and predatory sexual abuse of women; and celebrity pastor John MacArthur for his mishandling of and irresponsible reaction to COVID–related to that would be McArthur’s attack on churches and pastors who are complying with government orders.
In November 2020 I had a conversation with John Cooper of the Christian rock band Skillet. We don’t see eye to eye on all things, but we agree that celebrity pastors or celebrity faith leaders pose a great threat to the heart and existence of the church. In the interview, Cooper stated that the current culture paves the way for celebrity faith leaders. Around that time Cooper took to Facebook where he suggested that we make pastors “uncool” again. I agree. What the post fails to address are Christian leaders like John MacArthur or Ravi Zacharias, whose humility-charged stardom and apparent orthodoxy seem to give them a pass. Pastors such as Carl Lentz–with his espousing of the prosperity gospel and his pathological need for celebrity parishioners–need to be held accountable, but they are an easy target. Orthodox suit-and-tie preachers and leaders are much more slippery and can get away with more. Take for example the fact that when allegations of sexual harassment first arose against Zacharias in 2017, many in the Christian community immediately jumped to his defense. Additionally, when Ravi Zacharias International Ministries came out with statements admitting Zacharias’ wrongdoing last year, many Christians were quick to tell others to stop talking and hush up about the allegations. Many of these same people were relentlessly casting stones at Lentz and the Hillsong community. Both Lentz and Zacharias are guilty of egregious and nefarious sins, though Zacharias’s sins are truly of a different caliber, but Zacharias was shown much better treatment overall by the Christian community.
Lentz and other prosperity preachers are very flashy with their wealth. MacArthur has taken issue with their flaunting of wealth for years. In response, Michael L. Brown has been reacting to self-proclaimed theological watchdogs like MacArthur by asking MacArthur’s right hand man, live and on air, how much MacArthur makes in book sales or if MacArthur would release his financial statements. The answers were vague and no financial documents were released, which makes one wonder why MacArthur attempts to claim moral superiority when it comes to wealth and finances. In fact, recent reports allege that MacArthur may have much (hidden) wealth of his own (see here for Julie Roy’s new report which is making the rounds, as well as here for how MacArthur’s ministry has responded). In the spring of 2020, MacArthur changed his stance on churches reopening during the pandemic and advised believers to find new churches if their pastors refused to reopen their church. Since when do celebrity pastors have the final word on biblical authority?
A legitimate pastor is in the trenches with his people. A legitimate pastor knows his people. Carl Lentz and John MacArthur simply do not fit that mold. It is all too obvious that elitism plagues the church, as many believers’ stories regarding their churches share a similar theme: the lead pastor, though often a powerful orator with a charismatic personality, doesn’t know their name or show any real interest in them and their walk with God. In the Christian community, building brands has become normalized and often even required. This is John Cooper’s critique and I’m with him on it, though let’s be clear: celebrity pastors come in all shapes and sizes, from orthodox to skinny-jeans-hipster to fire-and-brimstone preacher, and the list goes on. Bottom line, we are not building up the body of Christ by exalting men on a pedestal. In how we view our leaders and in our grasping for power, we are more Corinthian than we think.
When it comes to Lentz’ virtue signaling and calling the white church to repentance, I honestly don’t know what to say. Here is a celebrity preacher cushioned from much of the world’s problems, who is simultaneously telling believers how to act and what to think. When it comes to MacArthur’s public admonishing of churches and pastors who have closed in-person services during the (still ongoing) pandemic, I find myself asking once again why a celebrity pastor is telling pastors in the trenches how to proceed? A celebrity pastor is as relatable as a celebrity consoling the suffering.
When MacArthur reopened his very large church in the midst of a pandemic, he had nothing to lose, considering his enormous amount of financial security and public support. However, there are pastors who are currently going through hell during this time who may lose it all amidst the struggle with a church divided over the pandemic. Our authority is not in a celebrity pastor, regardless of how hip (Lentz) or orthodox (MacArthur) or even savvy (Zacharias) the pastor/leader is. The kingdom of God is not dependent upon these men and their brands. The mission is not even the church’s in the first place: it is God’s, though the church is called to join and enter into what God is already doing in HIS world. “The earth is the Lord’s,” not yours or mine or any leader in the church or the world. This is what more Christians (individually and corporately) need to be reminding themselves daily, perhaps even hourly.
How should we measure success, then? In November 2020 I spoke with Reverend Kurtley Knight on the business-minded church, which many times is also the numbers-driven church. I appreciate Reverend Knight’s take: to put it simply, by using our current standards, we would consider Jesus and his mission unsuccessful. He left behind no books, no huge following, and no distinct brand. This then begs the question: where do we get our standards from? I would suggest that we take our cues from American business-mindedness, which means that we are much more Corinthian than we are Christian in how we think and talk about power.
The world doesn’t need more celebrity pastors, but it does need less Christians who have a Corinthian understanding of power, glory, and prestige.
Recommend Resource: A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Scot McKnight, Laura Barriner)