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Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Fragile Basket

Jamin Goggin says when today’s celebrity pastors get caught sinning, churches collapse, whole conferences evaporate and large numbers of Christians are deeply wounded.

And Goggin maintains the real problem is us:

“The church has embraced a form of power that is antithetical to the way of Jesus, and her pastors stand on the front line of this destructive reality.”

Now, he’s not wrong here. Perhaps he doesn’t go far enough, but I think he’s on to something.

Giftedness and Sacredness

Goggin expands on his thesis:
“When we believe the power of God’s kingdom always aligns with our gifts, abilities, talents, resources and know-how, we are actually seeking control apart from God. That is how the demonic, the flesh, and the world operate, not God’s kingdom. When we accept this power system, we turn to those who have the greatest gifts, the most impressive skill sets, and the obvious resources to lead. We put our confidence in those who can make things happen, get things done, and who impress everyone as they do it. We accept the lie that giftedness is synonymous with sacredness, and as a result we embrace people who may have the world’s anointing rather than God’s; who walk in the way of the dragon rather than the way of the Lamb.”
Absolutely. The exaltation of the spiritual gift(s) of pastor/teacher above all others is just another form of clericalism, and one we need to watch out for. The word “pastor” sounds humble, but used as a title it’s just as much a religious honorific as “pope” or “bishop”.

Rocking a Bigger Pedestal

Perhaps this is mostly a 21st century problem. Today’s evangelical celebrities are rocking the biggest pedestal in church history. While the apostles have been sculpted, painted, sainted, stained-glassed, prayed to and fawned over by the institutional church down through the centuries, they were not received that way in the churches they planted. Paul, Peter and others were exceptionally gifted and had tremendous influence, but they were not the objects of the sort of cultish fervor today’s megachurch pastors and YouTube personalities inspire.

The exception may have been at Corinth, where it was claimed that some said, “I follow Paul”. Still, even within that single gathering there were other factions that claimed to follow Apollos, Peter or even Christ, and Paul was compelled to defend his apostleship at length in his second letter to Corinth against the competing theology of those he calls the “super-apostles”. The danger from such men seems to have usually been false theology, not obvious public sins that destroyed their testimonies and stumbled their followers.

In any case, in the first century, the possibility of any entire church being wiped out by revelations of an affair, embezzling charges or the revelation of a drug habit was microscopic. Whole households might be upset by the doctrinal deviations of the false teachers, but we do not see dangerous personality cults in the New Testament on the scale we see them today.

Purity Under the Bus

Technology has made mega-platforms and mega-personalities possible, but Goggin would argue the real problem in our churches is gift-worship or the cult of charisma, sometimes to the point of throwing church discipline and purity under the bus. More Goggin:
“A few years ago, I recall hearing of a local pastor who had cheated on his wife. In the aftermath, the leadership of the church quickly established a path for his restoration back into ‘up front’ ministry. They assumed that his ‘gifts’ meant he was anointed for pastoral ministry, and their top priority was restoring his position of visible influence. The woman whom he had cheated with was also on the church’s staff, but her position was quickly removed and she was not heard from again. Why was one adulterer quickly restored while the other removed? Because the pastor was the anointed one, the person with all the promise and leadership capability, and the person the future of the church relied upon.”
Good question. Perhaps the answer is baked into the common use of the word “anointed”. Like “called”, “anointing” is a Bible buzzword that is regularly misused and rarely understood.

An Old Testament Anointing Primer

Let’s pass quickly over the anointing of wafers of unleavened bread, pillars, altars, the tabernacle and its vessels, the ark and the laver. Most objects devoted to God were anointed with oil in patriarchal times, and it is probable that this custom did not originate in Israel.

We first read about the anointing of people in connection with Israel’s priesthood. God commanded that Aaron and sons be anointed with oil to “ordain and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests.” We then read about the anointing of kings: Saul and David were anointed by Samuel at God’s command, and it is notable that the Spirit of God came upon both at their anointing. Later, other kings of Judah were anointed by men without the same result. With anointing came opposition, responsibility and even God’s protection. Finally, we read about the anointing of prophets.

All these men were specially set apart by God to leadership roles in Israel, and their anointing testified to it.

The Anointed One

But all these, of course, merely prefigured the coming Messiah or Christ, whose very name means “anointed” in both Hebrew and Greek. Isaiah’s claim for Messiah was that “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me,” something Jesus explicitly connected to his own ministry. Messiah was to be prophet, priest and king, and Jesus Christ fulfills these roles to perfection. He’s the only “anointed” that really matters.

Further, any talk of today’s YouTube mega-celebrities being “anointed” in any special sense is unhistorical and unbiblical rubbish.

Anointing in the New Testament

Examine if you will the (very few) New Testament scriptures that speak of the anointing of people:
“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge … the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie — just as it has taught you, abide in him.”
You will surely not fail to notice that under the New Covenant, the believer’s anointing is no longer specific only to “leader-types” like the prophets, priests and kings of old. ALL believers are anointed, not with oil but with the Holy Spirit. That anointing includes both adulterous “pastors” and lowly adulterous church secretaries, assuming both were truly saved. The anointing is associated with our assurance of faith and connected even more clearly with our understanding of the word of God by means of the Spirit who wrote it.

A Fragile Basket

Jamin Goggin is right: we evangelicals have a problem. I think the problem may be that we imagine all the great works of the Church Age are the product of platform ministry. We think churches grow because a few special men possess really awesome teaching gifts.

What do we say about the encouragement of the gifted exhorter, the prayers of those who possess the gift of faith, the hospitality of believers with the gift of helps, the behind-the-scenes work of the gifted administrators, the faithful witness of the evangelists, the kindness of those who show mercy, the consistency of those who are gifted leaders and the diligent service of those who never stop working despite their relative invisibility? There’s an argument to be made that those who persist in such relatively obscure but vital works give evidence of a greater and more practical understanding of scripture than that possessed by seminary-trained platform performers who speak all-too-glibly about “my church”, “my calling”, or God forbid, “my anointing”.

Teaching is not unimportant, but idolizing the few who possess it is putting all our eggs into a particularly fragile basket. The church is a body, not a single massively distended limb.

Such a distorted, public role is a form of power, as Goggin well puts it, that is “antithetical to the way of Jesus”, and too many of us are responsible for perpetuating it. The amazing thing is not that so many of these people fall. The amazing thing is that any of them don’t.

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