A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson at our Wednesday college large group meeting focusing on 1 Cor. 1:10-31 while also referring to 1 Cor. 3. In both passages, Paul addresses how the Corinthians are arguing amongst each other under the banner of names, such as Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). It is amusing, and concerning, that 2000 years later, the church still has this problem of basically reducing people’s faith to hero worship of individuals other than Jesus Christ.
And boy, are there many heroes. Heck, we even have nicknames for them. For those dogged defenders of John MacArthur, we call them “MacArthurites,” people who cannot dream that good ol’ J-Mac can be wrong about something. For those who adore John Piper, I’ve heard them referred to as “Pipettes,” just like the little children who followed the Pied Piper. Even for those here at the seminary I just graduated from who hold our president, Dr. Paige Patterson, as the wise Baptist sage of his generation, they are called “Pattersonites.” There are others who people follow: Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, and Timothy Keller are among the many famous pastors or speakers these days for whom many Christians fall over themselves to hear speak. Heck, such heroes may not even be alive anymore, such as Calvin, Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, Wesley, etc.
They also don’t even have to be famous. Oftentimes, less famous pastors, youth ministers, college ministers, small group leaders, disciplers, etc. achieve this status of “hero” in many people’s faith in their local congregation. It gets worse if they feel like that person “saved” them from a situation, taught them something significant, or even helped lead them to Christ. They eat up almost every word these leaders say without a hint of critical thought for themselves or biblical reflection, forgetting that these people are mere instruments of God and do not deserve the type of allegiance and commitment that Christ does. They don’t like critiquing these “heroes,” they are uncomfortable standing up to them, and they feel bound to them in an unhealthy way. If any of this describes you, I’m sorry, but this is not a compliment.
Total submission to only Christ
Paul, who could have actually given a fairly convincing case as to why he was a hotshot who deserved enormous praise, had some wise words for this:
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. – 1 Cor. 1:13-17.
Here are some clear things to draw out:
1. Paul was not crucified for the sins of the world, nor was anyone else other than Jesus. How absurd it is to follow so blindly after a person who can only tell you about it but did not and cannot save you.
2. When you’re baptized, you’re baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as taught in the Great Commission, not under the name of the person who happened to dunk you in water. Apparently the problem was so bad in Corinth that Paul was actually thankful that he didn’t baptize that many people personally or else they’d have an excuse to use his name as a battle cry. Again, this should illustrate the foolishness of identifying so strongly with one teacher.
3. Paul was sent to preach the gospel, and not by his own power but by God’s. Later in the chapter, he talks about how God uses the foolish and the weak to shame the “wise” and the “strong,” according to the definitions of the world. Even the most fruitful servants are weak instruments used by God, so while we should not ignore their role in teaching and helping, ultimate credit goes to him.
Furthermore, if we skip ahead to 1 Cor. 3, we get this passage:
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. – 1 Cor. 3:5-9
In other words, servants are just that: Servants. And while we should give due credit to their work, God is the one who ultimately brings it all together and makes it work. So as Paul says, neither he who plants nor he who waters is squat, but only God is the one deserving of praise, obedience, and complete loyalty.
What does all of this mean? Be watchful about how high you hold someone. No one is perfect aside from Christ, no one saves you aside from Christ, and no one is your Lord aside from Christ. Not your pastor, not your parents, not your college leader, not even the person who shared the Gospel with you and led you to Jesus. Because of this, no one, NO ONE, deserves total allegiance from you, and no one is above criticism. You might even have to hurt this person’s feelings or get to the point of disassociating with him/her, but if it’s the principled thing to do, then you do it, because you do not follow that person but Christ.
If you can’t criticize that person in a biblical manner without getting nervous or feeling threatened, that’s bad. If you have no one else speaking into your spiritual life other than that person, that’s bad. If you are afraid to stand up to that person because you’ll feel guilty, that’s bad. You are called to follow Christ and test everyone else by that standard, including your favorite teachers, pastors, or whoever.
I’m not saying that you can’t have people that you respect and really turn to for teaching and guidance. Everyone needs that. I have my favorite authors and speakers like everyone else and people in my life that I really respect. What I am saying is that we are in danger of harmful idolatry if we take that respect and make it some unhealthy allegiance or bond. That is for Christ alone.
To leaders: Be very careful of your pride.
That above part was to followers and listeners at church. This part is for people who are in leadership (including me). We have to be very, very careful that what we do is for Jesus and not for our own glory, legacy, popularity, or gain. We teach people so that we can help build God’s kingdom, not so that we can build ours and have people that we can claim as “mine” who are part of our “coaching tree.” The people do not belong to us; they belong to God and the church. To teach for these selfish reasons is nothing but vanity and will incur harsh judgment from God.
The first part of 1 Peter 5 is addressed to elders/overseers, but I think it has good application to leadership in general:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5:1-4
First, we can see that in whatever capacity that we shepherd in, the flock does not ultimately belong to us but the “Chief Shepherd,” Christ. We should lead accordingly. Also, we are leaders by example and servanthood, NOT by domineering over people. The latter creates the extremes of either cult-like followings or people rebelling, neither of which is healthy. Furthermore, we lead not with the idea of selfish gain, whether it is money, fame, power, authority, or recognition, but willingly and eagerly for God. If that means that if we help train someone and THAT person goes on to do ministry and gets a bunch of recognition, we should be happy that God’s kingdom is being built and not pouty that people don’t see that it was US, ME, who trained that person.
This means that we have to be willing to be challenged by the very people we teach and train; in fact, we need to train them to read the Bible rightly and think for themselves and make decisions for themselves according to the Word. That’s part of people learning to mature in their own faith. If not, we might gain ourselves a cult following, but ultimately we will push a bunch of people away and start building up ourselves rather than God, which is futile at the end. When we see people treating us in a way where they do whatever we wish and agree (at least outwardly) with nearly everything we say, it should actually bother us if we feel like they are doing that just to please us. That’s NOT healthy. If it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and makes us feel significant, we got some serious pride issues that need addressing.
Don’t get me wrong, I get it: We all want to feel significant, we all want to feel recognized, and we all want to get the credit we think we deserve. It feels good to have people recognize you. But ministry should not be about that, and we have to be content that God sees what we do when nobody else does, or else, as Jesus said about praying, we who get our honor here have already received our reward in full. And really, a constant need for affirmation is nothing more than great insecurity, which isn’t exactly a great quality for a strong leader.
Everyone, stop your dang hero worship because it’s dumb. Listen to wise teachers, be humble enough to learn from different people, but ultimately your commitment is to Christ alone, which means you should be willing to criticize and disagree with everyone else if what they are saying or doing doesn’t make sense or isn’t biblical. If you aren’t willing to do that, you are still a spiritual baby and need to be taught how to think.
And for leaders and wannabe leaders, don’t seek hero worship because that is also dumb. We are but servants in God’s kingdom, and we should have the appropriate humility for that status. We should always be self-reflective about whether or not what we do is for our own gain rather than for the building up of the kindgom of God.