The Cult of the Charismatic Personality

In early September, I wrote about John Oliver’s video which ridiculed the prosperity gospel.  Faced with its abuses, many Christians have exclaimed, “How on earth do people get bamboozled by the prosperity gospel?  It’s so obviously contrary to the Bible that it is crazy how these pastors can get such a following.”  A man named Ole Anthony thought the same thing and sought to strike down prosperity preachers… and ironically, he himself embodied the answer: Give an audience to a man with odd ideas who has enough charisma, and he can somehow fool and influence a lot of people.

Because John Oliver brought up the televangelist scandal of the 80’s, especially regarding Robert Tilton, I decided to read up on how ABC’s investigative report embarrassed these televangelists and ultimately led to their downfall.  ABC was helped immensely by a self-described Christian organization called the Trinity Foundation, founded by the aforementioned Ole Anthony(first name pronounced “O-lee”).  Anthony and his people gathered what information they could on these prosperity televangelist: For example, like Oliver, they purposefully got onto these ministries’ mailing lists to see what kind of mail they sent out.  They also did some undercover work to expose the greed of these ministries, and they even dug through the dumpsters that Robert Tilton’s ministry used to find documents.  Furthermore, they allegedly found thousands of discarded prayer requests in the trash, giving the impression that Tilton’s ministry merely grabbed whatever money was mailed to them and casually threw the accompanying prayer requests away.

All of this sounds rather noble for Ole Anthony and the Trinity Foundation, and no doubt they did some good in bringing to light the corruptions of the prosperity gospel.  However, the more I kept reading about them, the more disturbed I was concerning Anthony and his organization.  First of all, it became clear that Anthony and ABC producers exaggerated and tampered with evidence to make everything look worse.  More so than that, however, the Trinity foundation started to seem like, well, a cult.  A cult ran by a powerful personality who wielded surprising authority over his people, people who were supposed to be following Christ as their authority and not a mere man.

The Power of Charisma and a Sharp Tongue

The most informative article I found on Ole Anthony and the Trinity Foundation is at this link.  I’ll give a summary of some of the more disturbing aspects of Anthony’s organization (much of this comes, mind you, from people who used to be part of Anthony’s ministry for years):

-Anthony seems prone to making up tall tales, or at least heavily exaggerated ones, to manipulate emotion or give himself credibility.  For example, he tells a story about a 14 year old girl who set herself on fire because a prosperity ministry told her that she wouldn’t be healed due to her sin.  That sounds terrible… except there are no stories like it, and it would be bizarre for such a story to escape the news.  He also claimed to be some James Bond like spy.

-Ole Anthony’s theology seems all sorts of messed up.  It is like some weird personal mix of poverty theology, guilt-tripping, and heirarchy (with himself as the authority).  It seems like the ragamuffin gospel on steroids, except that he seems to have special exemption from it when it so suits him.  It is certainly not much like traditional Christianity.

-The above two things wouldn’t be so much of a problem (there are always people who come up with nutty stories and theology) if it weren’t for the fact that he apparently was/is extremely charismatic and persuasive.  He knew how to talk in a way to get people to follow him, even with crummy theology and dubious tales.  Of the people drawn to him, many were women… and he apparently had a lot of them.  In the 70’s, he was apparently quite unabashedly promiscuous, a rather amusing thing given how he seemed to talk down to so many people for being unholy.

-Let us dwell on that women point some more.  I do not believe women are intellectually inferior to men at all, but it has always astonished me how easily women are drawn to charismatic males, even when those guys say and do curious stuff.  For Christian women, a spiritual Superman is sometimes almost irresistable, even if he is actually more like a spiritual Bizarro.  Mr. Anthony seemed to take ample advantage of that.

-Of course, it was not only women who followed him.  Many men did to the point that they were emasculated.  This allowed Anthony to tell them what to do in all sorts of things.  For instance, Anthony had to give approval if two members of the ministry wanted to get married.  In a surprisingly specific example, Anthony told a member to not let his daughter dance for a ballet recital because dancing was the little girl’s “high place,” which was evidently his blockheaded way of accusing people of idolatry to guilt-trip them.  The man actually acquiesced, which obviously crushed his daughter and infuriated his wife.

-Anthony’s power and weird theology showed up in his insistence that people of the Trinity Foundation house homeless people, without the slightest regard for their families’ safety.  Apparently, one family came home and found some homeless people there.  Anthony did not bother to ask them.  Even Anthony himself admits now that such a plan to help the poor was naive, as it ultimately bore very little fruit, if any at all.

-Probably the most disturbing activity of Anthony, and the activity that perhaps most clearly showed his authoritative sway over his people, was the “hot seat,” a weird and abusive practice of transparency.  Basically, someone had to make a list of all of their terrible sins and then sit on the hot seat, where Anthony and others would verbally rip them to shreds.  This was some stupid way to be “naked and unashamed” in front of each other and to “die to self.”  People would receive scathing verbal attacks, sometimes lasting throughout the night, until they broke into a sobbing mess, where the community would then hug them.  Uh… yeah.  It got so bad that sometimes, people were accused of things they did not do, like bestiality, but they would admit to them anyway due to extreme peer pressure.  Only when they were reduced to emotional and mental rubble were they deemed to have exhibited “true repentance.”  In reality, it was a power and scare tactic; you don’t question the boss unless you want to end up in the hot seat.  Unsurprisingly, Anthony himself refused to ever sit in the hot seat because, allegedly, nobody else was qualified or wise enough to tear into him.  Convenient.  To be fair, the Trinity Foundation no longer uses the hot seat, but Anthony is also not sorry for them.

Nobody else is Christ.  Nobody.

As I read all of this, I was stunned at how Ole Anthony got away with so much.  Weren’t some of these people, allegedly, Christian and have some modicum of an idea what the Bible says?  How on earth did they allow this crap to happen?  I was reminded how easy it is for many people to latch onto a charismatic human leader to an unhealthy degree.  This is not just a Christian problem, obviously (many secular people blindly follow their favorite leaders), but that is my focus because it is so strange that this can happen given Christian teachings.  Granted, some smart-aleck might say that Christians in general follow a charismatic guy named Jesus, but that’s the thing: We believe Jesus to be unique in a way that no mere human is, being both God and man and confirming his teachings in his resurrection.  If this is what we believe about Christ and God, it is bizarre that so many Christians are prone to being drawn uncritically to mere human teachers and leaders due to their charisma.  Those guys clearly aren’t Jesus, so why submit to them in that manner?

I wrote a while ago on the phenomenon on hero worship in the church, where some Christians get to the point where they treat their favorite celebrity pastor, author, youth leader, etc. as almost infallible.  The reason is because they become personally invested in these teachers and stop truly evaluating what they say against the test of Scripture.  This happens too to many people who have leaders in their ministries or organizations and become too enamored with their charismatic and influential personalities to the point that they don’t hold them accountable, become afraid of them, and even start mistaking what they say for God’s will.  It is ironic indeed how much Ole Anthony hates these prosperity preachers because he himself had aberrant practices and theology that he got away with for pretty much the same reasons: Ignorance of the people and his own charisma, along with feelings of personal indebtedness sprinkled in.

This is why Christians need to be plugged into healthy church communities and not just random ministries, and this is also why Christians need to be well-versed in the Word.  It is a bad witness to the outside world when we let people do crazy things simply because they are charming, inspiring, and have authoritative airs around them.  Even if we feel like we are indebted to somebody for what he has done–he shared the gospel with us, he discipled us, he helped us through a tough time, etc.–this does not mean that he replaces the Word and the Holy Spirit.  He is never unquestionable and never invincible from rebuke.  This takes mental and spiritual discipline to discern, and it is so important for Christians to have it.

This is also why the phenomenon of celebrity pastors bothers me.  Seminarians and pastors are not immune either; for example, I was sitting in on a class that I TA for, and one student shared, “I’m not a big fan of celebrity pastors… BUT there is this conference coming and it has all the ‘who’s who’ of up and coming Reformed preachers!”  It is disturbing how much personality dominates American Christianity, and even if it does not usually get to the point where churches get cult-like, it really shows in how Christians fail to think critically and allow charismatic leaders to simply determine theology for them.

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