I’ve noticed a recent rise in discussion about Christian leaders, particularly pastors, who find (or make) themselves famous. Names like Billy Graham, Charles Stanely, David Jeremiah, John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, Tim Keller, the late Adrian Rogers, and many others, are all well known among Gospel-loving, evangelical Christians. In a word, these people are famous. And there are many others who have achieved some level of fame.
What should we make of this?
I would argue that having Christian pastors and other leaders who are well-known and well-respected is both necessary and dangerous.
To be sure, there are many people who say or at least imply that this type of Christian celebrity-ism is unnecessary. For example, Frank Turk, at the Pyromaniacs blog recently wrote An Open Letter to T4G (Together for the Gospel), in which his chief criticism seems to be the presence and influence of well-known Christian leaders, and the attitude and response of those who follow them. Frank makes many valid points about the dangers of this sort of thing, though he does not address whether it is necessary or not. His tone seems very grumpy, however, and reading his words leads one to believe that Turk thinks we would be better off without it.
Glen Packiam has also written an article pointing out the dangers called The Irony of Christian Celebrity.
Oddly and ironically enough, both Turk and Packiam have their fair share of fame and influence (of course, not on the scale of those listed above, but some nonetheless) through their writings and other ministries. But that is beside the point.
In what follows, I would like to agree with both of those writers that there are many dangers associated with becoming well-known in the Christian world, but also that having some famous Christians is a necessary part of what God is doing in the world. If something is both necessary and dangerous, then obviously we should be extra careful with our understanding of it.
Why Is It Necessary?
1. Because individuals typical embody the thoughts and ideas of entire organizations of people
Like it or not, pastors are the embodiment of their churches, especially pastors who stay in the same church for a while. By this I mean that pastors are the chief representatives to the watching world of what that church is all about. They are called to embody the vision and principles of that local congregation. When the pastor visits a sick parishioner in the hospital, it should feel as if the whole church is there through him.
This should not surprise us, for it is true of every human organization. Leaders represent the group. Stores have managers, schools have principles, and governments have mayors, governors, and presidents. It seems to be a natural part of human social structure. We need individual leaders who can and will embody the ideas of the entire organization. Even churches who stress the need for multiple, co-equal elders typically have one man who rises up as the recognized leader (who doesn’t know that Tim Keller is the Pastor of Redeemer?). This is not a bad thing in and of itself, it is just simply the way it is.
Many moons ago, I worked as a teller at SouthTrust Bank in Birmingham. The headquarters for the entire bank was located in a skyscraper downtown, which had an actual branch in the lobby. One day, I was working in that branch, when Wallace Mallone, CEO of SouthTrust Corporation walked out of the elevator and stepped across the lobby. This was the guy who ran the show, the big boss, top dog, the man who signs the checks, and there he was! Of course, I did not speak to him as he passed by, but I thought to myself, “There walks SouthTrust Bank.”
This is typical of the way people think. It seems God has designed us to rather freely and naturally bind together in groups (like work, school, church, government, clubs) and have one key person to be the face of that group.
Christian pastors who reach higher levels of celebrity status have this be-the-face obligation on a larger scale than local church life. For example, when Al Mohler or John MacArthur appears on CNN speaking about a social issue, their words should be what the larger church as a whole would say. They embody, on a bigger scale, what the wider church believes and practices about the particular issues they address in that forum.
This is particularly important in our culture on topics like abortion. Christians, who should hold to the precious value of all human life from the moment it begins, need voices that can be heard by the wider culture. For example, Ray Comfort, who has been granted a bit of the spotlight, has produced a powerful video called “180” movie, which can have a far greater impact coming from Comfort than from someone lesser known.
2. Because people need leaders on many different levels: local, regional, national, and global
It is wonderful to have a local pastor (who might be considered famous on a small, localized level), but we also need leaders on a regional scale. In my city of Birmingham, there are several key pastors who are largely seen as pastors of the city. Harry Reeder, Buddy Grey, Kevin Hamm, and David Platt fill this role along with several others (some better than others). Their influence goes beyond their local church and spills over into the city and region.
We also need national leaders. People who can be the face of true Gospel teaching for the entire country. We even need global leaders. Billy Graham’s name is well known globally, and I think we evangelicals are better off having his ministry in the world than we would have been without it. Every thoughtful Christian would likely find some areas of disagreement with Graham, but by and large he has represented the group fairly well on a grand scale.
3. Because having famous leaders helps to normalize Gospel discussions in the culture
Like it or not, other factions within our culture have their spokespersons who represent them nationally and globally. Political parties, lobbyists, and other religions each have people to represent them to the rest of the wider culture. When the culture hears these well known people articulating the views of their group, it has a way of normalizing discussions in the culture about those views. One case in point is how the discussion of homosexuality has been normalized in the USA dramatically over the past 50 years.
In the same way, when famous Christian leaders have a voice at the national “table,” (and they do a good job articulating evangelical viewpoints), then it has a way of normalizing discussions about those viewpoints in the wider culture.
Some might argue that this normalizing process is unnecessary, that the preaching of the Gospel is always offensive and can never be normalized. But I would argue that this is simply a misunderstanding of what normalize means in this context. To normalize, as I am using the term, is to place within the collective conscious of a culture a certain vocabulary and viewpoint that provides people the basics of a certain view.
To normalize is to place within the collective conscious of a culture a certain vocabulary and viewpoint that provides people the basics of a certain view.
To illustrate, when tribal missionaries encounter an unreached people group, they must begin their discussions of God, Christ, and the Bible from scratch. Discussion of such things is not “normal” among these people. They do not have the essential vocabulary and basic tenants of the position in mind. However, when well known Christian leaders (who are given a larger platform where great numbers of people hear them) are able to represent believers in the public sphere, they help provide these normalizing tools for the wider culture.
4. Because Jesus and his disciples are famous
In Packiam’s article, he argues that though Jesus was famous, he constantly attempted to disperse the crowds and avoid such fame. Certainly, according to John 6 especially, Jesus often bewildered the crowds with his unique and brilliant teaching (“eat my flesh and drink my blood”), and the crowds often responded by leaving. But did Jesus really want them to leave? Would he not have preferred for them to actually accept his teaching and stay?
When it comes right down to it, Jesus of Nazareth is the most famous man who ever lived! In fact, according to recent research compiled from Wikipedia search habits, Jesus Christ continues to be considered the most significant man who has ever lived.
How can we say he doesn’t want this? It is his fame among the nations that contributes to his glory being enjoyed and multiplied. Nobody else has ever been or ever will be this famous:
Revelation 7:9-10 After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” (NLT)
Part of his glory shining is the universal nature of his fame. Jesus Christ is truly a celebrity (a word we have lost the meaning of – it means someone who should be celebrated). In fact, we do not go too far to say that Jesus Christ is the only True Celebrity. That is, nobody else should ever be celebrated like we celebrate him. Nobody else even begins to compare.
But, Jesus’ disciples are also famous. That is, people generally know who they are. Peter, James, John, and the Apostle Paul are some of the most famous people the world has ever known. In the early church, it was necessary to have apostolic spokespersons, who had personally been with Jesus, to enable the church to get her feet beneath her. Had these men been unknown, it is conceivable the church would not have gained needed traction in that environment.
Jesus Christ is the only True Celebrity.
When reading Paul’s letters, it is obvious that he was well known, both among churches that he had planted, as well as many others. His letters where publicly read, copied, and shared among many congregations. Now, he did make it certain that he “did not come to proclaiming the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1). In other words, he wasn’t trying to become famous by impressing large numbers of people with his speaking skills, or any other natural talent or virtue. Showing off to receive mass attention was obviously not his goal. But, nevertheless, Paul was known far and wide as God prophesied he would be (Acts 9:15).
To clarify, I am not saying that Christian leaders should try to be famous merely because Jesus and the disciples were famous. That would be superficial and trite (as my list of dangers below will show). What I am saying is that Jesus and the disciples and the early Christians saw the value of having some well-respected leaders who were widely known to larger groups of Christians and to the wider culture. It makes sense that in the modern church we would have the same need.
This would be a good place to also remind readers that there have been famous Christians throughout the history of the church, who have been a tremendous blessing to their fellow believers. Had these people not been granted some measure of fame, we would not know them today, nor be able to study their writings, sermons, and lives. A short list will suffice (they are so famous only their last or single names are needed): Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Edwards, Whitfield, Wesley, Bunyan, and the list goes on and on. These are people who (though they did not seek it) continue to be very well known around the world. I’m glad they are, because the wider church has benefited greatly from their ministries.
5. Because the woman who washed Jesus feet was (in a sense) rewarded with fame
Finally, there is an amazing text where Christ teaches us that there is some value in various people being well known. A woman of Bethany broke a flask of expensive perfume and anointed the feet of Jesus with precious oil. She was scolded by the disciples, but Jesus corrects them:
Mark 14:6-9 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (ESV)
Jesus proclaims, “What she has done will be told in memory of her.” That is, her actions will become famous, which indeed they have. How many sermons have been preached from this very text, for example?
I do understand, her actual name remains unknown. But nevertheless, the woman is famous. The point is, Christ decided to use this woman as an example to other people. In order for this to happen, she had to become famous, in a manner of speaking.
A basic application of this idea for the modern church is that the Lord often raises up certain people, who become famous to some degree or the other, as examples to the rest of us. We should never, ever expect them to be perfect examples in every way. Certainly the woman in Mark 14 was not. But the Lord still uses them to set patterns of behavior that can be valuable to whole of the Christian family, and even the wider culture.
Many times I have heard people comment about Billy Graham’s ethical standards. Not that he was a perfect man during his ministry days, but that he took certain precautions in order to preserve the integrity of his work. This is a very good example for the rest of us. Sure, Graham could have failed to meet his own ethical standards, and if he had it would not have lessened the truth of the Gospel a bit, but nevertheless, his integrity still provided a wonderful example to follow. People need real life examples.
The point is well supported, it is necessary and helpful that some Christians be famous. We need not dismiss any Christian leader who has been granted some level of wider influence just because they are famous. In fact, we should greatly appreciate God who raises people up above the crowd in order to provide this type of broad leadership and example. But as I said at the beginning, this can also be extremely dangerous. Let me explore some of the reasons why.
Why Is It Dangerous?
1. Because famous leaders who are unorthodox doctrinally cause major problems for myriads of people
False teachers, especially famous ones, cause immense devastation in God’s church. It makes me shudder to think of the horrendous and deadly fruit that blooms from the public teaching of people like Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar (no relation), Joseph Smith (Mormonism), and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Many others could be listed, but my point is not to expose the lot of them, but to warn they are out there.
When a person becomes famous, there may be a temptation to feel they are above the authority of the Word of God. They might feel they are untouchable, or that God must approve of them, why else would they be famous? The Scripture warns of false teachers and wolves that wear sheep clothing (Matt 7:15-20). We must be extra diligent in discernment when these people become famous. Likewise, we must always remember that fame alone is no mark of God’s approval.
2. Because famous leaders will struggle making sure that all the fame ultimately moves up higher to Christ
No doubt, being famous and being truly Christian comes with major challenges. Any fallen human being will likely have the tendency to start enjoying the fame as an end in itself. A desire to preach the true Gospel might lead to becoming well-known (Charles Spurgeon experienced this), but once the preacher is well-known he must use extreme caution not to change his motive. Thoughts like, “Wow, people really like me,” or “I must be an outstanding teacher to be getting all of this attention,” can quickly become self-idolatrous.
If the Lord raises a Christian up to any level of fame, the goal is to quickly deflect the adoration and attention from others back to the Lord. This takes serious spiritual discipline, because it can’t be mere talk, it must be sincere, from the heart. The glory of God is the shining energy that fuels every Christian work. All believers, famous or not, should constantly labor to reflect that glory back to him, so that his glory is from him, through him, and to him (Rom 11:36).
The Apostle Paul was and is famous. But when you read his writings it is clear that his fame is for the greater fame of Christ. Paul would echo the heart attitude and words of another famous man, John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Christians who are called of God to represent the wider church to the culture must constantly keep these things in mind. Whatever fame is granted to them must never be worshiped or pursued as an end in itself, but reflected back to the Famous One.
3. Because famous leaders will be overly scrutinized, often leading to misunderstandings of the Gospel
This is more of a danger on the part of followers rather than those who become famous. Put simply, many Christians expect way too much from their more famous spokespersons. When a well known pastor or leader fails in some way, it often comes as a painful and unexpected surprise. It has been known to rattle the faith of many.
A few years back, it was discovered that a long time, well known pastor was having an affair with a woman. It was devastating for many of the parishioners of his church. Some even questioned the validity of their baptism, since this man was the one who performed the ordinance.
This type of reaction to failure betrays a heart of idolatry. Christians must realize that their leaders, well known or not, always have the capacity to disappoint those who follow them. Sinful hearts do not go away when the spotlight shines.
Naturally, famous pastors should understand this scrutiny as part of the calling God has given them. They should always seek, by the power of the Spirit, to exhibit and demonstrate the virtues and high character traits of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. They should do all within their power to set an example of godliness and holy living.
But Christians must understand that sinful people are sinful people. Every single human being will fail before God in an ongoing way. We do not worship Billy Graham, John Piper, or David Platt. They are not proper objects of worship and deep soul adoration. We worship the one truly holy man, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will never fail or fall short of God’s holy standard.
Just because God allows a Christian leader to gain some degree of notoriety does not mean we should overly scrutinize their lives, expecting absolute perfection from them. I recently heard of a young man who attended a conference where many famous Christian speakers where gathered. The young man was walking behind a rather famous pastor, who opened a door to enter the conference area. The pastor failed to look behind him as he passed through the door, and thus did not hold the door open for the young man behind him. The young man later remarked, “Can you believe how rude he is?”
This type of attitude, which seeks to scrutinize every word, step, and wink of famous Christian leaders is truly unhelpful and unholy. Let us look to Christ as our highest example and the standard of holy conduct (Heb 12:2), not merely to fallen sinful people, regardless of the level of fame they have achieved.
4. Because famous leaders can sometimes take focus off “the little guys”
The existence of Christian celebrities can also lead to an unhealthy balance of focus. So many Christians are focused primarily on these leaders, and have very little to say about “the little guys.” Who are the little guys? Those who labor for decades in a small church that never grows beyond a few hundred members. Those who sell their possessions and travel to a distant missionary field to labor faithfully and secretly (as far as the masses are concerned) among a relatively unknown people group. Those who serve the poor at a local soup kitchen. And many others.
The faithful laborer who works in obscurity for the glory of God will be richly rewarded in the New Heavens and New Earth, even if he never achieves any level of fame here and now.
These “little guys,” many of whom are faithful to their calling and faithful to the Word of God, are often considered the minor leaguers of the Christian movement. Too bad they can’t be like John MacArthur or Mark Driscoll!
But in the Kingdom of God, things do not work like this. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, the Master said. The faithful laborer who works in obscurity for the glory of God will be richly rewarded in the New Heavens and New Earth, even if he never achieves any level of fame here and now.
Christians, therefore, should constantly avoid the danger of thinking the famous guys are the ones playing major league ball, and the rest of the folks are just along for the ride. No, God calls different people to different ministries, and in his eyes, each ministry is loaded with purpose and significance no matter how small people may think it is.
I would add that the little guys need never feel that they should be small duplicates of the bigger guys. There is only one Billy Graham. There is only one John Piper. These guys don’t need mini-me’s. Sure, we can learn many things from famous leaders about communicating well, understanding the Bible, and reaching the lost. But God made each person unique and special, with the talents and gifts he bestowed upon them. Christian pastors, especially, should learn to be who God made them to be and preach using their very own God-given personalities.
What Should Christians Do About It?
Having looked at both the necessity and the dangers, in what follows I’d like to offer a few lines of advice for how to think about Christians who become famous.
Never seek fame as an end
One teaching from Scripture on this subject is exceptionally clear: fame should never be sought as an end in itself. In other words, a Christian pastor should never, ever say to himself, “If I can just get my sermons online, it could make me famous,” or “If I could just write a few books, then I would get the attention I deserve!” These sentiments are overwhelmingly prideful and have no place in any believer’s heart.
If and when God grants a person a measure of fame, it is not for the glory of that person. Rather, it is for Kingdom purposes, which ultimately are for the glory of God. If a pastor has the glory of God and the good of people as his ultimate end in ministry, God might grant that pastor a degree of fame, but then he must be careful not to change his ultimate end.
Even when the press wants to do an interview on the radio (or even CNN!) the goal must be the same: the glory of God and the good of people. The interview should never, ever be given for any other reason. The sermon should never be preached, the book should never be written, the panel discussion at the conference should never be engaged in for any other reason.
Never expect perfection from famous leaders
As detailed above, this is simply unwise and unfair.
Pray for famous leaders and their families
I don’t think we do this near enough. In our culture, famous people sometimes don’t seem like real people. They seem like mere characters, as if they are playing a public role for all to see that is very different from who they really are.
Sometimes this might be the case, but when it comes to Christian leaders who love the Gospel, love the Word, and love the church, the rest of us should see them as real people. They have similar desires, frustrations, and problems as the rest of us. They struggle through many of the same struggles we all face.
In fact, they have unique struggles related to their fame. Once in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I observed well-known pastor, Johnny Hunt, walking with his family in the tourist district. It appeared he just wanted to blend in to the crowd unnoticed, to just enjoy time with his family. But, of course, he was recognized by many, many people who wanted to shake his hand, thank him for his ministry, or share a prayer concern with him. None of those desires are bad in and of themselves, but fame has a way of intruding on family life or the desire to just be alone or be normal.
No doubt, famous Christians have to be extra careful to guard their marriages, their parenting, their houses (have you ever search the internet for a photo of a famous pastor’s house?), and other areas where privacy should be granted.
Further, no doubt, these types of issues can lead to spiritual problems for Christians who have been granted a level of fame. One’s relationship with the Lord could be drastically altered (for better or worse) by the fame that has been granted.
Needless to say, the people of God should willingly and regularly pray for well known Christian leaders and seek to see them as real people facing the real issues of life, and then some.
Never treat them the way the world treats its celebrities
I’ve always felt this one in my gut. Once when I was a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, John Piper came to preach in chapel. Piper was (still is) one of the most influential people I had ever read or heard, so I was extremely excited he was coming. The crowd that gathered to hear him was not gigantic, since it was basically for the seminary students. In other words, I could have walked right up to him and potentially had a discussion.
But at the end of the sermon, I noticed some of the other students immediately crowding around him, seeking his attention. Some wanted autographs, others wanted a pic, and still others wanted to discuss theology with him. When I saw this (please know I’m not trying to pass judgment on my fellow students), it churned my stomach, not in a good way. I was within twenty feet of one of my heroes, but my heart said, “Walk on.” I did not meet Piper.
Truth is, I’m not disappointed about that. Really, what would have changed in my life had I met him? We would not have been able to really talk about anything. It would have been a short praise from me to him, and he likely would have said, “Thank you.” It would have been neat, but it wouldn’t have added anything more to my spiritual life that his books and sermons had not already added.
I’m not saying we should never seek to meet famous leaders. I’m certainly not suggesting we avoid them at all costs. I’m saying we should never gawk at Christian leaders, that we should never treat them the way the masses treat Justin Bieber or Tom Cruise. God did not give them fame for us to feel starstruck in their presence. Their fame has a purpose for the furthering of the Kingdom of God and the expansion of the glory of God.
Always let praise for a famous leader truly be praise to God
Finally, this point says it all. If we follow and appreciate a famous Christian leader, we should praise God for his or her ministry. Even when we praise the person, it should sound something like this: “Thank you for bringing that sermon. God truly used it to help my understanding of grace, and I thank him for leading you to preach it.” Speaking this ways allows people to be sincere in their appreciation to the person and also quickly to give ultimate glory to the One who empowers the person.
I believe if Christians take these guidelines seriously it will lead to a more healthy way of understanding how and why God uses Christians who reach celebrity status. We must see the necessity of such a thing, and carefully guard against the dangers. “He must increase.”