I’d be tempted to say “our culture today,” but it seems as if the ancients were not too different than us “moderns,” at least when it comes to socio-cultural issues. For instance, “our culture today” is obsessed with the celebrity culture. I mean obsessed. If you disagree, consider how much time most people spend on social media, reading things that have nothing to do with them by people they haven’t even met. Or consider how many “news” articles are written about some kind of drama involving one celebrity or another, and how many people actually read these articles and talk about them. Not that it’s wrong in and of itself to read these things, but it just goes to show you how obsessed we are with celebrity culture.
We’d like to think Christians are no different, but the “Christian culture” has celebrities as well. Many of these are mega-church pastors, Christian hip-hop artists, worship leaders, or whomever else occupies the spotlight. (In my much smaller world, these might be certain authors or scholars.) Certainly it’s biblical to have Christian mentors to learn from and be challenged by (even Paul told the Corinthians to emulate him; 1 Cor 4:15-16). But it’s a completely different thing to lift certain people up on a pedestal and treat them as super-Christian (if there were such a thing) and idolize them. Yes, it’s certainly possible to idolize Christian leaders; in fact, I would argue that it is one of those common sins within the church that Christians have a hard time discerning, because it’s not as easily discernible as, say, swearing.
Idolizing Christian leaders is the very thing that Paul rebuked the Corinthians for doing. In the third chapter to his first (actually probably his second, but that’s another discussion) letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “for when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” It’s a rhetorical question, and Paul means to say that following one particular Christian leader over another is actually being worldly. One of the first problems that Paul addresses to this worldly church is the problem of celebrity Christianity: of treating servants of Christ as celebrities–which should tell modern readers that this was, and still is, a serious problem in the church. I think reproducing Paul’s quote here is helpful, instead of summarizing it. He writes: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 4:5-7).
Many Christians come to Christ because they are weak, insufficient, needy, broken, and in need of a Savior. True, true, true, true, and true. In fact, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” One cannot inherit heaven without realizing their utter poverty before God. But to look to another human who preaches Christ to be a functional Savior is not the same thing as looking to Christ. To function as if a certain preacher is inerrant (nothing they say could be wrong, and if it sounds wrong, well they probably didn’t really mean that) is what Paul chided the Corinthians for.
We don’t need celebrities in the church for Christians to adore and admire. What we need is more Christians growing up, moving on from spiritual infancy, critically thinking and discerning for themselves, learning to read the Bible for themselves, and doing the work of the gospel together. I’m totally not undermining the work of pastors and other leaders; they have a crucial function in the church. In fact, I have for many years, and currently do now, serve as a pastor at my church. But when pastors and other Christian leaders accept the celebrity status that other Christians give to them, they do not follow Paul’s example. The pastor’s calling is to train and equip all Christians to be able to do the work of the ministry together, not to hand-feed baby food to their congregations for their entire lives. To want to attain a sort of Christian celebrity status is wrong (no one blatantly admits this, obviously, but a secret desire may be manifest through various subtle actions and attitudes), and to contribute to it by treating some as better than others is also wrong. In this area, let’s be different from the world by renouncing celebrity culture and treating everyone as equals in God’s kingdom.