If you follow the evangelical blogosphere, there are regular eruptions of moral outrage over celebrity pastors/leaders who continue in ministry after public sin is revealed. (Note — I have participated in my fair share of such eruptions and am lecturing to myself as much as anyone.) I have been thinking that we often paint with broad brushes what are actually very different situations, and we don’t understand (or really believe) how the good news of Jesus speaks into them.
First, I want to point out that even the title “celebrity” is unhelpful. It has come to be broadly applied to any Christian leader whose books sell well or who has a large number of followers on twitter. I would just prefer the general title “famous.” “Celebrity” seems to apply a shallow crassness to their platform, and as someone who has a much lower platform than the typical famous male or female speaker but who hopes to continue to publish books that reach a larger audience, I really, really hope that there is a way to reach large numbers of readers without being perceived as selling your soul to peddle Jesus. I don’t care to become “famous,” but I do hope to be “influential.” I hope to influence many young women through my writings to a deeper faith in Jesus and a confidence in their understanding of the Bible.
I also know some figures personally who are labeled “celebrity.” I know some who have exploited their followers to further their name, but I also know some who are thoughtful, humble people. The label “celebrity” for that second group makes me feel sad for them as their genuine burden to disciple others is tainted as greedy or self-serving.
With that said, let’s take hypothetical Joe Celebrity/Famous/Influential Pastor who is overtaken in a sin that disqualifies him from ministry. I see these things repeatedly going one of two ways.
1) Joe Pastor makes a meager attempt at “repentance.” This usually means he simply said that he “repented.” But he does not allow himself examination by others around him. And if his own elders or denominational accountability push back, he walks away from them. By the force of his personality and cult-like followers, he is able to emerge among some new group and continue in “ministry” despite no evidence of the type of repentance that tries to repair with the one wronged or submit to authorities over them.
2) The second way I see this going is almost identical to the first. Until you get to the last sentence. For this guy, by the force of his detractors and those that follow them on Twitter or Facebook, he is not able to emerge among some new group and continue in “ministry.” Or if he does emerge, he is so damaged by his critics that he never gains traction. In this case, the force of personality of his critics overcomes his own force of personality. The critics win.
Neither of these are the goals. NEITHER ONE OF THEM. Neither reflect the gospel. The second at least in some ways reflects the Law, the unrepentant leader marginalized and unable to affect others in his sinfulness. But neither reflects our hope in Christ.
There is a Third Way, distinct from both the first and the second. And this Third Way doesn’t care if you are a celebrity/famous/influential leader. The gospel after all is for influential people as well as those who are not. God’s Third Way involves repentance in COMMUNITY, accountability in COMMUNITY, and restoration in COMMUNITY. The problem for celebrity/famous/influential leaders who are overtaken in a sin is that many people who are not in community with them suddenly desire to be a part of the process. The flip side of that problem is that such leaders often use the criticism of the general public as an excuse for not listening to the criticism and rebuke of those with whom they are actually in accountable community.
This all goes back to why I’m a presbyterian now. If you don’t have a real authority structure in place, it is very easy for a pastor to walk away from accountability and emerge in some new place. My denomination has a presbytery, which means my pastor is accountable to both elders in our church and other pastors in our denomination who live in our area. They are in community, and they hold each other accountable. My pastor in Seattle once told me that if I had a problem with him that I could go to his denominational overseers. He relayed a story of how that presbytery had overturned a discipline situation in another church when it became clear that a pastor had acted against a family in an abusive way. They rebuked that pastor and held him accountable. Knowing that my pastor took accountability seriously, that he was in a system with actual authority to rebuke him or remove him, was meaningful to me after my experience at Mars Hill. I know many of you do not share my convictions about presbytery, but these principles can be applied in groups without the denominational structure of the Presbyterian Church in America as well.
I say all this to reinforce that influential/famous/celebrity church leaders can be restored! Through repentance, accountability, and examination, they can be restored. The gospel gives us this hope.
PETER, on whom Jesus built His church, gives us this hope!
Peter denied Christ! Imagine a famous pastor today denying Jesus when ISIS comes to town. We would be horrified at his spinelessness. And many in the American evangelical blogosphere would never let him forget it. Forever he would be labeled a spineless pastor. If he tried to lead a congregation again, he’d be protested out of the pulpit. And that’s the guy Jesus built His church upon!
Peter’s accountability was Jesus. Peter ran in repentance to the very one he had denied when he next saw Jesus after the resurrection. Peter affirmed his love and commitment to Jesus and Jesus told him to re-enter ministry. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. The New Testament later gives instructions on accountability to each other now that Jesus has returned to heaven. It gives limits on who can and can not be a spiritual overseer based on their qualifications. Like Peter, we always have hope of restoration, but that restoration is possible only in the community in which the sin took place. Famous people can be restored as much as those unknown publicly. And they can say things publicly after they are restored as well. Let’s make sure we don’t allow the pejorative adjective “celebrity” to cause us to deny the hope of the gospel.