Much has been said about Joshua Harris and his recent announcement that he is separating from his wife and dissociating from Christianity. If you don’t know what’s been going on, you can read about the gist of it here. TGC recently posted a reflection written by several of his friends, expressing hope that he would come back to the faith. They admit that there has been a lot of soul-searching regarding the “young men” involved in TGC who have been “forced to leave the ministry.” So I propose some solutions, not only for Harris’s downfall, but for the downfalls of the Mark Driscolls, the James MacDonalds, and the Tullian Tchividjians, among too many others.
First, we need to completely stop with the celebrity pastor/Christian public figure nonsense. It is absolute nonsense, especially in the Christian world. Celebritism is toxic in every culture, and the church is no exception. The Apostle Paul is in no uncertain terms clear on this in 1 Corinthians 3: don’t exalt human servants of God; God is the one who does anything and deserves any exaltation, and his servants are merely his instruments. There should be no camp of Peter, camp of Paul, or camp of Apollos. There is only one camp: Jesus. Peter is nothing. Paul is nothing. John Piper is nothing. And certainly Joshua Harris is nothing. There is a huge difference between appreciating your local pastor for their hard work and exalting a celebrity pastor. Celebritism was toxic to the first-century church, it is toxic to the church today, and it will continue to lead to the downfall of many so-called leaders until we stop celebritizing them.
Celebritism is fed by and feeds narcissism and pride, and we need to be much more aware of their dangers, not just to the individual but to the church. I don’t know if it can be solved on a systemic scale—but individually, we have to decide for ourselves that we will stop idolizing and idealizing Christian public leaders. Maybe it means we stop attending their mega-churches and start investing ourselves in a smaller local church (churches weren’t meant to be gatherings of thousands of people in one building without any personal connections in the first place). Maybe it means we stop contributing to their ministries and instead contribute to our own local church so our church can actually do something in our communities. Maybe it means we stop talking about these people as if their words were the words of God. Maybe it means we stop viewing the church as an entertainment venue and view it as a place where we can contribute to its growth with every person taking part. Maybe others have better ideas—all I know is that we need to stop with the celebritism. And we need to stop enabling the aspiring celebrity pastor/leader with their narcissism. I sadly admit that I used to be one of these people, who had certain celebrity pastors and Christian leaders I would totally promote (and want to be like)—and I am now embarrassed and sorry I was that guy. But I eventually grew out of that and realized the danger and folly of celebritism, and I urge every other Christian to grow out of that as well.
Second, we need to stop valuing the cult of personality over character and integrity. We are more enamored with personality pastors than we are with faithful pastors with character. Look at how popular Steven Furtick is in the Christian world, for example. He oozes charm, strength, charisma, speaks well, and looks good (or cool, or whatever). These are not the values that Paul identifies in selecting a church leader (1 Timothy 3; Titus 2). But when I watch Furtick, I see a proud, arrogant, and self-absorbed guy who wants to have the world and uses Christianity to that end. Christians need to stop valuing personalities and start valuing character and integrity in their leaders. This might mean valuing a leader who is not well-dressed, maybe doesn’t speak all too well, may not be up to date on pop culture, or perhaps not so young and hipster. But if we want to see less of these news headlines (like Harris’s, Driscoll’s, MacDonald’s, and others’), let’s value leaders who exemplify character and integrity over personality.
Third, extreme hierarchy and indoctrination need to end as well. Hierarchy itself is natural and serves an organizational purpose. I am not against hierarchy per se. Every organization needs some sort of structure or it just won’t work. I am, however, against what I might call extreme hierarchy, where the people up top have too much power and end up being dictators in the organization. The New Testament describes a church having elders/overseers/pastors but also having every person using their gifts for the common good. It’s problematic when you have a church of 5,000, with one person primarily responsible for teaching that 5,000 (unless you can feed those 5,000 with two fish and five loaves), and a staff that looks to that one person for direction.
Extreme hierarchy also tends to be linked all too often with indoctrination. Doctrine is good, and we should all have some sort of belief system, preferably not forced but thought through. Indoctrination, on the other hand, is forced belief. The Bereans are said to be of more noble character than the Thessalonians because not only did they receive Paul’s message with eagerness, but they examined Paul’s teachings with Scripture (Acts 17:11). Their noble character came from eagerness of teaching and critical evaluation. As leaders, we serve people well by teaching them not only facts but how to think critically and discerningly. Harris was indoctrinated not only in theology but in Christian culture. He wrote his I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was 21! He apparently didn’t know what he was doing and was simply regurgitating what he was taught. We need less regurgitators in the church and more discerning and critically-thinking followers of Christ. Teaching does not equal indoctrination and doesn’t have to be.
Finally, Christians need to use more of their God-given minds and critical thinking for themselves, rather than latch onto some human being called “pastor” to do their thinking for them. A critical role of pastors and other Christian leaders is to teach them (not indoctrinate them) to think critically and be discerning and mature Christians. Too many Christians today lack the discernment to be able to see past the wile and guile of a smooth-speaking pastor, and this is very unfortunate and disturbing. What this means for a Christian is to put aside the cult of personality—powerful speaking abilities, strong presence, “conviction” (although I suspect most pastors’ convictions are not based on personal in-depth study but indoctrination)—when joining a church, but instead to seek to participate in a church whose leaders exemplify integrity, faithfulness, and above all humility.
Personally, I think Harris finally decided he had a mind of his own and decided perhaps for the first time in his life what he really wanted. I don’t think he really owned his faith in the first place. I think he was pushed (or maybe nudged) into it and simply accepted it without much thought, and after years of being in ministry, and then recently in seminary, he decided it wasn’t for him anymore. I also think he was nudged into marriage (and his best-selling book surely helped him get married!) and after having a mind of his own decided it wasn’t for him anymore, at least this particular marriage. The biggest lesson for the church from this is that we need to stop perpetuating hierarchical, indoctrinating, celebrity Christianity, but instead all of us must take our own responsibility for growing as Christians (with a little help from our friends/pastors).
— David I. Yoon