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Since my last post, a number of events have transpired in reformed evangelicalism that I would say are connected to the idea of “guruification.” Some of the delay in posting has been due to not wanting to “pile on.” Enough time has passed (and I’m on a blogging spree these days), so hopefully I’ll be posting more often on this subject.
How did we get here?
The Shaping of a Market?
I vividly remember the introduction to the 2008 Together for the Gospel conference: knowing that thousands would turn out for several popular speakers, Mark Dever and others leveraged this “market” to get their message out. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Influence can be wielded appropriately or inappropriately. The kicker is when influence is used (intentionally or not) to create followers for gurus instead of pointing people heavenward.
How did this market come to be? Many potential (and complementary) answers come to mind, but surely one of them must be: the church’s expectations for its celebrities largely came to match the surrounding culture. In short, I believe an evangelical fixation with celebrities has, by and large, overcome the ecclesiastical culture commended by Scripture.
Matthew 23 – Woe to the Gurus
In the midst of the woes that Jesus pronounces over the Pharisees, he indicts our own subculture that is so often obsessed with celebrities:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Rabbis, fathers, instructors… none shall be so named. The greatest, the one exalted among Christ’s community, will be the servant of all who humbles self above all. This looks little like modern evangelical culture that mimics corporate America, establishes unbiblical hierarchies in local churches that prevent accountability, and is obsessed with church growth gurus, theological gurus, preaching gurus, etc.
The hoarding of power, responsibility, authority in individuals in our churches is a not-so-distant cousin of the Pharisees, and it can make otherwise godly leaders self-obsessed.
How do we think about the structures of our churches, the accountability of our teachers, and the responsibility of the laity in mitigating against such a culture of celebrity? I’ll write about that next time (hopefully soon).
They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
I’ve thought about the above verses and their import for evangelicalism for at least three years now. Over the last 18 months, I’ve been writing and thinking more intently about it, observing how “the greatest among us” develop within evangelicalism and how evangelicalism in turn treats those “greatest.”
This presupposition drives my thinking: the perceived “greatest among us” in evangelicalism are the pastor-teachers. They are invited to conferences, they draw large crowds at their churches, they write and sell popular books. They carry a following that extends beyond their local churches, and many times Christians implicitly identify more with the individual leaders then with a particular church or organization. Don’t get me wrong: having particularly gifted individuals known in the broader evangelical world is a wonderful thing. But the proliferation of influence by a few often has unintended consequences, both for those who follow the few and those who aspire to be like the few.
In this series I want to explore four contrasts between two kinds of pastor-teachers: “leaders” and “gurus.” I’ve chosen the latter term for reasons that will hopefully be immediately apparent. Consider:
Leaders are accountable to those they serve and lead.
Gurus are accountable either to their peers or to no one and don’t seek such accountability.
Leaders share their responsibility and the power it affords
Gurus cling to their responsibility and power.
Leaders raise up other leaders and hope they will be surpassed by those leaders.
Gurus ensure that no one in their midst will surpass them.
Leaders point disciples to the one Rabbi.
Gurus gather disciples to themselves.
Before I explore these four contrasts further, I want to examine 1) how the “market” in evangelicalism has become ripe for gurus to thrive, and 2) how the market sometimes makes gurus out of people who don’t want to be gurus at all. That’s for next time.
Or it least not always. As a “type A” personality, it’s my tendency to throw myself at the most difficult tasks. As a sinful man, it’s my tendency to think that whatever difficult task I’m involved in is the most important thing.
For instance, Hebrew in seminary was far harder (for me) than being a husband and a dad. But that doesn’t mean it was more important. No, in the Scriptures I am nowhere called to be an excellent Hebrew student (although I should do all things to his glory and with all my might); but as a man with a wife and children, I am objectively called to be a godly husband and father. That is most important. When difficult things come along, I find myself checking to see whether or not they’re important. This triage, I feel, is another way of expressing the truth of Matthew 6:33:
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
I’m hoping to post more along this theme in the months to come as a way of thinking out loud on the topic.
Well, it has been awhile. I’ve been writing, but not posting, for the last 18 months or so. My MDiv studies have consumed the vast majority of my time, not to mention working three jobs, getting a new addition to the family, and starting up ThM thesis research. Now that I’m done with the MDiv, I plan on writing far more often here (a couple times a week, I’m hoping).
First up are some reflections on marriage, family, and juggling a busy life, followed by a series on the “Gurufication of American Evangelicalism.” Concurrently, I’m hoping to explain the new taxonomy for posts that I’m adopting (as I mention in the updated “About” page).
I’m looking forward to writing more in lieu of the weekly work of the MDiv. I also hope to share more as I dig deeply in studies for my ThM thesis on Revelation, ethics, and reception history.
I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. – Psalm 3:5