The Powerful Celebrity Pastor

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and the Celebrities of Early Christianity

Todd Brewer / 7.20.21

It didn’t take much to pique my interest in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. I’ve had friends affiliated with Mars Hill satellites, and they had some crazy stories to tell. So I’ve been following the Christianity Today series with no small amount of voyeuristic intrigue at what lay behind the curtain of the main stage.

With its sleek, Serial-inspired aesthetic, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (written by Mike Cosper) tells “the story of one church that grew from a handful of people into a movement and then collapsed overnight.” It’s a riveting tale, well-researched and raises excellent questions. The series is more than a post-mortem analysis of the church (and its leader Mark Driscoll). For Cosper and others, Mars Hill represents a microcosm of wider failures within Evangelicalism.

The podcast series is ongoing, but its thesis so far is pretty clear: when evangelical churches fail, the pastoral cult of personality is largely to blame. As told by the podcast, the charismatic pastor’s promotion of a God-given vision for the church creates a feedback loop of unchecked power and hagiography. Investing a pastor with divine authority places them above questioning. They speak for God himself and can demand the absolute obedience of church members.

But consider with me, for a second, another celebrity pastor who never got the podcast treatment from Christianity Today. Like Driscoll, he was known to have a bit of a temper. He even cursed to make a point. He demonized his opponents, belittling them publicly. This pastor demanded absolute obedience from his congregations. He too believed he was on a God-given mission to a godless world and spoke frequently enough of hearing directly from God. His followers numbered in the thousands as his sermons were spread across the globe.

Who is this infamous celebrity pastor? Well, that’s the thing: the above description could easily apply to Martin Luther, any number of Popes, the apostle Paul, and perhaps Jesus himself.

From its very beginnings, hierarchy has been baked into Christianity and this structure of the faith today stands in stark contrast to those who believe that such hierarchy is always wrong in principle. The power of authority violates the Western ideals of independence and autonomy. How can a human speak for God? Who are they to have a plan for my life? We tend to prefer a private, self-cultivated spirituality instead of anything beholden to the mere opinion of others. When it comes to issues that matter the most to us (like religion), the expertise of trained professionals can carry as much weight as the comments section on the internet — or worse.

The well-documented failure of leaders in the church (and beyond) confirms this cultural suspicion of authority. It seems that every generation has their own “Vietnam” moment when we see the unimpressive man behind the curtain. But our disillusioned response to failure is itself informed by our ingrained suspicions of power. Because we resist authority figures as a matter of course, those that overcome the odds to gain our trust are dealt with more mercilessly when a betrayal occurs. We tend to dethrone our kings with all the glee of the French Revolution.

Grace, in other words, is rarely extended to leaders who prove themselves to be human because they must become super-human to gain our confidence. Even the language we use of a “fallen” leader reveals the perfection that was originally required. “We expected more from them,” we say while we pick up stones to throw. 

Along these lines, the demand that pastors be “people of character” might sound like a vaccine against duplicity, but this is merely a symptom of the systemic mistrust. The podcast says we can trust pastors when they “have character,” but what character? This emphasis is an upgrade, to be sure. But adding character to an already long list of qualifications replicates the same problem in a new form, adding yet another law by which we get to judge our pastors.

Most do not believe anymore in the divine right of kings (England might come around once Prince Charles takes the crown). In its place is the near universal belief that leaders are just like you and I. This kind of “everyman” appeal is often how elections are won. Pushing this idea further, however, we might say that original sin is evenly distributed, whether pastor or parishioner, politician or citizen. Our leaders share the same faults we do and we shouldn’t be surprised to discover they are regular, unremarkable sinners. But this egalitarian insight can often rebound to undermine the worth and authority of the office itself. Preachers are just sheep in shepherd’s clothing. In the place of actual judges, we ourselves become the judge.

As egalitarian as early Christianity was, there were still prophets, pastors, and apostles. We might not call Peter a celebrity by today’s standards, but it seemed to be a big deal who he sat with in the cafeteria. The same was true of Jesus. And while Paul may have been a disappointment if you met him in person (as the Corinthians claimed), this anecdote actually confirms his celebrity status in the early Church. Paul’s devoted fans even saved his emails for posterity’s sake.

The recent history of celebrity pastors provides a mirror of broader cultural movements: the hippie, CEO, the punk, the hipster — iconic mile markers lining the highway of American history. These pastors were Sunday morning superheroes, whose power and appeal derived from their embodiment of the ideals of their communities. We tend to think that pastors create communities that follow them, becoming reflections of their image. But the reverse is probably more true: the leaders we choose reflect the ideals we hold.

If early Christian celebrity leaders held court by way of their cult of personality, they largely did so paradoxically in ways that confound our resistance to notions of power and submission. Paul once vigorously defended his apostolic authority against the so-called “super-apostles”: they were false apostles masquerading as angels of light. But Paul did not appeal to his character or virtuous life, neither his riches nor his Instagram-curated style. He had none of these. The true apostles were fools like him, boasting of his poverty, imprisonments, failures, literal scars, and weaknesses (2 Cor 11).

Like Jesus before them, the leaders of the early church were not the kind of leaders who perfectly conformed to idealized expectations. They were not especially moral, good-looking, or qualified. They were fishermen, tax collectors, murderers, and manual laborers. We know more about Peter’s falls from grace than we do of his successes. But Peter didn’t cease to be an apostle because his calling had nothing to do with possessing a superhero persona. The only qualifications necessary were weakness and divine appointment.

Operating under the sign of the cross, these saints were as unfashionable as they were replaceable. They had influence, but weren’t influencers; they held power, but weren’t powerful. These leaders were genuine celebrities, but with no real celebrity appeal. They may not have worn ripped designer jeans and a bomber jacket, but they reached the world all the same.

featured image via Vox
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