Tuesday, September 08, 2015

"Great Man Theory" and the Myth of Christian Heroism

Its been a bad summer for an awful lot of evangelical leaders.

First, there were revelations about Josh Duggar that resulted in his removal from his leadership role at the Family Research Council.  Just a few weeks later, Duggar was caught up in yet another scandal, but he was far from alone.  As promised, Hackers released a "data dump" from the website Ashley Madison, exposing millions of people who had either attempted or committed adultery using the site's services.  My friend Ed Stetzer--who does not subscribe to sensationalism when it comes to numerical data--estimated that as many as 400 church leaders would be resigning due to their exposure as Ashley Madison account holders.

One of those accounts was tied to an old email address used by R.C. Sproul Jr, who confessed his sin and was suspended from his position with Ligonier Ministries.  Fellow Presbyterian Pastor Tullian Tchjividian also confessed an affair (not related to the Ashley Madison revelations) to the elders of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and was summarily defrocked by the Presbyterian Church of America.

And then came two weeks ago, when an old video surfaced on the web that implicates former North Greenville University President James Epting in an apparent extra-marital affair.  Several months ago, it was announced by school officials that Epting would be retiring due to "health concerns," and Epting was subsequently celebrated for his long tenure and great accomplishments at the school.  Now, it appears that trustees attempted to cover up what really took place, and the result is the tearing of new wounds for the University, the Epting family, and the body of Christ.

NGU is my alma mater, and for four years I also served on their faculty.  So that last one hit close to home.  I continue to hurt deeply for the Epting family, and all in that campus community who will no doubt be affected by these events.

It would seem that too many Christian leaders fell from high pedestals this past summer.  Perhaps part of the reason is that we place them on pedestals in the first place.  I've spoken about Celebrity Pastors and Christian leaders in the past, and pointed to the masses as the primary reason this "great man" culture continues to persist.  But let's face it; we've been trapped in celebrity culture for a long time, and the practice goes all the way back to Israel's desire to be like other nations and seek stability through King Saul.   After thousands of years,  how on earth do we change now?  Let ms suggest four ways:

1. Get a new hermeneutic!  From the turn of the 20th century until around 1930, American business culture subscribed to what has become known as "Great Man Theory."  In order for a company to be a success, it was believed that a "great man" with inherently extraordinary skills in leadership and management was needed, and all would be well.  Over the ensuing decades, this theory evolved greatly in academic circles, and churches began to co-opt and "baptize" this theory for employment in congregations across the nation.  Many Pastoral Search Teams today can still be quoted as searching for 'God's man.'  And schools of thought such as John Maxwell's Leadership Institute threw gasoline on the fire of this approach.

To be sure, leadership is an invaluable asset to the church, as well as to every other domain of society.  But contrary to the popular phrase, its not "all about leadership."  Unfortunately, our approach to the Bible's teaching on leadership often enables this approach.

From the cradle, evangelicals have too often taught their children that the stories in the Bible are about "good guys vs. bad guys." Abraham is the father of a nation who, with his strong faith, was willing to filet his only son.  David is the strong King of Israel who slaughtered Goliath.  Solomon was the wise King who arbitrated a scenario between two mothers that would have otherwise been impossible in a pre-DNA testing age.  Elijah is the great man of God who called down fire from heaven.  Peter was the courageous preacher at Pentecost.

In other words, we too often teach the Bible as if it were full of stories about heroes--"Great men", when in reality it is a story of sin and grace.  We forget that Abraham was, at heart, a liar, David an adulterer, Solomon a pervert, and Peter an indecisive hot-head.  We forget that their moments of great strength were so because of God's empowerment which overcame their depravity.

Perhaps its this approach to the Biblical narrative that causes shock when popular men act like, well, fallen men.  To be sure, when their is disqualifying sin, leaders must be held accountable.  But perhaps, if we took a fresh look at how we wrongly few so many Biblical characters, perhaps we'd have a better view of the characters who lead us today.  Leaders who aren't placed on man-made pedestals are far less likely to fall.

2. One word: "accountability."  Nothing ends a conversation any more abruptly than the phrase "God told me......"  TV preachers for years have answered critics, not with honest and transparent explanations, but by invoking "touch not mine anointed."  Truth is, everyone needs human accountability, and the presumption of a "Moses complex" also presumes that God only speaks to one man and no other leaders in the church.  This sets a dangerous precedent where the abuse of sex, money or power is much more likely.  Because, again, there really aren't any "great men."  There are only sinful men called by God's grace, and those men--ALL of us--need accountability.  By the way, if you read the previous as a strong advocacy for the plurality of elders, you read me correctly!

3. Stop Depending on "Great Men" and Start Depending on a Great God!  From beginning to end, the Bible only has one hero--one grand protagonist who is presented as even now reconciling the world back to Himself.  The careful reader of Scripture will find that the Biblical writers--under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit no less--took great pains to be brutally honest about the sinful behavior of the so-called "great men."  In fact, they took care to malign the reputation of every single Biblical character--except one!

At the end of the day, this means there is only ONE who cannot be replaced.  After 40 years of faithful ministry and leadership in the wilderness, Moses decided in a moment of narcissistic rage to turn the people's attention from God to him.  That moment of compromising the holiness of God cost him his trip into the Promised Land.  Yet upon his death and burial in Joshua 1, the plot doesn't skip a beat.  Things moved forward because the Israelites ultimate dependency wasn't on Moses, but God.

When leaders fall because of the abuse of sex, money, or power, we should weep over their sin, while simultaneously being thankful for all they have accomplished by God's grace.  It was Jesus who empowered them for service, Jesus who will renew and restore them if they repent, and Jesus who will move His Kingdom forward with, or without them.

4. Leaders, get over yourselves!  As I said, the Kingdom moves forward with or without those of us who lead.  God doesn't need Joel Rainey!  Its a humbling recognition to be sure, but its also one of the most freeing realizations.  If you are a Christian leader, this realization will curb the undue pressure we all sometimes put on ourselves.  Apart from our responsibility to live quiet and Godly lives, and make wise decisions in the power of the Holy Spirit, the forward movement of God's Kingdom doesn't ultimately depend on us--precisely because we are not "great men."  We are sinful men who have been redeemed, called, and equipped to serve His church.  Christian leaders help themselves best when they get over themselves.

Human history has only witnessed one truly great man, and that man isn't interested in sharing His glory with anyone else.  May the church learn a valuable lesson from the past few months.  None of us wears a cape, and only One wears a crown!

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