The Celebrity Cult
Welcome to Episode 57 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will talk about one of the greatest idols of American Christianity, an idol that has permeated every single corner of the life of American Christians, and has claimed a much greater following in the American churches than Jesus Christ Himself. The idol of celebrity worship.
That celebrity worship is a problem in American Christianity should be obvious to everyone. That it is a problem of gigantic proportions and at the level of idolatry, should also be obvious to everyone who cares. If there are some to whom it is not obvious, keep in mind that even Phil Johnson, of all people, graced the G3 conference this year with a lecture against celebrity worship. Yes, the same Phil Johnson who is the right-hand man of John MacArthur, the only person in fundamentalist churchianity today who has a study Bible officially named after himself, The MacArthur Study Bible. To hear Johnson speak on the evil of celebrity worship is like hearing Joseph Goebbels speak on the evil of racism or Molotov speak on the evil of collectivism, or Mitt Romney speak on the evil of government-controlled healthcare. To those of us who have studied propaganda, however, this is not a surprise: it is just an ordinary propaganda technique to become an ardent speaker against the very evils you practice, so that you can control the narrative and deflect criticisms. (“See, we can’t be guilty of celebrity worship if we speak against it ourselves, right?) Johnson’s obvious motives aside, the very fact that he found it necessary to speak on the issue – trying to control the narrative – is a clear indication that more and more Christians are aware of the problem. So, obviously, there is a problem with celebrity worship in American churchianity.
Several years ago, in his book commentary on 1 Samuel, chapter 11, Joel McDurmon touched on the psychology of a people who have abandoned the Law of God, in relation to how they choose their leaders.
[QUOTE] To begin with, we learn that the majority of Saul’s appeal was outward. And indeed, judging by outward appearances only, Saul was the greatest man in all of Israel. In 1 Sam. 9:1, we learn that Saul comes from great stock. His father was a man of wealth. There is question among the commentators whether the word for “wealth” here (chayil) should be translated “wealth” (as in Deut. 8:18) or “strength” (as in 1 Sam. 2:4). It can mean both, and both may very well apply to this case. What is not in dispute is that Saul was quite a physical specimen: he was a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people (9:2). This guy was the quarterback, the prom king, the star of the show. He had a commanding presence: he drew all the eyes when he entered the room. For a nation in search of a king who would lead them into battle and be a symbol of national greatness, Saul was just the guy who looked the part. [END OF QUOTE]
Joel has touched a nerve here. In the Bible, we have very few description of the physical appearance of men – we have them mostly of women, which is only natural. Whenever the outward appearance of men is mentioned, it is to emphasize some covenantal point. In this case, the covenantal point, obviously, is the stupidity of people who have abandoned God as their King, wanting a human leader over them. Ironically, instead of a true leader, what they elected is a celebrity figure, one devoid of the ability to lead or inspire, but certainly able to play to the superficial emotions of men.
Now, keep this in mind: this is how men elect their leaders when they have abandoned God. We will return to this issue a bit later, but first, we need to have a Biblical analysis of why people want to place themselves under the authority of celebrities, that is men whose only quality is their appeal to the emotions. Why is it that we get attracted to manipulators of no real moral strength? It in this question that we will find the reasons, as well as as the essence of the modern celebrity culture in the American churches. 1 Samuel 8 tells us that the people wanted a human king because they had abandoned God as their King. But what exactly is the sin that made them abandon God?
Ethically and judicially, making an authority of celebrities in the churches is not different than making an authority of celebrities in the political world. In neither case are men under any obligation nor necessity to have leaders over them. A man who is in the redemption of Jesus Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit needs no leaders; as Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:3, “The head of every man is Christ,” not some human leaders. The same message was in the Law: the Law was all given in second person singular, that is, it was primarily a Law given by God to every individual member of Israel. The existence of civil government was limited only to the courts, and they were only involved when there was a crime or a dispute. Outside crimes and disputes, redeemed men under the law were subject to no government and could conduct their own lives as they saw fit, according to their own understanding of obedience under God. This was to be even more true in the New Covenant where, according to Jer. 31:34 and Heb. 8:11, the knowledge of God will eventually spread so far and deep, that men won’t even need teachers anymore. Men, therefore, in their redeemed state, do not need human rulers, whether political or ecclesiocratical. And the only reason they want rulers is that they have sinned against God.
The sinful motive for such self-subjection to human rulers should be clear: it is fear. We have talked about fear as a motivator in a previous episode of Axe to the Root. Just to remind us of the Biblical truth on this issue, fear of anything else but God is non-existent in the redeemed man. At the very heart of fear is the concern about the self; and the redeemed man doesn’t live for himself. Fear is at the foundation of all idolatry, and that’s why the commandment, “Do not fear,” is the most frequently repeated commandment in Scripture. Fear is what made Adam and Eve hide from God after they rebelled – had they been in a redeemed state, they would have approached God with repentance but not fear. Fear, as I pointed out in an article on ChristendomRestored.com titled, “Terrorism: Biblical Analysis and Solutions,” is in itself worship: those who fear God also worship God. And, conversely, those who fear other things than God, also worship other things than God. At the heart of every idolatry, therefore, is fear. Or, we can also say, paraphrasing Henry Van Til, idolatry is fear externalized.
Behind the idolatry of the celebrity worship and submission to human rulers, however, there is a very specific type of fear. We can see the nature of that type of fear in the story of the Tower of Babel. Before we consider that story, however, a look at the pre-history of it is needed. The Tower of Babel didn’t happen in a political vacuum; there was a submission to a celebrity prior to it. We read in Genesis 11:2 that the men who wanted to build the Tower of Babel arrived and settled in the Land of Shinar. Shinar (meaning “two rivers” in Hebrew) is another name for Babylon (the Hebrew language uses the same word for both Babel and Babylon). But in the context of Genesis 11, the land of Shinar has a very special significance: It wasn’t a no-man’s land. It was under the rule of a mighty man of power; or, to be precise, under the first mighty man of power. The previous chapter in Genesis, in verses 10-12, speaks about Nimrod who first became a mighty ruler and had a kingdom; “The beginning of his kingdom,” the text says, “was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.” If Babel was the “beginning of his kingdom,” then we can easily assume that it was the capital, or, as the Hebrew word rosh is usually translated, the “head.” Bishop Ussher, in his The Annals of the World, believes that Babel was the capital of Nimrod’s kingdom at the time of the tower, and in his History of the Jews, Josephus believes that Nimrod built Babel and oversaw the building of the Tower. This point is important here, for the men in Genesis 11 were not operating in a political vacuum. Before they set out to build a tower, they had first submitted themselves to the rule of the first mighty man recorded in the Bible, the first one to organize his own kingdom and have men under his power. The rebellion at Babel didn’t start with the construction project; the construction project was only the logical continuation of the true rebellion. The true rebellion was men submitting themselves to a human ruler where they should have submitted themselves to God.
What was their motive? Their own words explain it: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” It was Cain who built the first city to himself (more precisely, to his son, Enoch); the genetic line of Cain was extinguished in the Flood, but these men obviously continued the spiritual legacy of Cain. And just like Cain, who was concerned of being a wanderer on the face of the earth, these men were afraid of being scattered over the face of the earth. It was the fear of being scattered and becoming a wanderer that made men gather together and deliver their God-given liberty to a man of power, and give him authority over their lives.
Being scattered is a terrible punishment for men who are not under God. A man who is scattered over the face of the earth, who is a wanderer over the face of the earth, is forced to deal alone with all the challenges of life, to stand against a faceless, impersonal universe which he has no assurance is friendly toward him. Or even neutral. He doesn’t have any solid foundation to know what to do to achieve his goals and purposes. In fact, it is hard to even begin to establish goals and purposes in such a universe; after all, in an ocean with no shores and no bottom, how do you decide which way you are supposed to go; and once you have decided, how do you know if you are going in the right direction? It’s a terrible ordeal, and this is why God included the curse of scattering in His curses against Israel, if they rebelled against Him (Deut. 28:65). It was not just that they would be scattered, but they would be also wanderers, because, in the next verse, “Among those nations you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot.”
Pagans in the ancient world understood this concept very well, and they dreaded it more than anything else. In the ancient Greek cities, one accused of a capital crime was given a choice: to either commit suicide or be exiled, that is, scattered away from his home to become a wanderer. It is surprising how many chose suicide; apparently, Cain’s complaint, “My punishment is too great to bear!”, was the complaint of many others of his spiritual descendants. And the same complaint can be seen in the motive of the builders of the Tower of Babel: “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” This was their motive to gather together in one collective, under the same ruler, and build a tower that would cement their belonging to a collective. Notice, the purpose of the tower was to make a name, that is, one single name – which means one single purpose – for the collective, not many individual names and purposes for all the individual members of that congregation.
The motive was fear of being scattered. Once man abandons God, he abandons all solid ground. There is no purpose, no individual meaning of life, no direction in life – for the simple reason that purpose, meaning, direction are impossible in such a world without God. In that ocean without solid ground – whether bottom or shores – the only apparent solution is to establish a relative center of gravity, and just attach oneself to it. That center of gravity may be a collective of people, but soon enough, even the most democratic collectives degenerate into little kingdoms of a few attractive personalities. Whether in a local community, or a nation, or a tribe, or a church, or anything else, people without God are afraid of being scattered, and in seeking a safe place from being scattered, they appoint celebrities over themselves to serve as a point of gravity and cohesion. Most of the time, of course – as it was with Saul – the celebrities they choose for themselves are just as lost and without purpose under God, but they are skillful enough to make others follow them and serve them. Political and churchian celebrities have their power only because there are people willing to grant it to them; and the reason these people are willing to grant other people power over them is because they are afraid of being scattered. Yes, even those who otherwise profess the name of Christ and go to church; in fact, especially those who profess Christ and go to church – because the majority of those who go to church are just as lost and without purpose as any average unbeliever out there, if not even more.
Worth mentioning here is the fact that while for the covenant-breakers being scattered was an enormous curse, a “punishment too great to bear,” it was not a threat to the people of God. In fact, if anything, being scattered while under God’s Covenant was God’s way of expanding His kingdom. The history of God’s people is filled with numerous examples of people who were wanderers, some into the most desolate places of the world, forced to face dangers and challenges alone, while refusing to join collectives of iniquity and idolatry. Hebrews 11:38 speaks of these men of whom the world was not worthy, and the whole chapter names quite a few of them. The father of all who believe, Abraham, left the well-organized collective of his home town and embarked on a journey through the wilderness which tested both his faith and his ability to deal with challenges, many of them much greater than what an average man would be facing at the time. His grandson, Jacob, had to go through the same ordeal, and Jacob’s most beloved son, Joseph, was “scattered” by the betrayal of his own brothers – and yet, later Joseph declared that this “scattering” was God acting for the good of His people. Moses was “scattered” too, having to deal with hardship and challenges alone, and later, the nation of Israel left the civilized world of Egypt for the wilderness. Once in the Promised Land, Israel was supposed to stay “scattered” and not ask for human kings and rulers, but remain a free, decentralized society of independent individuals and families. More than that, in fact, as I argue in my article, “Christian Culture vs. Clan Culture,” the Law was designed so as to force the Israelite families to eventually look for opportunities out of the land, settle foreign lands and effectively conquer them. Three characteristics of the Law make this obvious: First, it is the Jubilee regulations which demand that the land within Canaan could not be sold between families. It had to remain within the same family as from the beginning; it could only be leased out for a period of up to 49 years. Second, the inheritance laws which demanded that all the sons get equal shares of the estate, with the oldest son getting a double share. And third, the promise that if obedient to God, Israel will have an explosive demographic growth, that is, many sons per family. The effect of all these three would be that centuries down the road, every Israelite son would inherit land the size of a handkerchief, and will only be able to lease it out but not sell it. This would force many Israelites to seek opportunities either in the cities or outside of Israel – similar to Joseph, the husband of Mary, who preferred to launch a carpentry business in Galilee rather than stay on the land of his family in Bethlehem. Thus, the mandate to scatter was embedded in the Law. Israel had to look to expand, and the expansion was supposed to be by individual families who will settle other lands.
The same mandate we see in the NT church. The task of evangelism requires that Christians scatter over the face of the earth. The same scattering which was dreadful to Cain and to the builder of the Tower of Babel, the same scattering that was only implied but not commanded in the commandments in the Law specific to national Israel, this same scattering is now an explicit mandate to the people of God. In fact, if anything, the Church is supposed to be built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, and “apostles” literally means “sent out.” The Book of Acts – which means the acts of the apostles – contains very little of what the apostles did in the church of Jerusalem, which was the largest church at the time, of thousands of people. The book is mainly concerned with the Christians who were “scattered” outside Jerusalem. And in fact, the very church in Jerusalem was meant to be scattered in the final account, and Jesus prophesied it in Matt. 24:16. Another promise, that of the events in the last days of history in the parable in Matt. 24:31 and Mark 13:27, speaks of His angels gathering the elect “from the four winds,” a Greek phrase which means that His elect must have been dispersed all over the face of the earth. To the woman at the well in John 3 Jesus declared that in His New Covenant, visible worship will no longer be centered around a geographical place or a congregational or denominational gathering. (As a side note, this concept is embedded in the Westminster Confession where the invisible church is described as “gathered,” while the visible church is described as “scattered,” or throughout the world. This is completely the opposite to today’s ideology in many Presbyterian churches, where the invisible church is seen as scattered, while the visible must be in official visible gatherings. Another example that the modern so-called “Presbyterians” have no clue whatsoever of what their own professed confession teaches.)
We see the same concept of scattering confirmed even in the events in the church in the last century or so. While current events can’t be used to build a theological concept around them, they can still be evidence for theological concepts found in Scripture. (Otherwise, history would have no meaning.) That the American church is in decline is obvious to all, and everyone talks about it, even those who have styled themselves as teachers of that church and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars for that task. (Why do we pay them, if they can’t teach the church well enough to prevent the decline, I ask?) At the same time, we all know that churches in Asia and Africa and Latin America are vibrant and live and growing. But that’s exactly what we should expect: American Christians are afraid of being scattered and prefer to cluster in “congregations” where they are comfortable and have no need to face the challenges of the world alone with God. Whereas the nature of the cultures on other continents forces the Christians there to scatter, and the Biblical principle is that in history, scattering produces growth for the people of God. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, of this discrepancy, but we should be aware of the covenantal reasons behind it, and act accordingly.
Being scattered, therefore, is not a curse but a blessing to covenant-keepers. Thus, among the people of God, the fear of being scattered should not exist. The people of God should gladly desire to be scattered, or sent out, so that the Kingdom expands. This means that among Christians – those who are truly obedient to Christ, at any rate – there should be no incentive nor desire to be placed under the power of other men, whether civil rulers or churchian celebrities. True Christians do not settle in any kind of Babel, whether political or ecclesiastical, do not put themselves under any kind of Nimrod, whether political or ecclesiastical, and do not build any tower reaching up to heaven, whether political or ecclesiastical. Throughout the last 20 centuries, therefore, Christians have always been the main troublemakers for all kinds of human powers. Why? Because they can’t be scared sufficiently to voluntarily place themselves under human rulers. (And forced subjugation never works with them anyway.) A mighty man or group of men of power – civil or ecclesiastical – has no tools in their arsenal to make a loyal subject of a true Christian; he will always have only Christ as his head, and will have no fear to compel him otherwise. Being scattered, or forced to deal with the challenges of life alone, against the world (contra mundum) is not a scary prospect for him; he will gladly accept it.
Until, of course, the second half of the 20th century. American Christianity underwent a serious change in its faithfulness, and therefore also a serious change in its view of power and authority. And the result of this change is the modern celebrity worship in the churches in the US. Losing the vision of God’s expanding kingdom, Christians have acquired, in its stead, fear. Fear of everything. Fear of a world that might ridicule them for their beliefs (and such ridicule is called persecution, imagine that). Fear of becoming culturally and politically unpopular. Fear of being personally perceived by the enemies of God in the society as mean and unloving. But most of all, fear of having to deal with the challenges of the modern culture alone, with God, without any visible help from any earthly source, be it economic, or political, or relational. In short, they have become fearful of being scattered. The irony is that this happened in the same nation which, for the last 300 years, has had a history replete with millions of examples of individual families who were not only not afraid of being scattered, but willingly took up the task of leaving their extended families and conquering the wilderness. The heirs of several generations of individuals and families who were willing to brave the harshest of the circumstances alone, in order to exercise their Christian liberty under God, have become fearful of losing their privileged status of being a majority, and have retreated to their collectivist ghettos, where they hope to be shielded from the prevailing culture . . . which they themselves have abandoned to the enemy. And collectivist ghettos – created by that fear of being scattered – are what produces the celebrity cult in our churches today. Let’s subject ourselves under this or that pulpit Nimrod, and let’s build ourselves an ecclesiastical tower and make a name for ourselves, lest we are scattered all over the face of the land and we are forced to deal with God’s enemies in God’s strength alone, and – God forbid – even expand His Kingdom.
Once idolatry, and through idolatry, fear, take dominion over the hearts of men, they can’t be rational or Biblical. They can’t be rational or Biblical even in electing their leaders and celebrities. Returning to Joel’s analysis we mentioned at the beginning, men who have rejected God are not capable of choosing their celebrities – civil or ecclesiastical – in a way that is in agreement with the Biblical qualifications for leaders. Saul, as Joel McDurmon shows in that chapter of his book, had no strong moral character. Despite his impressive stature, he was a coward, and yet, he was full of himself and in love with himself. It should have been clear to those wise leaders of Israel that the man they were electing lacked the courage to be a leader, and was a narcissist who would certainly abuse his power. And yet, they were only looking at his stature, tall above everyone else, and very handsome. Any wise woman would have known better than these fine specimen of male leadership in Israel; most women won’t fall for external handsomeness if there are abundant signs of lack of character. The male leaders did.
(On a side note, that’s why I am very skeptical when I hear today modern Christians whose level of discernment is not very different from those elders of Israel in 1 Samuel 8, insist on “male leadership” and use that concept to assign some subjugated place for women in our society and the churches. Yes, I am all for Biblical manhood and Biblical womanhood, and I am all for covenantal masculinity and femininity, but, puhleeze, don’t babble about “male leadership” until you actually have men who are qualified to be leaders. As of now, the American institutional churches have given no sign whatsoever of having male leaders. Thus, I don’t want to hear that nonsense. Real leaders don’t need to make up ideologies of submission – female or other – in order to be leaders.)
Modern America is just as obsessed with visible perceptions as these elders of Israel. As a friend of mine likes to say, look at baldness and its impact on elections. An estimated 20% or more of American men are bald, and yet, for the last 100 years, we have had only one bald man for president, and bald men are underrepresented among elected officials. Why is that? Is it because bald men are less qualified? Not at all. The truth is, in a nation where visible perception means almost everything, they have to fight an uphill battle against public perception which is entirely dominated by outward looks.
This obsession with outward appearance dictates both how people choose their celebrities, and it also dictates how the celebrities present themselves to become likeable. And in our modern society, perception is more than just outward looks. It is also PR, media presence, acting, visual presentation, etc. It is no coincidence that very few “successful” ministries are not run by media experts and PR stuntmen, who pose for preachers and theologians. It is also no wonder that for most so-called “ministries,” the most pressing necessity at the very beginning is hiring a video guru, or a Hollywood or TV celebrity; after all, the prospective market needs “leaders” who seem attractive, entertaining, appealing to the senses of their listeners rather than serving their souls.
The motive is clear: a PR expert, a media personality, a Hollywood or TV celebrity are proficient at creating a brand name. And creating a brand name is what the collectivist builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to do: “Let us make for ourselves a name” (Gen. 11:4). That’s why in the evangelical world in the US today, most ministries – at least the large ones – are more concerned with building their brand names than with preaching the Word of God. John the Baptist’s ministry principle, “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30) is not an acceptable principle in the modern American celebrity worship culture. To the contrary, building a brand name always involves increasing oneself.
In our modern, complex world, thus, Saul’s handsomeness translates into many more things than just face and stature. It translates into constant professional media presence for the modern Sauls, and into building a name for them through media stunts. Rev. Saul preaching from an elevated pulpit to thousands of listeners. Rev. Saul meeting with the President or with other politicians. Rev. Saul in the jungles of South America; or climbing a glacier in Greenland. Rev. Saul denouncing some easy targets, like the Charismatics, at a conference. Rev. Saul doing useless debates with other Rev. Sauls on worn-out topics of marginal significance. Rev. Saul standing in front of the Mormon temple preaching to Mormons. All these activities are just as safe for Rev. Saul as the original, historical King Saul in his full shining armor on the hill, far far away from Goliath: in modern America, they do not carry any special stigma nor invite any personal persecution. (They pay well, however, in tax-exempt dollars.) All these activities are also useless in terms of equipping the saints; none of them involve training other people to do the work, they are all Rev. Saul creating an impression before his followers; an impression that Rev. Saul is powerful and influential enough to keep them from being scattered. That under his wing, or under the wings of his church, or denomination, or ministry, ordinary Christians who are not as powerful as Rev. Saul would be safe from having to face the challenges of Christian life alone under God, with self-government that is the fruit of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
This is what makes the celebrity cult worship what it is today. And I am not talking about Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn and the TBN types. I am talking about our own celebrity types within the supposedly “Reformed” circles; those who no one is ever allowed to criticize, even when they are clearly preaching false doctrines, and even when nothing of what they do is directed or effective in equipping the saints, but only in building brand names.
Of course, churchian celebrities are to blame for this deception, just as Saul had his own responsibility and guilt to carry. But let’s not forget that the only reason their deception flies is because ordinary Christians, the regular attendees in the churches, have lost their connection to God and therefore are looking for human masters. This is no different than the men who settled in Babel under the power of Nimrod, and no different than the Israelites who wanted to place as human king over themselves. And, it is no different than the trees who wanted to set a king over themselves in Jotham’s parable in Judges 9 – the finest, ever in history, parable about the real nature of man-made authority. When the trees want to set a king over themselves, those who are upright, productive, and service-oriented among them wouldn’t take the job, because that would divert them from serving others. Only a useless and fruitless tree like the bramble would take it. In all the cases, men set as king – or leader, or preacher, or elder, or celebrity – an unworthy man. No amount of democratic procedures, or session meetings, or seminary training, or examinations, or presbytery oversight can fix this problem. The celebrity culture is based on apostasy (“they have rejected Me from being king over them,” 1 Sam. 8:7), and no matter what techniques and procedures that culture may devise to elect the best men for leaders, it will always end up electing the worst men. The manipulators. The narcissists. The swindlers. The tyrants. Etc.
The parable of the trees in Judges 9 gives us also another insight into the celebrity culture and the drive of apostate men to subject themselves to false authorities: Not only are the people motivated by fear, as we saw, but the appointed human leaders understand very well that the motive is fear, and their first act to consolidate that power is to enhance that fear and make it an official policy. From Judges 9:14-15,
Finally all the trees said to the bramble, “You come, reign over us!” The bramble said to the trees, “If in truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”
We should immediately ask the question: What in the world is the bramble thinking? Why does he resort to threats right away? Can’t he see that the other trees are quite self-sufficient without him, and he risks being brought down from his new position of king? Why resort immediately to using fear to manipulate the others into submission?
Because the bramble knows the premise unspoken in the parable, namely, that there is no other motivation for people to place human rulers over themselves but fear. The “bramble” in the parable was Gideon’s son from his concubine, Abimelech. Abimelech used fear-based tactics to convince the people of Shechem: “Is it better for you that the seventy sons of Gideon to rule over you, or that I, your relative, rule over you?” It was a false dilemma, of course. They should have answered, “No one should rule over us.” Gideon was a man of many failures, but it seems he did have at least some righteous understanding of power, for in the previous chapter, when the men of Israel, again driven by fear, asked him, “Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian,” he refused. “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you.” This is what they should have replied to Abimelech: “No man but the Lord shall rule over us.” But Abimelech’s fear-based manipulation worked – because they were all driven by fear anyway. And then, their justification was, “He is our relative.”
Once made a king, the first thing Abimelech did was to show what he would do to even to those relatives whom he perceived as a threat to his power. The men of Shechem were his relatives, but so were the sons of Gideon who were his brothers. Abimelech hired a group of thugs and went and killed all of his brothers save one. In other words, “Now that you have all come under the shadow of the bramble, let me teach you what the bramble can do, even to his fellow trees.” You can read the rest of the story in Judges 9. What is important for us here is that once accepted as a king because of fear, he made sure to immediately reinforce that fear. After all, if fear made him a king, fear would keep him a king. So his first act was to produce more fear in the hearts of those who made him a king.
The celebrity culture in the churches in the US is no different. Once it has gained its followers and worshipers, it creates its own propaganda of fear. True, it can’t use the same physical violence Abimelech used. Churches, after all, are “spiritual” institutions, so the violence has to be spiritual, against the conscience of the individuals. It is the same violence used by the Roman church during the Reformation and in the centuries before the Reformation, namely, that the institutional organization is the same as the Church, and therefore anyone not in subjection to that institutional organization is by default outside the true Church, and therefore must not be saved. The same tactics of fear-mongering and institutional manipulation the Roman church used against the Reformers, are used today by churchmen – and I don’t mean just those of the liberal variety, not at all. Popular, supposedly “conservative” or “Reformed” preachers and churchmen have blown out of proportions one single verse of the Bible, Heb. 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” with the manipulative insinuation that if one is not under the institutional power of those celebrity types, he must be outside the church and therefore not saved. Their fear-based rhetoric and propaganda has nothing to do with God’s Church nor with true submission; we saw it in the last several years in the smear and slander campaign against AHA, where even people of good standing in established churches were declared “haters of the church” only because they have dared criticize elevated churchian celebrities. In planting fear in the hearts of their followers, the celebrity culture is not above slander and lies. And the idolatry of celebrities produces arrogance in their hearts at the same level as the arrogance in Abimelech’s heart, to the point that even recent converts who should be elders in the first place, and have nothing under their belt but Hollywood charisma which drives up their popularity in the modern society, presume to speak as authoritative representatives of the Church who can declare who is part of the church and who isn’t. Just like Abimelech, these celebrities know very well that fear is the main factor that gave them power, and therefore fear must be maintained so that their power can be maintained.
The celebrity culture in the US, however, is not the Church, and it has nothing to do with the Church. It’s not even the institutional church. It may be an institution but it is not a church. It lacks the main characteristic of the true church, namely, equipping the saints to fight the good fight. The evidence is all around us and has been for 100 years. For the last 100 years, since the celebrity culture took over the religious market in the US, Christianity has retreated from every facet of our culture; a society that used to be deeply influenced by Christianity in its very center, has now cast Christianity to its periphery. And that while the celebrity types have been raking in millions and billions of dollars for their alleged “ministries.” Most of these celebrity types even declare that Christianity is not supposed to rule the culture anyway; or that there is no such thing as a Christian culture, or Christian victory in history; that any victory we see will be only in eternity. And even those who speak of some victory, have used it as a rhetoric to collect followers and donors but have left these followers and donors spiritually starved and practically powerless to fight the wars of God’s Kingdom.
Thus, the celebrity worship is not only not the Church, it is antithetical to the church, and it must be destroyed as an enemy of the Kingdom of God. The exodus from it has already started; the institutional churches have been losing numbers. There have been many complaints in the last decade from prominent churchian celebrities that Christians – and especially the younger generation, the millennials – are “leaving the church.” But this is not a bad thing; if anything, it is a movement inspired by the Holy Spirit; and no complaining on the part of celebrity preachers will stop it or reverse it. As I wrote in an article in response to such complaint by Kevin DeYoung, they are not leaving the church, they are taking it with them. These people have not lost their faith; to the contrary, they have matured in their faith to where they can see through the smoke and mirrors of the celebrity worship culture. They have figured out that there is no essence nor purpose in the current institutional system that calls itself “church.” They refuse to serve dumb idols. This exodus needs to be accelerated, however.
It will be accelerated when we realize the main motivation for people to place rulers over themselves, which is also the main prop for the celebrity culture: fear. Fear, specifically, of being “scattered,” of being left alone with God, instead of seeking safety in numbers and power structures. A true Christian is not afraid of being scattered, and not afraid of being alone against the world (contra mundum), even if that world includes the apostate religious power structures that call themselves “churches.” A true Christian knows that it is better to be separated because of the truth instead of united in lies. Thus, a true Christian keeps only Christ as head above him (1 Cor. 11:3), and rejects men who by manipulation try to assert their power over him. His submission is only to true elders, whose only ministry is equipping the saints – which is demonstrated by the fact that they teach self-government and individual purpose, not collectivism. The Reformation was based on the fundamental Biblical idea of self-government expressed in the Doctrine of the Right and Duty of Private Judgment. Even though this doctrine has been affirmed by every single Protestant theologian since Luther, it has been purged from our pulpits today. The reason? The reason is that this doctrine strikes a blow at the very heart of the modern celebrity worship. Once the private individual is given priority in judging all pretended leaders, elders, preachers, ministers, evangelists, pastors, etc., then the authority structure is flipped over to its true position, where men whose only concern is making a name for themselves are at the bottom, and tholes whose only concern is the equipping of the saints are acknowledged to be men of authority. This would be the death of the celebrity culture. And unless we kill that culture, it will kill the church in the US. And our children will inherit a nightmare.
The book I will assign for reading this week is Moscow 1937 by Karl Shlögel. It is an account of the show trials of Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s, where almost all former buddies of Stalin in his rise to power were arrested and accused of crimes against the party and the state. This book is relevant to our topic because among other things, it shows how even when crushed by the injustice of the Communist system, even when it was clear that they would be executed, they were still professing loyalty to that system and even to their main accuser and judge, Stalin. The fear of being scattered, of being left psychologically alone was stronger than the fear of death. Stalin knew it very well, and he played on it to create a massive cult to his own personality, cult that brought people to madness. Consider the fact that the celebrity preachers in the US know it very well, and are playing on it just as Stalin did.
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