Celebrity and credibility

In exposing and critiquing the shallow culture of Western celebrity that too easily infiltrates the church of Jesus Christ, we must be careful not to allow that to become an equally crass dismissiveness of legitimately-earned reputation. Empty pomposity and unfounded adulation deserves to be lampooned. However, that can too easily become a pyrrhically satirical spirit in which almost any kind of authority, however legitimate, is mocked and decried. This necessary distinction has been brought home in recent days of travel. (And, it should be pointed out, before the recent resurgence of concern over Mark Driscoll, which seems nevertheless to prove an illustrative case. This post was sketched out several weeks ago.) The context was a conference at which the organisers were, it seemed to me, slightly disappointed with the turnout by way of comparison with past years. There were, they suggested, a number of reasons as to occasion and circumstance why that might have been. They graciously refrained from making what I thought was the obvious connection with the relatively low numbers, which was that they had invited me to preach. A little prompting brought the allowance that this was a possibility, but there was still a little disappointment that people who were willing to make significant investments to attend in previous years had not shown the same level of commitment in this year. My response was that, while recognising the hope that, under normal circumstances, a faithful church member will show commitment to his or her faithful church and its faithful pastor, regardless of who else turns up in town, a conference is a different environment. In such an environment, it is reasonable that men of worth, gift and character proven over time may and even should prove a more significant and legitimate draw than a relative unknown. This need not be a matter of celebrity drawing a crowd but of credibility providing a platform.

There are shooting stars in the professing church, men who erupt on to the scene, and streak across the sky in a blaze of glory. But their brightness is passing and their trajectory uncertain. For a while they are lauded, but there is no necessary track record of a valid life and productive labour. The man is measured often in terms of mere numbers, with people, sermons and books being counted rather than weighed. The assessment is largely quantitative rather than qualitative. As the lights begin to flash and the entourage begins to grow, others jump on the bandwagon, and before long Me Ministries Intergalactic has taken off, and those enamoured with and even seemingly hypnotised by an extravagant personality or a crafted reputation afford the big cheese whatever he demands, even if there is no real foundation for it. The result is a pyramid balanced on its point rather than its base, a great top-heavy structure teetering precariously on a man who, despite what may be an array of impressive reports (often generated by himself), is essentially unproven. There is celebrity but no credibility.

By contrast, one of the delightful things I sometimes see is churches of varying sizes, but often smaller rather than larger, where the elders of the church clearly have, in great measure, the hearts of the people, usually because the people clearly have the hearts of their pastors. Here is credibility at its most fundamental level, the proven character of the man of God validating his call and his ministry, winning the affections and the ears of the people he serves and the people that he is trying to reach. That credibility is obtained first of all, of course, in the domestic sphere, as the man demonstrates his fitness to shepherd the flock of Christ by his capacity to shepherd his wife and any children granted to his care.

Then there is the development of that credibility as the man, by dint of gifts granted and opportunities improved, obtains a measure of wider credibility in the local sphere. There he begins to be recognised as a man with a measure of wisdom, both given and cultivated, a believer with a growing experience of life as a man of God in a fallen world. Perhaps others start to look to him for counsel and leadership in a particular arena, geographically or ministerially. He is not a man who always has to have the last word but others start to look to him to give it. He chooses and weighs his words, and speaks, and others find them to be choice and to carry weight. He works faithfully, intensively and inventively, and his capacity for leadership becomes more apparent. There is a measure of giftedness in or fruit from his labours that again commends him in the eyes of those around him. His development of Christian character keeps pace with these opportunities, and he brings a savour of Christ with him as he goes, bringing credit to his Master wherever he is.

Perhaps further opportunities are provided. There may be chances to invest on a slightly larger scale. Other churches may seek his input. If they are available, he may be given scope to preach at fraternals and conferences at a relatively low level. If he writes, his articles and reviews or posts may provoke invitations to develop some theme into book form. Perhaps his intellectual gifts open doors to teach. Again, that may develop further until he is given a sphere for service not afforded to other men starting out or showing different or less God-given capacity.

A few short-term, sudden or stunning achievements, reported or even real, are no substitute for long-term labours of proven worth. Few men of lasting substance have been mere flashes. Someone like Spurgeon is sometimes held up as a man who erupts on to the scene and creates a monumental stir, a model for the progress of celebrity. But Spurgeon earned his spurs as a Sunday School teacher, as a travelling preacher sent out under a measure of authority, as the hardworking pastor of a small village church, and - many forget - as the man who not only took but held his station, risking his own life repeatedly, when a cholera epidemic swept through London during the early years of his ministry there. To be sure, he was unusually gifted, and his curve of prominence unusually steep (and the two may be connected), but he was also a proven commodity, with credibility earned over time and in the furnace of pastoral labour.

Or - more scripturally - think of Timothy, and consider his track record. Here is a man who manifested a genuine faith which dwelt first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, and competent judges were persuaded was in him also (2Tim 1:5). From childhood he had known the Scriptures which were able to make him wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ, the same Bible which was and for a long time had been thoroughly equipping him for every good work (2Tim 3:14-17). That is not to say that a godly upbringing guarantees or is necessary for such maturity, but it can offer something of a head start. That this was true in Timothy's case is suggested by the fact that when Paul found him at Derbe or Lystra, he finds a disciple "well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium" (Acts 16:2). Timothy subsequently receives instructions that when he helps churches to identify and appoint elders, he is to focus on the credibility gained from a man's good character, gifts taking a quite significant back seat in the saints' estimation and assessment of the man who would serve in their midst:
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1Tim 3:1-7)
Toward the end we have the insistence of some kind of proven track record of this godliness of life, that the man be no novice, and - in addition - have a good testimony among the unbelievers. Timothy is no celebrity, but he enjoys a credibility grounded in his home church environment, developed and demonstrated in often thankless service, and obtained from good association with and definite commendation from other credible men.

Similar principles are at work in other portions of God's word. Apollos, already an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, shows himself humble and teachable in submitting to the private instruction of Aquila and Priscilla. Then, "when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him" (Acts 18:27). Here again is a man whose gifts and graces, both on appropriate display, wins a commendation from a church of Christ, and its weight is felt by other wise believers. Or think again of Paul's readiness to commit responsibility to "whomever you approve by your letters," that he might "bear your gift to Jerusalem" (1Cor 16:3), possibly the same fellow as the unnamed "brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches," "who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift" (2Cor 8:18-19). Even in the matter of financial responsibility, a man of proven worth and character among the saints, a credible man, is sought. Similarly, Paul's faux-boasting is the boasting of worth tried and proven in the furnace of affliction and not the parading of prominent public giftedness without any spiritual substance. When he deals with the Thessalonians he emphasises that these men and women knew "what kind of men we were among you for your sake" (1Thes 1:5), going on to describe in detail the kind of character that had been credibly demonstrated among them, the firm ground upon which he stood to plead with and instruct the church (1Thes 2:1-12).

Those of us who set out to root out from the church the weeds of celebrity should be careful lest we also pull up the plant of credibility. Indeed, the very platform from which we set out to speak to the issue is - or should be - the platform of credibility. Destroy that, and we destroy something good and necessary in the church, something appointed and designed by God to obtain and maintain a hearing for the gospel. When we roam the interweb, for example, it ought not to be the self-appointed airbags that we heed, but the men and women whose praise is in one, some or all of the true churches of Jesus Christ, earned over time by the steady accumulation of genuine credit and spiritual authority in some particular and well-established sphere of labour (and not simply a chain of mutual celebrity endorsements).

So, there will be men who attract a larger crowd. Put their picture on the website and their name on the flyers and people will come to hear them. The questions should be, "Why and on what basis?" Is it for reasons of quantity alone, or of quality also and even primarily? It is appropriate, even right, that men who have earned a good reputation by serving the Lord consistently and faithfully over years in some particular place should be more readily and eagerly heard than the latest tyro on the scene, even giving legitimate weight to distinctive and potentially unusual measures of gift and ability and the appearance of blessing upon a man's labours. Is a man to be heard on account of the temporary glamour of the celebrity spotlight and a platform built on the crumbling sand of shallow human adulation without any good reason? Or should it be the lasting glow of credibility of character and proven godliness that wins the ear, the platform established on the solid ground of faithful service, identified and owned by recognised and recognisable judges with demonstrable credibility and spiritual authority of their own? The former comes quickly but collapses rapidly. The latter will almost by definition not be pursued, may take years to build, if it comes at all, but will more likely ensure that the platform will not be swallowed up by scandal or error, potentially causing collateral damage on a grand scale. Let celebrity wither and die, by all means, but let credibility have its proper and God-given place.