By Bob Hiller –
Do you remember the old Nike commercials where Charles Barkley announced: “I am not a role model…I am not paid to be a role model…I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court”? I remember that commercial resonating a great deal as it came in the wake of the news that Magic Johnson was HIV positive. Johnson was a hero of mine, and as a young Christian kid, I had this naïve view of the world that successful athletes were good Christians who lead morally exemplary lives. I was in the sixth grade and went into mourning when the announcement came out. I was burned, not just because he was no longer going to play basketball, but because of my hero’s promiscuous sexual habits. My hero had let me down.
A few years later, my parents took us to Spring Training in Arizona and I got to see some of the world’s best baseball players up close and personal. I was walking out of a bathroom when I bumped into my baseball hero, Barry Bonds. He was walking with a man I assume was his agent. I had a ball and a pen and asked him if he would sign it. He looked at me and smirked, saying, “I don’t do that, kid.” This was a player whose entire career I had studied up to this point. I had all his cards. I had gone toe to toe with friends arguing his place in baseball’s list of greats. I was a Bonds apologist, and he treated me like a pest. My hero had let me down. (I confess, after this, his steroid accusations gave me a sense of satisfaction…)
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson when it came to looking up to celebrities. But alas, that sort of thing never wore off for me. So, when I left seminary, there was a large number of celebrity preachers writing engaging books and preaching captivating sermons. I began to follow them loyally. I consumed all their work and even modeled my preaching after them. One particularly, err, masculine preacher would call his parishioners names for their sinful activities. I remember one Sunday calling men who like porn perverts from the pulpit, “If you are looking at that stuff, you are just being a pervert.” I’m sure no one heard anything else that Sunday. But these celebrity preachers were finding success with that sort of thing. They were almost heroic to me.
And it wasn’t just the heroism of masculine preaching that captivated me. It was evangelical musicians and other preachers who were singing of Christ crucified and preaching Law and Gospel in engaging ways that got me fired up. It was so thrilling to see people making an impact on the larger evangelical world with sermons and songs heavily influenced by really solid Pauline theology. Strong personalities, engaging content, full-bore Law and Gospel preaching, I was smitten.
But in the past few years, all my preaching “heroes,” these evangelical celebrity preachers, have discredited their ministries in one way or another. And, as pathetic as it is to admit, as I’ve witnessed each of the collapses, I’ve experience the same let down as I did when Johnson announced his retirement and Bonds smirked at me. My heroes had let me down.
Now, this is not a blog where I am going to pile on those men for their sins and try to shame them. This is a confession of my own sins. I had fallen into the trap of putting my confidence in men. I had treated pastors like celebrities. In my mind, I had placed them on a pedestal they had never wanted and even preached against. Yet I looked at them as something they weren’t ever to be as pastors: mere role models. I forgot a lesson I should have learned from Johnson and Bonds: these men, like all heroes, are sinners. Sinners, just like me.
The problem with viewing a preacher like a celebrity is that when a celebrity fails, we love to attack them for letting us down. In our TMZ culture, we derive some disgusting joy out of shaming those we used to exalt. They let us down, and to prove we aren’t pathetic enough to be emotionally impacted by this person we don’t even know, we mock and lash out at them. It makes us feel, in some twisted way, that we are morally superior. Or, what is worse, is when theological social media trolls start playing the “I told you so” game. It’s incredible the pathetic depths we can sink to.
But, with these famous preachers, it should be different. These men, despite their shameful failings and their very public stupidity, are still our brothers in Christ. My hopes should never have been in their moral successes, but rather, in the forgiving blood shed by our Savior. These are not celebrities to shame, not famous athletes to loath, but brothers to love, sinners to forgive, and brothers to pray for. The truly sick thing in the church is those who deem it their responsibility to shame these fallen preachers. Fame has no place in the pulpit, but neither does TMZ belong inside the doors of the church.
I pray we have no more celebrity preachers. Instead, we need men who will keep themselves out of the spotlight, avoid trying to be heroes, and just deliver Jesus in all of His sin-killing, life-giving love. Our heroes are all sinners. They will all let us down. Shame on us for expecting more. But it is there, in the “down,” where Jesus graciously raises up fallen heroes and all their knuckleheaded followers. Get over your heroes. They’ll let you down. Only Jesus can raise us up.