Last month, yet another prominent Christian leader stood back from his role due to allegations relating to safeguarding and abuse.

We await the outcome of ongoing investigations, but we all know that this is just the latest in a long series of similar scandals. Bill HybelsJean VanierJohn SmythJonathan Fletcher, John Howard Yoder, Peter Ball, Mark Driscoll and, perhaps most notoriously of all, Ravi Zacharias are the ones who immediately come to mind. The crimes of these men may vary in detail, but they have this in common: in their wake is a clutch of betrayed and damaged people struggling to rebuild their lives and their faith. And the damage these abusers do extends well beyond the people they directly harmed and their families. It includes their churches and the organisations that they ran, and has deep and ongoing ramifications for people far beyond these networks.

It is time for us to ditch the celebrity Christian leader.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed, like a pinch of yeast, working quietly, subversively, but unstoppably. So why are we so drawn to numbers, power, and success? We follow the one of whom it is said ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him’. So why are we so charmed by charisma?

The universal human temptations of money, sex and power are experienced particularly acutely by those in Christian leadership. But for those who exercise that leadership on a large platform, those temptations are intensely magnified. I do not say this to excuse these spectacular falls from grace, but as a warning. People who are constantly surrounded by those who admire and agree with them soon end up believing their own publicity. People who get their own way all the time will often begin to extend the boundaries of what they demand. Power corrupts – perhaps one of the reasons why Jesus so emphatically refused it in the various manifestations that the tempter offered.

The ancient church in Corinth was one that sought high-status pastors. They were desperate to separate themselves into celebrity factions. Instead Paul models a leadership which suffers for his people; refuses a fat fee (also here); relativises his own ministry (see here, here, and here); has no interest in human commendation; shames himself in their status-seeking eyes by listing his sufferings (see here and here – in fact, he considers that it is these very sufferings which fit him for service); and celebrates human weakness because of the way it allows God space to work (see here, here, and here).

In addition to the entrapments of power and status which all celebrities share, the Christian celebrity leader has an additional means of manipulation – their spiritual authority. The one who interprets scripture to others can wield its power over them. The one who stands in the pulpit has a significant role in shaping what their congregation believes to be right or wrong. The one who pronounces divine forgiveness of sins may appear to have the power to withhold that forgiveness. This is not to say that teaching, preaching or speaking the good news of forgiveness are bad things, of course, but simply to point out that the power they inherently carry can be used abusively.

Ezekiel 34 is a poorly-known chapter which speaks vigorously into this situation. Through the prophet, God condemns the religious leaders of the nation for their negligence and abuse.

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered.

God responds with the promise that he himself will shepherd his people – a promise which, of course, is explicitly fulfilled in Jesus.

And then, in a changed metaphor, God through the prophet condemns the sheep that abuse other sheep.

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? … You shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away.

Those who use their elevated office to harm and abuse the people who should be under their protection are like brute animals, but without their excuse.

Do I sound angry? Oh, I am. I’m slow-burning incandescent at the way that God’s people are being hurt, time and again, by those charged to love and serve them. But what should make abusive leaders quake in their boots are these words:

Woe to you… hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matt 23:15)

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matt 18:6)

Let’s stop facilitating these abusers with our cult of celebrity.

If the issues discussed in this article affect you directly, then please take steps to get the help that you need. In the UK, Thirtyone: Eight is an independent Christian safeguarding organisation which runs a helpline where you can make a disclosure or seek other related help.

Helen Paynter is the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence and a Baptist minister based in the Bristol Baptist College, UK

Photos by Thibault Dandré and Josh Sorenson

It is time to ditch the celebrity Christian.
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