Cults of personality

Anthony Sacramone reflects on the Harold Camping non-rapture phenomenon, including some warnings about how Christians often get caught up in a cult of personality:

You might be saying to yourself, “Sure, a buncha fundy, dispensationalist cranks with clever marketing skills. Tough luck on their ignorant, desperate disciples.” But ask yourself something: If your pastor, preacher, teacher, elder, priest were to walk into an open manhole tomorrow, only to be replaced by some less-winsome personality, would you leave your church? If so, leave now.

Better yet: if your pastor, preacher, teacher, elder, priest were to be led out in handcuffs tomorrow, or discovered to have run off to Acapulco with the 16-year-old daughter of the youth minister, would you consider leaving the Church, full stop? If so, leave now.

Evangelical churches seem to be particularly susceptible to superstar preachers, because of the emphasis on preaching. We want to hear a new, fresh take on the old wooden Cross. We need some spiritual Red Bull to keep our enthusiasm up, but too often we wind up with just the bull. . . .

So the next time you hear that your guy (or, in some cases, gal) will not be leading worship on a particular Sunday, ask yourself if your heart sinks a little, and whether you even reconsider showing up for services until he/she makes his/her return. If so, ask yourself why — and in whom you have been putting your faith. May 21 may not have been the end, but of the making of many self-styled prophets there is definitely no end.

via Promises, Promises » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    “…of the making of many self-styled prophets there is definitely no end.”

    Isn’t it remarkable how false prophets fulfill their vocation in unintended ways. Their words are not in step with scripture, but their actions always are. Fascinating. Much like after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the leaders went to Caiaphas complaining about Jesus’ expanding popularity and how it would court Roman scrutiny. Caiaphas replied that they were dopes – all they needed to do was kill him and the people would be saved. He was fulfilling his role as High Priest in the fullest possible way – and entirely unintended. Seeing, they do not see, indeed!

  • Pete

    “…of the making of many self-styled prophets there is definitely no end.”

    Isn’t it remarkable how false prophets fulfill their vocation in unintended ways. Their words are not in step with scripture, but their actions always are. Fascinating. Much like after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the leaders went to Caiaphas complaining about Jesus’ expanding popularity and how it would court Roman scrutiny. Caiaphas replied that they were dopes – all they needed to do was kill him and the people would be saved. He was fulfilling his role as High Priest in the fullest possible way – and entirely unintended. Seeing, they do not see, indeed!

  • WebMonk

    I have something of the opposite problem, I guess. I attend a Sunday evening service where the regular pastor preaches well and the service is good. However, I find it a special treat when he doesn’t preach and the youth pastor preaches. Reverse cult of personality? :-D

    More seriously, I’ve been extremely blessed in the churches which I have been able to join wherever I’ve lived. Maybe it’s merely my own personal experiences forming my perceptions, but I have always viewed the ‘cult of personality’ as a relatively rare thing – something that gets a lot of coverage in the press, but not truly reflecting the normal experience of the large majority of Christians.

    And then there’s also the unavoidable ‘cult of personality’ that will grow up any time there is a strong leader. (I wouldn’t call it that, but some might.) A strong leader tends to inspire people into the vision which he is promoting, and if the leader leaves for some reason, then that inspiration is not renewed and supported which tends to have the followers drop away. It’s not necessarily because people were following the leader personally, but because they were attracted to the vision which the leader was so ably able to promote.

    For example, I’ve seen Mars Hill in Seattle, have the ‘cult of personality’ charge aimed at it, but I think it’s situation is more of the strong vision and leadership which started things going so strongly. I’m sure there is at least some chunk of the attendees which follow Mark personally, but I suspect that is a minority.*

    (* I don’t know anything about Mars Hill other than what I’ve read in articles, and some personal experiences of friends.)

  • WebMonk

    I have something of the opposite problem, I guess. I attend a Sunday evening service where the regular pastor preaches well and the service is good. However, I find it a special treat when he doesn’t preach and the youth pastor preaches. Reverse cult of personality? :-D

    More seriously, I’ve been extremely blessed in the churches which I have been able to join wherever I’ve lived. Maybe it’s merely my own personal experiences forming my perceptions, but I have always viewed the ‘cult of personality’ as a relatively rare thing – something that gets a lot of coverage in the press, but not truly reflecting the normal experience of the large majority of Christians.

    And then there’s also the unavoidable ‘cult of personality’ that will grow up any time there is a strong leader. (I wouldn’t call it that, but some might.) A strong leader tends to inspire people into the vision which he is promoting, and if the leader leaves for some reason, then that inspiration is not renewed and supported which tends to have the followers drop away. It’s not necessarily because people were following the leader personally, but because they were attracted to the vision which the leader was so ably able to promote.

    For example, I’ve seen Mars Hill in Seattle, have the ‘cult of personality’ charge aimed at it, but I think it’s situation is more of the strong vision and leadership which started things going so strongly. I’m sure there is at least some chunk of the attendees which follow Mark personally, but I suspect that is a minority.*

    (* I don’t know anything about Mars Hill other than what I’ve read in articles, and some personal experiences of friends.)

  • Orianna Laun

    Even the Rev. Jim Jones was once a celebrated religious leader of a mainline Christian denomination.
    More people need to be like the Bereans and research the Word of God to see if what the strong personality is saying corresponds. It’s easy to get taken in by a person who exudes authority.

  • Orianna Laun

    Even the Rev. Jim Jones was once a celebrated religious leader of a mainline Christian denomination.
    More people need to be like the Bereans and research the Word of God to see if what the strong personality is saying corresponds. It’s easy to get taken in by a person who exudes authority.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “So the next time you hear that your guy (or, in some cases, gal) ”

    Are there really any “superstar preachers” that are women? I don’t pay attention, but I haven’t heard of any. Would people consider Beth Moore like that? Of course she is always/never “there” because she sells study packages.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “So the next time you hear that your guy (or, in some cases, gal) ”

    Are there really any “superstar preachers” that are women? I don’t pay attention, but I haven’t heard of any. Would people consider Beth Moore like that? Of course she is always/never “there” because she sells study packages.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well if you don’t have the sacraments as a reason for going to church as well as the sermon. It seems to me all you have left is the sermon. So then you are sort of left with the only real reason to go to church is to hear a guy preach, or pick up on chicks that came to hear a guy preach….
    If the preaching is good, there will inevitably be a cult of personality that forms around the man. But when that house of cards fails, there is nothing left to fall back on, the whole purpose of the church is lost. Until you get another person in to preach as well or better as the last guy. But then the sermons stop getting judged by content so much as delivery.
    Of Course, this isn’t to say that preachers in those churches with the sacraments shouldn’t be concerned about preaching well. And Cults of personality do grow up in those churches too. But where the job has been done to bring the gospel, there is something more to fall back on, that makes church worthwhile.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well if you don’t have the sacraments as a reason for going to church as well as the sermon. It seems to me all you have left is the sermon. So then you are sort of left with the only real reason to go to church is to hear a guy preach, or pick up on chicks that came to hear a guy preach….
    If the preaching is good, there will inevitably be a cult of personality that forms around the man. But when that house of cards fails, there is nothing left to fall back on, the whole purpose of the church is lost. Until you get another person in to preach as well or better as the last guy. But then the sermons stop getting judged by content so much as delivery.
    Of Course, this isn’t to say that preachers in those churches with the sacraments shouldn’t be concerned about preaching well. And Cults of personality do grow up in those churches too. But where the job has been done to bring the gospel, there is something more to fall back on, that makes church worthwhile.

  • Booklover

    A good, and funny, blog entry. I like the Red Bull quote. Here is another good section from Sacramone’s entry:

    “But liturgical churches, those that emphasis [sic] not just our faith but also the Faith, the creeds, and the fact that the church is the bride of Christ and not a franchise, offer greater, albeit not infallible, safeguards against the cult of personality, not to mention the Armageddon clock-watching. (Perhaps the liturgical calendar, with its reassuring rhythms, provides its own kind of antidote.)”

    “franchise”–sad choice of words, but ringing with truth

  • Booklover

    A good, and funny, blog entry. I like the Red Bull quote. Here is another good section from Sacramone’s entry:

    “But liturgical churches, those that emphasis [sic] not just our faith but also the Faith, the creeds, and the fact that the church is the bride of Christ and not a franchise, offer greater, albeit not infallible, safeguards against the cult of personality, not to mention the Armageddon clock-watching. (Perhaps the liturgical calendar, with its reassuring rhythms, provides its own kind of antidote.)”

    “franchise”–sad choice of words, but ringing with truth

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    So, what do you call churches that mainly serve as social clubs/social service organizations? They aren’t cult of personality, but they are more focused on the here and now than on eternity.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    So, what do you call churches that mainly serve as social clubs/social service organizations? They aren’t cult of personality, but they are more focused on the here and now than on eternity.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Evangelical churches seem to be particularly susceptible to superstar preachers, because of the emphasis on preaching. We want to hear a new, fresh take on the old wooden Cross. We need some spiritual Red Bull to keep our enthusiasm up, but too often we wind up with just the bull. . .
    Best paragraph in the article. And I agree; it’s about hype and entertainment more often than not instead of Biblical exposition and preaching.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Evangelical churches seem to be particularly susceptible to superstar preachers, because of the emphasis on preaching. We want to hear a new, fresh take on the old wooden Cross. We need some spiritual Red Bull to keep our enthusiasm up, but too often we wind up with just the bull. . .
    Best paragraph in the article. And I agree; it’s about hype and entertainment more often than not instead of Biblical exposition and preaching.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    We Lutherans are definitely not immune to this. We may have a liturgy, but we still have fairly lengthy sermons, too, and whom of us hasn’t compared the preaching abilities of our pastors? Even if I’m the only one who’ll admit it, I’ll go ahead and say that more than once, when reading Veith’s excerpts from a Pastor Douthwaite sermon, I’ve found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s better than what I heard last Sunday.” As Veith notes, Douthwaite is good at rhetoric.

    Even among Lutherans — even among very Confessional Lutherans — you hear talk about the superstar churches with the superstar pastors. The ones who expertly weave Law and Gospel into every sermon, with the Gospel predominating. The ones who use illustrations and introductions that are just right — engaging, but not too distracting. The ones who know their Scriptures and their Confessions very well.

    Not that it’s all about just preaching. Sometimes we prefer pastors because of what they do (or don’t do) to our liturgy! Sometimes we don’t like the way they do Communion. Or how they chant (or the fact that they don’t). How they lead meetings (or if they don’t). And so on. There seems no end to the personal preferences that give our sinful natures a foothold.

    And here’s the hard part: isn’t it sometimes okay for us to have preferences, and for those to inform what congregation we should join? I don’t see my own preferences as being important enough to necessitate my leaving my current congregation — if anything, I see them as calls for me to step up and get involved, to learn why things are done that way, and to see if or whether I can help them to be the way I would prefer.

    But if your own (selfish) preferences preclude you from hearing God’s Word in church, isn’t there a point where that means you should go somewhere else? Not because you’re right, but because you’re sinful? But is that just playing into a type of personality cult?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    We Lutherans are definitely not immune to this. We may have a liturgy, but we still have fairly lengthy sermons, too, and whom of us hasn’t compared the preaching abilities of our pastors? Even if I’m the only one who’ll admit it, I’ll go ahead and say that more than once, when reading Veith’s excerpts from a Pastor Douthwaite sermon, I’ve found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s better than what I heard last Sunday.” As Veith notes, Douthwaite is good at rhetoric.

    Even among Lutherans — even among very Confessional Lutherans — you hear talk about the superstar churches with the superstar pastors. The ones who expertly weave Law and Gospel into every sermon, with the Gospel predominating. The ones who use illustrations and introductions that are just right — engaging, but not too distracting. The ones who know their Scriptures and their Confessions very well.

    Not that it’s all about just preaching. Sometimes we prefer pastors because of what they do (or don’t do) to our liturgy! Sometimes we don’t like the way they do Communion. Or how they chant (or the fact that they don’t). How they lead meetings (or if they don’t). And so on. There seems no end to the personal preferences that give our sinful natures a foothold.

    And here’s the hard part: isn’t it sometimes okay for us to have preferences, and for those to inform what congregation we should join? I don’t see my own preferences as being important enough to necessitate my leaving my current congregation — if anything, I see them as calls for me to step up and get involved, to learn why things are done that way, and to see if or whether I can help them to be the way I would prefer.

    But if your own (selfish) preferences preclude you from hearing God’s Word in church, isn’t there a point where that means you should go somewhere else? Not because you’re right, but because you’re sinful? But is that just playing into a type of personality cult?

  • Louis

    I must say, having grown up in a “church” that had not a little celebrity cultism going, I am pretty sensitive to this kind of thing. he sect had a the main leader, who was the real big attraction, but also a whole pantheon of lesser deities, oops, celebrities, to be oohed and aahed over. For the record, the “celebrity” in question was this man: http://www.kwasizabantu.com/images/erlo_stegen_and_his_family.htm
    and:
    http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=E01JFNNU : FYI – the latter he speaks in Zulu, with English subtitles.

  • Louis

    I must say, having grown up in a “church” that had not a little celebrity cultism going, I am pretty sensitive to this kind of thing. he sect had a the main leader, who was the real big attraction, but also a whole pantheon of lesser deities, oops, celebrities, to be oohed and aahed over. For the record, the “celebrity” in question was this man: http://www.kwasizabantu.com/images/erlo_stegen_and_his_family.htm
    and:
    http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=E01JFNNU : FYI – the latter he speaks in Zulu, with English subtitles.

  • Stephen

    Louis

    What was the give away for you? Maybe you have shared this before, but what was it that turned it around for you away from this stuff? Can you pinpoint something, or was it a process of some sort? I’m interested in what kinds of disctinctions people immersed in this kind of thing discover that gets them to move away from it. Was it your personality? Did you never quite buy it, or what?

  • Stephen

    Louis

    What was the give away for you? Maybe you have shared this before, but what was it that turned it around for you away from this stuff? Can you pinpoint something, or was it a process of some sort? I’m interested in what kinds of disctinctions people immersed in this kind of thing discover that gets them to move away from it. Was it your personality? Did you never quite buy it, or what?

  • Stephen

    None of that is meant to discount the work of the Holy Spirit. I guess it could sound that way. And I don’t mean to pry. I think of Lutherans as such lousy evangelists sometimes. I wonder if there was something that was helpful.

  • Stephen

    None of that is meant to discount the work of the Holy Spirit. I guess it could sound that way. And I don’t mean to pry. I think of Lutherans as such lousy evangelists sometimes. I wonder if there was something that was helpful.

  • Louis

    Stephen – to sum up, the process went something like this: Through reading some material from outside the sect (Reformed, no less), I began to first question some of the legalism (which was more than an IFB church) – and the implication of Justification by Faith struck me hard.

    Then other questionable practices, that did not exactly square up with Scripture – remember, there was no real Confession of faith, just pastoral “guidance”. The final step, that made us do the jump, was when I started to question their (very strange) practice of baptism, which was not Credobaptism, but a more strange beast still: You had to show your commitment by your “perfect” life, before they would baptise you. Then I began to ask what baptism means, which lead me to question – what about my children?? Then we left.

    Way down the line it was again my questioning the nature of the Eucharist which led me to the doctrine of the Real Presence, and eventually, with other factors, into the Lutheran Church.

    To some up then – Justification by faith, followed by the Sacraments – these are the things that showed me the errors of the sect.

    My folks had been members since I was about 8/9, and I was fully, unquestionably immersed in it. But I was baptised as a baby in a Dutch Reformed Church, for which I am thankful. Also, a lot of the questioning started when I went to University, away from home, and started thinking for myseld. But to leave the sect is much easier than to get all of the sect to leave you. Sometimes it is very difficult not to be bitter about the things I was robbed of, so-to-speak, even though we left 12 years ago….

    That is a very brief summation.

  • Louis

    Stephen – to sum up, the process went something like this: Through reading some material from outside the sect (Reformed, no less), I began to first question some of the legalism (which was more than an IFB church) – and the implication of Justification by Faith struck me hard.

    Then other questionable practices, that did not exactly square up with Scripture – remember, there was no real Confession of faith, just pastoral “guidance”. The final step, that made us do the jump, was when I started to question their (very strange) practice of baptism, which was not Credobaptism, but a more strange beast still: You had to show your commitment by your “perfect” life, before they would baptise you. Then I began to ask what baptism means, which lead me to question – what about my children?? Then we left.

    Way down the line it was again my questioning the nature of the Eucharist which led me to the doctrine of the Real Presence, and eventually, with other factors, into the Lutheran Church.

    To some up then – Justification by faith, followed by the Sacraments – these are the things that showed me the errors of the sect.

    My folks had been members since I was about 8/9, and I was fully, unquestionably immersed in it. But I was baptised as a baby in a Dutch Reformed Church, for which I am thankful. Also, a lot of the questioning started when I went to University, away from home, and started thinking for myseld. But to leave the sect is much easier than to get all of the sect to leave you. Sometimes it is very difficult not to be bitter about the things I was robbed of, so-to-speak, even though we left 12 years ago….

    That is a very brief summation.

  • Louis

    As to the Holy Spirit – would He lead people in to a morass of legalism, extra-biblical revelation, and Christless preaching? Most of the preaching was pulpit-pounding yelling diatribes against sin and for repentance, but the repentance involved confession to a “councillor” (who did not hold the confession confidential), and striving for legalistic perfection. They loved scary stories of folks who did not repenty and then died a horrible death, with the flames of hell around their deathbeds, and such like. As a child, it scared me silly, and I feared dying with unconcious, unconfessed sin. This fear ruled my life completely as a child. Is that the Holy Spirit??

  • Louis

    As to the Holy Spirit – would He lead people in to a morass of legalism, extra-biblical revelation, and Christless preaching? Most of the preaching was pulpit-pounding yelling diatribes against sin and for repentance, but the repentance involved confession to a “councillor” (who did not hold the confession confidential), and striving for legalistic perfection. They loved scary stories of folks who did not repenty and then died a horrible death, with the flames of hell around their deathbeds, and such like. As a child, it scared me silly, and I feared dying with unconcious, unconfessed sin. This fear ruled my life completely as a child. Is that the Holy Spirit??

  • Stephen

    Louis

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. It hits home alittle as I have some family members sort of close to thing slike this, perhaps nota s severe but close. And no, it’s does not sound like the Spirit of the living God at all. What I meant was that it isn’t so much about what we do our decide or “figure out” as what God brings us out of, or shows us, etc. He come and find shis sheep. I truly believe that. Looks like he did that for you and I’m glad for you and ayour family.

    Having said that, Ialso don’t think that process is necessarily some spooky, mysitical thing. That is why I asked about the particulars. I do think it happens through people, his church, and his Word present there among those who believe and trust in him. We could easily “spiritualize” so many things about our lives that bring us to where we are, but then the truth of the matter is that God is the Lord of all creation, and he is working for our good in, with and under everything. I guess we can even say, by faith, that he was working in, with, and under that scarey preacher-man cult leader too. He will have us any way in his own way. I thinkit is an important thing to consider when we look at the is Camping phenomenon. Jesus is still Lord. Nothing H. Camping has done or said takes away from that in any way, shape or form.

    Thanks again. It was very helpful.

  • Stephen

    Louis

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. It hits home alittle as I have some family members sort of close to thing slike this, perhaps nota s severe but close. And no, it’s does not sound like the Spirit of the living God at all. What I meant was that it isn’t so much about what we do our decide or “figure out” as what God brings us out of, or shows us, etc. He come and find shis sheep. I truly believe that. Looks like he did that for you and I’m glad for you and ayour family.

    Having said that, Ialso don’t think that process is necessarily some spooky, mysitical thing. That is why I asked about the particulars. I do think it happens through people, his church, and his Word present there among those who believe and trust in him. We could easily “spiritualize” so many things about our lives that bring us to where we are, but then the truth of the matter is that God is the Lord of all creation, and he is working for our good in, with and under everything. I guess we can even say, by faith, that he was working in, with, and under that scarey preacher-man cult leader too. He will have us any way in his own way. I thinkit is an important thing to consider when we look at the is Camping phenomenon. Jesus is still Lord. Nothing H. Camping has done or said takes away from that in any way, shape or form.

    Thanks again. It was very helpful.

  • Stephen

    Man! My typos. I’ve got to slow down!

  • Stephen

    Man! My typos. I’ve got to slow down!

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “This fear ruled my life completely as a child. Is that the Holy Spirit??”

    Nah, just a guilty conscience. :-)

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “This fear ruled my life completely as a child. Is that the Holy Spirit??”

    Nah, just a guilty conscience. :-)

  • Louis

    sg – I turned into such a “goodie – 2 – shoes” that its almost galling. I tried to go above and beyond all the rules. I never rebelled – not even in my mind. But of course the fear wouldn’t abate. Not at all.

    Their theology was so severe that the merest thought could immediately land you in the Lake of Fire, unless you happned to get hold of a councillor before their vengeful god got to you.

  • Louis

    sg – I turned into such a “goodie – 2 – shoes” that its almost galling. I tried to go above and beyond all the rules. I never rebelled – not even in my mind. But of course the fear wouldn’t abate. Not at all.

    Their theology was so severe that the merest thought could immediately land you in the Lake of Fire, unless you happned to get hold of a councillor before their vengeful god got to you.

  • Stephen

    I can see the legalism ruling in big and small ways in people’s lives. I certainly have my own guilty reflexes, but it sort of takes all the fun out of everything in certain people in my family. It is as if they can’t laugh because there is so much fear. You can see it in their faces. And I can be a cut up, so I have taken years to build up trust and get to a point where they will trust me enough an dthe look of terror breaks into a chuckle. There is still so little room for outward expression and thus, no need to ever express forgiveness. No one ever crosses the line. It runs people ragged.

  • Stephen

    I can see the legalism ruling in big and small ways in people’s lives. I certainly have my own guilty reflexes, but it sort of takes all the fun out of everything in certain people in my family. It is as if they can’t laugh because there is so much fear. You can see it in their faces. And I can be a cut up, so I have taken years to build up trust and get to a point where they will trust me enough an dthe look of terror breaks into a chuckle. There is still so little room for outward expression and thus, no need to ever express forgiveness. No one ever crosses the line. It runs people ragged.

  • Louis

    Stephen @ 19 – “It runs people ragged.” Literally. I’m sure I lost about 5 years of my ideal lifespan due to the immense stress of it all. Maybe even more, as the pattern of stress is much harder to break than the mental assertion to false doctrine.

  • Louis

    Stephen @ 19 – “It runs people ragged.” Literally. I’m sure I lost about 5 years of my ideal lifespan due to the immense stress of it all. Maybe even more, as the pattern of stress is much harder to break than the mental assertion to false doctrine.


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