I have previously written about the difference between power and authority in differing spheres of government—self, family, church, and state. I have also written tons about the need for decentralized power—the whole of Restoring America is based upon that idea. As odd as some may find it, these very ideas come to the fore in the modern manifestations of what one editor once called The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. That failure, to be specific, is the cult of the celebrity preacher.
To be fair, this is hardly exclusive to Baptists. There have always been popular preachers with large followings, or at least with large productions that wowed many people. You can go all the way back to Tetzel to get a Roman Catholic example. There were Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Baptist celebrity preachers in the old days, and of course, tons of charismatic and nondenominational ones today. So, this is hardly exclusive to Baptists. It includes all who act like Baptists as well. (Just kidding!) But the problem is far wider today than it was when there was a Knox or a Whitefield.
I was reminded of this problem as I studied a series of lectures from way back in 1988 on Church and Community this weekend. Particularly, it was a lecture on “The Biblical Basis for Decentralization.” I was almost floored to hear the connection made between a culture of top-down control (power) and the rise of celebrity preachers. When I heard this, I knew I was in the presence of a prophet.
Well, maybe not a prophet, but a man who was always far ahead of his time: R. J. Rushdoony.
He began by briefly explaining how the state is limited because of the greatly limited means of taxation in biblical law (I have a slight disagreement with him here, but it is immaterial for the moment), and the church was limited in both scope and the tithe. Thus, he can conclude, “While church and state are both important in the sight of God, neither is permitted to be the top power center. The people are the ones who are to apply the faith.”
He then gets to our point:
What we see in the church today is not godly. The televangelists, in some instances, not in all, epitomize this: the star system.
About 1820, what developed was that great preachers or famous preachers began to dominate the church, and the people became spectators going to listen to a star who was a preacher. And this is what we have today; and the hardworking pastor in those circumstances who is trying to educate the people to become responsible working Christians is not a successful one when the star mentality prevails among the people. Their idea of Christianity is to sit in the pew and let the minister and maybe the church officers do all the application of Christianity.
One of the greatest of Christians, General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote the best program of Christian Reconstruction that I’ve ever read in Darkest England and the Way Out. It’s a book that’s had a powerful influence on me, and what he wrote about in that book was the failure of the churches (and in other works as well). He said the problem with many of our churches today is that when they convert someone they promptly mummify him. So, he has one function, to sit in the pew and listen, and he has only enough life in him to reach for his wallet and he doesn’t do that very well. Well, read General Booth and you’ll see that Reconstruction is not anything that R. J. Rushdoony thought up. It has a long history and it goes back before Booth, although Booth was one of its great formulators.
So, we have this “star system”—not in the galactic sense, but in the celebrity sense. But what’s so bad about it? Rushdoony explains:
Now, when you have the star system, whether it is politics or in the church, you have a power structure, a power system [as opposed to a decentralized system], because you concentrate action and power on a focal point. And you create a spectator people, whether in politics or in the church.
The means of making a mass of people focus on a central personality is also the means of centralizing their command and controlling that people:
In the dictionary of Sociology ‘power’ is defined in these words and I quote: “The ability or authority to dominate men. To coerce and control them, attain their obedience, interfere with their freedom and compel their actions in particular ways.” Notice the words: to dominate, coerce, control, interfere, compel. That’s what power is about, the power such as the Gentiles seek.
Fallen men do seek such power, and they do exercise it to the detriment of the people. Society today is a system of power relationships, and because of the fall, men both seek to gain power, and also to exercise that power, to exalt themselves at the expense of others.
The modern state is seeking a monopoly of power. They seek to gain power in the name of one class or another. And they say, the various groups, if only the lower class could gain power, or the middle classes, or the upper classes, the intellectuals, the scientific elites, or any other group, than the problems of society would be solved, when in fact they are aggravated.
Christians routinely fall for the idea that a great ministry personality and a megachurch ministry is a good thing, destined to be a force for good in society. They are almost always wrong. When a church builds a bigger building due to its large growth instead of planting new churches and ministries as satellites destined to become independent, it is almost universally a bad thing. It means the concentration of power and focus, and the attendant submission and passivity of the people (who may nevertheless be tempted or even trained to think they are active, productive, and robust in faith due to the size of the church of which they are associated).
There is even a hint of hypocrisy latent throughout much of this. Many Christians will see the follies of the latest hipster megapastor, but think their own mega Reformed Baptist church, or megaPCA is actually quite a good thing. No, it rarely is. It means too much power and focus is on one guy, one ministry, or one small group of guys.
Rushdoony brings us back to Scripture:
That’s why the scripture warns us against trust in any class or group instead of the Lord. Psalm 62 tells us: “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them. God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God. Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work.”
Now this is what Scripture says, power belongs only to God. But the quest for power is in the church, in the state, in economics, in education, everywhere. This, our Lord says, is what the Gentiles seek. But ye are to be ministers, servants one of another, members one of another. . . .
The urge for centralization and a monopoly of power is always the same over the centuries. It’s the will to be God. We see this desire in one area after another; we see it in the family and tyrannical husbands who want total control and power over their children. We see it in churches and churchmen who want to replace, with their rules and regulations, the Holy Spirit. We see it in little Caesars in every sphere of life today. And the only check to this drive by fallen man to centralize power, to build a modern tower of Babel, for total power and control, the only checks are first: a truly Biblical faith, one which applies the law word of God to every area of life and thought. And second, the recognition that God’s word speaks primarily to the person, not to the institution. God’s Spirit works in and through man primarily. And God does not identify himself with an office or an institution; he does not say “anyone who holds this office is my voice.”
There have been theologians who held that.
The king in Israel [however] was required to know God’s law word; he was anointed to remind him of his prophetic duty to speak for God by God’s word and Spirit. And even the most blessed of kings, the man used by the Spirit, was still rebuked for a sin by a prophet of God—David rebuked by Nathan.
Where the Holy Spirit works, we have two factors at work. First, we have a radical decentralization of authority. The Holy Spirit will work through the humblest believer, because the believer who acts, as Gods Spirit and opens his life to the Lord, does not need to wait on institutions to serve God. He begins in his own life to govern himself and then to meet needs and responsibilities in terms of the Word of God.
Second, at the same time, where the Spirit works, there we have true community and unity. And the purpose of organized action is not a tower of Babel-like power structure, but to do the will of God: Lo, I come and a volume is written of me to do thy will, oh God. David tells us that believing God means hearing him and doing his will.
Rushdoony goes on to outline examples of doing God’s will and not just hearing it. This was spoken in 1988. The Institutes of Biblical Law was published fifteen years earlier. The call to Christian Reconstruction has been in your lap for over a generation now. It time to get out of the pews.
It’s not just time for many Christians—especially young ones and young couples—to make a change, it is long past time. There are many who have been sitting and listening to their favorite celebrity preacher for years—maybe decades—and have not moved much beyond where they were when they first heard him. This is proof of utter failure to grow. You should be moving far beyond the introductory-level Gospel messages and spirituality messages most of these guys preach. It’s time you got involved in some ministry and started making a difference.