The Cult Following of the Omnicompetent Pastor

Pastors are not the Christ.

I’m about to make a rather embarrassing confession. It was the early 1990s, and I was driving through the Central Valley CA, listening to the radio. As I skipped through the channels, I stopped immediately upon hearing a voice like I had never heard before. The voice had an eerie sound to it: deep, rough, unpolished, obvious of an older man. In any other scenario I would have continued to scan the channels, but the power of this voice captivated me. The man spoke with authority like I had never heard before. He commanded the audience with power and there was no tolerance for disagreement when callers questioned him. I rarely heard someone speak with this kind of persuasion and certainty. I wasn’t in the best place in my life. I was searching for answers at the time and wasn’t quite sure about, well, anything. But as caller after caller engaged this man, I was drawn to him by the way he commanded people’s lives.

I heard numerous radio preachers over the years, soft, pandering, with nauseating attempts to make people laugh. This was not that. He captivated me. And, he was “Reformed.” Everything he said, in his confident, forceful tone, persuaded me that he was correct and the callers were wrong who challenged him. For the next years I would continue to listen to Family Radio, and the voice of Harold Camping.

Soon after, Camping began to predict the exact date of Christ’s second coming, and it was at this point, having enough discernment of the biblical teaching on the issue, that I could no longer hear him. But I continued to listen with awe that so many, in the face of direct false teaching, could be persuaded by Camping to sell their homes and possessions, fully adhering to his predictions of the end of the world. There was serious devastation when "Camping" failed them.

Since that time, I have sought to think through the issue of authority in preaching. I believe in authoritative preaching, as a herald of God’s Word. But there is something to be learned of the psychology of authoritative preaching and its effects on people that bring me to write this present piece. There is something to be considered and understood of the potential dangers of a popular voice and its effects on people who are searching for truth. A cult-like following is not simply created by the “isms” of this present age, but in something more subtle, that has the power to actually make void the very thing that is often presented.

Master and Commander

This article is not intended to judge the intentions of a well-known pastor and his ministry. That would be a rather arrogant fool’s errand. Nor is it, in what follows, an attempt to judge a man’s ministry as entirely false. There are many failings in the long course of a pastor’s ministry that will happen. One of the most remarkable truths of Christian ministry is that God uses a crooked stick to strike a straight blow. And I have no doubt that many people were genuinely converted even under a man like Harold Camping. I know some of them. But my goal is to think through something that is rarely considered when it comes to the way a pastor commands truth in people’s lives.

We live in an age of much uncertainty. Confusion and division are the hallmarks of our time. What stands out among the masses is a figure who arises with any amount of charisma, who is given a platform, and is able, with great clarity and effectiveness, to speak to people in ways that run against conventional approaches and in whom people believe they are receiving absolute protection from all error. It’s a great opportunity for pastors that few seem to recognize is before them, especially among the masses of pastoral panderers and compromisers in Christian ministry.

This approach will achieve its own kind of success. People want, more than any other period I’ve witnessed, to have someone speak with absolute authority and certainty to the issues of our day. The attempt to speak clearly and authoritatively to the spiritual and moral issues of our day is here not in question. But there is a danger that lurks in the effects on people's lives. I know of, for example, a local church who, during Covid, aimed their entire ministry to attack the government. The church grew by leaps and bounds. And to question the effects of the approach will earn the strongest charges of compromise and weakness in our climate.

My purpose here is to have us think a bit about, psychologically, what is happening to people in a kind of ministry that presents itself robustly, authoritatively, in the way that truth and ideas are commanded in people’s lives. I was reminded this week of this issue when John MacArthur said by way of authoritative command, that medical conditions such as PTSD and OCD do not exist. Pastors are not omnicompetent on all issues, especially medical ones, but what interests me is the authoritative manner in which he spoke on these issues.

It’s important to say that (since I know this will be misconstrued in our social media world), I am not condemning John MacArthur’s entire ministry. I have benefited greatly from many of his fine expositions of Scripture. And I trust many people have been converted to Christ under his ministry. However, almost every issue that John MacArthur speaks about comes across as equally ultimate, whether it’s the rapture or medical issues; but it’s the absoluteness of the speech that interests me.

MacArthur has adopted an approach to ministry for many years that has the effect of submitting people to his instruction, that shuts out the possibility of questioning what is said. How many times has MacArthur spoken a Greek a word or phrase that no one has the ability to understand or question without a knowledge of the original language. I remember hearing a lecture by Allan Strange when he explicitly called this approach of MacArthur a bullying technique that seeks to submit and subdue people. Anticipating a conclusion already, are we as pastors really to working to submit people to our teaching?

Like Camping, it’s that voice of power, confidence, and certainty that attracts people. There is nothing wrong in itself with this kind of speech. But people want a figure who they believe will speak to them absolutely, and who is without error. Ironically, this is the very issue that Rome attempted to solve in their criticism of the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Rome offered a man who could speak to us who is preserved from all error. The doctrine of papal infallibility attempted to solve the problem of people’s quest for determining absolute truth. Rome teaches that Christ passed his mediatorial work to the church of Rome in an unbroken chain of apostolic succession, since Peter, to whoever is the present Pope, and this is the only way the church is divinely protected from error and can know absolute truth.

Protestants, well, protested this. They said Christ's mediation is something that he always lives to accomplish for his church through his own voice. Pastors are only instruments in a representative manner, but Christ himself retains the power of mediation as the head of the church through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent to keep us in all truth.

Yet, this same Roman problem has overtaken conservative, evangelical and Reformed churches in our day as we look to a man, a pope like figure, who we believe directly mediates truth to us in the place of Christ. The temptation to find a visible, bodily mediator, a “pope," is a big one in our church celebrity climate. Pastors who are given huge platforms face the temptation to believe that a “special” door has been given to them to speak in ways that others cannot or are not divinely given the opportunity to do so.

MacArthur has specifically spoken this way for years, as if God has given him, due to great opportunity, an open door to speak to the masses in this kind of authority on all issues. Similarly, I remember John Piper who upon leaving the pastoral ministry stated that he would now lead people into the wider scope of “Desiring God” as a megaphone for millions. The same is also happening with other figures presently who speak with great platforms with the same kind of authority to the fears of Christians in our current cultural chaos.

The “why” question of this approach is beyond the scope of this article. But there is an eschatological dimension to the approach that is worth mentioning. Many of these present figures believe, whether dispensational or postmillennial, that their voice is leading the way to bring in the fullness of their eschatological vision for the kingdom of God on this earth. It’s a powerful temptation that all pastors face when they believe God is “specially” using them to the bring in God’s kingdom. Behind this can be a kind of narcissism and weakness that is exposed in a pastor’s desire for approbation and attention—something every pastor faces, including me.

Few seem to realize that the great platforms that men are given in this life can often do more damage than good, even when much good has been accomplished. And this concern is chiefly one that cautions against the cult-like phenomenon that is occurring among the platformed pastor. If the thing being achieved is that, like Camping, no one can question a view because we have come to believe the man speaking such things, by his authority, has to be correct, the result is that we are following a man and not Christ. And if there is anything the history of the church has taught us it’s that this problem has led masses away from the true head of the church.

Looking Unto Jesus

The mediatorial function of Christ's prophetical office is not passed to the pastor in this way, it is a work of the Holy Spirit who is given to keep the elect in all truth. Pastors are only representatives of the true mediator. Christ remains the head of his church as he governs her by his Word and Spirit. The pulpit should certainly be a place of speaking authoritatively. Yet, preaching that is done in the demonstration of the Spirit and power is preaching that seeks to lead people to Christ’s feet, to hear his voice. It should have this aim and effect.

Something has gone terribly wrong when the people have come to view the pastor himself as the mediator between God and man, even if this would never be explicitly stated. This is precisely why the pulpit itself is to be a place of great self-denial. Paul’s preaching was most effective because of his humility in communicating that he was the chief of sinners. A pastor, especially any current celebrity pastor, is not the Christ. It’s remarkable that this needs to be said, but it does. Pastors who represent Christ and speak as Vox Dei (voice of God) are to have the aim of leading people to the one who does speak authoritatively to them by the intercessory work of the Spirit through the Word. Pastors are authoritative heralds of a message that is not their own. They should exhibit their "expertise" in preaching the law and the gospel with the goal of leading people to repentance and the forgiveness of sins, into the arms of the only mediator between God and man.

What should be evident in a pastor’s ministry is that his goal is to bring people to Christ and not himself. Pastors will come and go, they will die and be buried, but the Word of the living Christ continues forever. It is Jesus’ voice that the sheep must hear, and it is his voice that they must follow.

The pastor’s responsibility is not to submit people to his own voice, but to the authoritative voice of Christ who speaks mercifully to his sheep with an everlasting gospel. Christ Jesus is our only mediator and savior. That voice of Christ is not intended to control the sheep through the pastor’s own peculiar voice, but to create willing servants in the day of his power who are set free in his sacrificial love. Pastors must decrease and Christ must increase, as bruised reeds are brought to him, who purchased them--for himself.

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