Text of Pastor Ray’s message on January 26
We live in a culture obsessed with celebrity. Most news broadcasts include as much celebrity gossip as “real” local, national and global news. It is not surprising that celebrity culture has seeped into the ways that we think about church and church leadership. You don’t have hang out with Christians very long until you learn about celebrity pastors–the ones who serve megachurches, write best-selling books, have their own television shows and look like movie stars. Celebrity pastors don’t necessarily like their celebrity status. In fact, most are probably uncomfortable with it. That doesn’t change the reality that people have elevated them and used their name to establish their own personal spiritual credentials. “I follow (fill int he blank)” isn’t uncommon–especially in this era of blogs and Facebook and podcasts.
However, pastoral celebrities are nothing new. In every era of the church, there have been popular leaders who have inspired followers. Revivalism produced Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody and Charles Finney. The First Great Awakening produced Jonathon Edwards, George Whitfield and John Wesley. The Reformation produced John Calvin and Martin Luther. Go back even further and you’ll meet celebrity Simeon Stylites–an ascetic who became so popular that he ended up living for 47 years on top of a 9 foot column in part to avoid the crowds who came to hear his wisdom. Even emperors of the Holy Roman Empire came to visit Simeon at his pillar. So it is not surprising that pastoral popularity is first issue that Paul addressed in his letter to the church at Corinth.
“I follow Paul,” some said. Paul was the founding pastor of the church after all. “I follow Cephas (aka: Peter),” said others. Peter was the leader of the apostles after all and he was given the keys to the kingdom and he preached the first sermon on Pentecost that resulted in 2000 conversions. “I follow Apollos,” said others. Apollos was the most eloquent of speakers and confounded the opposition with his wisdom. He had an impressive grasp of the Scriptures and he had been pastor a Corinth for a period of time. You might be thinking, “So the people in Corinth had their favorite pastors. We all have preferences for styles and personalities. What’s the problem?”
The problem is not that people preferred one leader/speaker over another. The problem lies in an attitude of arrogance. Beneath the identification of favorite spiritual leader was a belief that they had a deeper spirituality than the others. In essence, each one is saying, “Because I follow so and so, I am more spiritual than you are.” Spiritual pride leads to divisions. The focus has shifted from the mission of the church that we accomplish together to the evaluating one another’s spirituality. Even those who say, “I follow Christ” are falling into the same spiritual pride–pretending they are above everyone else. By identifying themselves with a leader, they fail to see themselves as “members of one another in the body of Christ.” An “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude has destroyed their fellowship. Paul, rightly points out that such “divisions” are antithetical to their claim of being spiritual. By emphasizing allegiance to a leader and determining their fellowship along those lines, they are demonstrating their spiritual immaturity—not their godly wisdom.
Instead of this “personality factionalism” what is Paul’s desire? I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Unity is Paul’s call. This does not mean uniformity that we will all have the same opinion about every subject. Even in a small group, people have a variety of opinions about things. Paul is not advocating for drone mentality—that does nothing to advance our understanding of God, Christ and the mission of the church. Disagreement can be actually help us grow in our understanding of God–if we’re in honest dialogue with one another. Paul is advocating a higher focus than personality and celebrity culture and a majoring in the majors—in particular the good news of the kingdom expressed in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we cannot accomplish the mission of God when we are intent on lording our deeper spirituality over those around us.
What is true within the local cells of the body of Christ is also true in the larger context of the church. The global church is divided by denominationalism, theology, polity. Baptists don’t play with Pentecostals, Evangelicals don’t play with Mainlines. Fundamentalists don’t play with Roman Catholics. We’ve divided ourselves up–in essence saying, “I follow (fill in the blank).” And in our refusal to speak to one another, let alone work together, we have weakened the Church’s ability to be a witness of the Kingdom.
It may not be possible to eliminate all the walls that separate us, but it is possible to knock some doorways through them so that we can listen to one another, learn from one another, and work together on issues that are of great importance to all of us. Kimball Avenue Church has learned this first hand. Our participation in the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance (made up of Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, Catholics and others) has strengthened us. We’ve learned about God’s heart, gotten different perspectives on Scripture and addressed Kingdom issues in our community that demand a larger voice than just one church. And in the process, we’ve acknowledged our unity as followers of Christ. We are indeed one in the Spirit. In the essential of the person and work of Christ we are in agreement. In the non-essentials, we give liberty. In all things, we uphold charity.
Has your church affiliation ever gotten in the way of the work of the Kingdom of God? If so, how?
When have you felt prideful on the basis of who you follow or your church affiliation? How did your attitude affect your relationships with people who were different from you?
How “ecumenical” are you personally? What about your church? How can you promote “ecumenism” among your church peers?