Friday, March 14, 2014

In which I attack Celebrity Pastor Carl Trueman

If you know me personally (which most of you don't), you'll know that one of the reasons Carl Trueman is a "celebrity pastor" is because of the high regard in which I hold him. At least my crotchety delight in his writings and musings contributes in some small way to his "celebrity" status. He is a "pastor" for entirely different and unrelated reasons.

Over the past few years, I have especially enjoyed his thoughts and words on the subject of "celebrity pastors." (If you haven't been exposed to Trueman on this subject, stop reading now and visit this, this, this, this, and especially this. Go ahead, I'll wait.)
This is either a picture from T4G or the set-up to an incredibly inside-Evangelical-joke
In general, his point is that we have begun to confuse our categories of "celebrity" and "pastor", which is devastating to the life of the church. And I say Amen to that! If we care more for a pastor we've never met who is a phenomenal speaker with a widespread podcast ministry than we do for the pastor in our local church who faithfully and regularly preaches the Gospel, administers the sacraments, and holds us accountable, but who is perhaps staid (or even dull) in his style and doesn't bother to write down his messages, let alone record them, well then we have lost something critical in our faith. After all, we are to care for and love each other. To be sure, there is a sense in which that is to be a general love for all believers everywhere (and even for the whole world), but it must certainly first and foremost mean we are to love those with whom we fellowship week after week--including our pastors. Just as I should never care more for a Hollywood actress than I do for my own wife, so I should not be more shaped by and submissive to a pastor with no authority over or responsibility to me than to the man with whom I have covenanted "to walk together in brotherly love as becomes members of a Christian church." And go read more Trueman if you want it said better, more thoughtfully, and in an English accent.

But, in the past few days Dr. Trueman has come out with a couple of articles on the subject that I think merit a bit of a response. First, on the Ref21 Blog (a blog well worth following!), Trueman writes:
All of this is old news.  But here is the rub: If there are people out there who still believe that there is such a thing as reformed evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement, if they believe that this movement will play a key role in the future of the church, and if they believe that they are important leaders in this movement, then they need to speak directly, clearly, and firmly to precisely these issues.  You cannot be a leader without leading publicly on the major issues and major personalities of the day who impact your movement and your chosen constituency.    It is not enough to say 'That person is no longer one of us' when you helped to create a culture in which accountability is not transparent and where your public silence encouraged the big names to think they could do what they wanted and not be held publicly to account.
That is where today's problems started.
That accountability question has always been the Achilles' Heel of the evangelical parachurch movement. 
Now, the overall point of the post is still a good one. When celebrity pastors are caught sinning (and they will be caught--we are sinners), far too often their Evangelical followers and their fellow celebrity pastors rush to their defense and turn on the attackers, sometimes in ways that are inexcusably vicious. In part this is because we too are sinners, and in part this is because of the culture that we have created (intentionally or otherwise) in the Evangelical world over the past two decades. Even as we have sought to be more doctrinally pure, we have generally failed to keep up the accompanying involvement in and accountability to the local church. We have tried to replace pastors with distant 'celebrities', and church institutional structures with wide-ranging religious programs and parachurch organizations. (As a response, sadly some Evangelicals are currently overreacting to the emptiness of those programs and organizations by turning to more liturgical--and usually heretical--religions, which is a different but related conversation.)

Again, so far so good. The problem comes in this piece published at First Things. In it, Dr. Trueman says:
And then, finally, there is the silence. The one thing that might have kept the movement together would have been strong, transparent public leadership that openly policed itself and thus advertised its integrity for all to see. Yet the most remarkable thing about the whole sorry saga, from the Jakes business until now, has been the silence of many of the men who present themselves as the leaders of the movement and who were happy at one time to benefit from Mark Driscoll’s reputation and influence. One might interpret this silence as an appropriate refusal to comment directly on the ministry of men who no longer have any formal connection with their own organizations. 
Yet the leaders of the “young, restless, and reformed” have not typically allowed that concern to curtail their comments in the past. Many of them have been outspoken about the teaching of Joel Osteen, for example.
There are two problems here, the first is an implication that is simply wrong. As my wife pointed out when she read it (in the interests of providing appropriate citation) Mark Driscoll is not Joel Osteen. To the best of my knowledge, Mark Driscoll has never publicly declared a false Gospel. Even with the current scandals surrounding his ministry, so far as I know he has never preached in favor of plagiarism or encouraged his congregation to intentionally misuse church funds. In other words, he has yet to teach sin. He may have been caught in a sin (I haven't honestly been following close enough to have much to say publicly on that one way or another), but again that is not and should not be enough to merit public rebuke from strangers. (How he has responded publicly to being caught in sin is of course a different story.)

And that leads to the second problem, which is a bit more difficult and could possibly be fixed by a follow-up piece (which I sincerely hope Dr. Trueman writes). What exactly would Dr. Trueman like well, whoever it is that he thinks should be speaking up, to say? In other words, who should be saying something and what should they be saying?

I suspect Dr. Trueman would point out that the fact that we have to ask such a question shows the true nature of the disaster that has become the Evangelical world. But unless he's being subtly ironic (which is a real possibility: I've never been one for British humour), he seems to be trying to hold accountable a category of people whom he has already declared illegitimate. What's more, I suspect that if one "celebrity pastor" were to verbally and publicly hold another's feet to the fire, Dr. Trueman would (quite rightly) point out that this is just yet another example of celebrity pastors and the Evangelical culture trampling on the rights and responsibilities of the local church without regard for caution or restraint.

What's more, I don't think I can quite go here with Dr. Trueman (from the Ref21 Article): "You cannot be a leader without leading publicly on the major issues and major personalities of the day who impact your movement and your chosen constituency."

Except, to some extent you can and should. In some ways when a celebrity pastor falls into sin it is exactly the right response for another pastor (celebrity or otherwise) to refrain from public criticism. For example, imagine for a minute that rather than celebrity pastors we're dealing with local pastors in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. If one of those pastors is revealed to have been temporarily separated from his wife, what obligations are there on the other pastors? In a small town they may be as close to 'celebrity' as one can get, but assuming vague knowledge of circumstances (even if the fact of temporary separation is known, I'm assuming we don't know why, or how long, or anything else) I suspect that we'd all agree that any kind of response beyond "we're praying for him, his family, and his church" would be inappropriate. In the same way, given the lack of transparency (again, Trueman is quite right to highlight that!) I struggle to think of an appropriate public response to Driscoll or any other celebrity pastor's difficulties by another pastor. If a false Gospel is being preached or open sin is being encouraged then this changes of course, but that has not yet been the case.

Anyway, that's what I've got on the subject. Again, let me reiterate my agreement with Dr. Trueman in general on the subject of celebrity pastors and the problems of the modern Evangelical culture. (And David Wells also.) But in terms of these recent writings, well, I'd like to hear a more specific criticism that makes practical suggestions rather than a general condemnation of people in general.

Which of course is just to say that I'd like to read more from Carl Trueman--and not just because he is a celebrity but because I would like to know what he thinks.

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