Church Culture Life Theology

Bonhoeffer vs the celebrity pastor

To be a celebrity means to be celebrated as a person of fame and influence. And the Church loves to celebrate its most brilliant and exceptional leaders.

But with the plunge of high-profile pastors like Mark Driscoll and Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) this past year, evangelicals have been forced—once again—to face the follies of celebrity culture.

Many cite Driscoll’s leadership errors with the same vitriol that Tchividjian’s critics lampoon him for his past infidelity. As much as it’s important to hold leaders accountable, publicly ridiculing them for their shortcomings and sins might not be addressing the real problem. Albeit, if Driscoll does indeed get convicted for racketeering, public ridicule is appropriate I would think.

The real problem, I believe, is celebrity culture and what it does to the fabric of God’s community. If the errors of the shepherd cause the sheep to scatter, we have to ask, what was holding the flock together in the first place?

Speaking to this situation is the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his classic manifesto on Christian community, Life Together, Bonhoeffer reminds us that God (not one single person) is the creator and sustainer of the Christian community. “God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship,” he says, “because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them.”

As such, Christ has made authority in the Christian community dependent upon faithful service to one another, not on the “brilliant personalities” or “distinguished qualities” of one exceptional leader.

Did you catch that? Faithful service towards one another is what sustains the church.

Bonhoeffer wasn’t impressed by eloquence or charming personalities and neither should we, really. Rooted deeply in Luther’s theology of the cross, Bonhoeffer believed in the life of cruciform discipleship and its ethical applications in a world of evil and suffering.  To suffer with the weak and vulnerable is to be Christ in the world. The cross is what led Bonhoeffer to love people in community

Bonhoeffer is known today—perhaps not as famously as he should be, ironically—for being martyred by the Nazis. From a human perspective, he was a failure. But this failure of a man was faithful to God.

It’s interesting. During his life and immediately following his martyrdom, Bonhoeffer wasn’t known as a celebrity—he wasn’t a person who was celebrated for his fame and influence. Success for him didn’t revolve around New York Times best-selling books or church growth. Actually, he didn’t think in terms of success and failure as we think of it today. Rather, he sought to do God’s will faithfully—and often quietly. And now nearly 70 years after his death, Bonhoeffer is being recognized (or celebrated?) for his faithfulness to God and his contribution to Christian theology.

Bonhoeffer’s work speaks to us today. He speaks to the distorted belief that celebrity pastors, with their instant fame and exceptional qualities, are the ones who create and sustain Christian community. He calls us to seek Christ on the cross, where God is hidden under weakness and suffering solidarity. He calls us to create communities founded on togetherness, faithful service, and the proclamation of the cross.

None of this should be new to us. But we forget in a world obsessed with celebrity culture and the hype of instant fame and influence.

Bonhoeffer reminds us that Christ is not a celebrity. He’s God. God doesn’t need fame; He doesn’t call the Church to fame either. He calls the Church to reveal Him as the “God-man” upon the cross who suffers with the world out of love for His creation.

We can argue over theology and ridicule pastors all we want. But this won’t change the underlying problems of a Church that was meant to be a culture of faithful servants, not a culture that glorifies “godlike” figures of fame and fortune.

Evangelicals often talk about shaping culture. Might I suggest that this first begins by taking a good hard look at what our Church culture is founded upon and comparing that to what Bonhoeffer puts forth in Life Together.

It’s not that God can’t use leaders like Tchividjian and Driscoll. He does and will and they are certainly equipped with gifts to build up the Church. But we must urge them—and others and ourselves—to point their efforts at creating communities that reflect faithful service to one another, not a community that praises the exceptional, the brilliant, and the strong in their midst.

Does the Church need more brilliant personalities like Tullian Tchividjian and Mark Driscoll? I don’t know. What I do know is that it could sure use a few more faithful servants of Jesus like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Celebrity or not, Bonhoeffer models for us what God’s community should strive after. Therefore, I think we might want to listen. If we don’t, we might find that same song on repeat. That song that leads our culture to believe that celebrities have the answer to our problems and that fame is the highest goal in the Church and world.

But of course, we know better. It’s the “least of these”—the weak and powerless—that God calls into His community to be faithful servants of Christ. Now that is something to be celebrated.

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Photo credit: Mark Driscoll/Facebook; @DBonhoeffer/Twitter

 

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

  1. Excellent insight, Josh. The only DB I’ve read (other than a few excerpts here and there) is the classic Discipleship, but I know enough of his overall theology and ecclesiology to know that it resonates deeply with me.

  2. I hold a different opinion.
    If King David’s sins with Uriah and Bathsheba happened today, would we blame his celebrity status for the uproar in the press?
    If Moses striking the rock that he was told instead to speak to occurred today, would the public mockery be an indictment of Moses’s celebrity?
    Same question regarding Judah’s sin with Tamar?
    I believe the Church has the opportunity to forthrightly and confidently assert that we are all wounded healers, and that none of us bases any confidence on our own righteousness. We — including our most visible leaders — continue to fail, sometimes outrageously. This *could* be a witness to the Gospel of grace. But we the church behave in surprise and embarrassment instead. In so doing we deny the very Gospel that we claim to be “defending.”

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