Beware the temptation of the celebrity pastor

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Beware the temptation of the celebrity pastor

September 26, 2023 -

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders walks onto the field before an NCAA football game against Oregon, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders walks onto the field before an NCAA football game against Oregon, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders walks onto the field before an NCAA football game against Oregon, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Deion Sanders has become what one columnist called “the non-stop talk of the sporting world.”

His athletic career was historic: he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame as a defensive back and played 641 games in major league baseball. Here’s one example: on September 5, 1989, he went three-for-five with two doubles, a home run, and four RBI for the New York Yankees. Five days later, he returned a punt for a touchdown for the Atlanta Falcons. He remains the only athlete ever to win a Super Bowl and a World Series.

Then he turned to college coaching, leading the Colorado Buffaloes, winners of just one game last year, to a 3–0 record before they were routed by Oregon last Saturday. In so doing, he has burnished what was already a national “brand” and makes headlines wherever he goes.

J. I. Packer’s wise admonition

Sanders is one example of what Yuval Levin calls the “celebrity CEO” phenomenon. In A Time to Build, he notes that our cultural institutions have historically served to mold the character of their members in line with their mission and values. Their leaders—from government to military to media, education, business, religion, and civic groups—thus sought to serve the institution and its members for the greater good.

However, in recent years, leaders have come to see their institutions as platforms for personal advancement and status. There was a time when few people could name the CEO at IBM or General Motors. Today, everyone knows Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and a legion of other celebrity CEOs.

These leaders would likely respond that they use their celebrity to advance their company’s interests. Coach Sanders, for example, consistently uses his media appearances to elevate his players and endorse their futures as athletes. Nonetheless, it is challenging to serve our interests while serving the interests of those we lead at the same time.

J. I. Packer warned that it is impossible at one and the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus Christ is a great Savior.

“Do you love me more than these?”

The allure of the celebrity CEO became a focus for me last Sunday when my Bible study class studied John 21. Here we find the risen Christ asking Simon Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” (v. 15). Let’s consider two options for identifying the “these” our Lord had in mind, relating each to our pastoral calling.

Some interpreters believe that Jesus was referring to his other disciples, essentially asking Peter, “Do you love me more than these other men love me?” This had been Peter’s earlier claim: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). Jesus warned him in response, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (v. 34). But Peter was undaunted: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (v. 35).

Jesus was right, of course. While all the apostles (except John) abandoned Jesus at the cross, Peter is his only follower known to have denied him three times. Now his Lord was perhaps reminding him of his earlier prideful self-reliance.

A second option is that Jesus pointed to the fish and boats beside them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, asking Peter if he loved his Lord more than he loved his material resources and success. This would have been a considerable choice on the fisherman’s part.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that Peter and his fellow fishermen were “rag-tag peasants,” they were actually successful businessmen. Peter and Andrew, James and John were partners in an enterprise employing “hired servants” (Mark 1:20). As I explain when leading study tours to Capernaum, Peter and his partners exported fish, the main source of protein in their day, across the country. An early tradition identifies John as handling their export office in Jerusalem, which would explain why he was “known to the High Priest” (John 18:15). The remains of Peter’s home in Capernaum are the largest yet discovered in the area and the home closest to the lake.

Consequently, when Peter went fishing after Jesus’ crucifixion (John 21:3), this was more than a recreational activity on his part. At the very least, he was returning to check on and participate in the fishing business he had led for many years. It is possible that he even intended to return to it, forsaking his calling as Jesus’ disciple.

So, perhaps Jesus was asking his lead apostle if he loved his Lord more than his vocational success.

Career ladders for personal advancement

However we take Jesus’ question, its implications for us are clear: Jesus must come first, but we cannot serve him fully in our human capacity.

Like Peter, we will inevitably fail to fulfill our good intentions when faced with temptation and opposition. Alternately, we will be tempted to use our service as a means to our success, making people into numbers, worship services into platforms for preaching, and churches into career ladders we climb in personal advancement.

The answer to both is to love Jesus in the power of his Spirit. The agape love he asked of Peter is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), a result of the Holy Spirit’s empowering and sanctifying work in our lives. Only when we are filled and controlled by him (Ephesians 5:18) can we truly and fully love and serve our Lord as he deserves to be loved and served. Otherwise, we are on the path to discouragement, burnout, and even depression and moral failure.

Now let’s put ourselves in Peter’s position as we hear Jesus’ question, “Do you love me more than these?”

How would you answer him today?

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