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The Second Great Embarrassment

Protestants who treat leaders as mini-popes have fallen far from the Reformation

The Second Great Embarrassment

VISION QUEST: A page from the Elevation Church coloring book. (Matthew Paul Turner)

Karl Marx was a mediocre writer, but his reference to a great philosopher has been quoted and re-quoted: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

If we could laugh off current evangelical scandals, our situation would not be so dim—but we cannot. Historians lecture on the Great Awakening (1730s-1740s) and the Second Great Awakening (1800s), but in our time we could mutter about the Great Embarrassment (1987-1991) and the Second Great Embarrassment (2006-present).

Both embarrassments involve sex and money, in varying combinations. The first one, featuring Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, was a farce, because both had over-the-top personalities. The current one, which began with Ted Haggard, continues with Doug Phillips, and includes others once widely respected, is a tragedy.

The link among all of them comes out clearly in the materials of pastor Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. One smoking gun is a document entitled “Reasons Elevation Church Is the Best Place to Work.” Reason #1: “We serve a Lead Pastor who seeks and hears from God.” Reason #3: “We serve a Lead Pastor we can trust.” Reason #7: “We serve a Lead Pastor who pours into us spiritually and professionally.”

All this is biblically odd. As Virginia pastor Todd Pruitt points out in a Reformation 21 blog post, “The Cult of the Visioneer,” Christians “have a Lord who came not to be served but to serve.” Chapter 20 of Matthew’s Gospel also says those who go first will be last, but Elevation Church reason #16 is,“We serve a Lead Pastor who goes first.”

There’s more. Pruitt discovered an Elevation Church coloring page (designed to decrease child squirming during services) that has at its top “UNITY: We are united under the visionary.” At the bottom the page states, “Elevation Church is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will protect our unity in supporting his vision.”

All that is also biblically odd. We’re only three years short of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which emphasized that we should follow only God’s vision as shown in the Bible. Roman Catholics responded, in essence, We will protect our unity in supporting the vision of the Pope, or perhaps the College of Cardinals. 

The link among perpetrators of both Great Embarrassments is their followers’ tendency to see them as inerrant mini-popes. After a while such adulation goes to men’s heads, leading many to think, I can do anything I want. Some want to be served sexually, some financially, some both.

This idea of protecting unity by supporting the vision of a human being, rather than relying on the vision of God as shown in the Bible, was anathema to Reformation products like the Puritans, who honored pastors but listened to sermons with Bibles on their knees, lest their leaders offer a vision not of God. 

For that matter, Barnabas and Paul would have been horrified by those Elevation Church materials. Chapter 14 of Acts describes how crowds in Lystra treated the two evangelists like gods—“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you.’”

I began this column with Marx, so let me conclude on a personal note. As many WORLD readers know, I was a Communist before God mercifully pulled me out of that in 1973. As I started to read the Bible and think about churches, Roman Catholicism had no appeal for me because I equated its procedures with that of a Communist central committee (which often turned into one man of supposed steel) establishing a “party line” that all members had to toe.

I understand more about Catholicism now but am still firmly in the Protestant camp, and find it odd that evangelical comrades are demanding unity in support of a leader’s vision. Or, maybe not so odd. It’s tragic but unsurprising, given our sinful natures, that the church had fallen to a point 500 years ago where unity could continue only at the expense of truth. It’s tragic today that some Protestants are selling our birthright.



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  •  cimach's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Mini-popes.   What a great word to describe the phenomena taking place in churches which seek after the right personality, rather than a truth-teller for their pulpit.    Let us also add to the modern church's demise, the return to monk-choirs.  Martin Luther and the reformers went to great strains to get rid of the monk-choirs and nun-choirs which did all the singing for worship.  Now we see the return of monk-choirs in the praise band which does the singing for the people, so that the worshiper can sit and be entertained and again be removed from participation in worship.  How sly is Satan.

  •  JesusWorldview's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Thanks Marvin, for pointing out something consistently missed in evangelical circles. Roman Catholics and Protestants share everything in common...sin and imperfect church structures.So much time is wasted comparing the two, when both are products of the same fallen world, even as both strive to follow the same perfect Savior, Jesus.The Catholic church is an easier target because of the singular  brand name - protestant churches fall short one congregation at a time, but no less frequently. Even Marvin Olasky declares his protestant belief as a "camp," emphasizing separation from Catholic Christians.That may please some of your readers, Marvin, but I don't think it pleases our Lord and Savior.You were once wrong about communism, and I suggest that you're wrong about setting up artificial camps as well.Be encouraged as we both share the gospel of Jesus.

  • Daughter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Cornerstone, AMEN. I am considering cancelling my subscription due to these articles; however, there are still a few WORLD writers who are communicating with grace and truth. I would miss their insights. I have taken World off my homepage because it is distressing to be greeted in the morning with brothers in Christ squabbling and slandering. One does not find this spirit of nastiness in the pages of Billy Graham's Decision magazine.

  • Cornerstone's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    I must have read hundreds of Marvin Olasky's articles and
    can't recall a time I've disagreed with Marvin. But
    when I read The Second Great Embarrassment I was stunned by his tortured
    line of reasoning. 

    First, it seems to me that Marvin's analysis leaves out any
    distinction between the concept of mission
    and vision. Calling Elevation's internal staff document biblically odd because
    it claims, "our lead pastor goes first" is an example of Marvin's contorted
    logic. The meaning is pretty obvious: as a leader he'll be the first among the
    staff to do the hard things, the first to sacrifice, etc. Was Marvin here
    taking a page from the liberal media's play book - and forcing the facts to fit
    his preferred narrative?

    Second, he advocates that Christians hearken back to
    the days of the Reformation, but in reality what he seems to desire is more
    akin to the days of Judges: where, "everyone did what was right in his own
    eyes."  This precisely is how many Christians want to operate within the
    church; it actually reflects the "spirit of the times" in America. Yes, even we,
    "don't-I-get-a-vote?," Americans have been exhorted by God's word to: "Obey
    your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as
    those who will have to give an account" (Hebrews 13:17).  


    What if Marvin took his critique of Elevation and their
    approach to protecting the vision of their founder and applied the same flawed
    logic to World Magazine--would that then mean--that Joel Belz is World's
    mini-pope and Marvin its archbishop?

    As a pastor who ministers in the Midwest, I know very little
    about Elevation and their pastor, Steven Furtick. However, I have read and
    heard enough to believe they're faithful to God's Word, Christ's call to
    mission, and an obviously effective vision, which has led to nearly 10,000
    people being baptized in just a few short years.  

    I've been a reader for longer than I can remember. This is
    the first time I've felt dismayed by something written by World. My concern and
    sadness stems from the realization that Marvin's essay actually potentially
    plants seeds of harm and discord within local churches.

  • Daughter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Wow, if this wasn't so sick it would be funny. Moles souring the church's children's coloring pages and documents...and what they find! A Pastor who "seeks and hears from God....we can trust...who pours into us spiritually and professionally." Indeed a smoking gun. World seems to have an obsession with the details of how privately owned churches conduct business. Using one's influence to target and destroy those who do not march in lock step, sounds more like communism to me.

  • Postmodern Redneck
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    My wife and I attended one of Gothard's seminars with some friends years ago.  And we lived through the period of the first "Great Embarrassment" as well.  One of the things that troubled us for years about Gothard's followers was the tendency to idolize a human leader instead of seeking the Holy Spirit.  Too many seem to be a little too lazy to seek the Spirit themselves and then do their own thinking; they will allow someone else to tell them what to think, when they do not know the person well enough to be sure he/she is listening to the Spirit.  And this is not limited to large churches and national ministries.  In the '80s I saw a new church with a lot of potential destroyed by the ego of an older minister who had let his pride get wrapped around his position in the church and would tolerate no disagreement on anything from anybody.  I learned that the front platform of the church can be the most dangerous place in the building for one's own Christian walk.  The Apostle James was not kidding when he warned that not many should try to be teachers.There are some who do manage to stay humble.  The first "megachurch" we attended had started in the early '80s with 35 people and grew to 7000 by the late 90s when we were there.  Nobody had a posh office anywhere in the building--the staff were jammed by twos and threes into whatever small spaces could be found.  The founding pastor kept his office at his home--a folding table in his basement (his primary car was a ten-year-old pickup truck).   And one of the rules for staffers was that anyone caught wearing a Rolex watch would be fired on the spot!  But this was also the only church I have ever seen that made any kind of effort to teach ordinary members to listen and hear the Holy Spirit themselves, in the training for the prayer teams who ministered to people after the services.  The senior pastor and other primary teachers did not pray for anybody in public--this was normally done by church members at all services.  For a while they were running seven services every weekend, so it took a lot of people to handle the prayer ministry. 

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Natehall,I didn't read M Olasky's reference to Marxism as the church adopting that worldview (though much of the church has in the form of Political Correctness) but the concept of toeing the Party Line at the expense of truth for the sake of "unity".  WFergusson,Every organization will have a form of hierarchy and that goes for every congregation or denomination with Elders and Deacons as leaders.  the big difference between the RCC and many evangelical churches is the authority that the leadership commands.  The RCC positions the Pope as absolute ruler to not be questioned.  Within the truer evangelical churches the congregants are taught to be Berean's and question and rebuke false teachings.  That is not to say that much of the church is loaded with sheeple that place their leadership high on the pedestal. 

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    I agree with Mr. Olasky that the evangelical church has turned "succesful" pastors into celebrites, but I don't see this as an embrace of Marxism, but an uncritical embrace of American consumerism.  We don't have humble, Christ-like leaders anymore, we have Pastor/CEOS.  Our churches and organizations no longer function like families and communities of disciples, but corporations complete with a high-powered executive (Pastor), a board of directors (a deacon board) and shareholders (church members).  Pastors are worshiped, not for their holiness and fidelity to Christ, but for the same reason we worship Corporate CEOS; their ability to set vision and to impact the bottom-line.  We often will overlook "flaws" as long as the church's stock value is high; - that is they fill seats, bring in money and pull off building projects.

  • WFerguson
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    When I became a Christian 25 years ago, Protestantism had no appeal for me because I didn't see John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin or Henry VIII as more likely popes than the Pope. But, they all formulated doctrine for their followers even more readily and freely than the Catholic Church. They sat with their Bibles and drew from them the teachings they thought were correct all claiming the affirmation of the Holy Spirit. And, with the possible exception of Henry, one is willing to give them their sincerity. Still ,the model of the mini-pope you write about was founded 500 years ago  and continues today. It may be unfair to say that every evangelical is his own pope, but it's fairly accurate to say that every evangelical church is led by its own pope and college of cardinals, they just aren't called that. Of course, I have both relatives and friends who are evangelicals and I can see their love for Christ and their faith and the good that they do, so please take my comment as one on structure not intent.

  • jclark53
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    The church of my youth taught that there was only one Holy Book; churches that relied on other books were called cults. I believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and organized churches are run by men and will not be perfect. No church should be referring you to anything other than the Bible for answers to your questions about God. 

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Tricia,Curious what your doctrine of the Bible is and how you consider the OT and the NT and whether you apply eisegesis or exegeses to scripture.  Do the red letters have more authority over the black letters?  The patriarchal family is what God has designed and ordained and the first institution He put together with Adam and Eve and their children.  Eph 5:22 -6:4 is just one passage laying out the structure.Jesus did assign roles, responsibilities  and systems of authority for governing the various ordained institutions.  He designed for us the family, church, state, commerce, etc for a moral and orderly society.    The problem that Marvin Olasky points out is the truth of scripture is missing and then institutions such as the church run amok.  This same problem applies to the other institutions such as marriages, state, commerce, etc and the social order eventually self-destructs.    Right doctrine and exegesis are essential before things can be made right.

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Tricia, a few sincere questions:Was it not a role as caretaker for His mother that Jesus assigned to John? Was it not the role of Apostle that Jesus assigned to twelve men?Is there any significance to the fact that Jesus did not appoint any women to be Apostles?If it is possible to take Paul's teachings too far, how do we know when we are doing so?

  • Musumba
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Thank you, thank you Marvin. Pray that all who have been given the stewardship of leadership in Jesus' church will choose to lead as humble servants, following the example of Jesus.

  • Tricia
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    I would suggest a reading of Matthew 23:1-12. I don't think we are to have hierarchy or follow leaders. Jesus said we are all the same before Him. To elevate one over another (see James for a discussion of favoritism: giving the rich the better seat and the poor having to sit on the floor) is wrong too. Read your Bible. Study it carefully. The problem with human systems (and I believe the patriarchy movement is a human system) is they are prone to abuse. The way to prevent abuse is to have as many watching eyes as possible. But when a woman is trapped at home because her husband says she can't go out, then there is no safety net. Follow God. Find a church that seems to be following God the same way you are. Keep your eyes open.Look, I get that men think they are the "head" of the family. But that word in those verses actually means "source" as in life giving source. Back when that was written, it was rare for a woman to be able to support herself without a man for a source. Now, it is possible for a woman to be able to support herself without a father, brother, or husband doing it, and I think we should. It is one way to protect ourselves from abuse. (And having been a victim of abuse, I think it is key.)  Jesus never assigned roles to anyone. He came to serve and became a ransom for many. He washed the disciples feet. He never told someone they couldn't do something because they were male or female. I think we take the things Paul wrote too far. Look what Jesus said and did.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    When I first became a Christian I asked God to send into my life a leader I could follow.  Over the next few years I came across, in the church, some of the most confused and strange beliefs and attitudes.  I ran across super-sized egos and self-serving methods.  It was as if God was telling me follow Me.  "Following" men must be done with one eye warily on the situation and the other eye solidly on the Bible and it's teaching.  

  • Susan Houg
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Could we say that all the great Dissenter movements have arisen in response to this error?

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Bill OnestyDoes the followiing mirror the liberal church you refer to? "The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950, substantially influenced American psychologists and social scientists. The book was premised on one basic idea, that the presence in a society of Christianity, capitalism, and the patriarchal-authoritarian family created a character prone to racial prejudice and German fascism. The Authoritarian Personality became a handbook for a national campaign against any kind of prejudice or discrimination on the theory that if these evils were not eradicated, another Holocaust might occur on the American continent. This campaign, in turn, provided a basis for Political Correctness.  Critical Theory incorporated sub-theories which were intended to chip away at specific elements of the existing culture, including "matriarchal theory," "androgyny theory," "personality theory," "authority theory," "family theory," "sexuality theory," "racial theory," "legal theory," and "literary theory." Put into practice, these theories were to be used to overthrow the prevailing social order and usher in social revolution.  To achieve this, the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School recognized that traditional beliefs and the existing social structure would have to be destroyed and then replaced. The patriarchal social structure would be replaced with matriarchy; the belief that men and women are different and properly have different roles would be replaced with androgyny; and the belief that heterosexuality is normal would be replaced with the belief that homosexuality is equally "normal.""The Historical Roots of "Political Correctness" by Raymond V. Raehn.

  • Lizzy's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Prayer.  Worship God alone.  Study His Word.  It isn't just our leaders that bear responsibility, those of us without a public face are accountable to God for our actions too.  We need to be focused on growing in our individual love for Him, praying for those in positions of leadership and studying His word for ourselves so that when a leader is tempted to deviate from truth, we don't blindly follow.

  • TheLanMan
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    One of the big issues here is slothfulness/laziness.  It's HARD WORK for a leader to select and surround himself with close accountability partners, to meet/communicate regularly with them, to ask and answer the HARD questions, and to deal with the inevitable misunderstandings and differences of opinion.  It's SO much easier to let one person lead on everything, turn off our brains and just become sheeple.  We SHOULD be like sheep with our God and Savior, because He is perfect, omniscient and incapable of sin.  We should NOT be like sheep with any human leader.  If a human leader refuses the HARD but NECESSARY work of accountability, or even just does not seek accountability, they should not be leaders - they are missing an ESSENTIAL element of leadership.  I would not associate with any church or ministry that allows one man unquestioned control (always in the name of UNITY for effective and efficient ministry) and/or who has a board that simply rubber-stamps decisions.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    The world is very quick to pick up on the hypocrisy.  And sometimes they're pretty astute.  Unfortunately. 

  • NitroBob
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Unity as described by Jesus in John 17 is a very good thing and one which all Christians should aspire.  In fact, one day we will all be united in Christ as it was intended.  That should be our goal.  United in a man or council of men and/or women is not the goal and should be abhorred.  It is the spiritually bankrupt that cling to a man or woman to be their guide; in other words, they themselves have become confused or disillusioned by knowing about God, rather than knowing God.  They want to experience God through a pastor or other church leader and unfortunately, many pastors play into their hands.  This phenomena afflicted the Israelites in Exodus and human nature/sin/bewilderment hasn't changed in the last 3,000+ years.Do church councils/elders do enough to prevent this from happening?  If not, how should it be corrected?Blessings

  • MonteHarmon
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Not selling it. Giving it away.

  • Bill Onesty
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    I am hearing more criticism from the Christian left of paternalism. What DOES the Bible have to say about male leadership in the church, how do we defend it, and how do we guard against abuses like these?

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Wise!  Wise!  Wise counsel.  This is written by a man demonstrably worthy of our highest respect.  But the counsel is wise not because Marvin Olasky wrote it but because it is Biblical.  Listening or watching with our Bible on our laps is ESSENTIAL to Christian faithfulness.  "You shall have no other gods before Me" is the first of the Ten Commandments for a reason.  We are all by nature prone to both worshipping other gods and to enjoying being the god whom others worship.Dear God, please help me genuinely say with John the Baptist "He must increase, but I must decrease."

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Perhaps this situation is due to the creep of Marxism into our churches as planned by the Frankfurt School in the 1920s.   The Communists' long march through the institutions is complete :and our culture is fully infiltrated with Marxism:"Among Marxists, Gramsci is noted for his theory of cultural hegemony as the means to class dominance. In his view, a new "Communist man" had to be created before any political revolution was possible. This led to a focus on the efforts of intellectuals in the fields of education and culture. Gramsci envisioned a long march through the society's institutions, including the government, the judiciary, the military, the schools and the media. He also concluded that so long as the workers had a Christian soul, they would not respond to revolutionary appeals." --  The Historical Roots of "Political Correctness" by Raymond V. Raehn.The story of Elevation Church brings to mind George Orwell's Animal Farm.

  • Rich277
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:35 pm

    Is there any show on "Christian" television where this doesn't happen?  I'm honestly having difficulty coming up with one.  What does that say to the world?  No wonder they hold us in contempt.  I would, too, if I didn't have the Spirit in me and didn't know a real follower of Jesus to inform me.