Critiquing celebrity pastors

This will be a short post, but I want to interact with a recent outbreak of pastoral scandal in the Pacific Northwest by more generally addressing the ethics of critiquing celebrity pastors.

Has the celebrity pastor moved into a new role?

It strikes me as a bit odd when a pastor on the national stage responds to criticism by falling back on Matthew 18. By pastors on the national stage, I mean something more than pastors of prominent churches. I mean very specifically pastors such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Mark Driscoll, Timothy Keller, John MacArthur, Joel Osteen, John Piper, etc. who have extensive presence outside the context of their church ministry in the form of public appearances, media interviews, and published books.

I’m not sure all the ethical implications of being a celebrity pastor. But it does seem to me that the better ethical comparison for critiquing a celebrity pastor would be to put the emphasis on the celebrity side rather than the pastor side. I fear what it means for our society, not to mention our churches, if our celebrities who purposefully choose to do public work on a national scale can not also be critically engaged at the same level.

How is a celebrity pastor to be bounded, chastened, or removed if the need arises?

A compelling case can be made that the authority to limit or rebuke or remove a celebrity pastor resides within the local church that pastor serves (few of these pastors serve churches where the denominational structure beyond the local church would fill this role). On this view, if you are not part of the pastor in question’s church you should keep your mouth shut. One difficulty with such a position is that by very definition the work of a celebrity pastor is out for review on a public national level.

If a local church does not take as active a role in the discipline of a pastor as seems necessary from the outside, the question arises whether this means that all other comers must remain silent.

  • It could be argued that a denomination would fill in for the lack of local effectiveness on this matter, but that immediately crumbles if the church is non-denominational.
  • It could be argued that the local congregation as a whole would fill in for the lack of effective high-level leadership, but that immediately crumbles if the polity of the church does not include the congregation in any formal decision-making.
  • It could be argued that the very venues which by virtue of their position of our society function as kingmakers of celebrities and celebrity pastors (conference organizers, editors, media, publishers, etc.) would provide a form of discipline, but from my perspective these players are almost always highly concerned with income flow at the same time as being highly close-mouthed about any moves they make (such as pulling a book). These evangelical popes have little incentive to discipline a celebrity pastor on the basis of what is good for the church, but a high incentive when the books stop selling.

The ethics of critiquing public work

As a political libertarian and a religious egalitarian, I think public work is subject to public scrutiny. If we are going to weigh the public work of a celebrity pastor more in consideration of the pastor role than the celebrity aspect, then this applies to what is done in the sphere of the church they serve not what is done for public national purview.

Public scrutiny of public work is also subject to public scrutiny. No doubt someone will read what I have written here in a public venue and disagree, possibly publicly.

I fear what American Christianity would look like, just as I fear what American culture in general would look like, if public work is fenced off from public scrutiny. If we do not want to deal with public critique as pastors, then perhaps we should stick a bit closer to the local church ministry God has called us to. I am willing to take the risk of increased openness required by the public stage. But I am also fully aware of the cost: the public which eats what we serve may also one day throw it back at us.