Archives for March 2014

In Defense of the Evangelical Industrial Complex

Note: This post on the evangelical industrial complex is written as satire. Please read with a sense of humor and a huge grain of salt.

Even as local churches are seeing declining attendance, we have witnessed the rise of a celebrity Christian culture. Since about the turn of the century, a small number of celebrity Christian pastors and theologians have been getting a disproportionate amount of donations, book sales, conference bookings, and so on.

Some Christian leaders (including Carl Trueman, Rachel Held Evans, Skye Jethani, and Ministry Watch) have gone on record to express the opinion that this is not an entirely positive development. They say that non-celebrity Christians should get a bigger share of the spotlight, and deplore the fact that an industry, which they derisively call “the evangelical industrial complex,” is promoting the celebrities and cashing in on their success. Some estimate the evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. The Christian Booksellers Association alone is reporting sales of over $4.6 billion of merchandise annually.

The critics are mainly disturbed by what they see as market manipulation. For example, Christian publishers sign book deals with megapastors, then work to make those leaders more popular so that they can sell more of their books. This makes it look like a mass conspiracy to extract money from the pockets of unsuspecting Christians. Allegedly, Christian publishers care little about their authors’ theological integrity, but mainly care about their ability to sell books. This could explain much of the marketing hype, and the publicity stunts surrounding books by Christian celebrities such as Rick Warren, Tim LaHaye, Rob Bell, and Steven Furtick. Not many authors can guarantee sales of thousands of copies of any book they write. Likewise, not many speakers can draw big crowds. Publishers and conference organizers don’t want to gamble, so they’re always looking for a sure thing.

I have to stop here and ask: Do critics of the evangelical-industrial complex want Christian business people to gamble? They may as well tell them to take their money to Vegas! Crazy, isn’t it?

Below, I have listed ten additional reasons why the critics are mistaken, and why the rise of the evangelical-industrial complex is good for everyone:

1. Jesus Only Chose 12 Apostles

Synaxis_of_the_Twelve_Apostles_web

Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Russian, 14th century

Jesus said the gospel would go forth into “all the world,” and yet how many disciples did He choose for this great task? Only twelve. While it’s true that there are more than twelve celebrity Christians in America, there are still so few that we can easily create a select list of twelve. You may want to create your own list, but here’s an example:

  • Rick Warren
  • Joel Osteen
  • Joyce Meyers
  • T. D. Jakes
  • Mark Driscoll
  • Rob Bell
  • John MacArthur
  • Beth Moore
  • Bill Hybels
  • Ravi Zacharias
  • Pat Robertson
  • Benny Hinn

You may think these leaders are not comparable to Jesus’ apostles, but why not? Two of the disciples wanted to call down fire on a city, and Peter denied the Lord three times. We can rightly be critical of our modern-day “apostles” while knowing that somehow, God has a plan behind it all.

I agree that the companies and connections in the publishing, convention, media, and financial industries that make up what we call the evangelical-industrial complex are indeed complex. However, what these businesses end up giving us is a relatively small number of “rock star” Christians. As Christian consumers, this makes our choices very simple.

2. Celebrity Pastors Help Local Churches

It’s true that people learn dubious doctrines such as the prosperity gospel from some of these pastors. These doctrines infiltrate into local churches of every stripe. Though this might appear to be a problem, it creates an opportunity. As you may have heard, the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity.”

Local pastors should take advantage of this opportunity by formulating sermons to address potential heresies within the congregation. Occasionally, the pastor or a church elder may have to engage in an heated debate with wayward Christians. On the positive side, however, this keeps things interesting. One of the main complaints people have about most churches is that they’re too boring.

While Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he heard that some people were preaching the gospel out of selfish ambition rather than for the Lord. He responded by rejoicing because he knew that at least the gospel was being preached (Phil. 1:15-18). Let’s follow his example and not worry too much about a little false doctrine here and there.

3. They’re Raising Up the Next Generation of Leaders.

We seldom hear about the co-pastors or friends of celebrity pastors. Still, have you ever considered the fact that some of them have children? Think about it… Billy Graham gave us Franklin Graham; Charles Stanley gave us Andy Stanley, Francis Schaeffer gave us Franky Schaeffer, and George Bush (another strong Christian) gave us George W. Bush. Going further back in history, King David was not only the father of Solomon, but also an ancestor of Jesus. This is all the evidence we need to know that in some cases, children of godly parents are not just spiritually but genetically blessed. These families can become dynasties that God can use!

Some of America’s megachurch pastors are teaching local pastors how to run their churches more like businesses. Local pastors can also learn psychological techniques from famous evangelists who know how to lead people to the Lord, heal them, and slay them in the Spirit. These methods aren’t manipulative because it’s all being done for the glory of God!

4. They Build Great Infrastructure.

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The Crystal Cathedral, Los Angeles

Only a celebrity pastor can collect enough money in offerings to build an attractive, enormous building. We should have at least one of these in every major city. Occasionally, I drive around the Washington D.C. beltway and pass by the beautiful Mormon Temple.  What a testimony to the glory of the Latter Day Saints. My point, of course, is that we Christians need to compete with them!

Of course, more celebrity pastors will be needed in the future to fill not only the shoes of their forebears, but also their buildings when they’re gone. A great tragedy of our time is that there’s no celebrity pastor who can fill the Crystal Cathedral the way Robert Schuller did. Let’s support celebrity pastors so that Lord willing, this will never happen again.

5. They Promote Christian Unity.

Celebrity pastors are all over the map on doctrinal issues, but there are other kinds of unity. What’s most important is that they promote physical unity.

Unquestionably, the Bible teaches that physical unity is important. The people of Israel had to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and worship the Lord. In Jesus’ time, Jews traveled from distant parts of the Roman Empire to worship in Jerusalem.

If there’s a megachurch within only one or two hours of where you live, it would be a relatively small sacrifice for you to drive there every week. If you’re not within driving distance, you can still buy that pastor’s books and download his or her sermons.

As many Christians take in the same teachings from the same pastors, it promotes unity. The Bible doesn’t have to be the only book that we share in common. We can also share books like The Purpose-Driven Life. Since I’ve read that myself, you know we have that in common! Is that exciting or what?…

6. They Are Good for America.

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Spirit of ‘76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard (c. 1875)

As far as I know, celebrity Christian leaders all have a non-profit status with the government. This means that when we give money to them, we can deduct that on our tax returns.

Another great thing about celebrity ministers is that they seldom speak out against our government, even when it does things that some liberal Christians consider to be “sinful.” This includes activities that help preserve our American way of life, such as wars against rogue nations, drone attacks against suspected terrorists, and spying on suspicious people everyone in the USA.

It’s good for all Americans when our ministers support our nation. As Paul wrote, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1).

If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in Christian America, celebrity preachers in your country are probably supportive of government and big business. They might be legally prohibited or afraid to speak out, or they may want to avoid controversy. Whatever their motives, ministers ought to be subject to the governing authorities.

I don’t always know what celebrity ministers are doing, but I’m able to rest content in the knowledge that someone always has a close eye on them.

7. Jesus Loves Capitalism

Some combinations can’t be beat. The fact is, Christianity and capitalism go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

By using the label “evangelical-industrial complex” as if it’s a derogatory term, critics show an appalling lack of concern for our economic system, which needs our popular support.

They have been especially hard on Christian publishers, as explained at the start of this article. What critics don’t seem to realize is that Christian publishers must earn profits in order to survive and publish more books. Likewise, conference organizers must earn enough money to at least cover their expenses. Whenever celebrity Christians speak at conferences, they increase the numbers of conference attendees and hence, financial revenues.

prosperity_gospel 300pxProfits are good for everyone, including the Church. Typically, money is nothing other than a sign of ministry success.

Illustration by Michael Elins for a Time magazine cover story

 

We shouldn’t try to impose our so-called morality on big “Christian” publishers. I put the word Christian in quotes because many of “our” publishers are actually owned by secular companies. Still, there’s nothing wrong with that. Those companies are very much aware of what’s good for America and Wall Street. Anyway, regardless of who owns them, every publishing company is a business that needs to make money.

8. The Market Has Spoken!

Most of the people who watch ministers on television must be Christians; otherwise they would change the channel. We can assume that most of the people who buy Christian books are also Christians. Nobody, including a secular “Christian” book publisher, can force anyone to buy anything.

If a teaching is of God, we must assume that Christian consumers will recognize that and reward it accordingly. As they used to say, “the voice of the people is the voice of God” (vox populi vox dei). We should support democracy by respecting the rule “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Who are any of us to say that Christians shouldn’t choose to follow certain pastors en masse?

By the way, if anyone should argue that the principle of vox populi vox dei seems to contradict my earlier proposition that the governing authorities are God’s representatives, I can only say that God is mysterious, and He speaks to us in many different ways.

9. Less Choice Means Less Confusion

A countless number of relatively unknown Christians are clamoring for our attention. They all think they know what we ought to believe the Bible, God, and so on. Admittedly, that includes me with this blog that you’re reading now. If I may speak for not only myself but others, we ought to recognize and accept our humble places in the world. Let’s stop whining about the fact that some Christians are incredibly more popular than we could ever hope to be. The celebrities are super-talented, and they worked very hard to get to where they are today.

We must also consider the fact that practically speaking, Christians couldn’t handle the confusion of trying to learn about a huge number of Christian pastors and teachers. This is comparable to either going to a known brand like McDonald’s for lunch, or going to a no-name, locally owned restaurant. McDonald’s food may not be good for us, but at least we know what’s on the menu there!

The question is, how many restaurant chains, or in this case how many pastors, can the average person easily learn about? Personally, I’m going to side with Jesus on this and say that twelve is a pretty good number.

10. They Give Christianity More Influence in the World.

George_&_Laura_Bush_with_Rick_&_Kay_Warren

President George and Laura Bush meet with Rick and Kay Warren

President_Obama_and_Billy_Graham

President Obama meets with Billy Graham

These pictures speak volumes. The Reverend Billy Graham was known as the “pastor to Presidents.” He met with every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barrack Obama, and always told them something about Jesus.

Unfortunately, we can no longer expect our presidents to be Christian and attend church. Presidents are so powerful and so busy that if they don’t attend church, they may only agree to meet with a highly influential pastor such as Rick Warren.

Note: My actual beliefs are almost diametrically opposed to each of the ones expressed above. The one reason that I think is somewhat legitimate is #8. Collectively, Christians are responsible for deciding whom we choose to follow and support, and whom we choose to ignore. We should all be following Jesus first and foremost. If we were doing that, I don’t think we’d be glorifying individual men and women as much as we do. These celebrities aren’t much, if any more special than Christians who are likely attending a church within a few miles of where we live. Finally, this isn’t intended as a criticism of all Christian celebrities. Some did not seek undue fame or publicity, but only became known through the high quality of their ministry.

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The Just Man: Jesus and Plato’s Republic

Socrates-Teaching-Perikles
Socrates Teaching Pericles

Jesus and Plato lived in different times and places. Even so, part of Plato’s Republic (c. 380 BC) is fascinating because it resembles a prophecy about Jesus. It appears in this dialog by Socrates about the just man, especially in the italicized portion:

And at [the unjust man’s] side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.

the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound –will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled.
Book 2, 361b-362a

I’m surprised that Christian apologists don’t appear to have said much about this. Some of the church fathers identified Jesus as matching this earlier concept of the just man, and I think this can also be fertile ground for ourselves.

I will summarize, in my own words, some parts of Book 2 of The Republic related to justice. Before I start, please be aware that I am using this text only as a launching point, not as an exact blueprint, for Christians to explain how Jesus matched reasonable expectations (especially for His time) of what a just man might be expected to look like.

Nobody Is Truly Just

Before Plato began to describe the perfectly just man, he presented arguments which show that nobody is truly just. For instance, a character named Glaucon repeats a myth about a ring of invisibility and argues that, if we could become invisible and do as we pleased without fear of consequences, we would all choose to do evil.

The main character, Socrates, observes that we have laws and authorities to punish injustice. However, if there were no law and order, we would regard unjust actions as more rewarding overall than just ones. If I may offer an example of my own, it’s easier to steal someone else’s bread than to do the work of farming, milling, and cooking. Thus, even though most of us obey laws, that is contrary to what we would really like to do.

I feel that Christians can find these arguments useful when we meet unbelievers who think that some people are basically good. In order to lead someone Christ, we need to establish that all people are sinners.

The Bible affirms that people have no natural desire to obey moral laws. Even God’s chosen people didn’t obey laws that had been written by His own hand, and which were sometimes enforced under just rulers such as King David.

The Bible tells us there was one just man. He exemplified God’s perfect justice and righteousness because He was (and is) the Son of God.

We can become good and just people, but not through our own strength or will. This is only possible if we submit to God’s righteousness through Jesus Christ. Externally imposed laws can’t make anyone just, but God writes His law on the hearts of believers.

A Just Man Will Suffer and Die

Socrates went on to describe how people of his time thought that a truly just man, if one should ever exist, could only expect to suffer and die. You can see that in the above quote.

Based on this expectation of what happens to just people, the argument went that instead of truly being just, we should only try to appear just.

This idea reminds me of junior high school kids who are afraid of looking like “goodie too shoes.” However, Socrates and his followers were perfectly reasonable, by human standards. Tyrants actually were crucifying people, including some who were only seeking justice. There’s no humor in it when we think of it that way.

Incidentally, at least one translation of this text (here) does use the word “crucified.” Again, rulers had already begun to use this ghastly method of execution.

As for Christians, we shouldn’t try only to appear just while avoiding the persecution and suffering that comes with actually being just. This was the main error of the hypocrites in Jesus’ time.

Christians can, however, learn from Socrates’ description of the expected fate of the perfectly just man. We can make a similar defense for the only one just person who ever appeared in human history, Jesus Christ.

For example, we can argue that a just man would have perfectly exposed and opposed evil, as Jesus did. In particular, a just man couldn’t fail to expose and rebuke evil actions on the part of leaders at the top levels of society. After all, the most effective way to help the most oppressed people in society is by influencing the leaders as much as possible.

Since people are unjust, such attempts are likely to fail. A just man’s bold stand against injustice will get him into trouble with the governing authorities, who will defend themselves by falsely accusing him of injustice.

In this kind of confrontation, the truly just man will be all alone. Nobody else will have the courage and virtue to stand with him. Consequently, the just man can only expect to suffer the most gruesome fate.

All of this describes Jesus perfectly. He publicly opposed the Pharisees because through their legalism, they laid heavy burdens on the people whom God had called them to serve.

The disciples hung out with Jesus, but didn’t call people out for their sins as He did. They followed Jesus until soldiers came to arrest Him, when they fled. Only later did they begin to follow Him again.

A Just Man Will Appear to be Unjust

Notice that the just man in Socrates’ dialog was expected to appear unjust. Ironically, this would provide evidence that the man was just. This would prove that his motivation could not be to enjoy praises and perks from admirers.

It’s for this reason that unjust people always want to appear just. In fact, a perfectly unjust man could be so good at faking it that he may appear to be perfectly just.

This appears to have been an early recognition of the psychopathic personality type. A psychopath can appear to be virtuous and charismatic, but has no genuine concern for others. He’s only thinking about how he can best deceive and manipulate other people for selfish gain.

The idea that the just man should appear unjust is also in fitting with the Bible’s testimony about Jesus Christ. Our Lord’s enemies made many false accusations against Him. He was crucified for allegedly having committed the worst possible crime, which was blasphemy. Murder is an offense against man, but blasphemy is a direct offense against God. Jesus was sentenced, scourged, and crucified as a criminal.

Beyond the false accusations, the strongest identification of Jesus with unjust people can be seen in the fact that He bore the punishment for our sins on the cross.

Apparently, Plato didn’t believe there could be a truly just and righteous ruler. A just man wouldn’t care about looking good to people, and would not only be powerless but victimized. Plato would never have expected such a man to rise from the dead and gain all authority in heaven and on earth.

Christians shouldn’t put much trust in human rulers, but should instead trust that God is ruling over all to make everything work for good. Also, the Bible forbids us from deceptively trying to appear righteous or just, but Plato seems to have been in favor of it.

Jesus Fulfilled Prophecy

This argument doesn’t appear in Plato’s writings, but it also points to Jesus as having been a just man. That is, if there is one true religion, we may reason that a perfectly just man would identify with it. Any misrepresentation of God would have to be among the worst sins. Therefore, a just man could be expected to expose and rebuke false or hypocritical religious leaders.

This also describes Jesus. Our Lord not only supported, but represented everything that had been written in the Hebrew Scriptures. He even fulfilled prophecies about the promised Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus, as we might expect, the Bible provides the strongest proof we have that Jesus was and is the Son of God.

This argument explains why our Lord was far more concerned about Jewish religious leaders than He was about the Romans. Jesus could have said more than He did about Roman injustice. However, under the circumstances, that could easily have provoked His countrymen to take up arms and start a war. The fact that Jesus unjustly suffered a barbarous execution at the hands of Roman soldiers is itself a testimony against Rome’s policies and methods.

Questions to Ponder

Socrates’ talk about scourging and crucifixion is surely the most eye-catching element of this dialog for Christians. I sense an eerily prophetic ring to it. Plato said the just man must be put to the ultimate test of physical suffering and crucifixion. The Romans, practitioners of Greek philosophy, unknowingly stripped God’s Son of all earthly friends and possessions, and subjected Him to this test.

I think that even apart from Plato’s Republic, we all sense that a truly good and just person will be hated, slandered, mistreated, and even perhaps killed. We also know that we ourselves are guilty, and not perfectly just. For instance, surely we all like a little crookedness in our politicians. We reject any political candidate who would dare to tell us the truth about ourselves.

People often compare Jesus with Socrates. As for unjust treatment, Jesus endured much worse things, including the crucifixion. Socrates only had to drink poison.

All of this brings up some questions in my mind, though we may not find the answers to some of them in this life.

  • I wonder if Plato and Socrates had heard about prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures of the suffering Messiah.
  • I wonder if Jesus Himself was familiar with these teachings in Plato’s Republic.
  • When Jesus died, a centurion standing at the foot of the cross proclaimed, “Truly, this was a righteous man” (Lk. 23:47). Since “righteous” and “just” are the same Greek word (dikaios), I wonder if he was thinking about the description of the just man in The Republic.
  • Even though the world doesn’t set the standard for Christians, it would be interesting to know what kind of person has been widely considered to be “just,” from Plato’s time until now.
  • Finally, since the apostle Paul would have been familiar with The Republic, I wonder how Plato’s use of this word might help us to better understand New Testament concepts such as righteousness and justification.

Even though the concept of justice in The Republic isn’t identical to that which we find in the Bible, it can still inform Christians, and can become a good starting point for meaningful discussions with unbelievers. You can find more information on this topic here, or of course by reading The Republic.

Do you have any insights that you would like to add? Please feel free to comment below, and to share this article with anyone who might be interested.