The Cult Following of the Omnicompetent Pastor

Something has gone terribly wrong when the people have come to view the pastor himself as the mediator between God and man, even if this would never be explicitly stated. This is precisely why the pulpit itself is to be a place of great self-denial. Paul’s preaching was most effective because of his humility in communicating that he was the chief of sinners. A pastor, especially any current celebrity pastor, is not the Christ. It’s remarkable that this needs to be said, but it does.

I’m about to make a rather embarrassing confession. It was the early 1990s, and I was driving through the Central Valley CA, listening to the radio. As I skipped through the channels, I stopped immediately upon hearing a voice like I had never heard before. The voice had an eerie sound to it: deep, rough, unpolished, obvious of an older man. In any other scenario I would have continued to scan the channels, but the power of this voice captivated me. The man spoke with authority like I had never heard before. He commanded the audience with power and there was no tolerance for disagreement when callers questioned him. I rarely heard someone speak with this kind of persuasion and certainty. I wasn’t in the best place in my life. I was searching for answers at the time and wasn’t quite sure about, well, anything. But as caller after caller engaged this man, I was drawn to him by the way he commanded people’s lives.

I heard numerous radio preachers over the years, soft, pandering, with nauseating attempts to make people laugh. This was not that. He captivated me. And, he was “Reformed.” Everything he said, in his confident, forceful tone, persuaded me that he was correct and the callers were wrong who challenged him. For the next years I would continue to listen to Family Radio, and the voice of Harold Camping.

Soon after, Camping began to predict the exact date of Christ’s second coming, and it was at this point, having enough discernment of the biblical teaching on the issue, that I could no longer hear him. But I continued to listen with awe that so many, in the face of direct false teaching, could be persuaded by Camping to sell their homes and possessions, fully adhering to his predictions of the end of the world. There was serious devastation when “Camping” failed them.

Since that time, I have sought to think through the issue of authority in preaching. I believe in authoritative preaching, as a herald of God’s Word. But there is something to be learned of the psychology of authoritative preaching and its effects on people that bring me to write this present piece. There is something to be considered and understood of the potential dangers of a popular voice and its effects on people who are searching for truth. A cult-like following is not simply created by the “isms” of this present age, but in something more subtle, that has the power to actually make void the very thing that is often presented.

Master and Commander

This article is not intended to judge the intentions of a well-known pastor and his ministry. That would be a rather arrogant fool’s errand. Nor is it, in what follows, an attempt to judge a man’s ministry as entirely false. There are many failings in the long course of a pastor’s ministry that will happen. One of the most remarkable truths of Christian ministry is that God uses a crooked stick to strike a straight blow. And I have no doubt that many people were genuinely converted even under a man like Harold Camping. I know some of them. But my goal is to think through something that is rarely considered when it comes to the way a pastor commands truth in people’s lives.

We live in an age of much uncertainty. Confusion and division are the hallmarks of our time. What stands out among the masses is a figure who arises with any amount of charisma, who is given a platform, and is able, with great clarity and effectiveness, to speak to people in ways that run against conventional approaches and in whom people believe they are receiving absolute protection from all error. It’s a great opportunity for pastors that few seem to recognize is before them, especially among the masses of pastoral panderers and compromisers in Christian ministry.

This approach will achieve its own kind of success. People want, more than any other period I’ve witnessed, to have someone speak with absolute authority and certainty to the issues of our day. The attempt to speak clearly and authoritatively to the spiritual and moral issues of our day is here not in question. But there is a danger that lurks in the effects on people’s lives. I know of, for example, a local church who, during Covid, aimed their entire ministry to attack the government. The church grew by leaps and bounds. And to question the effects of the approach will earn the strongest charges of compromise and weakness in our climate.

My purpose here is to have us think a bit about, psychologically, what is happening to people in a kind of ministry that presents itself robustly, authoritatively, in the way that truth and ideas are commanded in people’s lives. I was reminded this week of this issue when John MacArthur said by way of authoritative command, that medical conditions such as PTSD and OCD do not exist.

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