Do not worship the preacher; worship God
Idolatry seems to be ubiquitous. You can see it in the church and you can see it the family. And sometimes it sprouts up in the oddest ways. Some time ago I counseled a couple that appeared to have a solid marriage. Both the husband and wife were committed to each other. Both were trying hard to be better parents and spouses. Both had servants’ hearts. Both were loving parents. Both loved the Lord and were seeking to follow Him to the best of their ability. But the wife was not satisfied with her husband and the husband appeared to feel hopeless about meeting her expectations. After gathering more information it quickly became apparent that the wife had read every book she could get her hands on about the character and responsibilities of a godly husband, father, and leader – and her husband did not measure up. Even though he was amazingly mature and sensitive in each of the areas for which she had catalogued faults, she was still very dissatisfied. She coveted someone else’s husband, little realizing that the picture of male qualities she had gleaned from these books did not even remotely resemble any man in existence. She was blinded to the wonderful qualities in her husband simply because she admired a superstar husband who only existed in her own imagination. There was help and healing for this marriage, but it only came when she repented of idolatry and began appreciating all that God had given to her as a stewardship trust.
But we see the same problem of dissatisfaction in the church of Jesus Christ. With the easy access that all Christians have to the best preaching from the best preachers, Christians realize that their pastors don’t even closely approximate the giftedness of these men. And to make matters worse, many Christians have forgotten that their local pastor works most of his week in counseling, shepherding, officer training, administration, and other tireless work involved in caring for the sheep. The celebrity preachers do none of that. But the local pastor continues to be negatively compared to the idolized (and mythical) super-pastor. This makes the local pastor work harder to live up to the expectations of the people, and eventually leads to the discouragement that I saw in the husband I alluded to above. The worship of celebrity pastors is a great hindrance to the art of listening to an ordinary sermon.
In the previous three posts we have started looking at the “real world” worship service attended by Cornelius. It wasn’t a perfect place free of distractions because the whole family was required to worship together – including the “little ones.” But in upcoming posts we will look at several prerequisites that Cornelius and his friends had that enabled them to come with faith that God would speak to them at church. And the celebrity syndrome that began to rise up in Cornelius was nipped in the bud by Peter in Acts 10:25-26. Verse 25 says, “As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I myself am also a man.’” Peter clearly treated celebrity worship as a form of idolatry.
Now God does indeed call members to respect the leaders of the church because of their office, but sometimes there is a fine line between respect and worship. Respect is treating them as representatives of the Lord. That’s a heavy office; that is an honorable office, and we need to respect it. Worship would be to treat them like the Lord. And there is a difference.
The only authority that a preacher has is the authority of the Scripture. So if he cannot back up his claims from the Bible, his claims lack authority. You can’t treat a preacher like a Protestant Pope. The older Reformed writers often said that the only voice speaking in the church should be the voice of Christ speaking through the Scriptures. Even Paul praised the Bereans for checking everything that he said against the Scriptures. In fact, that is an incredible honor for a pastor, to have people diligently checking out everything he says from the Bible
So there is a balance here. Show respect, but don’t worship the pastor. Hold the pastor to a higher standard, but at the same time recognize that they are men with needs just like everyone else. They are no less hurt by meanness than you are. They are no less subject to discouragement. They are certainly not infallible. If you are looking to the preacher to have a sermon with beautiful oratory week after week, you are transforming the office into something it was never intended to be. Though Apollos was “an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24), and though people negatively compared Paul to Apollos (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4), calling Paul’s speech “contemptible” (2 Cor. 10:10), Paul insisted that men’s eloquence and personalities be removed from worship and that members learn to listen to God’s voice through the Scriptures alone. He said,
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. (1 Cor. 4:6)
Learning to focus on “what is written” rather than on the style of the preacher (whether Apollos or Paul) and learning to worship God through that preached word is a critical point in the art of listening to a sermon. When we realize that the preached word of even an ineloquent man like Paul can powerfully draw us into God’s presence and powerfully sanctify us, we might begin to appreciate the pastors whom God has given, however ineloquent they may be compared to the super-preachers. Paul said,
And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:4-5)
If we expect God to speak to us “through the foolishness of the message preached” (1 Cor. 1:21) (something addressed in post 2) and if we worship God rather than the preacher during the sermon, we will be a long ways into the art of listening to a sermon with real profit.