When you hear someone talking about a cult most people immediately jump to something like “The People’s Temple” (Jim Jones) or the Branch Dividians (David Koresh) or Heaven’s Gate (Marshall Applewhite). The “doomsday cults” where the members usually end up dead from self-inflicted wounds. We classify them as “insane” or other derogatory terms that try to make them seem as so far out of the mainstream there’s no way that any decent, ordinary person would be a part of it.
However, one dictionary definition of cult is “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.” Under that definition, I would have to say that in some American churches they qualify as a cult.
It comes in when we start moving into pastor worship.
It’s a subtle thing in most cases when pastor worship begins to take root within a church.
You begin to see people getting very defensive any time someone questions “their” pastor’s words or actions. They develop a sense that their pastor cannot be questioned on anything and they attack personally those who point out when that pastor might not have acted in a Biblical manner.
The church is set up more to be devoted to following the pastor rather than the Bible (even if they claim to be all about the Bible.)
The pastor is routinely praised as being the reason the church is growing and very little credit is given to God.
People talk about how the pastor said great things but don’t mention the Biblical basis for what the pastor had preached.
If the pastor isn’t there, attendance takes a serious dip.
There’s certainly more than that but those a few of the more obvious signs that the pastor has become the focus rather than God. And it’s not a rare occurrence.
Now, there’s a chance you’re thinking that this is just some “Christian bashing” post and there’s no basis for these kinds of claims.
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13 ESV)
In the letter to the Corinthians, it’s obvious that “pastor worship” had been happening and was causing divisions within the body of Christ. Paul quickly chastised them for it as the Word shows us but it also shows that pastor worship infected the church even in the earliest days.
They had someone like Paul who called them out on it.
These days…not so much.
I know that when Francis Chan left his church there were many people who kept telling him that he was crazy for doing it. I heard a famous pastor that I won’t quote because of the potential it would create for criticism of him who said of Chan that it was “crazy to leave a church that he had growing and making such a difference.” He even questioned Chan to his face about it once. (Which, I give the guy credit for at least going to Chan directly.) Here was a man who wanted to seek God more completely being derided for giving up power, position and placement. He was avoiding a place where he could be held up as the worship focal point of the church but that was seen as somehow bizarre.
So what do we do when we find a church that has the pastor being held up as being as important as God? Or perhaps in some cases more important than God?
First…if you’re in that church…you need to start praying about it. Let God guide you…and He will. God must be first in all things your church does (just as He needs to be first in our lives in all we do.) God may lead you to speak to the pastor about the situation. God may lead you to another church body. Seek Him and He will guide you to handle things in a way that honors Him.
If you see a church that’s trapped in this mindset, pray for them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re in a position to do so. Don’t see out the confrontation but don’t shy away when God puts you in a place to speak truth or to ask about questionable behaviors and decisions.
Be respectful of pastors even if you think they’re the subject of pastoral worship. They are in positions of authority and you need to respect that God has placed them there. However, respect doesn’t equal submission to the point of accepting everything said or done as right. You have the Bible. No pastor is perfect.
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10 ESV)
And let me end by saying I’ve seen mega-pastors who have been pro-active in making sure they aren’t the object of worship in their church. Rick Warren is a pretty good example of a pastor that openly tells members to worship God and not Him. The tenets of Saddleback don’t say they follow Pastor Rick’s vision without question. However, in a church that’s big and growing, the danger is always there to let the adulation overtake the devotion.