Voices from the Past
James P. Needham
One of the great problems of all time is what is generally known as preacheritis, or the excessive loyalty which many give preachers. It seems always to be a problem. Some people's religion seldom runs deeper than some preacher. He is the center and circumference of their religious devotion. This soul-damning disease deserves extensive treatment, hence an entire chapter is devoted to it.
(1) Excessive exaltation of the preacher: Preacheritis sets in when people take their eyes off Christ, and set them on men; when they "think of men above that which is written" (I Corinthians 4:6); when they exalt the preacher above the preaching: the messenger above the message and the proclaimer above the proclamation. It is a spiritual affliction which causes people to "prove" their religious practice by the words and deeds of a preacher rather than by the authority of Christ (Colossians 3: 17; 1 Corinthians 4: 6).
People in the early church had this sickness: (a) The Corinthians said, "I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas..." (1 Corinthians 1: 12; 3: 4). (b) Pergamos had those who held "the doctrine of Balaam" (Revelation 2:14), and the "Nicolaitans" (Revelation 2: 15). (e) The Galatian churches had in them those who had followed the Judaizers in being circumcised that they might glory in the flesh (Galatians 6:12-13). (d) The Ephesians were warned about some who would "speak perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20: 30).
Should we think it strange that people still have this disease? There are some very severe cases of it. One sister said, "For all I care, they can shoot all the preachers except brother _______________." Others feel no obligation to attend the assemblies unless their favorite preacher is preaching. If the preacher is out preaching to people who need it worse than does his "home congregation," attendance and contributions often decrease until he returns. Then, there are congregations that can hardly conduct a service unless a "properly ordained minister" is present. A brother once said to the local preacher, "What do you mean by being gone in so many meetings? Do you not know that you are our preacher, and that you get paid for preaching to us?" Some church members seem to think they will be judged by the words of their favorite preacher rather than by their own deeds (Romans 2:6).
We have all known of situations where "firing" the preacher was like burning the building! Changing preachers is sometimes the next thing to disbanding. We hear expressions like: "I just cannot get over brother Blank's leaving," or "Brother Newcomer is a good preacher, but he will never take Brother Oldtimer's place" (As if he wanted to). It goes without saying that a religion that is built around a man is not built around Christ. If it is preacher-centered it is not Christ-centered, and therefore, is vain (Matthew 15:9).
(2) Spiritual immaturity: Paul said preacheritis is a sickness of spiritual babies: "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto BABES in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able... For while one saith, I am of Paul..." etc. (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). These Corinthians were milk drinkers rather than meat eaters because their spiritual constitutions were so delicate, and diseased. Preacher centered religion is baby religion, because it cannot get weaned from a preacher. One version represents these people as saying: "I belong to Paul ..." etc.
(3) It is carnality: "For ye are yet CARNAL: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul ...", etc. Paul said, "to be carnally minded is death ..." (Romans 8: 6). Hence, preacheritis is a fatal spiritual disease; preacher religion is a death religion; it cannot bring eternal life. Carnality signifies that which is fleshly; that which is of the world. Paul said the Judaizers wanted to "glory in your flesh" (Galatians 6: 13). Preacher religion is a fleshly religion; it cannot bring spiritual rewards.
(4) Human: To the Corinthians, Paul said, "you walk as men, for while one saith, I am of Paul...", etc. (1 Corinthians 3:3-4). Preacheritis is walking "as men," not as Christians. It is a human religion, not a divine one. It is therefore, a "vain religion" (James 1: 26), and brings one no closer to heaven than any other human religion, though it may parade under the name of Christ.
The matter of responsibility for preacheritis is an important consideration. We see only the symptoms of the disease in the actions of people, and maybe never really think about its origin. Let us consider two possible sources of the malady:
(1) The preacher: Preachers are often the main cause of preacheritis. Some preachers are experts at building up congregations around themselves. This is accomplished in the following ways:
Members of such congregations are always quick to jump to the defense of their preacher overlord. They are often sincere in denying that he is such. They have been brainwashed to think that all who oppose him are just jealous of his success and position. They think the voice of the preacher is the voice of God, and opposition to him or his ideas is blasphemy.
(b) Martyr complex: Preachers sometimes build up churches around themselves by playing the role of a martyr. They constantly sing a song of woe to those members who will listen. They are constantly supposed victims of a vicious plot, and the elders are always seeking opportunities to take advantage of them. Most people favor the "underdog." Hence, the members begin to feel sorry for the poor helpless preacher, and the elders are branded as "lords over God's heritage" and nothing short of their resignation will be acceptable.
In a certain church, some of the most influential and able members of the congregation protested when the well entrenched preacher aligned himself with certain false teachings. In a business meeting some of them went into a detailed exposure of the false doctrines the preacher had embraced. When they finished, the preacher arose and said, "I am just like Jesus before Pilate. These men are determined to crucify me, and like Jesus I am not going to answer a word." That carried more weight with his deceived followers than any scriptural defense could have. Who could refuse to come to the defense of the poor, crucified preacher?
(e) Alignment with the weak element: Some preachers gain personal following within the congregation by aligning themselves with the weaker members. These people usually have some complaint against the congregation, or the eldership. They are constantly looking for an opportunity to "get at" the church or the elders. They usually do not attend business meetings, and very few assemblies. They contribute almost nothing to the program of the church. Frequently their complaint is that the church is run by a clique, or that the elders are dictators. The preacher champions their cause, and starts a revolution. When it is completed, the congregation is made up of another "clique," the weakling worldings who have contributed almost nothing to its existence. Those who sacrificed time and energy to make the church possible are driven out in disgust, or by excommunication.
(2) The members: Preacheritis cannot be imposed upon any person against his will. This is one disease one must be willing to catch! It is self-inflicted. But, as in the case of physical disease, preacheritis is brought on by weak resistance. The spiritual constitution is unable to fight off its invasion. The preacher's personality, domineering spirit, or political prowess are more than some members can stand. They either knuckle under to power politics, or are overwhelmed by personal attachment. They "with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the preacher, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the preacher" (Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18, with apologies). Indeed, with some people it is hard to distinguish between the glory of God and the glory of the preacher!
Preacheritis is a very dangerous disease. This part of our study would not be complete without a discussion of some of the dangers of this affliction.
(1) Spiritual fatality: When one ties his faith to a man, he subjects himself to the danger of spiritual fatality. Sooner or later he will discover that his worshipped image has feet of clay. Regardless of how much a man is idolized, he is still a man, subject to all human weaknesses. It goes without saying that a preacher who will allow people to tie their faith to him, usually has more than his share of such frailties. The psychology of preacheritis from the preacher's standpoint may well be that he realizes that a personal following is his only chance of remaining employed as a preacher because if people are dedicated to the Lord, they will automatically repudiate the likes of him.
Most preachers are godly, dedicated men, but unfortunately, some few are otherwise. The dedicated ones must constantly carry the reputation of the bad ones as a millstone around their necks, due to the tendency of people to generalize on specifics and identify all groups with the misdeeds of a few members thereof.
Preacheritis has been spiritually fatal to many because the preacher they idolized turned out to be morally bad. We should just face reality and frankly admit that we have human preachers who, like some other church members, are first class hypocrites and who are or have been guilty of just about every sin in the catalog. We have known preachers who fornicated, beat their debts, used and peddled dope, forged checks, murdered, robbed, stole, broke up homes, lied, embezzled, mistreated their families, etc. The discovery of such in some preachers seldom causes their followers to become more godly, but rather more ungodly. Their attitude is that if preachers cannot live righteously, why should others even try to do so.
(2) Easy prey for false doctrine: One of the great dangers of preacheritis is that it makes the individual easy prey for false doctrine. If the preacher gets "led away with the error of the wicked" and falls from his own steadfastness (2 Peter 3:17), his followers usually go with him because their main concern is the messenger, rather than the message. Many new denominations have been started in just this way. Many congregations have been divided in this manner.
All should realize that all human religion is vain (Matthew 15:9). Following the modern preacher will not lead one to heaven any more than will following an ancient one like Luther, Calvin, or Wesley. Human religion never brings spiritual or eternal rewards. Such is limited to this life, and whatever benefits are derived from it are limited to this life. It may bring some measure of happiness and satisfaction here, but it will bring only misery and dissatisfaction in the world to come.
Preachers today, like Paul, must strongly desire and insist that the brethren's "faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2: 5). They should neither desire nor accept the devotion of people; their admiration, and encouragement, yes, but their devotion-NEVER!
The above is a sobering reminder to us all that both Christians who preach and the ones who do not, are subject to fleshly, carnal temptations. We are not immune to the sins which plague mankind in general, including the urge to place friendships and feelings above objective truth and righteousness.
We often castigate the denominations for elevating certain men (Calvin, Wesley, Luther, etc.). We upbraid the Catholics for exalting the Pope (whoever it may be at the time). Yet, there are times and instances when some of our beloved brethren are guilty of the same thing. As brother Needham pointed out, some fellow-Christians love a preaching brother so much, they cannot imagine life without him. Some congregations are almost wholly dependent upon their preacher for their faith. And, some preachers love to have it so!
It is unfortunate, but true, all of us have not learned from mistakes of the past. We can look back and see where the love for man exceeded the love for God and brethren were thereby led into apostasy. We can study our Bibles and see where it condemns the lifting up of men (1 Cor. 3:1-4). However, when it comes to modern times and events, we ignore such strong examples and warnings. There are people even now who would rather "stand by their man" than "stand...in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths..." (Jer. 6:16). There are those who believe that grace and truth came by brother so-and-so. There are preachers who join the chorus and sing "How Great Thou Art" to their number one man (or themselves).
While preacheritis cannot always be controlled by the preacher, that is, some brethren will just be that way, let us be determined not to lend a hand in our own exaltation, nor that of another. Let us all look to the one Head of the church, the one Author and Finisher of our faith, the one Apostle and High Priest of our profession, the one Lamb of God, the one Alpha and Omega--the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; Heb. 12:2; 3:1; Jn. 1:29; Rev. 1:8)!
"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:34-37).
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