The biggest problem with handing out halos is the implicit concession that you don’t get one.
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor 1:26-29)
“ . . . you, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5)
Although Paul is gracious throughout this letter (and elsewhere) even while dealing with serious shortcomings, telling church members they’re no oil painting is not the way to endear someone to you. Nor is telling someone they’re worldly and childish because they pledge “I follow Paul” (1 Cor 3:1-4) the way to juice your page views or Twitter numbers.
Today, celebrity culture is so pervasive and the conventional wisdom that undergirds it so widely accepted that it’s difficult to understand how radical Paul’s message in this letter is. The cynic inside of us wants to roll its eyes and declare, He’s just saying that–“only servants.” They all say that.
If anyone was personally familiar with that kind of insincerity it would have been Paul, the ex-Pharisee. He would have felt the sting of Jesus’ probing words about his former party: “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Mt 23:5).
Building a following is about managing and cultivating a certain image of “holiness” that has more to do with appearances than anything else. Prior to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus said the kingdom was being taken away from persons like this (Mt 21:43) and would be “given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
What “fruit”? Obviously, not the Pharisees’ brand. And if there were any doubt about that, recall the consequences of Ananias and Sapphira concealing the actual amount they received for selling their property. At the time, Jesus’ followers were doing things like that to support the brethren (Acts 4:32-37), so it must have seemed to them the thing to do.
But Ananias and Sapphira thought they could have the best of both worlds: esteemed by the local believers for their good work while still pocketing a healthy profit. The size of the gift wasn’t the issue; it was the intent behind the deception and the corrupt understanding that made them think they could pull it off. They thought they were dealing only with men; Peter said they “lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3).
So, what was it that made Paul’s ministry tick? Using himself and Apollos as examples, he said “the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Cor 3:5). And then:
“Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not take pride in one man over another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:6-7)
Ministry today is often like the local buffet. You find what you like and pile it on. You like broccoli florets with blue cheese dressing? Go for it; you paid for it. More importantly, there’s no “Mom” standing over you making you eat your vegetables if you don’t want to.
In the United States, we have a “buffet table” of ministries that spans the theological spectrum. Its outlets are weekly services, conferences, books, teaching DVDs, recurring cable appearances. There’s something for almost every theological “taste.”
But have you noticed that persons whose steady diet is one kind of—at times even just one person’s–ministry is stunted spiritual growth? Isn’t there a lot of “jealousy and quarreling” just as Paul described in first-century Corinth?
If water seeks its own level, so do many believers. But how is it to our benefit to remain spiritually immature and enervated by absorbing only what we agree with and for which we have a very personal and stubbornly loyal affinity?
It’s not, of course. In broad terms we are often just spectators at regular performances of “gifted” ministers. We love what they say, we nod in agreement, we say a loud Amen! as we hang on every golden word—and we can end up no better than the Corinthians that Paul said were worldly for boosting his ministry over against someone else’s.
Ever wonder why some believers can become ex-believers or shift from one end of the theological spectrum to the other with such apparent conviction? That would be the “wind of teaching” blowing them “here and there” (Eph 4:14). And, at some point, the wind will shift again and so will they. And they will never “become mature,” which is why Paul said God gave some to be ministers in the first place.
Instead, the minister gets the halo, and we have highlighted Bibles in our laps (it might even be that ministry’s namesake Study Bible). Is that the “fruit” Jesus wanted? I think we know the answer to that.
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