Spectacle over Substance
Our North American society, including the Christian church, tends to overvalue style, spectacle, and cleverness in not only our educators but also our teachers, preachers and authority figures. What a person may lack in knowledge, character, understanding, wisdom and kindness, they can more than make up for in how they look, their showmanship, and their ability to turn a phrase. A person’s abilities, intelligence, and giftedness don’t seem to matter nearly as much as their appearance, willingness to adapt, and overall marketability.
It’s a strange thing that hundreds of experts who have devoted their life to studying a certain subject, can agree on something and no one will listen – but if a famous actor or athlete talks about it, then suddenly their opinion is not only registered as valid, but important and worthy of being repeated in news outlets all over the world.
It happens all the time when news programs bring actors, comedians, and athletes on to talk about everything from nutrition to politics to religion. When Justin Bieber does an interview about his music, for some reason they also ask him his opinion on geopolitics and social issues. Gwyneth Paltrow once introduced the President of the United States by commenting on how handsome he is and wishing that he could have the unilateral power to do whatever he wants. And social media makes it even worse. Lindsay Lohan tweets her solution to the Middle East crisis, and it’s retweeted by hundreds. Chris Brown told 16 million people that he thinks the “Ebola epidemic is a form of population control” and it’s retweeted by tens of thousands.
And the line gets even fuzzier as many so-called scientists and experts get corrupted as they try to become celebrities. Maybe they feel like they aren’t listened to, so they alter their message or pursue popular and obscure topics that will get them the attention they so crave. Think of Dr. Oz who used to be a real doctor, but is now a television personality that hocks products and spouts wrong information. Or the countless experts and teachers who were corrupted into lying by the promise of big-business money and political power. Or the psychologists and counsellors who have allowed truly mentally ill people to think they are healthy because they have bent to political pressure, want to be on the “right side of history”, or want their name to be first on a unique paper.
Yes, I understand that one of the joys of the internet is that everyone can register their opinion on anything at any time. We can post pictures of our breakfast with as much ease and impunity as we can tell everyone our solution to climate change and what we think about Justin Trudeau’s political strategies. I’m not saying that’s terrible. It’s great to have a forum where the whole world can talk to one another.
The problem is that our celebrity-obsessed culture is making these the voices that shape our worldview. These people, who are dripping with charisma, style, and pseudo-intelligence, have a greater voice than any of the wise, knowledgeable, humble and thoughtful people who actually should be listened to.
More and more people, especially people younger than me, live in a world of tweets, sound bites, cartoons and memes that seem to have the magical ability to boil an incredibly complex issue like climate change, zoology, parenting, religion, terrorism, relationships, sex, politics or a thousand other things into one picture and an easy to digest sentence. And if it seems right to us, we’ll grab onto it, believe it and repeat it to others. These voices are steering what a generation of people believe about incredibly important and complex issues, and it is dangerous spiritually, emotionally, relationally, politically, and every other way, to gain your information from sources that value celebrity and style over truth and substance.
Not that this is anything new. Choosing the wrong voice to listen to because they sound convincing and telling us what we want to hear has been an issue for humans since the Garden of Eden! And if you remember back to when we talked about the context of 1st Corinthians, you’ll remember that this was an issue for Paul’s ministry too.
He was a man that was not only educated as a great Jewish scholar but was also trained in the Greek educational system too. He was a talented guy who was not only a skilled tradesman, but had memorized the whole Bible, had studied it for years, and was also well versed Greek philosophy. When he came into Greece as a missionary, he had an amazing amount of information, and the skill to share it, with those who were looking for new knowledge and divine wisdom.
And yet, over and over he was mocked and dismissed as a fool. Why? Because instead of playing to what the crowds wanted to hear with long, clever speeches full of fancy quotes and floury language, Paul stuck to the simple truths of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He had the ability, but he staunchly refused to stylize his teaching. He refused to dilute the message by becoming a spectacle. He refused to cloud the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ with a bunch of clever showmanship.
Why? Wouldn’t that have helped? Wouldn’t he have gotten more listeners if he would have been a bit more marketable? Maybe, but he didn’t want anyone walking away from his preaching and remember him. He only wanted his listeners to remember what he had said about Jesus. He knew that the Greek people struggled with the same thing we do today: celebrity worship. When they went home they would be talking just as much about how interesting, exciting, and passionate their favourite speaker was as they would about the substance of what they learned – maybe more. “I have no idea what he said, but wow, was he an entertaining speaker!” was not a review that Paul wanted to get.
Too many Bible teachers get this confused, and too many Christians do this with their favourite preachers today. They find a person that looks good, sounds interesting, has lots of charisma, and says things that they agree with, and then decide to follow them. The truthfulness of the message comes second to the personality behind the microphone.
Listen to what Paul says to the Corinthian church. Open to 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 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?”
You see, they had forgotten the message they had heard and believed, and had slipped into celebrity worship. It wasn’t Paul’s or Apollos’ or Cephas’ (which is Peter’s) fault that this happened. It was the natural state of the Corinthians to elevate the teacher over the message. “Paul was the one who planted our church and spent time with us, so he’s my favourite we should all follow him.”, some would say. “Well, Peter is the leader of all the Apostles, plus he’s the one who gave the first sermon in Jerusalem at Pentecost, so we should listen to him.”, others would argue. “Well, Apollos is one of the greatest preachers of all time! His eloquence and speaking ability is unmatched by anyone! Everyone loves him and the crowds come running whenever he’s in town. We should all follow him!”, others would say.
Meanwhile, Paul, Peter, and Apollos are each getting more and more frustrated with this church because none of them want this kind of attention! They are trying to put the spotlight on Jesus, and the crowd keeps trying to put the spotlight on them.
Sounds like what happens in the church today, doesn’t it? I’m a John MacArthur guy! I like Rick Warren! I’m all about John Piper! TD Jakes! Franklin Graham! John Hagee! Francis Chan! Joyce Meyer!
But in the church it gets even crazier because we don’t just idolize people that are alive, but those who have died a long time ago – and then we stick their names on our churches! Of course, you have churches dedicated to St. Peter, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Paul… but also Calvinist churches named after John Calvin, Lutheran churches named after Martin Luther, Arminian churches named after Jacobus Arminius… and the list goes on. We seem to love finding a favourite Christian, glomming onto them, and then arguing with other believers on their behalf. Paul is better than Peter! Luther is better than Calvin!
All this celebrity worship divided the Corinthian church into sects that not only argued with one another but ended up working against each other. It got to the point that they wouldn’t even eat together anymore. We’re not even talking about differences in theology, we’re merely talking about preferring one teacher over another! And it divides churches today too.
Look at verse 14 and see what Paul says next. He says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Paul is actually thankful that he spent so much time preaching and teaching that there were not many people in the church who can claim to be in his “official fan club” because they were baptized by him. That kind of thinking is a sign of a sick soul and a sick church, and he wanted no part of it. Why? Because when the focus is on the teacher, or the religious act, the focus is no longer on the worship of God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and obedience to His Word. Instead, people start talking about the person who is leading the worship, preaching the sermon, and teaching the Bible. And that, in short, is idol worship.
Now, there are lots of places we could go from here. I could go on a rant against the health and wealth preachers who put on a great show, attract thousands of followers, but are actually preaching a false gospel. I could talk about how some Christian pastors have been corrupted by their pursuit of fame and deny the fundamental tenets of the faith so they gain a bigger audience. I could get into how many churches have split because of their dedication to secondary and tertiary issues, forgetting about their unity in Christ. I could explain a bunch of ways that famous theologians have differed with one another and how the church dealt with those issues. I could even take a tour of how the Roman Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel and fallen into the trap of elevating human teaching to the level of scripture.
And I would enjoy talking about all of those topics. But, here’s where I think God wants me to go today, because I think all of us need to hear it – me included:
Emptying the Cross of its Power
There’s an important phrase that Paul uses at the end of this section that explains the problem with creating a cult of personality, worshipping celebrities, or simply getting our eyes off of God and onto the one who is delivering the message – and it’s found in verse 17.
Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Paul is clearly not against baptism. He knows how important baptism is, that it was commanded by the Lord Jesus, and actually takes time in many of his letters, including First Corinthians, to explain how it connects us to the gospel of Jesus and to one another.
And Paul is not against “eloquent wisdom”. Proverbs 3:13 says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” Whole books of the Bible are dedicated to wisdom! Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are often called “wisdom literature”. So there’s no way Paul is against speaking and pursuing wisdom.
So what is Paul saying here? He is saying that this church had gotten their priorities out of whack and were placing too much emphasis on the means and modes of their religion, and all the good things that come as a result, and had forgotten the core of what their faith was supposed to be all about.
They argued about baptism but forgot about what it meant, the story it told, the obedience it showed, and the community it made them a part of. They would argue about which preacher was best, but not discuss the truth they were sharing. They would perform and celebrate the rituals and rights of the church, like taking the Lord’s Supper, but had forgotten their meaning. They would come to church seeking more knowledge, but weren’t using that knowledge to better their relationship with Jesus. They would have grand discussions about theological things, but their hearts were growing cold towards God. And in all of their religious passion for wisdom, they had forgotten the message of the gospel, the power of the cross, and their desperate need for the presence of God in their lives.
In their very short Christian lives, they had gone from overwhelmed by how God had called them to be followers of Jesus who were freed from the consequence of their sins to religious people who came to church, but didn’t think much about Jesus. They were happy as long as the speaker was interesting enough, the spectacle was exciting enough, and they could go about their week knowing they were better than all those around them because they were Christians.
Everything about Paul’s ministry and preaching spoke against that. Wisdom and learning were incredibly important to both the Jews and the Greeks, so it was easy for them to slide into thinking that it was most interesting preachers that were best to listen to. And yet Paul didn’t play that game.
Remember how exhausted he was when he first came to town? He didn’t have anything left other than the core of the gospel and whatever power the Holy Spirit would give him. He was utterly dependent on God for whatever he was going to say, and whatever God wanted to do. Even if he had wanted to use them, he had no strength left to come up with clever illustrations and fancy, philosophical arguments.
Turn the page and look at the beginning of chapter 2 where he says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
You see, that’s the difference. When the message of the gospel “rests on the wisdom of men”, or is framed so it sounds like “plausible words”, or is filled with “lofty speech”, it is drained of its power.
For me, as a preacher, the more I want you to see me, the less you will see Jesus. The more interested I am in you hearing my words, the less you will hear His Word. I could stand up here, talk about the Bible for an hour, and it could be utterly useless to you spiritually.
For you, as you share your faith with your family and friends, the more they hear of your wisdom, your plausibility, and your arguments, as you fancy up your presentation, trim off the parts you think they’ll be offended by, embellish the parts that sound more interesting, and cram in worldly wisdom because they don’t want to hear what the Bible has to say – the less they will hear from Jesus. Your human, “eloquent wisdom”, will show that you believe that the message of the cross of Christ is empty of its power.
Does that mean we don’t have to study the Bible, or theology, or history, or learn how to make reasoned arguments for why we have the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15)? Of course not! We learn those things so we can know more about God. It increases our faith and builds our relationship with Jesus. It helps us gain confidence during times of doubt that there are good answers to our hardest questions and helps us know what we’re talking about when people ask us those hard questions.
What this means is that when we preach, or teach Sunday school, or lead the service, or organize a small group, or share our faith with a friend, we need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, our knowledge or wisdom cannot change anyone’s heart or mind!
When a preacher, teacher, missionary, or evangelist (and all Christians are at least one of those in some capacity) either pursues fame and celebrity or tries to use their charm, intelligence or winsomeness to convey the gospel, they not only risk the temptation to change the message, but also risk losing the power of God that is meant to do the work in changing the listener’s heart.
You may, in fact, do more harm than good as you seek to try to convert someone to your own personal understanding of God than if you are seeking to introduce them to God Himself. You could do more harm by trying to use imperfect human explanations of mysterious things, and causing them to be more confused than they were when you first started speaking. You could also do more harm than good because if they did believe you, and change their mind, they may be converted to your own personal religion, a version of the faith that you’ve come up with yourself, or to whatever version they think they heard. You will have gained a follower of yourself, but you have not made them a follower of God (Matthew 23:15).
When we are sharing our faith, we aren’t trying to argue or convince anyone into a new or better relationship with God. All we are meant to do is to present what God has said in the Bible, the simple meaning of the Gospel, and what it has meant to us. We allow the Holy Spirit to do the convincing, the Word of God to be the tool we use, and the testimony that God has been writing in our lives to be our evidence. There is no need for lofty speech or human wisdom. We must come “weak”, and in the power of the Spirit.
So here’s a couple of applications for us today, based on what we’ve been talking about:
First, and most importantly, before you teach or share anything with anyone about God, the Bible, the Gospel, or your testimony, you must pray for God to be the one who speaks through you. Pray that whatever words you say will be truthful, helpful and honouring to God. Ask God to remove your pride and your fear. You don’t want to walk in there full of pride, thinking that you are going to argue this person into becoming a Christian – and you don’t want to walk in their full of fear as though you are all alone in trying to save this person’s soul. This is God’s work, and so you need to be absolutely dependent on Him to go before you and be with you as you share God’s story.
Second, when listening to a preacher or teacher, or reading a Christian book, or blog, or podcast, or some form of social media, ask yourself if you are interested in finding the truth, or are you more interested in witnessing the spectacle? Do you follow them because you know they love God and are presenting His Word unchanged, or because they are media savvy, have interesting illustrations, speak passionately, and agree with what you think. Be careful who you listen to, what voices you allow to inform you, and be aware of your motives when you choose those voices. Scripture tells us to test the spirits, test the prophets, and make sure that they agree with reality and the truth of scripture. I think that includes us testing ourselves for why we are listening to those people in the first place.
Third, when you are given the opportunity to teach or share the gospel with someone, don’t fall for the temptation to try to think that the message needs to be changed so it will be more interesting, popular, or well received. The words of scripture and the message of the cross have inherent power on their own.
I’m not saying you don’t use illustrations to help people understand – Jesus did that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t figure out ways to engage auditory or tactile or visual learners – Jesus did that too. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t speak with passion or use measured words – Jesus did that too.
What I am saying is that as you present the gospel to people, or teach the Bible, there are going to be parts that you are going to want to downplay because they are controversial, or difficult to explain, or just plain offensive – like that people are sinners from birth, or that God has standards for how people live their lives, or that Jesus defies labels (he’s not a liberal, or conservative, or democrat, or communist, or feminist, or chauvinist, or modernist, or socialist…), or that God presents Himself as male, or the violence Jesus endured, or that there really is a Hell for all who do not believe in Jesus as their only Saviour, or that someone has to be willing to publically declare their faith. There are lots of things we are going to be tempted to downplay or skip over when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we shouldn’t.
Every time we do, that’s us trying to use human wisdom instead of God’s to try to get people to come to Him. It’s impossible. Human wisdom cannot lead us to God. An edited gospel, or an edited Bible, cannot save anyone. Trying to be clever, safe, and inoffensive, but still present the whole gospel, is impossible. It’s designed to offend. It’s designed to require knowledge we can’t give. It’s designed to require the Holy Spirit to change the heart – and not us.
Don’t fall into the trap of changing the message or skipping parts in your personal study, when you talk to your kids, when you teach in church, or when you share your faith. Give the whole story in a simple way, and trust that the “wisdom or Christ” and the “power of the cross” will lead the person to have their faith “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18-2:5)