Pastors are often looked up to by their congregants. Many times, they are looked up to rightly for good character, wisdom, and theological understanding. Those who would be elders in a church should be living lives that are "above reproach" (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:7–9). They should be "examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3), and we should be able to imitate them in as much as they imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). We should respect and support our spiritual leaders in the work they do (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17). However, this is much different than "pastor worship."
"Pastor worship" is what occurs when congregants treat their pastors more like a celebrity to be idolized than like a leader for whom to be grateful. Rather than be amazed at the truth of God and seek to follow Him, they are star struck by their pastor and seek to follow him. The internet and social media have made it even easier for a pastor, teacher, or other spiritual leader to be put on a pedestal and praised by people around the world. We can pick and choose our favorites, flock to those who are popular, and be easily tempted to start idolizing the man who is teaching rather than his teaching being an impetus to draw us deeper in our walk with God. Though pastor worship is a common temptation, it is certainly not right, and it is dangerous for all involved.
Spiritual leadership is a great responsibility and should not be handled lightly. God holds church leaders accountable for the way they lead the people they are ministering to (Hebrews 13:17). Pastors, elders, and other spiritual leaders should be focused on modeling Christ and therefore should be more concerned with serving their congregation than with popularity (Matthew 20:25–28). They should be seeking to share "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). They should be attentive to the needs of their specific congregations, equipping them and caring for them in their contexts (Ephesians 4:11–16; Galatians 6:1–10). They are to "shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2–3). When both the pastor and those he shepherds understand this call, the temptation to pastor worship is diminished.
You can recognize pastor worship by the attitudes of the church around the pastor. Is the pastor the main topic of conversation at church? Are sightings and conversations with him significant to the congregation? Are the works, wisdom, and character of the pastor praised from the pulpit? Some churches emphasize the words, theology, and advice of the pastor above all others. If you leave the service with a sense of awe about the pastor rather than God, you might need to examine whether it is God or the pastor who is the center of your worship.
While some churches are more obviously centered around a pastor and he is the one glorified in their church, people are prone to idolatry and can even worship a pastor who walks in humility. This is what was happening in the Corinthian church, and it was causing division among the members of the church. Paul addresses this issue, saying, "For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord as assigned to each. I planted, Apollos waters, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building" (1 Corinthians 3:4–9). Paul reminds the church that spiritual leaders are simply human; even great teachers are no better than anyone else. He also emphasizes that it is not the work of the teacher, but the work of God that brings salvation and healing and a changed life to people. He even says that this sort of idolatry is spiritually immature, bringing about jealousy, strife; it is a demonstration of walking in the flesh (1 Corinthians 3:3).
When we follow a man and rely on a specific teacher for our spiritual food, we run the risk of our spirituality being dependent upon that person. This can bring about a variety of issues. If you only listen to that one person's teaching you might not have a rounded understanding of Scripture. You might be too eager to accept what he is teaching as truth rather than testing what he is teaching against Scripture (Acts 17:11). As so many pastors, teachers, and leaders have, a pastor we are prone to worship might fall into sin like adultery, embezzlement, greed, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, or any number of sins. This may cause us to question our faith and wonder how it could be true because it was based on the character of man rather than the character of God. While this is devastating in any situation, it can be particularly devastating to your faith if your faith is centered on your pastor rather than centered on Christ. Consider, too, the effects of pastor worship on the pastor. Idolizing a pastor might lead to him feeling isolated and unable to admit his failings and needs to others. It could lead to undue pressure and expectations on him and his family. It could prompt burnout. Of course, it could also lead to excessive pride. No person can bear the weight of meeting our every need, and we should never expect them to. There is a reason that only God is to be worshiped; only He is worthy of it!
We should honor and appreciate our pastors. But we must also remember that they are sinners saved by grace just as we are. They are under-shepherds who have been tasked with caring for the flock. After Peter counseled the elders to shepherd willingly, eagerly, and as examples to the flock, he wrote "when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'" (1 Peter 5:4–5). We should all be walking in humility toward one another, ultimately following Christ in all that we do.
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