Americans love celebrities. And Christian Americans love Christian celebrities. After all, it’s nice to have someone we can point to and say, “See, Christianity is cool.”
Unlike in broader American culture, though, which makes no bones about “canceling” people when allegations of sexual abuse arise (such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey), American Christian culture balks forcefully when allegations come out against our “heroes.” Ravi Zacharias is only the most recent of a long line of evangelical leaders to face allegations of abuse and to be defended to the teeth by Christians.
The Old Testament provides some insight about celebrity culture and the human tendency to elevate humans to a place they were never meant to be, in short to worship them. This sin causes us to excuse the “faults” of our leaders and rationalize their deviant behavior, making our churches more and more unsafe for the vulnerable.
“This sin causes us to excuse the ‘faults’ of our leaders and rationalize their deviant behavior, making our churches more and more unsafe for the vulnerable.”
Saul is the textbook example of our desire to have a human leader, a flesh-and-blood person to guide and direct our lives. Though the Lord was meant to be their king, the Israelites demanded a human king “to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5 NIV). Samuel warns Israel that a human king will abuse them; he will rob them of their sons and daughters, their income, and even their bodies (see 1 Samuel 8:10–17).
And you know the rest of the story. Saul does everything God says he’ll do. Even David, the very best of the kings, commits rape and murder.
In addition to Samuel’s warnings, the people could look to their recent past. The book of Judges is filled with powerful men who took what they wanted with no consequence. Even today these people’s abuse is explained away.
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For example, when I ask my Old Testament students—mostly young men and women who grew up in church—why Samson’s story is in the Bible, the most common response I get is, “To show that God can use anyone.”
Sure, Samson’s story does show that. Why, though, do we brush past Samson’s sins—refusing even now to hold him responsible—while we don’t do the same with Pharaoh and Pontius Pilate, whom God also used?
I think it may be for the same reason that we are quick to condemn men like Harvey Weinstein (or the film Cuties) while making excuses, defending, and otherwise covering for sexual predators nearer to us. Anna Salter points out in her book Predators that we (humans in general but especially religious people) naturally want to believe the best about others, and even more so when:
- Those people are in our own “camp”
- Not believing the best about them will cost us something.
In cases involving evangelical “heroes” accused of sexual abuse, bias gets us on both counts. In the first case, we simply can’t believe that an evangelical Christian would commit sexual abuse. A Catholic priest, sure (and definitely an atheist), but never an evangelical, and certainly never one who is so nice, speaks so eloquently, has shared the gospel so much, and has helped so many people. The cognitive dissonance is simply too much for us to overcome our confirmation bias.
“(W)e simply can’t believe that an evangelical Christian would commit sexual abuse. A Catholic priest, sure (and definitely an atheist), but never an evangelical . . .”
Second, to believe that one of our “heroes” committed such an offense would mean that we are in some way also defective. We didn’t suspect the abuse or see it coming, and what does that say about us? At the very best it says that we were deceived; at the worst it says we were complicit in enabling a sexual predator. It’s not a pretty thought, but it’s one evangelical Christians must confront if we want to put even a dent in the scourge of sexual abuse in our midst.
Despite God telling Israel that kings would abuse them, and despite reading about such abuse in Scripture, and despite headline after headline of abuse committed by Christian leaders today, we still lionize men. Just like Israel in the Old Testament, we demand a king over us, and all the better if it is a king who is handsome and golden-tongued. And once we have that king, we refuse to believe he may be capable of the abuses we’ve already seen and been warned about so many times before.
Should Christians eschew all Christian leadership? No, of course not. The Bible is clear that God gives us leaders in the church. The problem comes when we make those men gods—usually unconsciously—and develop a celebrity cult around them.
Can Christians avoid all abuse all the time? No, of course not, and even thinking that implies that the victims themselves are to blame.
However, we can and should recognize that this particular sin—desiring a king over us instead of God—makes us that much easier to target. Predators will use such infatuation with “men of God” to manipulate and control both their victims and the broader Christian culture, which, it turns out, they’ve also groomed.
Russell L. Meek (PhD Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a speaker, writer, and professor who specializes in the Old Testament and its intersection with the Christian life. You can visit him online at RussMeek.com.