Somewhere in the period before seminary I can remember having made the decision that I would have no live heroes in my spiritual life. I can’t remember whether this was something that I had heard somewhere else or not, though I don’t know that the expression is either original or unique to myself. J. Oswald Sanders’s book Spiritual Leadership made a great impression on me in those years of preparation, and the insight may have come from there. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones book Preaching and Preachers also mentioned how sickened he was by how some of the younger preachers tried to emulate older preachers that they idolized, and how one tried to do so with himself.
Since then, I have seen the effect over the years on the lives and ministries of those who take someone living as their example. The key word is idolize. The living person, the spiritual leader, becomes a kind of an idol to the younger or spiritually immature man. There may be even something of a kind of what psychologists call a ‘merge wish’; a desire to take on so much of the person who is idolized that it almost seems like an attempt to merge personalities.
Here are what I’ve seen with some the leaders that are idolized:
- The idolized spiritual leader may be himself more glib than anything else. He may seem to have an answer for everything, but with a little closer examination it is found to be borrowed or plagiarized from someone else. It may not truly be the result of reading, studying and obeying the Word of God and prayer as much as it is repeating phrases and actions of still another spiritual leader.
- The idolized spiritual leader may seem to be charming and funny, but on closer examination the charm contains a good deal of self promotion and the jokes ridicule and caricature other people with whom the leader disagrees.
- The idolized spiritual leader may seem to know a lot, but a number of his statements and phrases are delivered with more forcefulness and posturing than necessary, and on further examination turn out to be trite, contrived or borrowed.
- The idolized spiritual leader may be popular, particularly with those of the same age group, but older, more spiritually mature believers are much less enthusiastic about the leader and the teaching.
- The idolized spiritual leader includes a great deal of criticism of other teachings, some of which is fair and some of which is distorted and misstated.
- The idolized spiritual leader may not be explicitly heretical in doctrine but still visibly lack humility, compassion and a generous spirit toward other genuine believers who may disagree on nonessential points of doctrine.
Here are the results that I’ve seen in the lives of those who idolize a living spiritual leader:
- They fall into deep disappointment and often neglect church fellowship if the idolized spiritual leader falls into a scandalous sin.
- They become filled with spiritual pride toward other believers and often very critical of them from taking on the critical and mocking spirit of the idolized spiritual leader.
- They take on a false confidence because of their trust in the teachings of this leader rather than a calm and peaceful confidence in the revealed Word of God.
- They spend more time taking in the teachings of the idolized spiritual leader and repeating what he says rather than spending time in the Word and prayer and preaching and teaching what they might learn of God first hand.
- They become quite dogmatic, defensive and argumentative where other believers legitimately disagree with the idolized spiritual leader based upon scripture.
- They try to force-feed others the teachings of this leader during their preaching and teaching, simply becoming more forceful, dogmatic and truculent if they sense disagreement from others.
The answer, of course, is simple. They need to come back, to be rooted and grounded in Christ, and upon his Word. I’ve seen some who have done that after having been carried away into leader-idolatry. They are not so easily led into spiritual danger a second time.