The Sin of Man Worship in the Professing Christian Church by Joe Harper
Updated: Jan 17
8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matt. 23:8-11)
The heart of man is deceitful above all things and is desperately wicked. There are many sins that plague God’s children but there is one that brings destruction upon the well-being of the people of God faster than any other. This is the sin of idolatry. Today, we live in an age where the professing Christian Church has fallen under the sway of a particular form of idolatry. This is the sin of worshipping men who lead in the Churches instead of worshipping God. This phenomenon has been present all throughout the history of the Church, but it is especially evident in the evangelical Church in our day. When I refer to the sin of man worship in the Christian Church, I am specifically addressing the issue of exalting pastors to the point where the adoration becomes idolatrous and therefore sinful. It is not my intention to in any way attack God’s true shepherds nor is it my goal to cultivate a sinful attitude of rebellion against true God given authority in the Church. This being said, God has placed upon my heart the need to address this issue that is such a hindrance to the work of God in the Christian Church.
The sinful exaltation of pastors is an incredibly common sin in the professing Christian Church. Man worship in regard to shepherds is at times a subtle sin. It oftentimes goes on in Churches without being noticed by the majority of those caught up in its deceitful poison. Oftentimes great sins are hidden behind a wall of supposed sincerity and professed love for the Lord. This is the case for the sin of man worship. The participants in this sin will often justify their preacher idolatry as simply their recognition of how God’s hand is upon these great men while failing to recognize the sinful adoration in their own hearts. Man worship is a destructive sin because it leads to the elevation of one group of men above their brethren. This inevitability leads to other sins that bring down even the most faithful of Churches. In many assemblies of God’s professing people any honest observer would be forced to put forward the question of whether the pastors are serving the Church, or the Church is serving the pastors. The word minister means servant and pastors are called to be servants. Christ said that the greatest among his children would be those who humble themselves and serve their brethren. This is a forgotten truth. In the modern evangelical landscape, some Churches are centered entirely around a single charismatic leader with the work of the Church being dependent upon this one individual. Once this leader is no longer at the helm of leadership then his followers soon find themselves without direction and the work of the Church quickly falls apart.
We live in the age of “celebrity pastors” where certain men make a fortune off sharing their sermons on the internet or the radio and selling their books to their followers. Even in the more reformed or theologically conservative Churches that would scoff at the mega pastors outside their own camp, Church members will heap praise on their own favorite leaders who are usually leaders of mega Churches in their own right. These men are praised for their theological prowess, their preaching abilities, their courageous leadership, and their holy lives. We live in a day of “Conference Christianity” where thousands flock to hear their favorite preachers at these conferences. The attendants upon the hearing of these sermons will give their praise not to Christ but instead will celebrate the abilities of these gifted men. In the Churches, it is often the same. The loyal followers of these men upon hearing a helpful sermon will give the glory not to the Lord but will speak of how well the pastor preached and quickly remind their peers of how fortunate they are to have such a gifted pastor serving their congregation. Many pastors welcome this treatment loving to be honored by men and desiring to be given the chief places of honor in their assemblies. There is no shortage of hirelings and false teachers in the Church and this abundance of praise strokes the egos of these already proud men. The result of these practices is that a culture of pride and self-righteousness ensues with the pastors being put at the top of the pecking order with their followers becoming equally proud just to be in vicinity to these “great men of God.”
The worship of religious leaders is nothing new. In fact, it is as old as history itself. One era where the sin of man worship was particularly felt was in the days of our lord Jesus Christ. Jesus lived in a time when religious hypocrisy was the order of the day in Israel. This hypocrisy was exemplified by the Pharisees who were the religious leaders of that time. The Pharisees were men who loved to be praised by their followers and desired to be given the places of honor wherever they went (Matt. 23:6-7). These men pretended to be holy servants of God but in fact were men concerned only with their own self interests. They pretended to worship God but in fact worshipped themselves. The outside of their cups representing their outward appearance was clean but the inside of their cups representing the true state of their hearts were filthy (Matt. 23:25). These men appeared righteous, but their hearts were full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matt. 23:28).
One of the godliest men of that time was John the Baptist. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets and is said to have been the greatest of them (Matt. 11:11). John was given the special task of proclaiming the coming of the messiah to the nation of Israel. John the Baptist saw the true state of religion in his homeland which included the sins of the religious leaders in Judea. There is little doubt that one of the chief reasons why John the Baptist secluded himself in the wilderness was to separate himself from the iniquities of false religion that permeated Judean society. If there had been something of spiritual value for his soul to be found in the centers of civilization, then perhaps this would be where he would have been found. Instead, John chose to dwell in the wilderness where his clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he dined on locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). John preached a message of the need of repentance and of the coming of the messiah to his countrymen. The sign of his ministry was baptism which represented the need of cleansing from sin. John the Baptist knew the hearts of the Pharisees and he knew that they were not the leaders that the common people thought they were. When John saw the Pharisees, he was quick to call them a generation of vipers and commanded them to produce fruits meet for repentance (Matt. 3:7-8).
Our Lord Jesus Christ was also well aware of the true nature of the Pharisees. In fact, he repeatedly called out their sinfulness and warned the people of their true standing before his father. Christ warned, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6). Jesus had many encounters with the proud and self-righteous pharisees who hoped to destroy him because they saw him as a threat to their own power and influence. The pharisees were not concerned with what the truth was. In fact, the greater the testimony that confirmed that Jesus was the Son of God, the greater was their hatred for him. This led them to plot the death of Jesus which culminated in the crucifixion. What their wicked hearts intended for evil the Lord intended for good. God used the pride of the pharisees in his plan to save sinners from the wrath to come. The truth is that the Pharisees were only able to maintain their power and influence over the religious life of Israel because those around them continued to put them on a pedestal despite the sins in their hearts. While it is certain that some faithful men were able to see through the Pharisees, many others were caught up in praising them despite the religious hypocrisy. The Pharisees were revered for their knowledge of the law of God and their faithfulness in keeping that law. Instead, these men had added to God’s word with their own traditions and had failed to understand the true meaning of the law they pretended to know so well. The false doctrines that crept into Israel came from this very same sect of “wise scholars.” Here is a great lesson for any servant of God. Wherever the sinful exaltation of men occurs, a spirit of legalism will not be far behind.
Another servant of God who witnessed the sinful exaltation of God’s ministers was the Apostle Paul. When Paul wrote his first epistle to the Corinthian Church, he was well aware that a climate of factionalism had arisen in the Church leading to divisions in the assembly. The Christians in Corinth were saying that they were followers of Paul, or followers of Apollos, or followers of Cephas (1 Cor. 1:11-12). One of the sins that had contributed to this atmosphere in the Church was the sinful adoration of men above God. Paul was certainly grieved to hear the report of what was going on in the Church and equally grieved that his name was connected to the spirit of division in the Church. Paul even responded that he was grateful that he had baptized none of the people in the Corinthian Church apart from Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanus. Paul was grateful that he had baptized so few in Corinth because he knew that had his name been associated with the more of the baptisms in the Church, it would have contributed even more to the divisions in the Church. Another lesson presents itself. The sinful exaltation of men always leads to division in the Church of God.
Paul was also forced to deal with false ministers who entered into the Church and worked to deceive the sheep. By the time that Paul wrote 2 Corinthians this very thing had gone on in the Corinthian Church. False Apostles had worked their way into the congregation and had even turned the people against Paul. The Corinthians were deceived by the charms of these wicked men and put themselves under their false teachings. False teachers always present themselves well. They would fail to gain any followers if this was not the case. Their glamorous appearances, captivating personalities, and enticing words will lead the people astray from the truth found in God’s word. God’s professing people at times fall into the trap of failing to judge leaders according to their true fruits as Christ warned them to do (Matt. 7:15-20). Teachers should always be judged by whether their teaching is according to the law and the testimony (Isa 8:20). In 2 Timothy, Paul warned his protégé Timothy of the days when the people would not endure sound doctrine but would instead acquire to themselves teachers who would put in their ears false teachings that appeal to their flesh (2 Tim. 4:3-4). These teachers would not teach the people the truth that they would need to live their lives in obedience and faithfulness to God. Instead, these teachers would soften their teachings so that they would appeal to the greater masses. These false teachers would essentially speak to the people what they wanted to hear instead of what their souls truly needed to hear. This has been the way of false teachers all throughout the history of God’s people. False teachers are always characterized not only by their false doctrines but also by their moral failings. Although false teachers try to present themselves as spiritual people who love the Lord, their true colors will always present themselves eventually. Christ said, “by your fruits shall you know them.” False teachers reveal themselves to the discerning by their pride, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, love of praise, and their desire to control others. These men do not wish to be humble but instead to raise themselves above their fellow men. The conduct of any spiritual leaders should also be carefully judged to see whether the spirit of God is at work in the hearts of these men. Sadly, we live in a time where many of the professing people of God in the evangelical world will often choose leaders more due to their outward appearance than due to the true state of their hearts. What was true in Paul’s day is still true in our own. Perhaps the reason why the Church is filled with so many moral failings is because the Church has chosen leaders according to the whims of carnal men instead of the leading of the spirit of God. It has been true in all ages that many who run were never sent (Jer. 23:21).
In Church history, the sinful exaltation of leaders in the Church has been seen time and time again. The establishment of the Antichrist (Pope of Rome) came about due to certain men claiming authority over their peers. Certain pastors were given preeminence over their fellow elders until before long the hierarchal system of bishops and presbyters became widespread in the Church. One man amongst the many was made first amongst equals which soon led to no equality at all. Bishops, led to Archbishops, Cardinals, Papal Councils, Inquisitions, and all the rest. Eventually, the Bishop of Rome claimed to be head of the entire Christian Church and even attempted to exalt himself to heaven itself. The Popes claimed to be the Vicar of Christ which amounted to a blasphemous claim of equality with Christ. The rise of the Papacy led to a long period of ecclesiastical tyranny over the Church where the false doctrines of Rome were enforced by the fires of the inquisitions. So it goes that wherever man worship takes place then tyranny is sure to be there as well. The sinful elevation of some men will certainly lead to the bondage of others. Idolatry of leaders and the freedoms of the brethren will not coexist for long.
More examples could be given but the issue at hand has been presented for the consideration of God’s servants. Many of the evils of man worship have been already laid out but a summary of the evil effects of this sin may prove helpful. Man worship is evil chiefly because it comes at the expense of the love of God. God is jealous over his children and detests the sin of idolatry. God will always deal with idolatry in the hearts of his children by fatherly chastisement and discipline until the sin has been thoroughly rooted out. Even God’s true servants at times fall into the trap of exalting men to highly. At times, the heroes of the Christian faith from the past can be sources of temptation for idolatry amongst God’s children. Although we should study the great Christian men of the past and learn from their wisdom, we must guard our hearts against putting these men on a pedestal in our hearts. It is not wrong to find inspiration from how God has worked in the past through his Church but we must always give our praise ultimately to God. We are called to love Christ above all others and he must always be first in our hearts. God’s people find this same temptation from contemporary men who are not false teachers but are in fact faithful shepherds trying to serve their congregations. Christians at times see the graces, gifts, and faithfulness of true shepherds and it leads to a point of sinful adoration of these men. God of course calls us to love, respect, encourage, and support his shepherds but once again we must always guard our hearts.
The second evil that arise from man worship is the maintenance of traditions and false doctrines. When leaders in the Church are put on a pedestal they are begun to be viewed as infallible or close to it. When other men state that perhaps what these men are teaching is not scriptural in all areas, they are quickly shouted down because they are in fact smashing the idols of the man worshipers. In Jesus’s day, the adoration of the pharisees led to the traditions that contradicted the true meaning of the law. Throughout centuries of Church history, the clergy were the religious class that maintained the false doctrines of Romanism. In our own day, the “celebrity pastors” maintain their own groups of followers and teach their own traditions in contradiction to God’s word. The deviations from Scripture that these men teach is not always perceived by all, but the traditions are there for any discerning student of Scripture to see.
A third evil that stems from the worship of leaders in the Church is the allowance of sin. The idolatry of leaders always leads people to turning a blind eye to their sins until entire Churches find themselves in great difficulty. In order to find proof of this, one must only look to the countless pastoral scandals that have wreaked havoc in Evangelicalism. Idolatry is a sin that always leads to a delusional evaluation of the object of worship. When men are the subjects of idolatry, their followers only see their strengths and fail to see any weaknesses. This result is that sin is overlooked when these leaders commit it. Idolatry leads to partiality which in turn leads to God’s sheep being harmed and Churches being torn apart from division. Christians are commanded to judge righteous judgements (Jn. 7:24) and are to do nothing out of partiality (Jm. 2:4) Impartiality cannot take place where idolatry is present.
Another evil effect of man worship is the promotion of ecclesiastical tyranny. Just as the Papacy arose due to certain men being exalted above others so too do certain pastors become tyrants due to their sinful adoration by others. Certain men feed on the constant praises put in their ears until they come to believe that they are better than those around them. These men begin to believe their own stories. Oftentimes the pride of preachers can be seen simply by observing how they always talk about themselves in their sermons and how they are always the heroes of their own stories. This sinful environment always leads to these men being unable to hear any criticism about themselves no matter how humble, gracious, or kind the criticism is delivered. The men who deliver this criticism soon become the enemies of the pastor even if those same men were once amongst his closest allies. This leads to a culture where sin is tolerated in pastors and the sheep are called to endure pastoral abuse. Pastors caught up in pride will always go beyond the bounds of God’s word and will encroach upon the true liberties of Christians. Legalism is usually due to the will of men being put above the word of God.
The inevitable result of man worship is the withdrawal of God’s spirit from the Churches. God has declared that his glory will not go to another (Isa. 42:8). God has always punished the worship of the creature over the creator. Idolatry led to the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judea and the Israelites being taken into captivity in Babylon. The false religion of first century Israel led by the self-righteous Pharisees came to a violent end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Romans in 70 A.D. The sinful exaltation of the Roman Catholic clergy has led to terrible judgements in history coming from the hand of God such as the French Revolution where the priests were murdered by the people. The sinful worship of leaders in the Evangelical Church in modern times has certainly brought down the displeasure of the Lord. The man worship today is without question one of the great causes of the difficulties that has overcome Evangelicalism in current times. God will not abide competition from men who attempt to steal his glory. Man worship grieves the Holy Spirit and ultimately leads to the withdrawal of God’s blessings from Churches. God’s mercy upon his true children will lead to discipline but his greatest judgement is to abandon Churches altogether.
Ultimately, man worship shows where the hearts of professing Christians really are. God declares that idolators will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Men who love men more than God are proven to not be his children at all. God’s true children may fall into the sin of idolatry for a season but God will eventually lead them to repentance. The modern Church desperately needs to repent of this sin and give its worship and love solely to Christ alone. Let it be said, that if you are sitting under the ministry of a faithful shepherd then due all in your power to strengthen his hand. Love him, respect him, encourage him, submit to his exhortations as they agree with God’s word. However, one can faithfully do all these things while never falling into the trap of worshipping him. The calling out of man worship does not mean that true pastors should not be properly honored in the way God would have us to do so. The sin of man worship needs to be thoroughly abandoned in the American Church. This culture of celebrity pastors needs to be abandoned once and for all. May God do away with it for the proclamation of his own glory and for the good of his Church. If you have fallen into this sin then may you faithfully abandon it and turn to the God whose mercies are new day by day.