Why (predominantly) do some Christians embrace the "Great Man" syndrome?

In commenting on the "Filings" article titled, "WOLVES IN SHEPHERD’S CLOTHING AGAIN," Jim Peet suggests one of the causes for pastoral abuse is the "Great Man" syndrome.

When big name pastors/leaders fall into sin, we all hear about it. Between adultery, same-sex relationships, child molesting -- or disgraceful financial dealings -- we used to be shocked at such news. Now, we are so used to hearing it, and have begun to embrace a special appreciation for the many who finished or are finishing well.

As to why big name pastors arise in the first place, we can suggest many causes.  Unless we are total cynics, we can reasonably say that the Holy Spirit has gifted and called some men to lead large, influential congregations.  We can also suggest that some men are strong leaders with  entrepreneurial expertise -- some combining their expertise with true spirituality, some building strictly upon entrepreneurial grounds, telling people what they want to hear.

But a big factor in the rise of the "Great Man" Syndrome is the desire by many Christians to be under the ministry of such men.  Why do so many Christians drive a large distance to be under the "Great Man" when, perhaps, a faithful pastor is ministering at a nearby church?  What is the draw of the "Great Man?"

The question deals with the predominant reason, unless you believe no reason is predominant.

 

 

Some Christians want to believe in a leader who is above humanity and lives a nearly perfect life (mysteriousness of distance).
4% (1 vote)
Some Christians are drawn to the "Great Man" because his preaching is so engaging/relevant to them.
0% (0 votes)
Some Christians are drawn to the "Great Man" because they don't want to think, and want to be told what to do.
8% (2 votes)
Some Christians are drawn to the "Great Man" out of herd instinct or peer dependency.
0% (0 votes)
Some Christians think that huge numbers and fame signify God is especially with the "Great Man."
4% (1 vote)
Some Christians are dysfunctional and are comfortable being controlled; being controlled is familiar (co-dependent).
0% (0 votes)
Some Christians think, theologically, that a Moses type leadership is what God intends for the church.
0% (0 votes)
No predominant reason, but all or most (4 or more) of the above.
48% (12 votes)
No predominant reason, but 2 or 3 of the above.
32% (8 votes)
Other
4% (1 vote)
Total votes: 25
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There are 12 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks for this poll Ed, interesting question. Personally I chose the combination of factors. I know that I myself have to be careful not to overlook the faults of those I care about (and there is an equally dangerous flip side to that too). It’s easy to hyper-scrutinize the N.T. Wright’s and Doug Wilsons of the world but not our own favorite guys.

Poular media is probably as much a curse as a blessing here too. I listen to one pastor every Sunday morning before church when I’m preparing food for our common meal. I could easily hold him in too high regard and fail to give my own pastor the attention that I should.

One that you left out which I think might be the real issue: idolatry. People want the golden calf in front of them over the God on the mountain. Someone mentioned Ruckman’s charisma in another thread. People eat that stuff up and exchange the birthright for the proverbial mess of porridge. Jesus is our hope not Dr. so and so but it’s really easy to swap the gift from God (pastors/teachers) with God Himself.

Josh S's picture

I think it might be (in many cases) a variation of #3. It's not just that they don't want to think. They don't want to do. It's a lot easier to let someone else "minister" and just cheer him on.

Josh Stilwell, associate pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Des Moines, Iowa.

Ron Bean's picture

When "Submission to Authority" is a key teaching of a ministry, Great Man Syndrome is more easily embraced. Passive obedience to authority figures is commonly transferred "the Man". After all, he is God's anointed and God's appointed leader.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Ed Vasicek's picture

Josh P said:

One that you left out which I think might be the real issue: idolatry. People want the golden calf in front of them over the God on the mountain. 

Josh, if you think about it, this is really covered under the first choice:

Some Christians want to believe in a leader who is above humanity and lives a nearly perfect life (mysteriousness of distance).

He is, therefore, their idol.

Ron Bean said:

When "Submission to Authority" is a key teaching of a ministry, Great Man Syndrome is more easily embraced.

You may not agree, but to me this is a square case of a combination of two choices:

Some Christians are dysfunctional and are comfortable being controlled; being controlled is familiar (co-dependent).

and

Some Christians think, theologically, that a Moses type leadership is what God intends for the church.

I think there is a lot to being familiar with being controlled.  We gravitate toward the familiar.  Although this might sound like too much psychology, I believe people who gravitate toward controlling environments seek out such envirornments.

 

Josh S. wrote:

I think it might be (in many cases) a variation of #3. It's not just that they don't want to think. They don't want to do. 

You are on to something.  Some people are very thrifty with mental expenditures, others with surrendering time or energy, others with restraining themselves, while others are thrifty with all the above. 

There are some people who believe in loving God with their heart, will and strength, but not their mind. Others are vice versa, while others love God with none of the above.

Great comments, all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Jim's picture

Football fans (or baseball, basketball, et al)

Have you noticed how fans feel better about themselves when their hometown team wins the championship?

Really kind of stupid

Ed Vasicek's picture

Dear Jim,

I cannot connect your dots:

Football fans (or baseball, basketball, et al)

Have you noticed how fans feel better about themselves when their hometown team wins the championship?

Really kind of stupid

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Jim's picture

Having lived in Denver during disastrous Super Bowl losses, there is a sense of a collective community lament - we are losers!

Having lived in Cincy during the period of the Big Red Machine, there is a collective joy - we are winners!

My point is that some follow defective leaders, because their ministries are successful for the very same reason

Bert Perry's picture

Jim wrote:

Football fans (or baseball, basketball, et al)

Have you noticed how fans feel better about themselves when their hometown team wins the championship?

Really kind of stupid

It's only good when it's Da Bears winning!  (runs for cover)

Seriously, this is a great question, and I wonder if it is actually something of a "swoon" effect at times.  OK, yes, a bunch of you are puking at the thought of anyone swooning with Douglas Wilson or James MacDonald, and I get that, but bear with me.  Jim's really illustrated the point of huge masses of people following others simply because they appear big, dominant, and the like.  Maybe it has something to do with the idolatry Josh P. mentions that way.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

It is an interesting question, and one I struggle with because I can't say I've felt any inclination to idolize anyone since I was a child. So, to me, it's a very strange mindset and I have to strenuously exercise the empathetic imagination to try to "see" it.

That said, here's a go:

  • We are all built to adore a Man ... the One Man is the Man, Christ Jesus
  • He's not here right now in the "see Him and bow down before Him" sense
  • It's easier to plug substitutes into that gap in our lives than to wrap our minds around why we need to wait for Him
  • Humans are lazy
  • Most humans are alienated from God (Eph. 4:18, Col. 1:21), and so all of the above is intensified
  • There are an unknown number of unregenerated people in church congregations, so that intensifies all of the above

Those are some personal spiritual factors. Add to that...

  • Lots of people are more than willing to be the substitute/idol Man Who Is Adored
  • Most of us experience pretty "small" lives. Having "eternity in our hearts," we long to have bigger ones... we are drawn to the substitute Great Man who's life is much "bigger" than ours... to gain a sense of importance vicariously. We feel bigger joined up to a larger-than-life hero.
  • Did I mention humans are lazy? It's so much easier to turn wagon loads of moral, ethical, and theological wrestling over to a putative Expert and take his word for it vs. doing our own thinking and decision-making. ("Sheep"!)
  • (For some of us, that's not easy at all, so our laziness takes different forms... we're still lazy!)
Kevin Miller's picture

In Philippians 3:17, Paul tells the readers "Join one another in following my example, brothers, and carefully observe those who live according to the pattern we set for you."

Now, there is no "great man" today whose example is as worthy to be followed as Paul's, but we are told to observe those who follow Paul's pattern. If I find someone who is living spiritually, as Paul lived, and who is successful in evangelism, as Paul was, then I would be inclined to consider that man as an example of how I should live as well. Perhaps those who follow "great men" are simply trying to obey the Scriptural principle of finding spiritual people to observe.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Kevin Miller wrote:

Perhaps those who follow "great men" are simply trying to obey the Scriptural principle of finding spiritual people to observe.

Kevin, your point is well taken. However, the people who knew Paul knew him PERSONALLY. That, I think, makes the situation quite different.  But the motive may be the same.

I think there is more than one way to interpret the intent of this poll/discussion.  We are not talking about someone joining a church with a gifted, highly successful pastor. We are, instead, talking about more or less blindly following that pastor and idolizing that pastor. Instead of being excited about the Savior, people are excited about their pastor.

The sad thing -- and I have seen it often -- is that people will forsake a small church led by a godly man (whose humanity shows) who would gladly mentor them -- for a big name that they will never know close up (much of whose humanity will never show apart from pulpit illustrations).  I am not saying that this is always wrong (for example, the big name guy is at a church that may offer particular ministries unavailable at the smaller church), but I will argue that it confuses godliness with notoriety.

This can happen in small churches, too.  What I am talking about is perhaps the number one choice:

Some Christians want to believe in a leader who is above humanity and lives a nearly perfect life (mysteriousness of distance).

Nonetheless, there are tons of fine, discerning Christians who are under the ministry of some pastors who have gotten off track -- getting off track can happen to any pastor.  We can only look at the outward appearance and what we know, God looks at the heart.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

First of all, beyond being an apostle and with a touch of authority that no one possesses today, Paul said to "follow me as I follow Christ."  (1 Cor. 11:1)  In other words, even with apostolic authority, Paul says more or less that when he's not following Christ's example, right there is where his authority stops.  Paul applies this principle to Peter when he confronts Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11-13), Nathan applies it with David in 2 Samuel 12, Jethro does it to Moses in Exodus 18, and of course Elijah and Isaiah, among other prophets, did it with the kings of Israel and Judah.

Given that we don't have record of a universally recognized "Prophet Identity Card" which would allow kings and other ne-er-do-wells to recognize this authority--and of course we also have record of prophets disobeying God and being killed by lions (1 Kings 13)--what this equates to, in my view, is the notion that God does not want leaders to get too big for their britches.  He tends to bring them down.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.