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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

March 5 , 2006

Brand-Name Christianity

Christianity Today recently helped me put my finger on a problem in Christianity today: brand names.

As I read through the magazine, what struck me was how many American evangelical Christians seem to be basing their faith more on what their leaders of choice believe than on what they have gleaned and tested for themselves. And that's a dangerous thing.

I first became aware of this phenomenon about 25 years ago when I was a college student working a summer job in the outlet stores of Reading, Pa. It was the heyday of Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club television program, and several of the older store clerks were avid viewers. They affixed little PTL pins in various shapes to their work clothes. They had received the pins for making regular donations to the ministry.

I really liked these salt-of-the-earth ladies. They were friendly and helpful to the customers. They always had a smile and a kind word for everyone. There was just one problem: all their understanding of Christianity came from the PTL Club, not from their involvement in a local church or their own devotions. Jim Bakker was their pastor and interpreter of the gospel.

When he fell, they were genuinely heartbroken. And as the magnitude of how he had misused funds and led people astray came to light, they became very depressed. Their faith had been based, not directly on Jesus, but on the Bakkers' interpretation of him.

God doesn't want us to take someone else's word for it when it comes to matters of faith. No, we are meant to "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). And part of what that means is that we get to know him through searching the Scriptures, prayer, living and learnng from others in Christian community and experiencing what happens when we obey his commandments in our own lives. When we accept the point of view of Christian leaders without testing what they say against these spiritual practices, we put ourselves in a dangerous place. When we base who we listen to on physical appearance, charisma, national prominence, ministry success, name recognition or kindred political beliefs, we increase our chances of being led past the true gospel to something else. And when we substitute the vicarious witness of another's testimony for living out our own, we're in terrible trouble.

This is certainly not a new problem. In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3, Paul pointedly reprimands the troubled congregation of Corinth for arguing over which of their leaders was better. Some preferred Apollos' teaching, others chose Paul or Cephas (Peter) as their man (1 Cor. 1:12). Paul would have none of this factionalizing, calling those who succumbed to it "infants" (1 Cor. 3:1). He reminded them that each of these leaders was God's servant (1 Cor. 3:9) and that it was childish to boast about which of them was better (1 Cor. 3:21).

Later, this congregation caused Paul new grief when it became enamored with "super-apostles," men who led them astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:3) by distorting the gospel message and the character of Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4). Apparently they were able to do this through clever and engaging preaching, their charismatic personalities, their claim to be specially gifted, and the fact that they wanted to be well paid for their services!

By contrast, Paul wasn't as smooth as this bunch. He admitted he was not the most exciting or charismatic preacher (2 Cor. 11:6). Moreover, he'd paid his own way while at the Corinth church instead of demanding compensation (2 Cor. 11:7-9). Yet despite all he had done for the Corinth church, to say nothing of all the other congregations he'd founded, in 2 Cor. 11-13, Paul found himself defending his ministry against the glamorous interlopers who were trying to take over his church. Style, apparently, had been winning over substance.

Now contrast the believers in Corinth with the folks down the road in Berea. In Acts 17, Luke records what happened when the Jews in that town not only listened to what Paul was preaching, but also "examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so." They didn't just accept—or reject, for that matter—what Paul was saying to them. They checked it out. The result? "Many of them therefore believed" (Acts 17:10–12).

Somehow, reading the February 2006 Christianity Today brought the problem into new focus for me. The cover story was titled "Why Torture Is Always Wrong." What an astonishing admission! Imagine a Christian publication acknowledging that some of its readers would not already understand that torture is always wrong. Sadly, in our war-on-terror age, many of us have been listening to Christian leaders whose sense of Jesus' commands have been compromised by their political views. The clear commands of Christ have become clouded in the rhetoric. That we need to be shaken out of this murky state and back into a more authentic understanding of what Jesus taught and stood for is a potent sign that we too often let the values of prominent leaders, rather than Scripture and our understanding of Jesus, inform our thinking.

Inside was a breaking story about Christian mega-author Bruce Wilkinson abandoning his African mission projects. Wilkinson was the hot Christian author a few years back with the runaway hit, The Prayer of Jabez, which spawned many merchandising tie-ins (jewelry, journals, plaques, posters, coffee mugs, bookmarks, etc.). The book purported to uncover a secret in the obscure biblical passage 1 Chron. 4:10 where a man named Jabez "cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request." Wilkinson extended the context of the prayer in this verse into a universal prayer for each Christian that God would blanketly honor. The book's popularity led many local churches to expound on its concepts or at least acknowledge its existence in Bible studies and sermon series. It also led to Christian celebrity, including its attendant mantle of authority, for Wilkinson.

Yet Wilkinson had a history of instability in his ministry, and his success did not alter the pattern. Soon after writing his subsequent book, Secrets of the Vine, Wilkinson came to believe that God had enlarged his territory to include work in Africa, and he moved there. Now, a few years later, Wilkinson has ended this phase of his ministry suddenly and not well. The circumstances include a misunderstanding of the mission field, running roughshod over local culture and arrogance.

Was Wilkinson really the kind of servant in which millions of Christians should have placed their trust? Was his advice biblically sound or just a bandwagon phenomenon? Where were the dissenting voices? How many, having believed Wilkinson's territory-enlarging advice, now will become disillusioned? Why were they not more discerning to begin with? The allure of brand-name Christianity has something to do with it.

The other thing I noticed in the February issue were the ads for seminaries. It struck me how many of them were either named for current well-known evangelical leaders, or promised instruction from household names. Do you want Christianity as interpreted by John MacArthur? The Master's Seminary is for men who think like you (and John) do. Ted Haggard's teaching more your style? You're in for a treat at Azusa Pacific's Haggard School of Theology. And so on. You can customize your training so that you're in tune with the brand-name person you most admire.

Historians would say that when we get our information only from brand-name leaders, we're really getting things secondhand. We should be relying on the most trustworthy primary sources—like reading and meditating on Scripture, listening to God in prayer, and trying out what Christ taught in our daily lives. Instead, we have been making up our minds according to what more biased secondary sources—spiritual celebrities—are telling us to believe.

J.I. Packer, John Piper. R.C. Sproul. Ravi Zacharias. Philip Yancy. James Dobson. Pat Robertson. Jerry Falwell. Chuck Colson. Joyce Meyer. T.D. Jakes. Joni Erickson Tada. Billy Graham. Franklin Graham. Anne Graham Lotz. Bill Hybels, Tony Campolo. Rick Warren, John Ortberg. Richard Foster. Lee Strobel. Brian McLaren. Jim Wallis. Even the wives of the famous preachers in the annual "Women of Faith" tours.

Are you getting your information about the Christian faith and its priorities, doctrines and lifestyle solely from one or a handful of well-known leaders like the people above? No matter how sound their teaching may be, basing your faith completely on their interpretations of Christianity is a dangerous thing. They are secondary, not primary, sources of information.

Are you active in a local church? Are you participating in a small group where you can test what you believe with others and join with them in growing in your faith? Do you read the Bible and listen for it to speak to you? Are you spending time in prayer? Do you try to do what you believe God is calling you to do and go where you feel God is leading you? And do you spend at least some time listening to the viewpoints of brand-name Christians with whom you disagree politically or theologically? The Bereans would have done no less.

The super-apostles of our day, no matter how glamorous or charismatic they may be, do not have all the answers. Sometimes they speak from agendas that are other than God's. And some of them are even like the guys Paul was opposing: people who distort the gospel and the person and work of Christ.

It takes discernment to sift through what you hear and chart a course of authentic faith. It takes a Berean.


That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.
—Acts 17:10–12

Also read:
1 Corinthians 1:10–31; 1 Corinthians 3
2 Corinthians 11; 13