Celebrity Pastors Falling Hard; Evangelicals Must Be More Suspicious: Theologian

(Photo: Willow Creek Association)Thousands of church leaders join the 2007 Willow Creek Leadership Summit in South Barrington, Ill. The summit was featured live via videocast in cities across the globe.

In the wake of the fall of some celebrity megachurch pastors, evangelicals must start becoming much more suspicious of who they trust, a prominent Baptist theologian is warning.

Roger E. Olson, professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, wrote in a blog post last week that America's megachurch model "isn't working."

"My suggestion is that people (and I'm talking primarily to evangelical Christians) be much more suspicious than they tend to be — about powerful, celebrity spiritual leaders who are not accountable to anyone but themselves and their handpicked boards ('yes men')," he wrote.

He argued that America's "obsession with celebrities, 'bigness,' entertainment, and 'success'" is one of the underlying problems.

"This obsession has obviously filtered into American religion and, sadly, even into American evangelical Christianity," he warned.

Olson pointed out that in recent years, "several founders and leaders of evangelical, independent mega-churches have fallen off their celebrity-pastor pedestals hard. It's happening again, right now, at perhaps the best-known and most influential of them all."

His comments were made a day after the entire elder board of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois resigned over accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse surrounding founder and former senior pastor Bill Hybels.

Hybels, who has maintained his innocence, has been accused by several women of inappropriate conduct, including suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms. Most recently, a former employee accused him of groping and oral sex.

The Willow Creek elder board initially cleared Hybels in an investigation, but later admitted that they made mistakes and that he had "fallen into sin." They apologized to the women they had not believed.

Besides moral failings, fraud has also been a big concern for large churches.

Pete Evans, lead investigator at the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, which has been tracking religious fraud and helping victims of religious fraud for almost 30 years, recently told The Christian Post that billions are being lost in church fraud annually due to a lack of transparency.

Olson argued that one of the main problems stems from the independent nature of megachurches in cases where pastors are not held accountable to anyone outside the organization.

"But these have become extremely popular in America in the past twenty-five years. All over the country they have popped up and people are flocking to them. They often offer great religious entertainment and a place to 'hide' if all you want to do is attend church and never be asked to do anything," he warned.

"Several of these independent mega-church's celebrity pastors have fallen hard lately. They have been accused of being overly authoritarian, involved in sexual affairs outside of marriage, sexual harassment, and heresy."

The theologian said that he is "never really surprised when an independent celebrity pastor or evangelist or other religious leader not accountable to anyone outside his or her own organization falls."

"I'm not suggesting it always happens. There have been many such independent celebrity pastors not accountable to anyone outside their own organization who have retired with an unstained record," he clarified.

"However, it does seem that a surprising number of such men do fall and fall hard — and often take down lots of people with them."

Olson said that accountability is essential when it comes to running megachurches, and advised people to "stay away from churches led by people with no accountability to anyone outside their own church — especially if they are powerful, famous, and almost worshiped by their congregants."

He suggested that even though they are not perfect either, being part of denominations provides more of a "covering" when it comes to accountability, as opposed to being entirely independent.

Moreover, he added, even if some denominations have no hierarchy, almost all of them provide some form of leadership that a congregant member can turn to if a pastor is acting illegally or immorally.

"The leaders may not have direct authority over the pastor or congregation (some denominations are just loose affiliations of congregations without any authority outside the member congregations), but they can intervene on a personal level," he wrote.

"If I were looking for a church to join and I found one without any kind of accountability to anyone outside the congregation I would strongly suggest that the pastor, at least, be voluntarily accountable to someone who can step in, as it were, and intervene if a congregant has good reason to believe the pastor or other leaders of the congregation are acting immorally, illegally or in an overly authoritarian manner."

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