“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are so no one may boast before him.” I Corinthians 1:27-29, NIV
Sometimes the order in which your attention is drawn to certain issues prompts a specific line of thinking about them. I’ve been reading, for a number of weeks now, blogs focusing on Dr. Ergun Caner, former President of Liberty Theological Seminary who was removed from his post because of irregularities and conflicting statements he has made in sharing his personal testimony. That’s an issue because Dr. Caner, on the evangelical Christian speaking circuit, claims to be a convert to Christianity from Islam, and shares a testimony designed to encourage and inspire Christians related to winning Muslims to faith in Christ. Evidence uncovered by several individuals who compared the testimony he gave in different locations and times indicates that his story changed at times, depending on the audience, and that everything he shared wasn’t supported by known facts.
The evidence that was uncovered and publicized in this case supported the contention that Caner embellished his testimony. The action taken by Liberty University in removing him from his post and, in effect, demoting him to the position of a professor from that of being President of the seminary, indicates that they reviewed the evidence and concluded that his testimony contained contradictions. In the Christian community in the United States, what happened to Dr. Caner isn’t all that unusual.
The Christian media business is a multi-million dollar enterprise, and there is a lot of money that can be made on the speaking circut. People pay a lot of money to go to a conference or a specific location and “hear a good speaker,” or Bible teacher or preacher for that matter. There is a lot of variation in the personal “popularity” and demand for specific speakers, and like most things to which the principles of free enterprise economics are applied, demand affects the price. I suspect that a fairly high percentage of people in church on any given Sunday have chosen the one they are attending based almost exclusively on the “entertainment value” of the music and the sermon. Economic value widens the door to temptation to do things like embellish a personal testimony, or borrow someone elses work and pass it off as your own. That this market for such an “intellectual product” has developed in America isn’t surprising. But the scripture teaches that God doesn’t choose church leaders based on their personal charisma, looks, popularity or personal ability to do certain things, and it also teaches that getting his message heard in the public arena isn’t dependent on the celebrity status, looks, or intellectual ability of the speaker or writer, either.
Paul tells us that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world. Outside the church, ideas are marketed and sold for a profit. But in Christianity, the standards are completely different. Think about it from a purely spiritual perspective. If you’re a “hot, in-demand” preacher, Bible teacher or speaker, what’s the source of your material? It’s not your own intellect. Even if you do have a unique, interesting testimony that has some emotional appeal, you’ve got to consider that the spiritual gifts you’ve been given, and the moving of the Holy Spirit, is largely responsible for what you do. There is a fine line between speaking, preaching, or writing as part of your ministry to equip the saints, and then being “worthy of your hire,” and “peddling” the gospel. I think that line has probably been crossed if the fees you collect make you wealthy even by American standards, or if you have to invent something catchy and attractive to be considered interesting and worth the price.
I must also wonder about the personal celebrity status accorded to some whose fame is derived almost exclusively from their “ministry” work. I can’t really find a Biblical precedent for becoming a religious “celebrity.” Celebrities are involved in politics and entertainment, and while the church has invested itself heavily in both of those arenas, doing so is clearly not what Jesus intended. In fact, it is just about the exact opposite of what Jesus intended. Personally, though Sarah Palin became a household name via politics and her nomination as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 election, I have a little bit of trouble with her using that to gain a stage and a platform in Christian evangelical circles. She’s not really a dynamic public speaker, and her content generally consists of catchy cliches rather than any kind of real substance in the content. I find her voice and her mannerisms distracting. But most of her speaking engagements are to evangelical, conservative Christians, and mostly in places where the attendees have to pay to get in. Regardless of what you think of Sarah Palin, I don’t think Jesus intended for his church to be a marketplace for celebrity appeal.
The whole issue of plagiarism in the church falls into this same category. I’ve heard so many popular ideas claimed by preachers and teachers as their own, or put forth without due credit being given, that I could fill a book with all of the examples. I’m always very, very careful to either give credit, or acknowledge that something I heard isn’t my own idea if I can’t remember where it came from. If you speak, preach or teach on a regular basis, it is a good idea to recognize the fact that your church has some people who are as well educated, and as well read, as you are. This is God’s work, not yours. It is easy to stay out of trouble if you keep that in mind.