Being raised in Panama, I didn’t know much about American Christianity until moving back to the US and when I moved to CA to attend BIOLA University. I quickly learned that many American Evangelicals, particularly those who attend or are affiliated with mega churches and well-known Christian figures seem to practically idolize these leaders. I’d never heard of the Crystal Cathedral, Saddleback, Rock Harbor, Mariners, or North Coast Church.
I’d never seen parking lot attendants at a church, much less baptism brought to us by a live feed, or worship time that looked like a performance and the congregation the spectators. Beyond the fame and theatrics, I started identifying some commonalities, not that they apply exclusively to mega churches.
Apotheosis of Pastors:
1) Believing their pastor’s teaching is the truth and skepticism of what other Christians teach.
2) Pride in having a superstar pastor that is internationally or nationally recognized, particularly one that meets with presidents, or has their sermons televised weekly.
3) Pride in size of congregation and being “seeker friendly”
4) Having a pastor that is the author of best- selling Christian books
5) Pastor having great influence on the political and social views of congregants
6) Having a view of their personal and congregation’s superiority to that of other Christians
7) Having a plethora of church programs and the resources to run them
This apotheosis of religious leaders/pastors can have devastating consequences because they wield such wealth, power, and influence, that it is hard to hold them accountable. This has been seen in countless sex scandals and abuses perpetrated by pastors and members of their inner circle. When these scandals are exposed, it often highlights the excessive influence and image of the church being affiliated with a single famous individual, like a personality cult. Even if the pastor is removed, it is difficult to overcome the church’s reputational and personal damage to its congregants.
There are SO many recent examples. I’ll skip Jerry Falwell Jr. and Beckie as their escapades have been widely published. One that especially caught my attention, is that of Pastor John McArthur of Grace Community Church, as my ex-husband and former in-laws attended it. I visited a few times over the years, and was always struck by the unshakable faith in John McArthur’s near infallibility that my relatives and others I met who attended the church or Master’s Seminary had. He WAS the standard for any faith questions and preaching. Some individuals will reject any teaching that is not perfectly aligned with their pastor.
Recently, McArthur has taken an unreasonable stance on COVID-19, defied government orders on meetings, claimed governmental persecution, and operates as if the sole representative of God’s law on earth.
On August 30th, Pastor McArthur pronounced that “there is no pandemic.” He improperly cited a CDC report, alleging that out of 160,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the US, only 9,210 were “actually” due to COVID-19.
While the vast majority of houses of worship nationwide have abided by the COVID-19 guidelines issued in their state, a few pastors have taken the opportunity to present themselves as religious liberty warriors. McArthur continues to defy Governor Newsom’s temporary ban on indoor religious gatherings, hosting services with thousands of congregants, many of whom are not wearing face coverings or social distancing.
McArthur claims that COVID-19 is being used as an excuse for the government to make a power grab and limit constitutionally protected rights to religious freedom. While I’m sure he truly believes this in his deluded state, he has no real evidence for this claim outside of the fringe religious and/or politically conservative circles and media.
Science and facts do not support McArthur’s claims. What is worse, he doesn’t seem to face any real opposition from his congregation. If he were not virtually venerated by his congregation, there would be some clear- thinking congregants who would know there REALLY is a worldwide pandemic and that 6,000 people have already died of it in Los Angeles county alone.
Most recently, McArthur received a letter from CA authorities warning of a possible fine and maximum prison sentence of 6 months. McArthur quipped that he would just start a prison ministry if sent to jail. Moreover, he claims that people are flooding Grace Community Church each Sunday and that “…We're not concerned about the flu – we're concerned about eternity, eternal life, salvation.”
McArthur is a poster child for religious abuse. He clearly thinks he knows better than the scientific community and that his personal beliefs and objectives are more important than the safety and well-being of his congregation. McArthur is encouraging many high -risk individuals including the elderly, the young, and probably high-risk individuals. It is the height of arrogance and irresponsibility to:
1) Preach fallacious scientific information
2) Endanger one’s parishioners and everyone else those parishioners contact
3) Defy a necessary, temporary governmental order
4) Falsely Claiming persecution which demonstrates his ignorance of real persecution, and also cheapens the incredible hardships and martyrdom that are daily perpetrated on believers and non-believers worldwide.
It is time for individuals to use their own critical thinking abilities, rather than abdicate that personal responsibility to potentially abusive religious leaders.