One of my favorite books in the Bible is Exodus — even all the parts about what priests are supposed to wear and what to do with your oxen. But one story in particular astounds me each time I read it. It’s the story of the Israelites building a golden calf because Moses was taking too long talking to God. Exodus 32.1 gives us insight into what Israel was thinking: “When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. ‘Come on,’ they said, ‘make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.’” The Israelites built an idol because they needed to see something in order to follow. When Moses left, they no longer saw a leader figure and felt the need to build one. Had Moses become an idol to them? Did they actually just build another idol instead of building an idol?
Perhaps Moses had become an idol in the Israelites’ lives because it is almost a natural impulse for followers to idolize their leaders. Unfortunately, this is still true in the church today. We idolize our leaders and then when those leaders disappoint us or leave a particular church, it cripples us. When I was a part-time music pastor at a church, I can remember leaving and kind of hoping that people would leave with me. It’s horrible to say that but it’s the truth. I felt like I would be vindicated if that happened. In retrospect, I had hoped people idolized me to the point they would follow me. That may make me seem like a terrible person, but it was where I was at that particular moment. The church has to be greater than those who are leading it. People need to be active in the church, not in following a particular leader in the church.
So how do we move past attending a church because we idolize the leaders, to being part of the church because of what God has done? Simply put: transparency.
Why do we think too highly of our leaders? Because we don’t see faults. Maybe this is because leaders in the church don’t talk about faults. Perhaps it is out of fear of being fired. Perhaps it is out of fear of losing respect of the people. Maybe it is even out of fear of appearing to be human. Preachers talk about how God uses flawed people but then fail to reveal their own flaws. My favorite is when preachers talk about their flaws, but in a vague sense like, “I’ve made countless of mistakes,” or “I have messed up as much as the next person.” These blanket statements give the false appearance of transparency but, in reality, are cowardly attempts at relating with our audience.
Pastors strive to use illustrations that give the appearance of an imperfect life. These illustrations tend to be humorous references to a muttered swear word, a lie to the wife, or an extremely hyperbolic reenactment of an argument with a child. Honestly, however, we see, in the pastor, a struggle with anger and dishonesty in a marriage. We have masked faults with humor and the results have been fatal to transparency. The more disheartening truth is that these are the sins that are acceptable from the pulpit because now these sins aren’t even considered sins by a majority of people in the church.
If a pastor stood on stage and said, “I recently had an affair with a married woman and when she became pregnant, I had her husband murdered.” He would most likely be arrested for murder. But if that hadn’t happened, the leadership of the church would have most likely met and asked the leader to step down. However, God never asked David to stop being King. I am not advocating we allow the church to have leaders who regularly practice debauchery. The church cannot tolerate people who refuse to change. David changed. But he still had to live with the consequences of his actions, just like we will have to live with the consequences of our actions. What would happen, however, if that leader stayed and worked through those issues with the support of the church? Would he/she be no longer fit to lead? Or could God work through that? If your pastor was completely transparent with you, would you lose respect or would you gain respect? The leaders I respect are leaders like Brennan Manning, who was not afraid to talk about his tragic mistakes.
In his Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis says, “We are not asked to be flawless, but to keep growing and wanting to grow as we advance along the path of the Gospel; our arms must never grow slack.” Leaders and pastors are not asked to be flawless. Unintentionally, we ask them to be flawless through our idolization of them.
What’s the quickest way to break idolization of leaders? Destroy them. Destroy the image you have of them. See them as real, honest, messed-up, and flawed people. Why else would Paul boast in his weaknesses? Because then Christ, not he, could be seen. We are seen when we cover up our weaknesses and flaws; Christ is seen when we are transparent about our weaknesses and flaws because those weaknesses and flaws show a recognition of just how human we are. When we recognize we are human and not a god or an idol, then we begin to fully rely on God’s grace in our leadership and life.