Sometimes a crisis will call attention to a problem that is deeper and more fundamental than the specific cause that ignited it.
Recent accusations against a prominent Atlanta-area megachurch pastor, while still contested, have produced anger, sadness, disappointment, defense and counter-charges; they will continue to challenge the many dimensions of this church’s ministry. It is not easy for a family of faith, large or small, to deal with such experiences.
The larger issue such attention brings to light is the picture of what success, prosperity and influence can do to a community of faith. News reports invariably mention the houses, cars, clothing and various other accessories of success seemingly taken for granted and enjoyed by leaders of generous flocks.
Please understand that there is much good in a family of faith that supports its leaders; generosity is a much needed model for our life together as a society.
But sometimes a line gets crossed between a community being responsible in support of its servant leaders and the accumulation of royal accouterments that transform both the image and the heart of a community. It can happen in settings of all sizes, for it is a function of the concept of leadership rather than the size of the community.
A late colleague used the term “preacher disease” to refer to these powerful and transforming assumptions of importance, but they are obviously not limited to one specific profession.
Ancient Israel reflects this picture as that community evolved from a loosely organized tribal confederacy to a united kingdom under David and Solomon. Their leadership brought Israel to a place of political power and economic prosperity unequaled before or after in its history.
Foreign visitors from all over (notably the Queen of Sheba) traveled to Jerusalem to hear firsthand Solomon’s wisdom and to see the magnificence of his buildings and operations. It was truly Israel’s “golden age.”
But Israel’s own historians, 300 or so years later, saw it through a different lens. The covenant community that took on the structure of a kingdom to strengthen its place in the world became a mega-kingdom with the trappings of a covenant that was becoming quite secondary to its economic and political success.
The covenant theology of a people on a journey with God was gradually replaced with a royal theology of nation and king splendidly centered in Jerusalem. The theological evaluation of this opulent period by these historians and their contemporary prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, was that it was one of the low points of covenant faithfulness.
In a culture like ours – where nothing succeeds like success, where all qualities tend to get quantified, and where opinion polling is the way truth is measured – it is not surprising that this biblical pattern finds expression. 1 Peter 2:9 affirms the early Christians as a “royal priesthood” – all of them – priests to each other – a priesthood of believers, we would say.
But a royal priesthood can easily evolve into a priesthood of royalty, where a sense of privilege and immunity creates a disconnected leadership and a community that defers and follows, often without critical reflection, sometimes with disastrous consequences (recall Jim Jones, David Koresh, Heaven’s Gate and so on).
The loss here is not only the possibility of the abuse of privilege and power on the part of the “royalty,” but also the subordination of the community that is necessary to maintain it. Royalty cannot exist without a large constituency of unroyalty. What value would there be to the accessories of success if everybody could have them?
The “royal priesthood” of 1 Peter is an affirmation of a community of saints – servants of a common cause and of a world in need, not an elite fellowship of kings. The history they knew well had much to teach. So does ours.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.