Thomas Torrance On American evangelical Churches Gone to Seed, Personality Cults, and the Worship of Pastors Rather than Jesus

This post will somewhat dovetail with my second to last post on The Great Implosion of North American Evangelicalism. Except in this post a theological critique will be made with appeal to Thomas Torrance’s critique of Protestant evangelicalism and its tendency toward personality cults, in regard to its leadership, and what he calls Protestant sacerdotalism.

Instead of following the kind of socio-cultural critique that my rant in that other post was somewhat following, here Torrance identifies a theological pathology deeply entrenched in the ecclesiology littlechurchand pastoral polity that we find orienting Protestant leadership and church model. The critique has to do with the centrality that the pastor has taken for evangelicals; i.e. the elevation of the pastor as the end-all for the people in the church. So we see things like this in mega-churches and small non-denominational start-up churches alike; if the pastor of said church leaves, or something happens, that whole church collapses, or it becomes something totally different with totally different people, and so on.

The most recent example of this that I can think of is Mark Driscoll (and I don’t want this post to be about him). But his Mars church has fallen, it has folded, and he has moved on. He is now starting a new church, with new people, in a new city, and his reign continues. Not because Jesus is Lord, per se, but because Driscoll’s type of charisma and appeal resonates with evangelicals seeking their next mediator between God and man. What Driscoll is experiencing, in various ways on a continuum could be pointed up as an evangelical phenomenon that has swept all across the Protestant evangelical church; whether that be in North America, Western Europe, Canada, or everywhere.

Here is Torrance’s theological critique of what is going on with all of this:

But what has happened in Protestant worship and ministry? Is it not too often the case that the whole life and worship of the congregation revolves around the personality of the minister? He is the one who is in the centre; he offers the prayers of the congregation; he it is who mediates ‘truth’ through his personality, and he it is who mediates between the people and God through conducting the worship entirely on his own. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the popular minister where everything centres on him, and the whole life of the congregation is built around him. What is that but Protestant sacerdotalism, sacerdotalism which involves the displacement of the Humanity of Christ by the humanity of the minister, and the obscuring of the Person of Christ by the personality of the minister? How extraordinary that Protestantism should thus develop a new sacerdotalism, to be sure a psychological rather than a sacramental sacerdotalism, but a sacerdotalism nonetheless, in which it is the personality of the minister which both mediates the Word of God to man and mediates the worship of man to God! Protestant Churches are full of these ‘psychological priests’ and more and more they evolve a psychological cult and develop a form of psychological counseling which displaces the truly pastoral ministry of Christ. How frequently, for example, the minister’s prayers are so crammed with his own personality (with all its boring idiosyncrasies!) that the worshipper cannot get past him in order to worship God in the name of Christ—but is forced to worship God in the name of the minister! How frequently the sermon is not an exposition of the Word of God but an exposition of the minister’s own views on this or that subject! And how frequently the whole life of the congregation is so built up on the personality of the minister that when he goes the congregation all but collapses or dwindles away![1]

Torrance wrote this in 1965, and yet it sounds as if he is making commentary to a “T” on the Protestant evangelical church as it currently stands (and as it currently goes to seed). The theological critique, if you missed it, is that the humanity of the minister has displaced the humanity of Christ as the center of the church; as such, as the pastor goes, so goes the church.

I realize this post and the other one are quite critical, and really not that constructive. But sometimes there is a time to be such! The evangelical church is sinking in my view, and for the reasons that Torrance highlights for us here. Jesus is no longer the center (if He ever was) in evangelicalism; the turn to the self, and the subject has become the norming norm of how evangelical churches largely operate. Who cares if there are good intentions, those destroy people, usually! All that matters is, Jesus! And if he is not all that matters at a basic level for evangelical churches then they will indeed implode, and they ought to. The unfortunate thing, though, is that as evangelical churches implode they are taking real life people along with them. What did Jesus say about those who would make children stumble at His name … something about a mill-stone and water. I think that’s where most of the evangelical church is at!

[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 167-68.

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10 comments

  1. Great insight. I moved on from the Evangelical expression of the Christian faith because of the reasons the author cited. Evangelical ministers, songs, prayers and worship are all about “me.” Rather than a theocentric theology and worship style, we have one that is egocentric. “Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me.”
    Even the Evangelical youth movements (Youth for Christ, Young Life, Campus Crusade) are about the charisma of the group’s leader. We often wondered if the kids we took to summer camp fell in love with Jesus or with the good looking, funny, and great guy speaker.
    Evangelical leaders need to help those they lead to mature in their faith. It’s okay to be attracted to the faith through a charismatic leader. It’s then that leader’s responsibility to guide those who he or she attracted to the Risen Lord and all that it means to have a vital relationship with him.

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  2. “We often wondered if the kids we took to summer camp fell in love with Jesus or with the good looking, funny, and great guy speaker.”

    Spot on. I share your sentiments completely!

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  3. I gave up, I am convinced there is no place. I don’t know how to express what i really think, Bobby has put into words much of what I have seen in churches during my life. Terrible theology and preachers, I feel sorry for them. Most people don’t have a clue about a theology such as Torrance or barth’s, they are happy with their own beliefs and traditions. Now all the preachers who read this can pounce, have at it.

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  4. Bobby, when has it ever been otherwise? God appointed men to shepherd His flock and from the beginning, one way or another, men have been in the way. Even in a “good” church, when the leaders try as hard as they can to get out of the way, the human dynamic is present and raises its ugly head. I was in a “good” church for 13 years, but when the leadership fell apart, so did the church (it merged with another church and went “modern”). Maybe you were painting with too broad a brush because there are so many churches out there we don’t much about. But certainly your voice is not alone in what you describe. May the Lord still make disciples in spite of our failures.

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  5. “the problem is that evangelical churches are as “liberal” as they come; they’d make Schleiermacher proud.”

    That should be a refrigerator magnet. That’s terrific and terrible, all at the same time. Evangelicals very accurately mirror his warm, vague, spiritual uplift and his war-mongers tongue, encouraging Prussia’s wars. That certainly sounds like Jerry Falwell and many other Evangelicals of the day.

    He is certainly a villain, even if his thought represents a valuable, though failed, attempt of Christians trying to speak to their present intellectual milieu. He is like an intelligent Albert Mohler.

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  6. Bobby, on an a completely off note, have you ever read John Zizoulas? I’ve only seen snipits, but he seems to offer a Christologically rooted conception of person and self that maintains the subject without subjectivism. I think Torrance and him were in contact, though I’m not sure.

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  7. Yes, I’ve read a bit of Zizoulas … a mentor of mine in seminary really liked him. And yes, TFT and Zizoulas had a heavy debate in re to the trinity. Zizoulas is the social trinitarian’s go to guy, as I recall. But you can read about their debate in an essay published in volume 4 for Participatio Journal at the Thomas F Torrance Theological Fellowship’s website. TFT and Ziz was one of TFT’s students and then they also were colleagues. Here’s the link: http://www.tftorrance.org/journal/participatio_vol_4_2013.pdf

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  8. Steve,

    That’s not the point! It is the attitude that you reflect in your comment that keeps things as they are; maybe you’re okay with that, but I’m not. Your sentiment is defeatist. Plus you’re generalizing massively yourself! Evangelicalism is becoming liberalism, and that is the concern I have; and it is for good reason (because of its theological commitments). Yes something like the gospel coalition has brought *some* evangelical churches back towards a vanilla calvinism, but most evangelical churches are so awash in pietistic mushy mush that they don’t have a clue about anything except “me and my Jesus.” That’s not okay.

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