John Witherspoon on Celebrity Pastors


Okay, so the title is a little misleading. John Witherspoon (1723-94) never used the phrase “celebrity pastor,” but the distinction he makes in this ordination charge to Archibald Davidson of the Abbey Church in Paisley speaks with particular wisdom and relevance to a perennial issue in the ministry.

This leads me to exhort you in the whole of your work, public and private, to beware of the sin of man-pleasing. I do not say, beware of popularity: because, in the sense to which common language hath confided that word, it is but one half of the snare. Besides, in propriety of speech, popularity should signify only being accepted and beloved, which in itself is neither duty nor sin, but a blessing.

Man-pleasing signifies, in Scripture, having this as the end and motive of our actions, rather than being acceptable to God. You ought, indeed, for edification, to avoid displeasing any without necessity. But as in this, so in every other thing, you should have a far higher principle, than merely courting the favor either of great or small, good or bad.

There is a lot of wisdom in these few sentences. Popularity is not the goal of ministry (a duty), nor a sign of unfaithfulness in ministry (a sin). To the degree that popularity means the minister is well-regarded and appreciated, it is a blessing. Popularity, by itself, is not the problem. The problem is people pleasing. Ministers should not go out of their way to rub people the wrong way. And yet, surely we can all relate to the peculiar temptation in ministry to lose sight of our heavenly audience and end up “serving” just to be seen and stroked. The faithful minister may be favored with a loving people, but he must not make it his aim to have people love him and treat him with favors.


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