Of Confessional Christianity And The Cult Of Personality

The danger of the cult of personality has ever been with us. Paul warned the Corinthian church:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name (1 Cor 1:10–15; ESV).

Perhaps fundamental problem of the Corinthian congregation was the division between “haves” and “have nots.” The specious doctrines of the “higher life” and “second blessing” did not originate with the Montanists in the 2nd century, with the Anabaptists (1520s), with Cane Ridge (1801), nor even at Azusa Street (1906). The Corinthians were beset with the theory that there are spiritual “haves” and “have nots,” which notions manifested themselves in all manner of divisions. On of those manifestations was the development of parties organized around various personalities. I take it that Paul is not being hyperbolic but rather that he is listing for us actual groups. What the Corinthians did not seem to understand is that Paul, Apollos, and Peter were mere ministers, sent by Christ (hence apostles) with genuine and even remarkable but ministerial authority. I say remarkable because, contra Rome, the various neo-Pentecostalists, and primitivists, the apostles had authority and powers and an office that ceased with them. They raised people from the dead and put people to death. They healed and survived attempted assassinations and other threats that gave repeated evidence that they were endowed with particular gifts, powers, and authorities that—all claims to the contrary not withstanding—do not exist any longer. As Warfield noted long ago, the claims to renewed apostolic gifts collapse under scrutiny. In that respect, “Pentecostal” is a misnomer. Were the actual gifts of Pentecost in evidence we would not be debating their validity. They are really neo-Montanists, who were the first to try to recreate the apostolic era. Like the Montanists they cheat by re-defining the ordinary things that happen to them as if they were apostolic. Of course we should not concede easily the equivalence.

In Paul’s analysis, the outward divisions among the Corinthian Christians were symptoms of a most serious underlying condition: unbelief. He explains:

for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Cor 3:3; ESV)

Paul, Peter (Cephas), and Apollos were mere workers in God’s vineyard. They tended but the Holy Spirit made the church grow (1 Cor 3:5–9). The divisions among them, he wrote, were “necessary” so that by them it would become evident who among them were “approved” (δόκιμοι; 1 Cor 11:19). Assuming that he was not being ironic then one infers that those who not participating in the schisms demonstrated that they were not building their own little empires within the church but recognizing that the church is Christ’s, that he is the Savior, he the Lord, and we are his.

The root of faction, of course, is self-seeking. People identified with Peter, Paul, and Apollos because, in some way, they saw themselves in their heroes. They saw in their heroes affirmation of their aspirations. The cult of personality, however, always finds its roots in those who make the heroes. Without the support of the disillusioned, frightened, embittered masses there could not have a been a Hitler. He was a nobody who achieved power by cultivating a public persona, through the decisive, ruthless use of force against his more restrained and polite political opponents. He was willing to say outrageous things, lies about entire groups of people, which every reasonable person knew to be lies. Yet he said them with conviction and thereby attracted followers. He blamed “those people” (e.g., the Jews) for the problems of the Germans. He told the masses what they wanted to hear, that they were unjustly punished, that they were victims, and that they had a great destiny before them. He was openly and brazenly peddling a mythological history and an eschatology. The great thing about eschatology, of course, is that it has not happened yet and so it cannot be tested. This is why there are still Marxists after the 20th century. We know that it led to and facilitated the some of the worst atrocities in human history in China, in the Soviet Union, and in Cambodia. By 1989 its exhaustion was evident. Today, however, it steams along, especially in academia, where it is easily disseminated among undergraduates who have been intellectually disarmed by a rotten preparatory education. In this regard, one of the most frightening aspects of life in our age is how easy it would be for another such totalitarian leader to arise. It is not as if our civil leaders do not look right at the camera and lie to us (27 times) and then unashamedly deny that they lied even while we are watching YouTube videos of them lying. Judging by man-on-the-street interviews, voters are unable to tell the difference between reality and mythology. Stella Morabito has been doing an excellent job of chronicling the psychological manipulation and intimidation of political correctness and totalitarianism but I digress.

Finally, there was another group in Corinth that saw itself as more spiritual than the rest but whom Paul regarded just as schismatic as the others: those who said, “we follow Jesus.” This group might have been the most insidious since who can object to someone who says, “I follow Jesus”? After all were not the first believers called “Christians” (Acts 11:26)? The “I follow Jesus” movement was insidious because they implicitly reduced Jesus to just another head of a faction, just another vehicle for their aspirations. Now, Jesus is no longer the Savior and Lord but rather, implicitly, he becomes “their guy.”

HB reader Wallace implicitly raises this question:

To use any other name besides Christian is wrong. This includes ALL that go by any other name. Ie: Catholic, Baptist, Assembly of God, Mormon, Quaker, Amish, and many, many more. (and here is the question) Would it not also include those calling themselves Protestants? One is either a Christian or one is not. One cannot be a Christian and something else. These are things written in the Bible. They are also written in this website. So how can you justify using another name to call oneself? I cannot, or have not. I don’t believe on can wear any ither name, but I realize I could be wrong, and that is why I ask.

The problem with this objection is the equation of “I am of Paul” with historical designation such as “Protestant” or “Reformed.” The objection would be more accurately lodged against the designation “Calvinist” or “Lutheran.” Luther wrote:

How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name? I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my dear Philip and my Amsdorf, the word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.

Calvin did his best to prevent a movement in his name. He had himself buried in an unmarked grave to prevent pilgrimages and veneration. Of course both men failed. Given that, what  should we do? We cannot escape from history. The reality is that there are genuine, principled differences that have arisen and that, as I understand eschatology, will likely persist until Christ comes again. We can mitigate them. Reformed folk should remember some things:

  1. We confess what we do because we believe it to be biblical, not because any one post-canonical person taught it.
  2. We call ourselves Reformed because we seek the reformation of Christ’s church according to Scripture
  3. We are catholic Christians who confess the holy catholic faith as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (2nd-6th cent), the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian Creed (7th century)
  4. We are evangelical because we seek to announce and preserve the Good News that Christ died for sinners, was raised on the third day, has ascended, reigns now, and shall return in glory

As we saw in 1 Corinthians 1, even to say, “but I follow Jesus” is to become a member of a party. In that respect the “I follow Jesus” movement is like those who profess “no creed but Christ.” That, of course, is a creed and the “I follow Jesus” becomes a sect.

What we ought to seek is not a new exciting movement but the true church. Here Belgic Confession (1561) art. 29 helps:

We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.

But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

The good news is that, by God’s grace, the true church exists but it exists in history, in time and space. Great divisions have happened. Some of them may be repaired in this life but some of them may not be. We ought to pray for reconciliation around the truth of God’s Word as summarized in the great catholic creeds and confessed by the churches. If the Reformed churches have erred they should be corrected by God’s sufficient, perspicuous Word (sola Scriptura).

We may not, however, seek to position ourselves as if we are outside of history, as if we have already arrived at the eschaton, as if we are mere spectators of the Christian life and struggle with sin and error. That view is really a variation of the Gnostic heresy and we are not Gnostics. We are mere Christians who, by God’s free, sovereign grace have been given new life and true faith in the Savior Jesus. He is no cult leader. Rather, he is the Great Shepherd of the sheep and true shepherds cultivate not their own image or followers or movement but the worship and obedience of him and in him the Triune God in the context of a real congregation with other Christians connected to the history of the church.

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  1. Not too many folks question the cult of Augustine, despite his use of the magistrate for religious persecution and his putting the water of “the church” as the means of regeneration.

    Warfield—“Augustine was both the founder of Roman Catholicism and the author of that doctrine of grace which it has been the constantly pursued effort of Roman Catholicism to neutralize, and which in very fact either must be neutralized by, or will neutralize, Roman Catholicism. Two children were struggling in the womb of his mind. There can be no doubt which was the child of his heart. His doctrine of the Church he had received whole from his predecessors, and he gave it merely the precision and vitality which insured its persistence. His doctrine of grace was all his own: it represented the very core of his being . . . it was inevitable, had time been allowed, that his inherited doctrine of the Church, too, with all its implications, would have gone down before it, and Augustine would have bequeathed to the Church, not “problems,” but a thoroughly worked out system of evangelical religion. . . . The problem which Augustine bequeathed to the Church for solution, the Church required a thousand years to solve. But even so, it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church. (Calvin and Augustine, p 321).

    Even so Driscoll inherited some evangelical baggage yes, but power and fame were not the core of his being and “would have” if time had allowed……

    • You are misleading. Augustine did not found Roman Catholicism. He would be compared to Calvin in influencing Christianity. However, Calvin differs from Augustine in that the former wanted reform ex ecclesia catholica. But as with any writings, the influence cannot be controlled. Like Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church has been influenced in practice by Calvin’s writings and teaching.

  2. Thanks. I think that “cult of personality” is an issue in every group of human beings. It exists in Reformed and in neo-calvinist evangelical circles in the form of too-uncritical veneration of great leaders (I am of Machen! I am off Warfield! I am of Keller, Piper, … ). It isn’t just a matter of multi-site and multi-media. It also affects those who venerate the writers of books and articles. Ultimately it had its roots in the character of the human heart as an idol factory. Thanks again for the reminder.

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