Hero Worship and Holy Emulation

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I have unanswered questions about how to navigate the new world of media-driven celebrity attention to pastors. When I say media-driven attention, I am not mainly thinking about radio, TV, and newspapers. They are almost irrelevant. I mean Internet media. Most churches have websites. Sermons and articles and books are available. Often there is audio and video. And there’s Facebook and Twitter.

What happens then is that anywhere in the world people can read, watch, or listen. If they are helped, they can click in order to share it immediately with others anywhere in the world, who in turn share it again. This is what is meant by viral spreading.

Tens of thousands of linkings may take place almost instantly—through blogs, Twitter, texting, Facebook, and a dozen other sharing tools. This means that what a pastor does or says may be known in hours by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This contributes to media-driven celebrity status.

Then stir into the mix that some pastors write books. There is a mystique about authors. “Author” connotes authority, or creativity, or wisdom. Authors are generally thought to be interesting people. I think very often these conceptions are not true. But for some, the fact that an author writes is more significant than what he writes.

What is the meaning of the attention given to well-known pastors? What does the desire for autographs and photographs mean? The negative meaning would be something akin to name-dropping. Our egos are massaged if we can say we know someone famous. You see this on blogs with words like “my friend Barack” and the like. And I presume that, for some, an autograph or a photo has the same ego-boost.

However, I don’t assume the worst of people. There are other possible motives. We will see this below. But it is good to emphasize that all of this is more dangerous to our souls than bullets and bombs. Pride is more fatal than death.

When I say “our souls” I mean all of us—the signature-seeker, the signer, and the cynic who condemns it all (on his very public blog). There is no escaping this new world. The question is, How do we navigate it for the glory of Christ, the crucifixion of self, the spread of truth, the deepening of faith, and the empowering of sacrificial love?

Here is one small contribution. In spite of all the legitimate warnings against hero worship, I want to risk waving a flag for holy emulation—which includes realistic admiration. Hero worship means admiring someone for unholy reasons and seeing all he does as admirable (whether it’s sin or not). Holy emulation, on the other hand, sees evidences of God’s grace, and admires them for Christ’s sake, and wants to learn from them and grow in them.

This theme is strong in the New Testament.

  • “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
  • “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).
  • “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).
  • “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
  • “[Do] not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12).
  • “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness” (2 Timothy 3:10).
  • “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:14).
  • “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity” (Titus 2:7).

The old Puritan Thomas Brooks comments on holy emulation in The Secret Key to Heaven:

Bad men are wonderfully in love with bad examples.... Oh, that we were as much in love with the examples of good men as others are in love with the examples of bad men.

Shall we love to look upon the pictures of our friends; and shall we not love to look upon the pious examples of those that are the lively and lovely picture of Christ? The pious examples of others should be the mirrors by which we should dress ourselves.

He is the best and wisest Christian...that imitates those Christians that are most eminent in grace.... It is noble to live by the examples of the most eminent saints. (12-13)

It is right and risky to aim at being worthy of emulation. It is more foundationally right to aim at being helpful. It is essential in both that we be amazed that we are forgiven through Christ, and that we serve rather than seek to be served.