The Religious Celebrity Syndrome: A Contemporary Application of First Corinthians 3:1-9

Richard Brown

Let the public accept a man as unusual, and he is soon tempted to accept himself as being above reproof.

—A.W. Tozer1

The mind-set of American Christianity was altered in 1949. This was the year of the Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. It was also the year, according to author Richard Quebedeaux, that marked the beginning of the modern personality cults in American Christianity.2 Since then, American religion and the media have created an increasing number of “born-again celebrities,” church growth superstars and nationally known evangelists.

In the succeeding decades, the Church has increasingly been affected by secular culture's fascination with the famous. Consider just one example from the Christian music industry. “The very nature of our culture,” writes John Styll, writer for the Christian Contemporary Music Magazine, “promotes hero worship . . . Christian music, in an attempt to influence culture, is easily seduced by it. Consequently, despite the best intentions, the artists and the business system behind them often find that the world changes them more than they change the world.”3

Evidence of how deep the Church's acceptance of the celebrity mind-set runs can be seen in the PTL scandal of the late 1980s. In the middle of Jim and Tammy Bakker's exit from their international TV ministry several years ago, one irate PTL fan at the Heritage Village leaned into a reporter's microphone and shouted, “PTL without Jim Bakker is like heaven without Jesus!”

The most basic definition of a celebrity is simply “someone who is publicly celebrated, known, recognized and treated as either special or unique.” While there will always be famous people in Christendom, the problem comes when “celebrity” becomes “celebrity-ism,” when public Christian figures become the focal point for their audiences. In the opinion of Charles Colson, “this . . . celebrity illusion has become the dominant myth of our times. And few have embraced it with more enthusiasm than the Christian community.”4 The American Church has its own celebrities. This is the “religious celebrity syndrome” that has affected the Church.

This development of “pedestal personalities” has changed the Church. Today's fascination with the religious rich and famous and pious has affected how the average church-goer thinks about Christianity, the Church, the Christian life and ministry. This tendency to elevate famous people has also affected how people in ministry see themselves and how they compare themselves to others.

But the issue of putting people on pedestals is nothing new.5 It is at least as old as the apostle Paul and his relationship with the church at Corinth. While there were no electronic media to “hype” a personality in the first century and although men like Peter, Paul and Apollos were not seeking religious stardom, some of the believers in the Corinthian church were attaching themselves to various well-known religious leaders. At the same time, there were plenty of “wanna-be” apostles around to encourage the construction of pedestals for themselves.

In First Corinthians 1 Paul had already mentioned the divided allegiances among the Corinthian believers. Some were following Paul, others were following Peter, some Apollos and still others were identifying themselves with the “Jesus party” (1:12). In later references to Peter and Apollos, Paul will make it clear that the religious celebrity status given to each of these men was not of their doing; rather, it was the creation of their audiences. Regardless, this cultural tendency to make certain people bigger than life couldn't be ignored. It had begun to infect the Corinthian church. There is every reason to believe that it has a similar effect on the thinking and behavior of Christians today.

In First Corinthians 3-4, Paul addresses the issues surrounding the celebrity-making mind-set. Often these two chapters are studied as units about ministry and the Christian life in general without understanding the particular problem Paul was dealing with that led him to pen his remarks. When these two chapters are read with the original problem of pedestal-people in mind, and then applied to the contemporary issue of religious celebrities, Paul's insights and comments have relevancy and application with startling impact for today's Church. Space will only permit an introductory look at First Corinthians 3:1-9 to illustrate how applicable to today's Church culture is Paul's handling of this issue in the first-century Church.

Surprisingly, Paul begins First Corinthians 3 not by addressing the “celebrities,” but by addressing the “fans.” In an age when people were looking for someone to follow, the Corinthians were choosing famous people and it was affecting their spiritual lives. It appears to be no different today.

First, the religious celebrity mind-set stunts spiritual growth (3:1-2). When Paul first spoke the gospel to the Corinthians, they were “fleshly” (sarkinos), made of flesh. He could not speak to them as “spiritual” (people with the Holy Spirit). Shortly after they accepted Christ, they were still just infants in Christ, inexperienced. So Paul gave them spiritual milk and did not blame them for this early stage of their Christian development.

But when it came time for Paul to speak to them as to “spiritual adults” (people growing in the Lord and controlled by the Holy Spirit), he found that he couldn't. They weren't ready for solid spiritual food. Paul's evaluation of them was that while they were no longer worldlings made of flesh (sarkinos), unbelievers, they were Christians dominated by the flesh (sarkikos, verse 3), not controlled by the Holy Spirit.

And what had arrested their spiritual development? Their focus on public religious figures. In the verses to follow, Paul cites as evidence of their lack of growth their fixation with pedestal personalities (1:4). It is no different in today's Church.

Eugene Peterson writes that “fan clubs encourage second-hand living . . . we find diversion from our own humdrum existence by riding on the coattails of someone exotic. We do it because we are convinced that we are plain and ordinary.”6 We experience what one writer has called “the vicarious voyage of identity.” We substitute the fame of our Christian stars for our own spiritual development.

In 1969 Bob Rhoden started a church in Richmond, Virginia with twelve people. In his effort to grow his church, he began to schedule the kinds of events that would draw a crowd. His method was to book as many well-known Christian personalities as he could. Before long, the church developed a reputation as an exciting place to be. People started coming just to see if the reputation was true.

With several other churches in the city using this “event” kind of programming to attract people, Bob said that what eventually resulted was a crowd of Christian followers who flocked from one church to another in search of excitement, not commitment.

At the time, Bob said, he thought he was building a church of believers. But he found out that if he didn't promote some exciting event with a big-name attraction each week, practically no one would show up. Instead of a church, Bob had a flock of Christian groupies looking for the best Christian show in town. There was a lot of religious energy expended but no spiritual growth.

When American Christians use well-known Christian celebrities as reference points for their Christian life, they remain spiritual “teenyboppers,” substituting a growing relationship with the Lord for an attachment to a pedestal person. They know more and think more about their celebrity person or group of choice than they do about their Lord. In their sampling of fans of Christian artists, Christian Contemporary Music Magazine came across this comment: “They're my favorite group. I think they're doing a great job and no one has the right to criticize them.”7 It is what writer Dick Keyes has labeled “compensatory heroism.” “Admiration without aspiration ends ultimately in frustration.”8 A religious celebrity mind-set stunted the spiritual growth of the Corinthian believers. What evidence is there that it is not having the same effect on American Christianity? What about stunted growth among today's believers?

George Barna says that one out of five American Christians does not bother to pray during the course of the average day. Two out of three hoard their money, refusing to return to God the tithe. During any thirty-day period, only one out of every two Christians will tell a non-believer about the joy and comfort in knowing Christ, and fifty percent of American Christians can't list all ten commandments. No fewer than seven in ten Christians are prone to the same hedonistic attitudes toward life as the rest of Americans.9 If the apostle Paul is right, this stunted growth is caused, in part, by a religious celebrity mind-set.

Second, a religious celebrity mind-set promotes immature behavior (3:3-4). Paul refers to the Corinthians as “babes” One of the interpretations for infant (nepios) in 3:1 is “an adult who displays irresponsible characteristics of a child.” As childish believers, Paul says they are still under the influence of their fleshly desires instead of being fully controlled by the Holy Spirit. This lack of spiritual maturity resulted in childish and immature behaviors toward each other. There was jealousy (the wrong kind of zeal that tries to harm others and advance one's own position; Paul used this word to describe how his zeal led him to persecute Christians in Philippians 3:6) and strife (squabbling, conflict; what some people were up to in Philippians 1:15 when they preached the gospel just to get back at Paul). Both of these behavioral attitudes appear in the list of the sins of the flesh in Galatians 5:20. Simply put, these Corinthian Christians weren't acting like mature Christians; they were acting as any other person in the world would act. Specifically, they were acting like children.

Those of us who are parents know how children behave; and if we stop to think about it, jealousy and strife describe a lot of their childhood problem behavior. Jealousy springs from childish comparisons, and strife comes from childish competition. We can see Jesus reprimanding the same kind of behavior when He observed it in His childish disciples in Luke 9:49-50. Paul doesn't ignore it when he finds in it the Corinthian believers either.

Where does this immature way of relating to one another come from? In the context of First Corinthians 3, it arises from the lack of spiritual growth that stems from adapting the culture's maneuver of making certain people famous and then making these famous people reference points for their lives.

When Christians allow themselves to be affected by the religious celebrity mind-set, the potential lack of spiritual growth can result in immaturity in their relationships with people who may differ with them. In the Corinthian church, loyalty to one's hero became more important than relationships within the local church. Groups were formed and friends were apparently chosen on the basis of similar tastes in public religious stars. The most prominent thing two people might have in common was their attachment to a religious celebrity. In such a setting, relationships were shallow at best and divisive at worst.

In the American Church we may not be as familiar with each other's attachment to a particular star and our infatuation with religious celebrities may not as easily be recognized as the cause of misbehavior. Yet it is still true that the mind-set that will excuse questionable behavior in one's celebrity can lead to living unexamined personal lives. And this kind of thinking ends up excusing questionable and immature behavior in one's own life. And that will inevitably end in immature behavior patterns in relationships, including symptoms of jealousy and strife.

The problem here is not doctrinal but relational conflict. In his provocative book Preventing a Church Split,10 Gene Edwards says the central purpose of a church split is the ending of friendships, to drive a wedge between people. In order to get people to follow, a person will use doctrinal disagreement as the issue. But the real issue is the desire for a following. The goal is to place loyalty to the one being followed above one's relationship with fellow-believers. This kind of immature behavior looks very similar to the jealousy and strife among the believers at Corinth.

What about immature behavior motivated by jealousy and strife in today's American Church? Every year, 15,000 churches in America split.11 If Paul was right, part of the underlying problem is the religious celebrity mind-set of too many Christians.

Third, this religious celebrity mind-set idolizes ordinary people (3:5-7). Earlier in First Corinthians 1:13, Paul suggested that the believers at Corinth were giving Paul, Peter and Apollos a pedestal position they shouldn't have. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he comments about the pedestal status the Corinthians gave to other leaders who were seeking celebrity status, referring to them as “super apostles” in the eyes of the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).

But Paul says these “celebrities” weren't anything more than ordinary people. Here in First Corinthians 3:5-7, his focus is not on the personality of the “celebrity” (“Who are Paul, Apollos?”). Paul's emphasis is that they weren't pedestal people at all; rather, they were “servants” (“ministers”).

They weren't celebrities; they were just doing the jobs God had given them. Paul had planted (preached the Word as in Acts 18:1), Apollos had watered (teaching the Word as in Acts 18:27; 19:1; watering was an important part of the growing process in an area where there was little rain during the summer growing season). But Paul and Apollos weren't anything special. They were mere people whom God used, for it was God who gave the actual growth!

Paul does not deny the differences between himself and Apollos, but his point is that these differences were not reasons for exalting one or the other. Their differences had been used by the Master Farmer, God, who, Paul reminds the Corinthian believers, will one day make the only distinctions that will matter when He rewards His workers according to their faithful labor.

Paul used the aorist tense to describe his and Apollos' job. He used the imperfect Greek tense to describe God's job. By doing so, he was saying, “Our job of planting and watering is done. God continues to work, resulting in continued growth. Don't put mere people on pedestals. Instead, worship God for His continuing work.” God was doing what no mere person could do, and yet the religious celebrity mind-set was giving people credit for what only God could do!

The focus in American Christianity today seems to be more on mere people than on God. Religious celebrities are heralded as models of success and happiness. Quentin Shultze, chairman of the Department of Communications Arts and Sciences at Calvin College, writes: 

On television, the evangelist is immediately the focus of audience attention. The small screen accentuates his personality . . . cameras promote the preacher, whether he intends it or not, like the latest Hollywood star. Successful televangelism carries the likely price of a personality cult . . . a weak personality usually guarantees poor ratings. Thus, the medium can create personas more potentially destructive than the early church rivalries in the church at Corinth. (emphasis mine)12

The religious celebrity mentality causes people first to build an image of their hero and then to relate to that image rather than seeing them as they really are. In a recent study of American heroes, most were considered to be heroes not so much for who they were or what they had done, but because they were well-known. Daniel Borstin in his book The Image,13 complains that we have exchanged heroes for celebrities. He says that while a hero is someone who has done something great or honorable and therefore commands respect, a celebrity is “known for his well-knownness” and is envied for it. He is the “human pseudo-event.” Fame has become the highest value.

The effect of this kind of thinking about people in the lives of the Corinthian Christians is suggested in Second Corinthians 11:20 where Paul accuses the Corinthians of so idolizing certain church personalities that they had become slaves to them! They had given these first-century super-stars a place in their lives that they had no right to give any human. Celebrity leaders had become the authorities for the private spiritual lives of their fans.

How easy it is for the Corinthian problem to be our problem. Pastor Wayne Jacobsen describes this effect in his American church: “I had become a figment of people's imagination. The `Wayne' they visualized was different from the one I lived with.”14

What about idolizing ordinary people? Christians spend more time keeping up with and listening to their favorite celebrities than they spend with the Lord. The average Christian spends sixty-eight minutes per week reading the Bible. How many minutes do you think they spend listening to, shopping for or thinking about their favorite famous Christian artist? If the apostle Paul is correct, the tendency in a culture in search of celebrities is for church people to idolize, fantasize and pedestalize their own set of religious celebrities.

Fourth, the religious celebrity mind-set distorts one's understanding of ministry (3:8-9). In these verses, Paul tries initially to deal with the issue of the religious celebrity mentality at Corinth by presenting a correct view of ministry. The Corinthians' celebrity idea of ministry was affecting not only their personal spiritual lives, but also the effectiveness of the church's ministry.

Paul gave several metaphors of ministry drawn from the Corinthian setting. He tells them that ministry is like farming one of the many familiar vineyards around Corinth. Each fellow worker has a job to do. (Later, in chapter 12, he will use the image of the body to speak more specifically to the part each plays in the ministry of the church.) He goes on to say that the Church is like one of that city's great buildings, well-known for its Corinthian architecture. While he will elaborate on this metaphor later in his discussion of religious celebrities in chapter 3 (3:10-17), here his point is that every person plays a part in the building's construction. Ministry is not a show where some work and the rest are entertained. All believers are workers together for God in His field, the Church.

If our modern religious stars have done anything, they have affected how the average Christian thinks things should be in the local church. The nationally known image has become the model for what Christian viewers feel their own churches should be like. Famous Christian celebrities even hold seminars for local church pastors and local church leaders on how to “do it like they do it.” Quentin Shultze remarks, “Often preaching isn't enough. . . . The trend is clear: television turns religion into public entertainment.”15

Ministry isn't measured by servanthood anymore. It is measured by success and numbers. The average Christian isn't interested in unglamorous serving. If it isn't self-serving, it isn't worth doing. If it doesn't promote one's image, don't bother.

Concerned about image? Focused on serving self? Impressed with numbers? If you are influenced by success, the apostle Paul has a few numbers for you in Second Corinthians 11:23-27: five times he received thirty-nine lashes from the Jews, three times he was beaten with rods, once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked, he had been imprisoned more times, flogged more times, exposed to death more times, in danger more times and gone without food and sleep more times than any other apostle. How's that for a more realistic view of ministry? No wonder it is a tough job recruiting volunteers for church work.

What about a distorted view of ministry? The average churchgoer is a pew potato, inactive in ministry. Twenty percent of the church people do eighty percent of the work. Ministry is either left for the local pedestal people or it isn't attempted because it can't be done like it was seen on TV. And if the apostle Paul is right, some of the blame for this faulty view of ministry can be laid at the feet of the pedestals the American Church has erected for its religious celebrities.

There is no denying that the celebrity culture has affected the Church. Recent articles in Christianity Today (“Selling God in America,” April 24, 1995; “Can't Buy Me Ministry,” May 20, 1996; “Redeeming the Wasteland,” October 2, 1995) and the Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (which devoted its May 1996 issue to the problem of hero worship in its industry), evidence the concern. The religious celebrity mind-set has affected the Church's concern over its image, reprogrammed its activities, altered its paradigms and impacted the spiritual lives of many attenders.

How imbedded does this kind of thinking become? Take a look.

In Acts 14:8-20, the people of Lystra try to make Paul and Barnabas celebrities after they healed a lame man. The populace started to treat them like gods, offering them gifts and sacrifices. Paul and Barnabas protested and attempted to point them to the true God instead. But the people would have none of it. And when Paul and Barnabas insisted that they were not celebrities to be deified, the people turned on them. So committed were the people to their need to idolize ordinary men, that when Paul finally convinced them that he was not a god, they stoned him!

Facing the truth about American Christianity's religious celebrity mind-set is not popular. In fact, celebrity worship has become so much a part of the Christianity of the average Christian that it is hardly recognized for what it is. The year 1949 was two Christian generations ago. Since then, two generations have been reared in a religious celebrity mind-set culture, and they don't like to have it pointed out to them that ordinary people don't belong on pedestals.

In the rest of First Corinthians 3-4 Paul has much more to say about this ancient and contemporary problem. He will deal with quality control standards for church ministry (3:10-17); give some advice to people living in an age of religious celebrities (3:18-23); suggest some guidelines for rating religious celebrities (4:1-6); expose the religious celebrity tendencies in each of us and contrast that with the Christ life in us (4:6-13); and close by modeling the true marks of God's religious celebrities (4:14-21).

Is there any hope of change? In his teaching, Paul gives us the right way to think about our spiritual leaders. He presents Jesus Christ as the only true “religious celebrity” we need. He reminds us of God's definition of what makes a Christian “famous.” And in contrast to the “celebrity life,” he shows us what the “Christ life” should look like. If Paul is right, then his readers' lives of faith, and ours, can be anchored in God's truth and not stuck in hero worship.


1 A.W. Tozer, We Travel an Appointed Way, ed. Harry Verploegh (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1988), 68.

2 Richard Quebedeaux, By What Authority? (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1982), xi.

3 John Styll, Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (May 1996): 89.

4 Charles Colson, “The Celebrity Illusion,” Christianity Today (December 11, 1987): 72.

5 The hermeneutical maneuver by which a preacher moves from the setting of the original readers to the setting of his present-day audience is one of the most important steps in sermon preparation. Harry Emerson Fosdick called it the “project method” (Linn, page 15). Bryan Chapell calls it the “fallen condition focus” (Chapell, pages 40-44). Jay Adams called it making the telos (original purpose and need for which and to which the text was addressed) of the text the telos of the message. Wayne McDill refers to it as the “need element” (McDill, pages 104-106). In each of these terms there is the assumption that the common human condition of people in every century is such a shared condition that, once identified in the earlier audience, can be transferred into the contemporary setting. Just how important is this transition from the biblical audience to today's audience can be seen in the emphasis being placed on relevancy in today's preaching. Not content to listen to the “lecturer stance” sermon that talks about the text in the “there and then,” today's sermon listener wants to hear the text applied to the “here and now.” Just how contemporary the ancient text can be is illustrated in this contemporary application of First Corinthians 3:1-9. But this contemporary application is not limited to this first paragraph of chapter 3. The tendency to isolate scriptural texts from their context must be set aside, for Paul spends two chapters dealing with this particular fallen condition from various angles. This brief discussion of First Corinthians 3:1-9 is presented as an illustration of just how contemporary an issue of religious celebrities Paul was dealing with in First Corinthians 3-4, how subtle it is today and how necessary it is to address it. With similar study and application, the biblical text can speak to today's issues. Today's preacher need not worry about making the Bible relevant, just work at showing its relevancy.

6 Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 12-13.

7 Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (May 1996): 99.

8 Dick Keyes, “Lite Champions,” Christianity Today (May 13, 1988): 29.

9 George Barna and William Paul McKay, Vital Signs (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984): 115.

10 Gene Edwards and Tom Brandon, Preventing a Church Split (Auburn, ME: Christian Books Publishing House, 1987), 26.

11 Ibid., 8.

 12 Quentin Shultze, “Balance or Bias: Must TV Distort the Gospel?”, Christianity Today (March 18, 1988): 27-32.

13 Dick Keyes, “Lite Champions,” 29.

 14 Wayne Jacobsen, The Naked Church (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1987), 8.

15 Quentin Shultze, “Balance or Bias?,” 27-32.



Adams, Jay 1982 Preaching with Purpose. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Barna, George and William Paul McKay 1984 Vital Signs. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books.

Chapell, Bryan 1994 Christ-Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Colson, Charles 1987 “The Celebrity Illusion.” Christianity Today. (December 11):72.

Edwards, Gene and Tom Brandon 1987 Preventing a Church Split. Auburn, ME: Christian Books Publishing House.

Hefner, April 1996 “Is Image Everything?” Contemporary Christian Music Magazine. (May): 99.

Linn, Edmund 1966 Preaching As Counseling. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

Jacobsen, Wayne 1987 The Naked Church. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.

Keyes, Dick 1988 “Lite Champions.” Christianity Today (May 13): 29.

Shultze, Quentin 1988 “Balance or Bias: Must TV Distort the Gospel?” Christianity Today (March 18): 27- 32.

Styll, John 1996 “Star Struck.” Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (May): 89.

Quebedeaux, Richard 1982 By What Authority? San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Editorial: The Anatomy of Compromise


The Social Gospel vs Personal Salvation: A Late Nineteenth-Centuray Case Study- Walter Rauschenbusch and A.B. Simpson, Daniel J. Evearitt

The Seal of the Holy Spirit and the Eternal Security of the Believer, Eldon Woodcock

The Restoration of the Doctrine of Binding and Loosing, Paul L. King

Why Youth Groups Matter: A Social Science Research Perspective, Leonard Kageler

Reaching the World through the City, George Reitz

The Religious Celebrity Syndrome: A Contemporary Application of First Corinthians 3:1-9, Richard Brown

Christ and the Spirit: Fleshing Out the Vision of A.B. Simpson's Imitation of Christ, Craig J. Slane

Glossolalia and the Ruark Procedure: Distinguishing between True and False Utterances, K. Neill Foster

About the Authors

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

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©2006 by K. Neill Foster