286331I was doing my daily bible readings from the book of Acts recently and I re-encountered the episode in Acts where Paul and Barnabas were thought to be the Greek Gods Hermes and Zeus. (Acts 14:8-18) When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, this is how they responded:

“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowd shouting, ‘Men, why are you doing this? We are human beings, just like you. The good news we bring tells you to turn from these follies to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.'” (Acts 14:14,15 REB)

Immediately, and dramatically, they denied any claims to divinity and were quick to affirm their humanity. They also went on to imply that Hermes and Zeus were empty idols who had to be discarded.

Obviously they had failed to consult with their PR manager before responding to the crowds’ worship. I am sure some bright spark today could have given them advice as to how to turn the adulation they were receiving to good use. For the Kingdom of course.

For it is not just pagans who tend to divinize their leaders. Christians do it all the time. It’s just that our vocabulary is more subtle. But we do tend to attribute God-like reputations to our leaders.

“He is the pastor who built this church.” “She has a powerful ministry of healing.” “He is the one who brought revival to the denomination.”

There is this tendency to make our leaders to be larger than life, to be something more than human. I remembered when Hee Ling died of cancer, I was told to “get back on my horse as soon as possible”. In other words I didn’t need time to grief. I wasn’t considered human.

I also remembered a time when I rushed to hospital to comfort a couple whose daughter had just died. I was filled with grief myself and was totally unprepared for the mother of the deceased pulling my shirt and demanding that I bring her daughter back from the dead.

Looking back, I wonder now if I should have followed Barnabas and Pauls’ example. I should have torn my shirt and revealed my humanity. (I am not ruling out the fact that in exceptional circumstances God has brought people back form the dead.)

There are a number of dangers in being put on a pedestal. If your ministry meets with some degree of visible success, you may begin to believe your own press. After awhile you begin to think that you are one of God’s indispensable servants. Hey, God is fortunate to have you doing His work!

This is a terribly dangerous frame of mind. (Remember our God can use donkeys and stones to do His work.) And because God loves us he may have to be forced to show us the madness of this line of thinking. And often pain is His most effective pedagogical method. (It may also entail our having grass as our primary diet. Check out what happened to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel Chapter 4.)

The trouble with being put on a pedestal is that it is a long way to the bottom. Because when the day comes that you make a mistake or when your humanity shows in some way, the adulating crowd quickly turns to a stone throwing one. (Remember Sean Connery in the 1975 movie ‘The Man Who Would Be King’?)

The tendency for Christians to deny the humanity of their leaders also means that many church leaders are very lonely people. If they are not allowed to be human, where do they go with their wounds and their uncertainties? Their temptations and their sins? Their anger and their despair? Who will accept them for who they are? Who will accept them in their humanity?

Often then, many of us learn that what is expected is that we are to function behind a quasi-divine ‘we are always victorious’ mask all the time. At first the mask feels uncomfortable. After awhile we get used to it. Then we are afraid to come out from behind it.

When I have the privilege to counsel Christian leaders, I often have to wait awhile before they come out from behind their masks. I guess they need to know that they are safe with me. It helps that I have had some spectacular and public problems in my own life.

I am not advocating that Christian leaders be treated with kid gloves. They too need loving correction, like anyone else. And like Paul we need to learn to press on even if people do not understand us. Or allow us to be human. But leaders, like everyone else, also need affirmation and respect. They do not need to be divinized.

I remember once I was helping to prepare a church auditorium for a special meeting. It was hot physical work so I came in my shorts. A church member, who perhaps was seeing my uncovered legs for the first time, exclaimed, “pastor got(has) hair”. And I thought, “Gee, what do they expect? I am human after all.”

The fact is we are all human. We are all naked and lost and waiting together for the Waiting Father to clothe us. And He does.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan