A Bunch of Self-Promoters?

September 1999

In its June 14 issue Christianity Today (CT), an evangelical Protestant magazine, had a cover story on the famous contemporary Protestant social gospeler Jim Wallis, hailing him as a “pragmatic prophet.” The author of the article, John Wilson, notes: “I’ve been surprised, while working on this story, at the vehement reactions provoked by the mere mention of Wallis’s name. ‘Why would CT want to promote Jim Wallis?’ one friend asked me, evidently exasperated. ‘He’s such a tireless self-promoter; he doesn’t need any help!’”

Wilson’s response: “In the five years I’ve known Jim Wallis, I have not found him to be any more (or less) ‘self-promoting’ than the average Christian leader.” Now flip a few pages and there appears a manifesto on the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, endorsed by over 125 “Christian leaders,” including many famous names, such as Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell, Jack Hayford, Bill Hybels, D. James Kennedy, John MacArthur, Pat Robertson, Ronald J. Sider, and Charles Swindoll. Given Wilson’s defense of Wallis — he’s no more of a self-promoter than the average Christian leader — might we conclude that the 125-plus Christian leaders are a bunch of self-promoters and that this ought to be kept firmly in mind when reading their manifesto?

Another hallmark of the Reformation is the principle of private interpretation of Scripture. If this principle is valid, why is, say, Jerry Falwell’s interpretation any more authoritative than that of some other student of the Bible who also loves the Lord, say, Joe Blow? Ironically, the manifesto on justification would carry no authority in the evangelical/fundamentalist community if it were signed by 125-plus Joe Blows. In that community, authority to interpret the Bible usually comes, let’s be honest, from celebrityhood.

Tellingly, the signatories of the manifesto are not identified by their office or institutional connection, and those who are ordained don’t have a “Rev.” in front of their names. All such things are superfluous in the world of authority based on celebrityhood. Look, Jerry Falwell isn’t an authority because he’s an ordained minister or because he pastors such-and-such church. Jerry Falwell is an authority because he’s Jerry Falwell.

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New Oxford Notes: September 1999

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