Self-Expression or Transformation?

Photo by Håkon Grimstad on Unsplash

It has become an everyday or at least every month occurrence. We hardly raise an eyebrow anymore: another pastor, politician, leader, entertainer is cancelled because they “stepped in the purple do-do.” I say purple because it is not black, not white, and not even grey – but it certainly is royal. Bruxy Cavey was recently arrested because his indiscretions are considered to have crossed the border into the region of abuse of power and sexual assault. Of course, Bruxy Cavey is only one of many who have fallen from authority and the grace we give them.

Grace is one of the issues. We give pastors and other servant leaders a lot of grace because we believe them to be living a life of sacrifice. Many times we have heard their failures excused or the large salary explained by saying, “He/She lives a life of sacrifice, doing the Lord’s work. If they were out in the corporate world, doing the work they do, they would have a lot more perks and a much bigger salary.” The fact is, if someone truly is living a sacrificial life, giving up their own comforts to serve others, there can be a higher degree of trust. We trust pastors to be beside others when a loved one is dying, we trust pastors to give biblical advice and sound wisdom as they counsel a soon to be married couple, we trust pastors to guide our young people – until they are not worthy of our trust.

But perhaps we should notice that they are not worthy of our trust long before it gets to the point of an immoral or illegal relationship. Pastors used to go into the ministry to serve the poor, shepherd the followers of Jesus, proclaim the truth, teach God’s ways, and go to the far corners of the earth with the good news of Jesus. But, as people like Mike Cosper have recently shown[1], some become pastors for the social capital that comes with being a preacher and the voice of God. They have never, nor would they want to, experienced the sacrifices of an earlier generation when many pastors lived in poverty and social rejection.

The majority-culture phenomenon of “be yourself” has very powerfully invaded the world of the church. Many church attenders and many pastors have learned this self-expression mantra and have planted it in the core of their being at a greater depth than Jesus’ words of “love your neighbour as yourself.” Deeper than the inspired words of Romans 12 which say, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It is an easy step from the recognition one gets from standing in front of 60 or 6000 people and bringing the message of the day, to believing that we can be the next internet celebrity or conference circuit plenary-session-member-of-the-bullpen. It is also an easy moon walk from that position to the geography of spiritual abuse. Somewhere along this path, we missed the signs that trust had been broken. Perhaps it was back at that point where we noticed that our pastor was more interested in social capital than he or she was about serving others. Perhaps it was back when his social media feeds exalted his or her own achievements much more than they lifted the service of others.

The role of a pastor used to be a position where one would expect to become a better person and become transformed into the image of the one whom we follow, that is, becoming more like Jesus. Today, people celebrate the pastor who admits that they sin (which they do) and that they sin just as much as the rest of us (which they should not). Let me explain. The role of pastor used to be one in which we could expect that he or she was human like all the rest but that he or she had a character that was being transformed day-to-day into the image of God. Since we gave them more time, space, and resources for it, it was reasonable to expect that they might progress at the spiritual journey just a little bit faster than the rest of us.

But the “be yourself” and “I am just like you” mantras have ruined our trust in our pastors. We do not want the population of pastors to be just like us. We do not want pastors to get divorced at the same rate as the population of church members – especially since the rate in the church and in the general population is also so close to the same.

So, what is the answer? Certainly, part of the answer is to pay less attention to the celebrity pastor and give more attention to the humble follower of Jesus who is serving well, teaching well, and growing in character. We may find these pastors in the ranks of the recently immigrated pastors who come to us from difficult parts of the world. We may also want to look for them in the dearly departed zone of the Body of Christ. Billy Graham has been dead for more than four years now. Perhaps we could safely look at the good and bad aspects of his servant leadership and learn from him. Eugene Peterson’s authorised biography, A Burning in My Bones[2], has much to teach us about sacrificial living, transparency, repentance, and humble service to a few.

Gordon MacDonald is still among the living but recognises that he is nearing the end of his life here on earth. His recent interview with Carey Nieuwhof [3] reveals a man who is remarkably comfortable with both his humble service and his failures. There is a measure of character that is evident and even more noteworthy because he speaks softly and carries much weight of wisdom. He is quick to commend others before noting things that could be improved.

Graham, Peterson, MacDonald, these are people we might consider trusting and these are people we might consider imitating. Paul the Apostle, inspired by God, spoke to Timothy, a man of character and youth, and said, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” 1 Corinthians 11:1. Let us be watchful, alert, and ready to imitate those found to be servant leaders, those found to be trustworthy, and those found to be worthy of our imitation.


[1] Mike Cosper, “Everything is Still Falling Apart,” Bonus Episode of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” Christianity Today podcast, christianitytoday.com, June 17, 2022.

[2] Collier, Winn. A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, Translator of The Message. The Crown Publishing Group, 2021.

[3] CNLP 297: Gordon MacDonald Shares 8 Decades of Wisdom and Life Lessons, October 17, 2021,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzGA477zG8s .