The Danger of Lionizing Lions

We become those whom we lionize—those larger-than-life superheroes and saints and stars we admire. And to some extent this is a true and good and beautiful phenomenon (1Cor 11:1). Insofar as leaders mimic Christ, Christians ought to follow in their steps. At least one word of caution needs to be offered, however, in this regard: Watch yourself carefully if the people you lionize behave like lions.

Lions are predators. They hold the title of “king of the forest” not for what they build but for what they destroy. They invoke awe and inspire fear because they enter the fray and don’t stop fighting. In evangelical circles of influence, it’s easy to spot the lions—those who made their name on the field of battle, owning atheists, purging liberals, punching back at culture, and purifying denominations. These men and women sometimes are a huge blessing to the church, addressing issues that have laid dormant for far too long. But, when lionized, the flaws of these lions rapidly become ignored and exacerbated in the lives of their followers, and the enemies of the lions become overlaid upon dissimilar conflicts of later eras. Several examples may help provide some context.

Looking back to the early church, Cyril of Alexandria provides a portrait of a man who was a lion against the onset of Nestorianism and other false teachings that were prevalent in his era. He is venerated for his defense of the orthodox faith in the East and West. But his lion-like behavior is far from admirable—including some bald egocentric and self-aggrandizing moves—and established precedents for how Christians in later times would bend the long arm of the state to root out heresy or would insert themselves into political conflicts. Eventually, Cyril’s own anti-Nestorian rhetoric reached a fever pitch and resulted in the lynching of Hypatia, an influential woman in Alexandria who opposed Cyril. Although Cyril’s theology was beautiful, his behavior was ugly. And those who lionized Cyril eventually descended into brutality and murder. To hold up Cyril as a “pillar of the faith” is incredibly one-sided and dangerous.

Perhaps a more recent example would help. I grew up in the independent fundamental Baptist arena, and we grew up lionizing men like Bob Jones, Sr. and John R. Rice for their stand against Billy Graham’s dalliance with liberalism beginning in his 1957 Manhattan Crusade. We saw their stand as heroic, pushing against the majority, against the news media, against star-struck evangelicals, to hold forth the truth of Scripture. But as with Cyril, there was an ugly underbelly to the whole matter that often went unstated. Beneath the criticism of Jones and Rice existed (as demonstrated in biographies, letters, and newspapers of that time) a number of developing rifts:

  • Ego: Graham had ascended far beyond the (frequently self-lauded) evangelistic careers of Rice and Jones, shifting the limelight away from these two men and their institutions.
  • False allegations: Second and third-hand information was being scouted and sent back to Jones and Rice regarding Graham speaking in “smoke-filled” rooms with alcohol present, allegations designed to scandalize Graham as a libertine. Shoddy narratives and hasty assertions made their way from personal letters to the pulpits of the South.
  • Racism: Just 5 years before the 1957 Crusade, Billy Graham dropped the segregation ropes at his Crusade in Jackson, Mississippi. In the days when fundamentalists of the South (and still a good number in the North) viewed integration as liberal policy/theology, this act began a wedge between the overtly racist approaches of Jones and Rice and the opening eyes of Graham. Graham’s posture solidified when MLK was invited to open the 1957 Crusade in prayer. Eventually, when Graham made his way back to the South, Jones commented to the Greenville News that Graham would not be welcome in his city due to Graham’s integrated Crusades.

In short, the fundamentalists of 1957 had some gripes with the churches who promoted Graham, but the rifts were far deeper and uglier than was often portrayed. The lions were lions. And when overlooked, the flaws only magnified and deepened. Jones’s school, Bob Jones University, went on to fight for segregationist anti-miscegenation rules including a Supreme Court showdown in 1983 and eventual rejection of the rule in 2000. Currently, the fiefdoms of Rice and Jones (to borrow the terminology of Nathan Finn) are deep-seated enemies, splitting each others churches over Bible translations and dress codes and music.

Looking a little closer to where I pastor, the heroes of the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence are frequently lauded in SBC life. For some time, these living legends even had stained glass windows in their honor on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But in recent years, much of the brutality and ugliness of the methods that were implemented in the resurgence have come to light. Sin was being covered—even the sexual abuse and pedophelia by its key leaders. Lies and false allegations were justified. Racism was commonplace. Misogyny was rampant. Yes, they upheld important doctrines. Yes, they displaced bad theology. Yes, they reversed distressing trends within the SBC. But these lions became lionized by the generations of SBC pastors who followed in their footsteps.

In fact, if you look at the sources of division within the SBC today, you’ll find men whose heroes are either the men who made their names with bloody knuckles in the fight for a pure convention or those whose heroes are the church planters and missionaries who (may or may not) have made a name for themselves with sweaty brows in the effort to advance the gospel. This paradigm is somewhat simplistic, but I think there’s good evidence that backs the reality that many of the young church planters within the SBC are less entrenched in the internecine warfare over anti-antiracism and more compelled by the SBC’s work to plant churches and send missionaries.

And if you examine much of the conflict within SBC life, it’s easy to discern elements of ego, false allegations, racism, misogyny, and the like that unfortunately still run amok. Those who drive malicious narratives using anonymous networks of blogs and Twitter accounts, lie about sources of funding, break the law, use atheists to attack Christians, and fear efforts to address abuse or racism on terms different than their own exhibit much of the dangerous fruit of the lions they love.

I’m sure we could go on to name many other lions (Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, etc., etc.) whose followers admired their behavior in combat. And for all the seeming nobility of these lions, both they and their cubs have brought havoc to the Church of God. So let us be careful about those whom we lionize. There is but one Lion (/Lamb!) whom we may safely lionize. May we cautiously thank God for the achievements of the lions but rather look to lionize the patient and perseverant apostles and prophets and their faithful work to build the Church on Christ’s one foundation.

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