Beware the Cult of Personality

            A friend called me in August of 2019 to try to dissuade me from starting Vanguard Presbytery. These were his words to me: “You do not have the gravitas to pull this off.” I replied, “That is good, because I am not trying to do it based on my personal gravitas.” Later, he came by my office and simply said, “Dewey, just don’t do it.” I told him, “Well, I feel a compulsion to do so and I simply cannot remain in my present denomination.” That friend is in heaven today and I am sure he now understands exactly what I meant by my replies. Gravitas is a poor basis for doing anything in the Church of our Lord. Yet, I fear that is exactly what our modern world wrongly holds as more important than anything else.

            There are two very different approaches to starting a new denomination. One approach bases everything on dynamic personalities who will gather a large group of followers. That approach has been tried many times in the history of the Church and has always failed. Oh, there were moments when the “personal gravitas” of those leaders seemed to be accomplishing much, but such cults of personality also have led to numerous other problems. I was in a denomination once where the large church leaders of it were referred to as the Twelve Apostles by a certain well-known minister in the Atlanta area who also referred to that same denomination as a “personality cult.” That is one way to start a denomination, but I personally think it is exactly the wrong way to do so.

            There is another way to do so which I much prefer. That way is to start a denomination based on Scriptural principles. Then, people will be attracted to this new denomination based on the principles she holds. Vanguard Presbytery has taken this latter approach.

            The most successful missionary in the history of the Church was the first missionary sent out by the Church at Antioch, the Apostle Paul. We have so much reverence for him today and for his writings that we forget there were people who questioned his gravitas. The Church at Corinth had some who were saying about him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul was not a missionary who was hung up on personal gravitas. His preaching probably did not resemble the thundering of Jove in its power. In fact, one of Paul’s long-winded sermons put a young man named Eutychus to sleep with the result that he fell out of the third floor window-sill to his apparent death (Acts 20:9, 10). If personal gravitas is the primary requirement for starting a denomination, then the Apostle Paul fails the test.

            When personal gravitas is the standard for starting a new denomination, it is inevitable there will be a caste system by which ministers are judged. Those with such gravitas will be protected and promoted. There will be a multi-tiered system of justice. Justice will be equal for all, supposedly, but some will be more equal under that system of justice than others. A friend from seminary days was deposed from the ministry for being ticketed with a DUI. I agree with that decision of the court. Other presbyteries have allowed ministers to skate when ticketed for the same offense. Sometimes failure to say hello to Mrs. Jones is all that is necessary for a presbytery to remove a minister from his pulpit. Other times a court is willing to look the other way when a minister is arrested for illegal or immoral actions. Then, some presbyteries will refuse to come to the aid of a fellow minister who is arrested for preaching the gospel. I guess it all depends on one’s personal gravitas. Yet, true justice is blind. As Leviticus 19:15 says, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” I do not see any allowance for personal gravitas in those words.

            The problem with using personal gravitas as a standard in the church is that it breaks the rules against showing partiality. Partiality is a sin. James 2 says that when you judge between the rich man and the poor man on the basis of his clothing (or any other external matter) then you have “made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives” (James 2:2-4). Paul resisted the temptation to make such unholy judgments. He wrote in Galatians 2:6—“But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me, God shows no partiality)—well those of reputation contributed nothing to me.” Here is what Paul thought of those with high reputation (or great personal gravitas)—they meant nothing to him. Here is what those with such gravitas contributed to Paul—“they contributed nothing to me.” They had their gravitas, but such gravitas did nothing for the cause of Christ. After 45 years in the ministry, I have never seen a single instance where such ‘gravitas’ contributed anything to the cause of the gospel. That is always the way it is with the ‘cult of personality.’

            Here is what gravitas will do in a denomination. It will divide rather than unite. It will make most people feel like outsiders. It will hold up certain people as more important than others. It will lead to laxity in discipline. It will pander to the flesh and be more similar to Shintoism (‘the way of the gods’) than Christianity. Certain people will be set up as examples for others and will be revered as having the wisdom which we all need. People will begin to say, “My DNA is exactly like that of Pastor Worldly Wise at Megachurch in Metropolis USA.”  Whew! It is just so difficult when ministers start chasing after gravitas. A few catch lightning in a bottle, but most pastors just remain gravitas deficient.

            I am thankful that in Vanguard Presbytery not one person has been attracted to this new denomination because of my gravitas (since I do not have any). Most of you were unknown to me two years ago and I was unknown to you. What I have often heard is something like this. Someone would call or write and say, “A friend told me about Vanguard. I started reading up on it and I really like what you stand for. I am excited about the possibility of being in a denomination like this one.” Not one person has ever said, “I heard Dewey Roberts is in this denomination and I want to be in anything that he is a part of.” I would burst my sides laughing or cry a river of tears if anyone ever said such a thing. That would be entirely too funny—and too sad, all at the same time.        

            Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their sin of being followers of men rather than followers of God. He said, “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not believe Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” (John 5:43, 44). Here is what is true about people who are followers of those with gravitas—they are following those who come in their own name; they receive glory from one another. For what is gravitas except having such authority or presence that when you speak others listen and take notice? Yes, some people just naturally have such gravitas. They are like E. F. Hutton. But here is a better question—are those people with such gravitas using their platform to point people to Jesus (“He must increase, but I must decrease”) or are they gathering followers to themselves? Ministers, churches, Christians, and denominations have one mandate, one commission: to make people disciples of Christ. We do not need gravitas in order to be faithful to that commission.

News Updates:

            1. Welcome to Dr. Jim Jones and the DeRidder Presbyterian Church in DeRidder, Louisiana. Both Dr. Jones and the congregation (both having previously been received pending an affirmative vote of the congregation) became members of Vanguard Presbytery by a unanimous vote of the congregation on Sunday, April 11, 2021, to withdraw from the PCA and affiliate with Vanguard. We are very happy to receive another congregation and another pastor into Vanguard. There are many more things in the works which will be reported when the time is right.  

            2. Continue to pray for the Canadian pastors who are facing such persecution for conducting worship services. Marxism has come to North America and with it has come the persecution of the Church. Pastor James Coates in Alberta, Canada was jailed for 35 days and released a few weeks ago. The police and Health Department have put up a fence around the building. Yesterday, there were about 200 heavily armed policeman who more resembled a SWAT team who tried to prevent the church members from gathering for worship—but were unsuccessful. A native Polish pastor in Canada had the police and Health Department try to come into his church’s worship service on Easter Sunday, but were rebuffed by him. Our friend, Steve Richardson, continues to have the local police gather around his church building in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada and has received no support from his presbytery. Shame on them.  

Sincerely in Him,

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery

P. S. Donations to Vanguard Presbytery may be sent to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Thanks to all who have and are supporting Vanguard!

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