The Cult of Personality

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God Never Calls Us to Surrender Our Minds to any other Human Being.

(Author’s Note: Since I began work on this essay, the term “Cult” has become a political weapon often wielded against real or perceived enemies. My aim is to steer clear of the political use of this term and treat it on a much smaller, personal scale. If there is any application of my observations to current American politics, it is an application the reader has made and it is not my intent.  My goal is to warn of the dangers of elevating any leader to a point of absolute authority in one’s life.)

Is this now a post-Christian country?
It is common today to refer to Christians as “Christ-followers.”  This is due to the sullied name some “Christians” have earned for themselves when they simply do not follow Christ. There are so many ways to name the name of Jesus and still betray Him through attitudes and actions that bear no relationship to what Jesus taught or demonstrated. As a Christian minister, I am compelled to deal with these errors in the context of the local church and in the light of Scripture. Any application to other environments is the reader’s doing.

One of the most dangerous of these aberrant ways is through what is called “the Cult of Personality.” This error is characterized by a strong leader who builds his/her group on his/her personality rather than on the One True Foundation, Jesus Christ.

  • Everything revolves around the leader.
  • Secondary leaders come at go at the leader’s slightest whim.
  • The primary qualification for leadership is loyalty to the leader.
  • Lieutenants quickly turn on each other when one falls out a favor with the commander, creating a dangerous and toxic work environment.
  • Public failures will be blamed on the middle level people and never on the boss.
  • Much greater attention is given to how things appear than to how they really are.
  • “Truth” must be handled and never told.
  • The leader listens to few and favors those who tell him/her what he/she wants to hear.

The leader is the absolute center of the organization.

Back in College
I first observed this leader-centered leadership when I was in college studying to be a band director.  There were many small towns with small high schools in Southeast Arkansas.  In my four years of study at Arkansas A&M College, now the University of Arkansas at Monticello, I saw many band directors come and go in the surrounding towns. Some of them built their programs on their own personalities.  They would have a measure of success, but each small school was just another step to a bigger school and band.  Because they had built their success on their own personalities, the band would fall apart when that leader moved on.  Though I didn’t have the term, “cult of personality” in my vocabulary at that time, I saw how destructive it could be.  To finish my degree, I deliberately went to a small-town school where the director (band) and his wife (choir) had been there for more than 20 years!  I wanted to learn how to base a music program on the lasting values of music rather than the fleeting, phony values of personality.  I had many ambitions common to a young artist/ teacher/minister but to be a flash-in-pan was never one of them.  I will always be grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Curry Martin at Warren High School in Warren, AR.

The dangers of the cult of personality lurk in the shadows around the edges of any system that needs a strong leader.  When a Christ-follower is embroiled in such a system, his/her integrity is in the balance.  The challenge becomes this: “How do I follow Christ as I seek to do my job for this leader?”  There are no easy answers and few safe paths to take.

Godly Leaders
The Bible is not silent on principles of leadership.  In the New Testament we are privileged to sit in on Jesus as He trains the twelve men He had chosen to be leaders in His mode, not in the traditions of power they had seen all their lives. Here are two of the lessons on leadership Jesus taught His men:

  • He taught servant leadership. He absolutely banned the “lord-it-over-others” methods of leadership. “It must not be so among you!” (Mat 20:25-28; Mark 10:41-45)
  • At the Last Supper, He took a towel and washed the disciples’ feet. He told them they must do likewise, highly esteeming those they would lead and never using them. (John 13)

This style of leadership was as radical in their century as it is in ours.  Yet, this is the Jesus way.  Why? Why does the Lord demand this humble style of servant leadership?  Simply this—it takes the leader out of the center and keeps the Lord Jesus in the center.  This hurting world does not need us; this world needs Jesus.  True Christian, Christ-like leaders get out of the spotlight.  They stay clear of the work that only the Holy Spirit can do.  Their gifts, talents, and personalities are used by the Lord to point people to Jesus.

The Lord’s disciples demonstrated their mastery of the Jesus-method of servant leadership in the book of Acts.  When the first great church crisis came along and a conference was called to handle it, we can see into their minds.  The issue was the full inclusion of Gentiles into the church. Here was their method:

  • They gathered the facts by listening to the ones who had witnessed the salvation and Spirit baptism of the Gentiles.
  • They consulted the Scriptures for prophesies concerning this turn of events.
  • They arrived at a consensus. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us…” (Acts 15:28 NKJV)
  • They communicated their agreed-upon findings to the church.

Following Jesus’ command, they did not “lord it over” the churches.  They found a solution that led to the evangelization of the whole world.  That is leadership, my friend!

The biblical word for consensus is “unity.”  In biblical unity, all are subject to the teachings of the Word.  Leaders are not excluded.  In fact, more is demanded of them because they are leaders. As they did, we must find towels and bowls and demonstrate the Jesus-style of leadership.

The New Testament Balance of Power
The writers of the New Testament letters where themselves leaders so they add to our understanding of how it should be done.  Here we find a set of paradoxical commands existing in a state of tension with each other.

  1. Believers must live in submission to their godly leaders.
  2. They must also evaluate their leaders by the Jesus standard.

The writer to the Hebrews says,

Hebrews 13:17 NKJV
Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

The Apostle Paul says,

1 Corinthians 11:1 KJV
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

In other words, the New Testament consensus—unity—is achieved when no one exists by a different standard from the one Jesus taught.  This demands from everyone a working knowledge of the Jesus-style of servant leadership.  The church is charged with submission to their leaders as their leaders follow Christ’s example and teaching.  When conflicts occur, there is a built-in basis for talking and praying through issues until a consensus is reestablished.  So, the people aren’t puppets, and the leaders aren’t puppeteers.

The Dangerous Philosophies of this World
Paul warns us against the deception of worldly thinking.

Colossians 2:8 NIV
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

Like that ancient Roman world, the world we live in is filled with hollow and deceptive ideas.  They appeal to the ego and seem to promise us fame and fortune, reward and remuneration.  Like the serpentine lies of Satan in the original garden there is colossal deception here.  Human tradition and humanistic philosophy appeal to the flesh.  These things lead to a downward spiral that culminates in death.  As the proverb writer warns, “There is a way that seems right, but it is the way of death.” (Prov 14:12)

In stark contrast, the ways of Jesus are the ways of life, an upward spiral that is by no means easy, but it is the way of ultimate peace.  When leaders lead the Jesus-way we can follow them without fear for we share the ultimate standard of leadership.

Romans 8:14-15 NKJV
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God.

The New Covenant infilling of the Holy Spirit enables each Christ-follower to personally follow Christ.  It might be good to review the wonderful ministries of the Holy Spirit to the church in the Last Supper Discourse. (John 13-17) It might also be good to research the promises of the ministry of the Spirit in the Epistles to the followers of Christ.  The disciples reveal a personal relationship with Jesus through the Spirit.  There is a “witness of the Spirit” in each believer that establishes a relationship with God for each of us.

Romans 8:15-17 NKJV
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

As we are led by our anointed leaders, we at the same time are being directly led by the Spirit as tested by the established, objective Word of God.  We should live in the powerful confluence these two streams.  One blessing of this life is that we are in the right place at the right time and another is an equality of all believers.  No one person is any more important than any other.  The difference is only one of function, not of value.

The Apostle Peter makes this equality perfectly clear. The operative word is “priesthood.”  The Old Covenant called for a tribe of priests and Levites to lead the People of God.  With the New Covenant, all of the People of God function as a new priesthood.  It is a holy priesthood, made righteous be the blood of Jesus and a royal priesthood for we serve in the courts of the King.

1 Peter 2:4-6; 9 NKJV
Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light…

The purpose of this holy, royal priesthood is to offer spiritual sacrifices or praise.  Conclusion? No individual in the church is more important than any other individual.  Each of us is intended to walk in the power of the Spirit as we follow or lead as we also are being led.


Perhaps at the individual level the idea is too simple to be believed. The true mark of the Christ-follower is to follow Christ.  Of course, following Him is often counter-intuitive and therefore, most difficult to do.  It is included in the command of Christ that the believer must “deny himself.”  This makes sense. In a world crammed with selfish, violent people, there is no need for more selfish, violent people who name the name of Jesus. What this world really needs is more people who live life the way Jesus did, walking in love and speaking the truth.

John 14:21:15 NIV
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.

And please remember…

God Never Calls Us to Surrender Our Minds to any other Human Being.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2021 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

The Cult of Personality

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