Yesterday I suggested that the dominant mark against my own life and generation is an overly aggressive ambition. This ambition is often masked by appeals to faith, to mission goals and to growth in the numbers of people we reach or attract. It is particularly apparent in the virtually Corinthian way that we build empires and ministries around the personality if our leaders.
I once asked a highly regarded leader of a major Christian ministry if he feared this problem and he assured me, without even a moment's hesitation, that this was a non issue since his goal was to draw people to Jesus and the truth and not to dispossess them of this danger. I argued otherwise, to no avail. I even suggested that if he looked carefully he could see all around him the clear evidence that people came to hear him and listened to his every word as if he was the font of deep wisdom. (I didn't quite put it this way, being a little more tactful than this.) His answer was that he preached the truth and followers were solely responsible for what they did with his message (and all the products he distributed for his mission). This man, and dozens like him, can make or break other ministries by his response. If he invites an unknown person to speak that person has a following. If he stops inviting a person then that person will be marked in the minds of the great man's following. There is something about all of this that is just not right. It is, if I can get the right word, unseemly. It may be much worse in the light of 1 Corinthians 3-4.
Last week I was in a discussion with some friends over lunch when this subject came up, as it often does. One person spoke about getting the various evangelical tribes together for the purpose of the mission of Christ. I asked him, "How do you propose to unite these leaders, and thus their followers, when you and I both know they will have nothing to do with people in a different tribe?" This very issue surfaced again with the Manhattan Declaration. I have seen some helpful criticism of this document, especially by Professor John Stackhouse at Regent College. But most of the attacks have come from tribal leaders who think such statements deny the gospel in some profound way. Besides the fact that this is utter nonsense I think the attacks actually come because the document did not originate within the mission of a particular minister or ministry. Sectarianism is alive and well and flourishes in all settings, especially conservative evangelical ones that are donor-driven.
Bernard of Clairvaux said: "Ambition is the mother of hypocrisy and prefers to skulk in corners and dark places. It cannot endure the light of day. It is an unclean vice wallowing in the depths, always hidden, but ever with an eye to advancement." Could it be that ambition is a far more serious problem than most of us care to admit? Could it be that while many of us have said we are all about making followers of Jesus in the end we connect his followers with our persons (and ministries) far too closely?