The problems of tele-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart have raised for us the difficulty of knowing where our responsibility ends. In our congregation, we know that if one part suffers, every part suffers, and if one part is honoured, every part rejoices. In our congregational life, we know that if we see a brother fall into sin, then we are responsible to “bear his burden”.
However, what do we do with Christian brothers who are not in our congregation and with whom we have little contact? Surely we should not draw a hard, Pharisaic line as for whom we should bear burdens? But there are so many who name the name of Christ, and so many with whom we are not in direct association. Are we responsible for them?
Denominations are of no value to us in this, for in each denomination there are people with whom we fundamentally disagree. In each denomination there are leaders who speak such heresy that we want to be disassociated from them. Changing denominations does no good, for every denomination has the same problems. To what extent do we have to be responsible for the public ministry of our denominational leaders across the country or across the world?
Of course, from the outsider’s perspective, we are all cut from the same cloth. The subtle distinctions between one denomination and another are completely lost on the average non-Christian. The nitpicking theological distinctions between Christian denominations have been roundly rejected by our non-Christian contemporaries. They are not interested in the differences and do not believe in them. Thus when tele-evangelists preach, most people assume they are speaking for us. They may belong to a different denomination and preach a doctrine that we do not believe in, or even reject all that we stand for, but we are tarred, nevertheless, with the same brush. We may have no control over their selection and no opportunity to disassociate ourselves from them, but in the public mind we still bear the responsibility for their stance and their failings.
We haven’t yet come to terms with the mass media. We can’t select those who appear on the screen. Those who end up with their own television and radio shows tend to be the charismatic personalities, the men and women with entrepreneurial flair and stage presence. The television stations accept them because they increase ratings, not because of their godliness or gospel-centred ministry. They succeed because they can work with promoters and raise large sums of money, and can thrive in the image-hungry world of the modern media. However, they are also the people who fall easy prey to the Devil’s wiles.
In a society such as ours, there is no way that we can hold these people to account. There is no referee to whom we can appeal; there is no central bureaucracy which can regulate Christian media. We live in a world of free-enterprise media, the world of the fast lane, the go-getters, the fly-by-nighters and the unstable. Ecumenical or denominational media presentations usually provide syncretistic messages and boring television. We are left with a choice between the bland, unbelieving nothingness of the ABC religious affairs department, and the wizz-bang, over-the-top, free-enterprise extremist who is perceived by the public as the spokesmen for Bible-believing Christianity.
What can we do?
In a free enterprise world, the only way to compete is by providing better alternatives. If we do not wish to spend the money and resources to provide a better product, then we must learn to live with the heretical and godless alternative, an alternative the world is always ready to accept.
However, within our responsibility we do have avenues for action. We can turn off our television sets. We can stop sending these people money and we can encourage other Christians to do the same. We can pray for our leaders and for Christians in public prominence. We can select ministers and denominational leaders, Sunday school teachers and youth-workers with wisdom and care. We can write and publicly disassociate ourselves from the fraudulent and the phony. And we can use the failings of people like Jimmy Swaggart to explain to our contemporaries the true nature of the gospel.
We have been warned since the time of the New Testament that the Prince of Darkness will come dressed as an angel of light. We have no control over who is going to come in angel’s dress. That is not our responsibility. But we can identify them, preach against them, be on our guard against them, and teach the truth in clear distinction from their message.