April 9, 2008

Can I Have Your Autograph?

2008 1510 page27 cap was recently confronted by a photograph that has bothered me for some time—a shot of a leading Adventist pastor autographing a Bible. How, as an author I appreciate the signing of books or, in the case of a musician, CDs. But for some reason the sight of clergy putting their John Hancock on the Word of God troubles me. And let me be clear by saying that I am not referring to the dedication of a Bible for a new convert, but rather starstruck Adventists waiting in line for signatures in their Scriptures.
I first encountered this in 2000 when a friend returned home from the Toronto General Conference session. She was so excited, showing us the inside cover of her Bible, which resembled a high school yearbook. Comments such as “Keep on keeping on” and “God bless” decorated the page with the names of major players in the church. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have seen a “See you next summer” along with the other messages.
When and where did this practice start? How is it justified? I don’t have the answers. For a time I, too, thought it was cool to have autographs and had a noted speaker sign my New American Standard version. Since then, however, my opinion has changed; since often at camp meetings the “big name” finishes his or her presentation and scores of the faithful line up with their Bibles to sign. Could we be unsuspecting participants in our own version of a “celebrity culture”? Are we in any way contributing to the vanity and pride of those we respect for their public ministries?
2008 1510 page27I can think of no Bible test that prohibits us from signing each other’s Bibles, but one has a principle that may apply: “At the end of twelve months [King Nebuchadnezzar] was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?’ While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven: ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you’” (Dan. 4:28-31, ESV).*
I feel compelled at this point to interject that I am well aware of individuals who take it upon themselves to be the prophetic voice of the church and specialize in rebuking everyone for what they perceive as Babylon-esque behavior. But this is meant to generate discussion about the application of principle with two specific thoughts:
As a pastor in a three-church district, I will not be categorized in the same tier of pastors who serve large, single-church districts or institutional congregations. Yet in my humble position I struggle with pride and a bent toward self-sufficiency (especially if my sermon goes well on Sabbath). It’s a daily struggle to keep my dependency on God; and I imagine that struggle is double or triple for well-known ministers. Any behavior that tempts us to somehow think that our preaching places us on a par with the Word that inspires and fuels our message should be avoided.
My second thought is the balance between looking to God and having heroes of the faith. We all have people who inspire, mentor, and lead us into a deeper relationship with God. And that’s great. However, at times it can be easier to look to human beings as the source of our faith instead of to Jesus Christ. Don’t believe me? Look at how much fallout the church experiences when a leading minister quits, resigns, or has a moral fall. Like it or not, we have Adventist “celebrities” who seem larger than life. We have to make sure we don’t misuse our God-given influence.
I would love to hear what you think. But for me, unless we are merely dedicating Bibles with a special message, or asking every leader we meet—including the local conference president, pastor, even head elder—for their endorsement, thereby making Bibles a spiritual yearbook, I will continue to have reservations about preachers signing the sacred.
*Texts credited to ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Seth Pierce pastors in Omaha, Nebraska, and is the author of What We Believe for Teens, published by Pacific Press Publishing Association.