Church celebrities: assessing an old but contemporary challenge

Most Adventists today probably don’t remember her.

Her name was Maria Anne Hirschmann.  I don’t even know if she’s still alive.  (Her former husband recently passed away, I am told.)  An Adventist teenager living in the German-dominated Sudetenland of what was then Czechoslovakia, she left home at the age of fourteen to receive advanced training in the Hitler Youth movement.  Soon she became a devout and passionate Nazi, leaving the faith of her childhood behind.

Through a long journey of shattered hopes, imprisonment and escape from a Soviet labor camp, extreme privation, and a chain of providential circumstances, Maria made it back to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Her story was initially told to the denomination in her first book, I Changed Gods (1), later expanded into a larger book, Hansi: Captive of the Swastika (2).  The former book leaves Maria, her husband, and their first child on an airplane bound for America.  The impression left at the book’s close is one of “happily ever after.”

Unfortunately, it was not to last.

I was a sixth grader when I first read I Changed Gods.  Being fascinated by the history of World War II, in particular the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, Maria’s story was one I found most interesting.  On one occasion, at the Adventist junior academy I attended, Maria was invited to speak and share her story.  It is always insightful to read an individual’s account of having experienced a pivotal chapter in human history, and how the individual’s interaction with events is instructive in so many ways.  I will always remember the innocent question Maria asked one of her Nazi teachers, “Why did the Fuhrer never get married?”  The teacher answered, apparently quite sincerely: “The Fuhrer belongs to all of us, Maria Anne; he could never choose one of us above everybody else, or would that seem right to you?” (3).  One familiar with Hitler’s biography can only smile at such naïve adoration, especially when one recalls how at least four young women attempted suicide over their longings for Hitler, and at least three of these succeeded (4).

I Changed Gods soon made Maria an Adventist celebrity, a sought-after speaker who traveled afar even as she and her husband struggled to balance college studies, family life, and the challenge of raising children during the decades of upheaval.  Soon Maria’s denominational profile and popularity became a source of marital and family disharmony.  The story of her estrangement from the church, the breakup of her home, and her eventual defection to the mainstream evangelical world, is told in yet another of her books: Please Don’t Shoot! I’m Already Wounded (5).

It is one of the saddest books I have ever read.  It is a tale of marital conflict, rebellious children, stand-offish church members, pain, and tears.  Worse still perhaps, it is the story—at least the way she tells it—of a denominational celebrity whose stature and reputation were perceived to be so lofty that neither pastors nor laity ventured near to offer comfort, prayer, and strength during her struggles.  One can’t read her saga, especially as a pastor, without pondering the extent to which the neglect of godly fellowship and clerical nurture can find itself responsible for major spiritual calamities in so many Christian lives.

But could the tendency of so many Christians—including Seventh-day Adventists at times—to elevate certain ones too quickly and effectively make them church celebrities, be a problem too many of us have neglected to consider?  In the aforementioned book, Maria writes at one point:

I don’t think Christian people realize how hard they can make life on public figures.  They don’t think of it, but it takes tremendous energy to give a sermon or speech. . . . After a meeting, people come for counsel, prayer, or just to chat, and they take hours of a speaker’s time without much thought or consideration of his or her personal welfare (6).

Larger Than Life

Celebrities in any line—secular politics, entertainment, sports, or religion—can easily assume larger-than-life profiles in the eyes of observers.  But nowhere can such an experience become more challenging and potentially destructive as in the field of religion.

Though for different reasons, both conservative and liberal religionists can fall victim to celebrity culture.  But this essay will focus primarily on the peril of this culture for religious conservatives, as it illuminates a most effective tool of the adversary in causing those with a professedly high view of inspired authority to compromise their principles in deference to charismatic, persuasive, and popular individuals.

Especially is this a problem at spiritual gatherings or within spiritual venues where those seeking faithfulness to the Word of God, the Spirit of Prophecy, and the Fundamental Beliefs of the church assume the environment to be spiritually “safe.”  In other church settings, where departures from doctrinal, liturgical, and moral faithfulness might be more evident, the need to apply the Berean test (Acts 17:11) can be more conspicuously imperative.  But once a situation is presumed to be governed and guided by faithful church members, it is easy to let one’s guard down, and to be swept away by the talent, knowledge, and communication skills of a presenter.

Such a presenter is often assumed by listeners to be a spiritual giant, intimately familiar with the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy, living an exemplary personal life that has long since surmounted the vexations and pitfalls to which most, presumably less advanced Christians are vulnerable.  Such a speaker is often entertaining as well as articulate in his or her public delivery, causing attendees at a large gathering to prefer such a one’s seminars to others which might perhaps benefit their spiritual journey in a more substantive way.

Such speakers frequently draw to themselves large followings, who increasingly neglect the needful measuring of the speaker’s style and substance by the written counsel of God.  And if the speaker embraces theological or other errors, or experiences a moral fall, the impact on the cause of revival and reformation—and the church as a whole—can be devastating.

This is not, by the way, a new problem in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Indeed, it is a problem as old as New Testament Christianity itself, as was evident in the Corinthian church where Paul rebuked those who claimed to be followers of either himself, Apollos, or Cephas (I Cor. 1:10-13).  As a born-and-bred Adventist, I have witnessed this phenomenon since my teen years.  Particular speakers, because of their winsome style and appealing messages, have often been given repetitive exposure to the limelight at camp meetings, workers’ retreats, institutional weeks of prayer, and similar venues.  Sadly, too many in those days simply assumed that if someone was invited so often to address such gatherings, he must be spiritually trustworthy, or the leaders wouldn’t keep inviting him.  Only a few perceived, and were troubled by, the subtle erosion of doctrinal and spiritual integrity which at times resulted from the prominence given to the ministry of such persons.  When I was at Pacific Union College as a freshman theology major, I remember one person being quoted as saying, in the context of the righteousness by faith controversy then in progress: “I don’t know what I believe, but whatever _____ (the college church pastor) believes, that’s what I believe.”


While in many cases it isn’t possible to stop people from listening to attractive, charismatic speakers, those responsible for programming and speaker selection in settings where the focus is revival and reformation through a return to Bible-based Adventism, should consider the following two precautions—among perhaps others—as ways of forestalling excessive focus on particular individuals:

1. No matter how popular or likable a speaker is, never fail to apply the Berean test (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11) to everything a speaker says or does.

Every presenter at a gathering focused on Biblical and Spirit of Prophecy faithfulness needs to be constantly monitored.  Speaking as both a pastor and traveling revivalist myself, I can assure any reader that every last one of us needs to be held accountable to God’s written counsel.  Speakers and listeners alike need to help one another be as faithful to inspired teachings as possible.  This doesn’t mean we descend to nit-picky criticism or making people “an offender for a word.”  One potentially problematic statement doesn’t necessarily mean a speaker is promoting error or compromise.  If an issue or incident becomes a source of concern, mutual consultation and dialogue are imperative.  Such interaction should be welcomed by presenters and audiences alike.  One thing is certain: thin skins and resistance to constructive criticism on the part of speakers are in most cases a sure sign that such a person’s ministry is questionable.

Those in charge of inviting speakers to gatherings of this nature need to listen carefully to recordings and read carefully the writings of the speakers they invite.  Even more important, those in positions of responsibility need to immerse themselves daily in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy writings, so they are able to recognize spiritual and theological lapses in their early stages, not merely when such become obvious.

2. Repetitive invitations to popular speakers is a dangerous practice.

Leaning on the arm of flesh is a very human trait, even among the striving faithful.  Even if a speaker exhibits no discernible theological or spiritual problems, it is wrong to give such a one the limelight over and over again.  The struggle with pride and self-sufficiency is one in which all men and women of God engage, especially those with a high profile.  Repetitive occupation of prominent platforms can make this struggle increasingly difficult for a public figure.

And as Maria Hirschmann noted, excessive labor imposed on speakers can deprive them of time for their own spiritual nourishment as well as depriving them of time with spouses and families.  It should ever be kept in mind that those who minister in public are not spiritual supermen or superwomen.  They need rest, both spiritual and physical, and they need time for personal refreshment, solitude, and fellowship with close friends and loved ones away from the crowds.  Even Jesus and His disciples required this, as we may recall (Mark 6:31-32).

Despite the unpopularity in many circles of the current revival-and-reformation message, there are enough faithful men and women available in contemporary Adventism who can publicly direct minds to the written counsel of God on many important and crucial subjects, without re-running the same presenters time and time again.

Conclusion: A Culture of Accountability

Let us ever keep in mind that no movement incurs the ire and deceptive initiative of the enemy more than an effort by God’s people to return to the teachings and standards of inspired counsel, and to thus roll back decades of apostasy and spiritual indifference.  Constant vigilance on the part of the striving faithful must become an integral feature of all such efforts.  A celebrity culture can become a most egregious problem for such a movement, and one that must be assiduously avoided.  What is needed in such settings instead is a culture of accountability.  Not a culture of mindless faultfinding and the measuring of individuals by human standards, even the standards of cultural conservatism.  Rather, what is needed is a culture founded upon and saturated by the worldview, teachings, and moral witness of the Bible and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy.  The undue veneration of individuals is one ubiquitous means whereby Satan has perverted the faith of millions who have neglected to measure all in the spiritual realm by the written Word.

Elder Ted Wilson, in his inaugural sermon at the General Conference of 2010, said it so well, referring to himself and his fellow leaders: “Hold us accountable!”  Celebrity culture, even among conservative Adventists, must be countered at all cost by an ever-perseverant culture of accountability.  Only thus can we hope to be part of the ultimately-purified church at the close of time—where, in the words of Ellen White:

No one of the true believers will say, “I am of Paul, or I of Apollos, or I of Cephas.”  The testimony of one and all will be, “I cleave unto Christ; I rejoice in Him as my personal Saviour” (7).


  1. Maria Anne Hirschmann, I Changed Gods (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1968).
  2. ----Hansi: Captive of the Swastika (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1973).
  3. Ibid, p. 28.
  4. See Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936L Hubris (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998), pp. 351-355; John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1976), back cover.
  5. Hirschmann, Please Don’t Shoot! I’m Already Wounded: The Story of a Heartbreak and a Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1979).
  6. Ibid, p. 104.
  7. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 401.

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