OPINION: Mike Todd’s latest viral moment raises questions about pastoral accountability.
This past Sunday, I received almost simultaneous notifications from all my group chats. Whatever had just happened, everybody knew about it. I opened the first chat and saw a link to a clip of Mike Todd, lead pastor of Transformation Church. My sigh was deep; the eye-roll harder than usual. The New York Times bestselling author of Relationship Goals and Crazy Faith trends often for his sermons; I assumed it would be another instance of Todd questioning the sexual ethics of women who wear leggings or warning his followers that dating is actually preparation for divorce.
This was…different. In a sermon grounded in Jesus’ healing of a man who was born blind (John 9), Pastor Todd spit in his hand several times and wiped it on the face of a parishioner (who also happened to be his brother) to illustrate how the man received his sight. The internet went crazy, and rightfully so. Amid a global pandemic where COVID-19 has been linked to eye infections, what about that gesture made sense?
It’s the little things that really matter, so let’s be clear: First, Jesus didn’t actually wipe spit on the man’s eyes. According to the text, he mixed his saliva with the dirt, making mud, and applied it to his eyes. What makes this story even more powerful is how Biblical scholars have often linked this act with the creation of Adam in Genesis, offering the hope and comfort that a creator will always know what its creation needs in order to be made whole and well.
Perhaps this is why so many were offended by Todd’s sermonic illustration. It was neither grounded in the biblical narrative itself nor redirecting those searching for hope to the one who provides the wellspring of it. Added to that, it was disgusting. As illustrated in that clip, the main point of Todd’s sermon was “faith is nasty.”
Faith is a lot of things: it’s complicated, frustrating, mysterious and often isolating. “Nasty” isn’t how most would describe faith. Hocking spit in your hands and wiping it on the face of someone else is nasty—and in the Missionary Baptist Church where I grew up, an invitation for a different kind of laying on of hands.
But Pastor Mike Todd’s antics don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re actually part of a larger problem that arises when ministry, status and the digital world collide. We are in the age of the “Social Media-Celebrity Pastor,” where going viral matters more than sitting with the needs of the people; where congregations have become more like cults and stans who will flood your mentions if you say anything about their pastor. But in a time when a large follower count has become indicative of anointing and God’s favor, perhaps the only thing to do is to keep calling out harms when we see them.
There are those who are quick to tell us Pastor Todd has given away millions of dollars to his congregants and people in need. This is true. Pastor Todd has also stood in the pulpit and said domestic violence is not a biblical justification for divorce. So, what shall we say to these things? Are we to care more about tax-deductible contributions and donations than we do about dangerous sermonic illustrations and death-dealing preaching points? Does it matter more that someone has millions to give away than it does that an abused spouse was told God gives them permission to leave their house but not their marriage?
That’s what makes preaching like this so violent. There is no concern for the impact on real lives. When I spoke to my 87-year-old grandmother about Todd’s antics, she remarked how many in her generation were spat on in the pursuit of freedom and justice, just to later witness a Black male pastor wiping spit on another Black person on MLK Sunday. In a moment when the surge of the Omicron variant forced many congregations to return to virtual worship services after just a few weeks of in-person gatherings, the recklessness of Todd’s illustration had no regard for the pain many are experiencing as they are unable to be with the ones they love.
Many formally trained pastors and preachers knew Todd’s sermonic illustration was enough to have your preaching grade in jeopardy for the entire semester—not to mention that for the duration of your seminary career, you’d be known as the spitting preacher. All of this begs the question: “Who are Mike Todd’s people?” Maybe it’s an even broader question: “Who are our people?” For those whose work is performed in the context of faith, whether in or out of a pulpit, who can tell us no? Who is around us to hold us accountable to our highest selves and to the great work of caring for people? Who is there to simply say, “Bruh—you can’t wipe spit on people. You just can’t”?
Pastor Todd has since apologized. Some have accepted it while others contend it’s not an apology at all. Either way, the call to move forward from the moment has been made and, as someone who hopes to never see that again in my life, I’m okay with that. Still, it’s well past time for the cult of celebrity pastoring to die and our religious leaders be held to a greater standard for what they say and do to us.