Unmasking the Tiger: Thoughts on Tony Anthony

Youth Cats II by Seth Rader
Youth Cats II by Seth Rader
I was surprised to read this week about Tony Anthony, evangelist and author of Taming the Tiger, whose best-selling story of a dramatic conversion has been deemed to be a fake.

You can read about the story here and the Evangelical Alliance’s statement here, but to summarise, it appears that Tony’s story of being a three-times kung fu world champion, an elite bodyguard to gangsters and businessmen, and having experienced a dramatic conversion whilst in prison, has been largely fabricated. There are serious questions raised about his identity, the truthfulness of his story, and also claims that he has plagiarised material from martial arts websites and books.

I’ve never read his book or heard him preach, but I’ve been aware of his story and have heard of people who have explored Christianity on the basis of having heard him speak. So whilst I don’t feel a personal connection to the story, I feel a sense of anger for those who do. And I can’t help but ask why someone would feel the need to do something like this!?

As I’ve reflected on it, I’ve been pondering Paul’s words in Philippians 1:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)

This has always struck me as an odd passage, since I can’t imagine any scenario in which one might preach in order to afflict someone already in prison! But the idea of preaching out of ‘selfish ambition’ is all too familiar. What preacher hasn’t wrestled at some point over whether their motives might be conflicted?

I have no idea what motivated Tony Anthony to do what he did. I don’t know whether his story is all a fabrication, or if there were seeds of truth that have become grossly exaggerated? But wherever it sits on the spectrum, I imagine selfish ambition has been there in the mix.

Which is why I find Paul’s response so challenging. He doesn’t get angry and denounce the teachers, though I imagine he feels a strong sense of disappointment with them. Rather he says ‘What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice’ (v18). My initial reaction on hearing a story like this one about Tony is to denounce his ministry, declare that lying is contrary to the gospel and distance myself from it. My first reaction is to wonder how I can cover my own back so that people won’t turn their scepticism about this preacher onto all preachers. And that’s a very real concern. When Christian leaders are shown to be deeply flawed it can engender distrust across the board; something none of us wants. But it’s interesting that that’s not where Paul goes…

Paul makes an important distinction between message and motives. He makes it plain that he is imprisoned for ‘defending the gospel’ (v16) and he speaks of Christ being proclaimed (v15, 17, 18) even by his rivals, which presumably means that the content of their message was authentic even if their motives were suspect.

We should draw confidence from this passage that the message of the gospel can be preached, even if done in a manner and with motives that run counter to the gospel. And I imagine that Paul’s reason for rejoicing is that the message is still having an effect. People are responding, believing and having their lives transformed.

So when people ask the inevitable question “What about the people who responded to Tony Anthony’s message” I want to say this – God can work through the most flawed communicators and if people responded to the message of Jesus (rather than the message of Tony!) their faith is secure. Of course there will be questions, confidence issues, things that need to be talked through seriously… but though it’s hard (and may come at first through gritted teeth), I want to respond like Paul did and rejoice! 

We must find a middle ground between underestimating and overestimating the importance of one man’s testimony. Of course it matters what story this man preached and whether it was true. Of course there will be fallout and questions and doubts and hurt because of this revelation about his testimony being false. We dare not underestimate the power of a man’s testimony to either convince people of the gospel, or reinforce their scepticism regarding Christian hypocrisy.

But we also dare not overestimate the importance of an evangelist’s testimony either. John 5:30-47 tells us that the testimony of men is useful. But the truthfulness of Jesus’ claims didn’t rely on the testimony of John the Baptist – good though it was! And to this day the truthfulness of his claims doesn’t rely on the testimony of men, but on Jesus’ works, his word and the testimony of the Father. There is a deeper power at work in the proclamation of the gospel…

I pray for people who responded to the gospel following a presentation by Tony Anthony. I pray that the true message of the gospel will have taken root in their lives to the point that this revelation will not shake their faith. I pray that they will have experienced the genuine life-changing power of God, of which Anthony’s story is a sad parody. And I pray for wisdom for those pastors who now have to face the questions from new believers who are questioning the roots of their own salvation experience. I pray they would have the right words to communicate that the gospel does rest on the story of one man, but it’s not Tony Anthony, and it’s not you, or me, but Christ. And as this link reminded us, Jesus’ story is hugely falsifiable, but has never been falsified!

I pray for preachers everywhere, that we would be strong in facing the temptation to exaggerate and falsify. I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that I regularly feel the temptation to exaggerate when preaching! Both to exaggerate the ways in which I’ve responded well to trials, in order to appear more sorted-out than I am, and to exaggerate the ways in which I’ve failed in order to make my conversion story seem all the more dramatic. There’s no place for lying in truth-telling, and it’s a road we preachers dare not go down.

And I pray too for Tony, that wherever he is at (and none of us can know the state of his heart and whether he ever experienced genuine conversion – I daren’t even guess!) God would help him to iron out his motives and experience that genuine life-change that he has preached for so many years. Dare I suggest that rescue, forgiveness and restoration from a web of lies and a public shaming could be just as powerful a story as the one concocted in his book…

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