Usually our battles against pride are individual battles, because we know our own hearts (hopefully) and we know how much we need to fight. But in the last several years I’ve grown increasingly nauseated by some of the institutional, corporate, community pride that seems to thrive in some Christian circles. Relentless criticism of other organizations, self-affirming comparisons with other decent schools, disparaging remarks about the emphases of other good churches. Over time the institutional self-praise just gets old and starts sounding desperately immature and elitist.
There is something very attractive and subversive about community pride, because it feels more virtuous than individual pride. Thinking highly of yourself is usually called conceit, but thinking highly of your institution or company is usually called loyalty. In many ways, this distinction is fair and right. It is foolish to praise your own qualities (Proverbs 27:2) but it is appropriate to praise what is praiseworthy about a group of people (Proverbs 14:34).
Yet in some corporations and colleges and even churches, this type of appropriate praise turns in on itself and degenerates into that inseparable yet miserable pair of boasting and condescension. What started as pure delight in what God is doing turns into fawning corporate arrogance over our self-identified strengths and qualities and distinctives. This in turn produces a condescending attitude toward any and all competitors as we learn to view other groups as so many rungs on the ladder of self-promotion, worthy only of the bottom sole of our institutional boot as we climb upward.
I don’t mind someone saying how grateful he is for his local church and the qualities that God has cultivated there (I certainly tell people that I’m grateful for my local church). This spirit of gratitude and joy and honor is entirely biblical. My objection is against those who sound content that other churches seem to be falling short and against Christians who talk about the weaknesses of another group of believers without even a hint of disappointment, sadness, or prayerfulness. Even if our criticisms are accurate and necessary, we ought not to sound like CEO’s rejoicing over struggling competitors.
Consider how many things are said in the name of corporate self-honor that actually border on arrogance. Listen to the vocabulary, even in Christian circles, of organizational self-promotion and condescension. We praise our own churches and subtly imply that we are superior to the other good local churches in the area. We off-handedly mention the weaknesses of other good groups (which we know next-to-nothing about) as though our observations were utterly factual, unquestionable, objective, and calculated, and as though our purpose were to simply to make a remark that aids discernment. I would suggest that, more often than we realize, we are really stroking our own corporate ego. And corporate ego is still ego.
The competitiveness of capitalism and the self-promotion of marketing have no place in the church of Jesus Christ. Yes, rejoice if your church preaches the truth and functions as a loving, like-minded community. Yes, rejoice over your college’s sound doctrine and the wonderful experience you’ve had there. Yes, praise God for the clear spiritual priorities of your parachurch organization and the privilege you have of serving Christ with such a strong and healthy group. But understand that there are others out there serving the Lord faithfully, too. Remember that there are local churches in your state that are doing more for the gospel than you have ever dreamed of doing. Don’t forget that there are other Christian colleges who are training young men and women in the ways of Christ, and that they’re doing it well.
When Jesus said that few will enter through the small gate and walk the narrow way, He wasn’t just talking about the people in your local church. The true church of Jesus Christ isn’t stamped with your organization’s logo or my college’s initials. There are others who are faithful.
How often do our local churches praise the work of God in other area churches? How often do we pray publicly for the other solid churches in our cities and towns? How often do our Christian colleges and seminaries honor and affirm other Christian colleges and seminaries around the country? Are they our colleagues or our competitors? Is this a family or is it a rivalry?
I realize that there are lines to be drawn; that not all institutions or churches that call themselves Christian actually follow Christ; that there are a lot of weak-sauce colleges and seminaries out there who have little doctrine and less spirituality; and that we need to exercise discernment which will often mean identifying weak points in groups of people who claim Scripture as their guide and rule. Jesus and Paul and Peter and the prophets all did this, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to follow them.
But this doesn’t equal rejoicing over the weaknesses (whether real or perceived) of those who are our true brothers and sisters. It doesn’t mean we throw others’ reputations in front of the firing squad simply because they disagree on secondary or tertiary issues. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should get used to patting ourselves on the back while claiming that we’re worshiping God for what He’s done. There’s a difference between corporate adoration and communal arrogance.
I think there’s a high risk of this post being misunderstood. Some might say, “Yeah, people who stand for the truth are always arrogant and critical and intolerant, and we should all overlook our doctrinal differences.” Others might say, “Wait, so you’re saying that it’s arrogant to be confident in the truth or to rejoice in the fact that God has kept us biblical, or that we should just push all our differences under the carpet and never compassionately point out where other arms of the church are failing?” I’m not saying either of these things, and I’m willing to clarify in the comments if what I am saying is unclear.
But I think it’s essential that groups who stand for the truth fight against the temptation to be uppity towards those who differ in relatively small ways. I’m not talking about orthodoxy and heresy; when orthodoxy is at stake, be gracious and gentle but fire at will. I’m not even talking about fringe churches and compromised colleges and hopelessly misled organizations that all need to be called on the carpet for their lack of faithfulness and biblical priorities. I’m talking about those sound churches in your area that may differ with you on some small things, those healthy Christian colleges that train the same types of students you’re training but have some different distinctives, and those parachurch organizations that are helping the body of Christ fulfill some part of the Great Commission even though they have their own minor weaknesses.
And if you can’t think of any of those sound churches, healthy colleges, or biblical organizations (besides your own), that might just be symptom number one. Don’t limit the work of God to your little group, wonderful though it may be. God is not that small.