February 08, 2010

Religious egotism

UPDATE/ADDENDUM   I received a comment from someone I respect greatly and, as a result, feel the need to clarify something about this post.

I don’t mean to paint all Christians with the same brush in this article. The characteristics I’m speaking of in this post are too common among Christians, but by no means are common to all. In fact, I believe these things would characterize less than a majority. But the behaviors are far too common in Christian circles and I am hoping in this post to call each of us to a personal high standard recognizing these characteristics and attempting to personally avoid them.

And may God get the glory in all.


have been bothered by an apparent characteristic of the conservative Evangelical Christian community for quite some time. This unattractive characteristic shows itself as the tendency for Christians to view themselves as better-than others and others as less-than themselves. Christians also seem to think that they have a unique right to disobey the laws of the land—especially within the walls of their church building or Christian day school. I think this lawlessness is grounded in the personal elitism of the Christian mindset.

Christian theology should result in exactly the opposite mindset. The bible clearly teaches that those who are drawn to the Father are so drawn for God’s personal reasons and not because of any goodness on our part. In fact, as the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian believers:

“My dear friends, remember what you were when God chose you. The people of this world didn’t think that many of you were wise. Only a few of you were in places of power, and not many of you came from important families. But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame” (1 Corinthians 1:26–27).

So, if we were chosen for a reason, it was not because of how good we were or how wonderful we were—it was because of how small and insignificant we were.

Genesis 20:11

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place.”

But perhaps this elitist condition is not new. As I was reading the bible to my son last night, we came across the passage about Abraham and Abimelech. Abraham asked his wife Sarah to say she was his sister so the people of the land would not kill him to get to his wife, who we are told was a very beautiful woman. Abimelech took Sarah into his house and the Lord appeared to him in a dream to tell him that he was in deep trouble for taking a man’s wife. In the end, the Lord agreed with Abimelech that he had acted with integrity and as long as Sarah was returned to Abraham, God would not curse Abimelech and his household.

Genesis 20:12

Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.

Abimelech asked Abraham why he had claimed Sarah as his sister rather than his wife, potentially endangering Abimelech’s household. Abraham answered, “because I thought, there is no fear of God at all in this place.” Abraham then went on to justify his actions further. I find it interesting that this chosen man of God decided to lie and put his wife in a precarious position because he thought Abimelech’s people were less-than he and his household.

In my experience, Christians excuse lawless behavior by appealing to the fact that the church is tax-exempt. They often leave poor tips at restaurants (along with a tract) and claim that they are being “good stewards of the Lord’s money.” They talk about folks who go to a different church in town as if the mere fact of the different church membership is proof that these people are not saved. This should not be. When we act unethically and then blame our unethical behavior on the fact that others are non-believers, we bring shame to the name of Christ.

The recent news about the U.S. missionaries in Haiti seems to be another example of this characteristic among Christians. Perhaps the U.S. missionaries in Haiti acted in integrity. I hope they did. But the lesson I hope we all take away from the story (and from the story of Abraham and Abimelech) is that we Christians should recognize that we are not better than others. Our faith is not because of us—it is because of Christ and He is to be our only boast.



  1. I'm just curious about what sort of lawless behavior within the church walls you have in mind. I'm not arguing, but it's just that I don't move in those circles anymore and don't remember anything like that when I did. I'm actually thinking about it, and nothing comes to mind. I remember some tax evader types I've known over the years who were hyper-libertarians, but that arose out of libertarian ideology, not out of anything to do with Christianity. I've _heard_ of Christians who refuse to pay their taxes because of the way the money is used, but as it happens, I've never actually met any of them. And if the excuse you've heard is something about the church being tax exempt, it can't be tax evasion you have in mind anyway, I would guess. So I'm just not tracking with what you've encountered.

  2. Lydia - I'm glad you asked your question. I didn't want to go into details in the post for fear that the post would be too long, but I think it is good for you (and others) to understand what I'm talking about.

    Most of our experience has come through close association with various churches. My wife was church secretary and school secretary for a Christian day school. Then she was a school photographer and photographed students at hundreds of Christian schools around the Northern/Central Virginia area. That gave us the ability to see patterns and characteristic common among Evangelical churches.

    As a church/school secretary, my wife was directed to violate OSHA regulations and observed violations in health code (with regard to school lunches and facilities) and child endangerment laws (with regard to teacher-to-pupil ratios). When she questioned these apparent violations, the answer was consistently, "as a church we are not bound by those laws."

    When she began to photograph in different Christian day schools, she saw many examples of these same violations and also violations of building codes related to electrical capacity, etc. It was not her business to ask about the teacher/student ratios, so she did not. But the electrical situations impacted her equipment and she heard the same responses about not being bound to the laws because it's a church.

    We have also seen many example of Christians looking down on others for myriad reasons. Usually the reasons are racial prejudice or some sort of prejudice against the "working class." But many times it displays itself as prejudice against theological differences.

    I hope I am wrong, but I believe the Haitian situation with the Baptist missionaries is an example of looking down on the people of Haiti (perhaps because of the common voodoo there, or perhaps because of the darkness of their skin). And I think the missionaries, in their elitist viewpoint, felt that they didn't have to seek out or follow the laws of the land. I think they viewed Haiti with a comtempt that allowed them to justify removing children from their parents in order to "bless" them with the privilege of moving to America.

    I love my nation, but it is not a blessing to remove children from their parents because you think you have more to offer the child than the parent has to offer.

  3. Thanks for the details, Rich. I think I understand now.

    W.r.t. the Haiti thing, I really don't think there's enough info. to attribute those motives to the Baptist missionaries. It's important to remember, too, that their lawyer says (truthfully, for all we know to the contrary) that 9 out of 10 of them--literally, all but the leader--didn't know that they didn't have the legal paperwork necessary. As far as taking children from their parents, I imagine there could be emergency situations where a child is literally going to starve to death unless taken elsewhere and fed, and it seems that this verged on such a situation where the parents themselves believed that it was best or even necessary to the children's well-being to give their children up. I know that is hard to fathom, but it was a desperate situation, and I'm not sure we should judge the parents' decision as definitely having been wrong. Remember that the children are not back with their parents _now_. They are in an orphanage somewhere else in Haiti! So it's not like the whole thing is a matter of leaving kids with their parents vs. the parents giving them up. You could say that they are _still_ being taken care of in the most basic ways only because their parents gave them up.

  4. You're right, Lydia, that we don't have enough information yet. And I hope that as the facts come out it will exonerate those involved.

    The fact that all except the leader thought they had the legal paperwork play directly into this blog post. We need to hold ourselves and our church leaders to a higher standard. I don't think we should quibble with each other over most things, but rather leave the convicting of sin to the Holy Spirit. But when the behavior stems from our church leaders, such as the people who said "we don't have to follow the laws because we're a church," we need to hold them accountable. If we all seek higher standards of personal behavior for ourselves and for our church leadership, the rising tide will raise all boats.

    With regard to the children - it is not up to us to decide if a child would be better off with food than with the child's parents. There were many food sources there in Haiti were these children could have been taken by the missionaries to get such food. I know that our military would have made special arrangements for any children who were hungry - to get them to the front of the line. If the parents of these children are willing to give their children to the arms of another for the sake of the child's safety, that is perfectly fine. But that decision must remain in with the children's parents--not with well-meaning outsiders.

  5. "If the parents of these children are willing to give their children to the arms of another for the sake of the child's safety, that is perfectly fine. But that decision must remain in with the children's parents--not with well-meaning outsiders."

    Well, yes. But I'm wondering if perhaps you didn't know: According to the AP's investigation, parents _did_ willingly give the children to the Baptist young people. They, the parents, said so. I don't know that this has been confirmed in _every_ case, but my impression is that it has been confirmed in a pretty representative sample. That's why I brought up the parents' decision.

    As far as our military "getting the children to the front of the line," there, I'm afraid, you are mistakenly assuming a straightforwardness in the situation that just isn't there. I read a horrifying and sad report about USAID tying up tons of food and water on the tarmac (while taking photo ops with celebrities) and a USAID worker screaming at a US military colonel who was trying to unsnarl things. Basically, distribution has been a big and frustrating problem, and there are plenty of people who have not been able to get the very aid that a generous world has sent. I'm not even sure that we can assign fault in all cases, but the facts are the facts: Plenty of people have suffered, if not died, when *in one sense* help was "available" but when it was not being distributed efficiently. It's just part of the breakdown of the country, I'm afraid, which is political as well as physical.

  6. I had heard about the parents who did willingly offer their children to those who could take the children to a safer environment. That's why I mentioned that. But this conversation is actually heading off the track that I was trying to pinpoint.

    Some of the children were taken (or the attempt was made to take them) inappropriately and illegally. We Christians should be known as people who follow the laws of the land except when those laws run afoul of the laws and commands of God. In my experience, many Christians do not seem particularly committed to such lawfulness and my hope was to springboard from this current event issue to an encouragement to each of us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. I don't know that I did a very good job communicating that. I have been contacted by someone offline with regards to what I said here and I've added an addendum sort of intro (I guess that doesn't make sense) to try to help with the whole concept. I may need to delete the post altogether if it's too confusing or if I'm just way off-base.

  7. No, I certainly wouldn't say you should delete the post. It's a problem you see. I think it's interesting what you say particularly about people's excusing ignoring codes, etc., because they are running a church school. In a way (though I'm not recommending this, you understand) it would be more honest and less dangerous for them just to say, "Yeah, but I think that code is really stupid and intrusive, and it's impossible to obey all those codes anyway, so I'm not going to worry about it." Now, again, I'm not saying that would be right. I'm just saying it would keep Christianity out of it. It wouldn't convey that the _reason_ they are having the wrong teacher-to-student ratio or not abiding by the electrical codes or whatever is because they are a Christian school, associated with a church, etc. Because really, that has nothing to do with it. There's no exception in the law for Christian schools' not following the electrical ordinance! Nor does it seem like it would make sense to have a religious exemption on such a matter. So they're really blowing off the ordinance because they think it's a dumb ordinance and shouldn't drive up the cost of their ministry or make impossible for them to carry on because of expense or whatever. They should just say that outright. Then they could be argued with from there on out.


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