The Lure of Group Elitism
the last few years, there has been a disturbing trend toward elitism in
some house church groups. This seems to be a common temptation that
presents itself to all Christian groups, for it is a malady that affects
some institutional churches as well. As 1Co 10:13 says, "There hath
no temptation taken you but such as is common to man."
Group elitism can take multiple forms.
Sometimes it is based on falsehoods that inflate the ego. Racism is an
example of this. But Christian groups usually donít fall for something
so obviously wrong. Typically, they are seduced by forms of elitism that
involve a statement of partial truth or even truth.
Certainly, we should proclaim and
practice the truth. Important Biblical truths should not be ignored. But
when elitist motives are attached to them, statements of truth are
accompanied by smug superiority and sectarianism. The message is
conveyed (by tone of voice, word or practice), that "we are better
than you" or "we are legitimate, but you are not." Here
are some examples in which biblical truths or partial truths are
accompanied by elitism:
"In New Testament times, churches met in
homes. Why, I wouldnít set foot in a church building. Havenít
been in one in for 20 years. (Implied message: "Nothing of
enough value ever goes on there to merit my presence.")
"Yes, but are you familiar with ________? (You
may fill in any number of names). He is the most wonderful Bible
teacher I have ever encountered. Heís about the only teacher I pay
much attention to these days." (Implication: "Unless you
are following our leader, you are missing it!")
"Most churches are Bible centered, but ours
is Christ centered." (Implication: "Either you follow the
Bible, or you follow Jesus. We are among the few churches that truly
"Most churches attach man-made words to
their name. Therefore, they are sectarian and should be avoided. But
we just call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ (or some similar
name). If you do not claim to be in His church, then that
means you are outside of it." (Implication: If you are
not a member of our group, you are not part of the true
"In the New Testament, churches were started
by church planters. If your church was not started by one, Iím
afraid it got off on the wrong foot. Itís too bad that there
arenít many real church planters to go around. However, we have
some trained church planters that can come to your church to
help." (Implication: "We are the only ones who correctly
understand how to start churches!")
Many elitist Christian groups began
when someone recognized, at least partially, some great biblical truth
and began teaching it. But our foes, Satan and his demons, do not sit
idly by wringing their fingers when we recognize biblical truths. In
fact, such occasions may very well incite them to fight against us more
fiercely. Nor does the realization of truth prevent our fallen natures
from having desires which are opposed to those of the Spirit.
If Satan cannot use obvious falsehoods
against us, he attempts to misuse the truth against us, or tries to get
us to mishandle the truth. We need only to read about the temptation of
Christ in the wilderness to recognize this. Satan actually tried to
tempt Jesus with Bible verses! So even when we think we are
standing tall, such as when we have realized a wonderful truth (like the
New Testament way to have a church meeting) we must be on guard:
"Wherefore let him that
thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1Co 10:12).
"Be sober, be vigilant;
because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about,
seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith,
knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren
that are in the world" (1Pe 5:8-9).
How do Satan and his fallen angels,
and/or our fallen natures, tempt us to mishandle the truth? Here are
just some of the ways:
We may be enticed to reason illogically from the
We may be tempted to distort, or to over-magnify
one truth to the detriment of other truths.
We may misuse the truth to promote our own
selfish goals and ambitions.
We may incline toward elitism - our subject at
hand - becoming puffed up because we see truths others do not, or
because we do certain things more scripturally than others.
One of the most subtle examples of
elitism that I have ever encountered is making Christ-centeredness a
pretext for elitism. Can someone actually be sectarian over the great
and essential truth of making Christ central in oneís life? Yes, and
although it may seem hard to believe, there is a biblical example of it
in 1Co 1:12, "Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of
Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ"
Is it not true for a "Christian
to say, "I am of Christ?" In fact, is this not one of the most
wonderful truths that one can realize? Surely, those who proclaimed
"I am of Christ" had a better boast than those who said,
"I am of Paul" and "I am of Cephas." And yet Paul
still accuses them of being sectarian! Why? Because they were implying,
"You are invalid because you say, ĎI am of Paul!í But WE know
that we are of Christ!" Paulís response to this was, "Is
It is not enough
just to proclaim the truth, even the greatest and highest truths. We
must also proclaim the truth with the right motives!
There is an important lesson here. It
is not enough just to proclaim the truth, even the greatest and highest
truths. We must also proclaim the truth with the right motives!
And so Paulís rebuke of the
Corinthians who were proclaiming with elitist motives the wonderful
truth, "I am of Christ," was a very deserved rebuke. This
serves as an example of how Satan does not rest when we have discovered
the truth. He tempts us to mishandle the truth.
Even when others are afflicted with
sectarianism, or a lack of understanding of things that we may clearly
see, we must humbly acknowledge that they still have a place of
inestimable value in the body of Christ. They are still a part of the
true, universal church, of which all who have accepted Christ as their
savior are members.
The Lure of Personal Elitism
next statement is a wonderful example for us. Think of how it could have
tickled Paulís fleshly ears to hear people saying, "I am a
follower of Paul." Yet next, Paul self-depreciatingly says, "
was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of
Paul?" (1Co 1:13).
Sadly, there have been great leaders
in church history, men who have understood great truths of the gospel,
who have fallen for this very enticement of the flesh and the ego, and
thereby limited or even destroyed their own usefulness. Unfortunately,
this has happened in the house church movement, just as it has in the
institutional churches. And what a tragic shipwreck of lives it has
you aware that the scripture explicitly commands us not to seek our own
vain glory? "Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one
another, envying one another " (Ga 5:26).
We must go about building Godís kingdom, not
our own. We should recognize that power rightly belongs to Him,
not to us. We must seek His glory, not our own. Do we not
implicitly convey these truths each time we repeat the Lordís prayer
and say, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the
glory"? Are you aware that the scripture explicitly commands us not
to seek our own vain glory? "Let us not be desirous of vain glory,
provoking one another, envying one another " (Ga 5:26).
There are higher priorities that should occupy our
minds instead. First, there is the love of the Lord, which results in
our promoting His kingdom, His power, and His glory, rather than our
own. And then there is loving others as Christ loved us, which leads to
lives of service and self-sacrifice for others. If these are our primary
motives, and we live by them, our lives will fall into place.
Sometimes, when we do these things, we are rewarded
with honor. But we must not do these things with the motive of attaining
earthly honors. Then we forfeit our heavenly rewards. If what we think
is " Godís will" for our lives is linked with the pursuit of
more glory and prestige for ourselves, perhaps something is wrong.
Perhaps something is even terribly wrong. No man can serve two masters.
As Paul pleaded with the Philippians, " Let nothing be done through
strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other
better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every
man also on the things of others."
An Example of Elitism
mentioned above, one of Satanís strategies is to tempt us to emphasize
one truth to the detriment of others. Some truths need to be emphasized.
But not to such an extent that we end up excluding, crowding out, or
distorting other truths. That is an ego-inflating, flesh-boosting kind
of thing. It involves taking excessive pride in what God has revealed to
us, and over-glorying in what we know. Scripture warns us that
"Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth" (1Co 8:1).
Along these very lines, there is a
strategy that Satan seems to be subtly using to lead a particular group
of house churches who have a knowledge of the importance of
Christ-centeredness astray. It is also a form of elitism, taking the
form of, "You are Bible-centered. But we are Christ-centered."
It is certainly a great truth that we must be Christ-centered. But like
the Corinthians who boastfully proclaimed, "I am of Christ,"
this group considers churches which stress closely following the Bible
as invalid expressions of the body of Christ, even when these other
churches also stress Christ-centeredness. Thus, Christ-centeredness is
being misused as a pretext for sectarianism and elitism.
This group has little to do with other
house churches. They keep to themselves. When the man whom they regard
as their primary leader speaks at a house church conference, many of
them come only to hear him speak. The other speakers are apparently not
considered worthy of much, if any attention. When their leader speaks,
he often discounts the validity of what is happening in the other house
churches. Only the house churches that follow his leadership seem to be
deemed valid expressions of church life. When you speak with members of
this group, they often lead the conversation back to praise of their
leader. Oddly, they mix "I am of Paul" together with
"I am of Christ," because they believe that their leader is
one of the few men on earth who places the proper emphasis on seeking
The book catalog that this group
publishes likens their leaderís writings to the worldís greatest
Christian authors, and even to those of the apostle Paul. To be sure, he
is a talented writer, but if I were in his shoes, there is no way that I
would allow those under my supervision to write something like that
about me! I would be afraid that I would start believing it!
The concept this group conveys is that
if you try to start a church that closely follows the Bible, youíll
end up with outward form but no inward life. Just seek Jesus, they
teach, and He will form the church, organically. But here we see
an example of how a great truth can be misused. It is possible to glory
so much in our knowledge of one truth, that we crowd out or even distort
other truths, and regard ourselves as more valid than those who do not
do the same.
The problem with this is that it sets
up a false dichotomy Ė either you obey the Bible and follow NT
patterns, or you seek Jesus. But who says we canít do both? In fact,
we should do both. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will
obey what I command" (Jn 14:15).
I know someone associated with this
group who, together with his friends, wanted to start a church. They met
together on a regular basis for months. But because they wanted their
church to be "organic," they didnít talk about the Bible
much. Instead, they talked about sports, the news, their children, etc.
Why? They were waiting for "it" to happen spontaneously.
But we observe something very
different in the book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit wanted to start more
new churches, He told the church at Antioch: "Set apart for me
Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (Ac
13:2). I ask you, did Barnabas and Saul sit around and wait for things
to happen? No, God used them as his instruments to make things
happen. How do we know this? Because He called them to "work".
Work involves purposefulness and intentionality.
Likewise, think of Heb 10:25:
"Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of
doing, but let us encourage one another Ė and all the more as you see
the Day approaching." If God has commanded us to encourage one
another when we meet, we must not sit around and wait for it "to
happen" Ė "it" will happen if we just obey Him and act.
Healthy churches donít just happen Ė they are formed by God using
men working in obedience to Him.
in the Spirit does not mean waiting for God to repeat to us afresh what
He has already commanded in scripture before we will obey Him.
This means being attentive to Jesus
when He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, as many promoters of
"organic" church life emphasize. But it also means obeying Him
where He has already spoken in Scripture. Walking in the Spirit does not
mean waiting for God to repeat to us afresh what He has already
commanded in scripture before we will obey Him. That reflects a
misunderstanding of being "organic."
The Apostle Paul wrote to the
Philippians: "Join with others in following my example, brothers,
and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave
you" (Php 3:17). And to the Thessalonians he wrote:
"Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye
have been taught, whether my word, or our epistle" (2Th 2:15, KJV).
Obviously, then, we should imitate the traditions of the apostles. For
proper organic church growth to occur, we must love the Lord so much
that we cherish every word that comes from His mouth, and, like beloved
children, imitate the apostles He trained to teach us.
What is wrong with this groupís
concept of an "organic" church? It seems to assume that being
"organic" involves some sort of plantlike passivity. Perhaps
this is because we normally use the word in connection with gardening.
But the Lord does not describe His church as a member of the plant
kingdom, but as a woman! And every young woman must be taught the word
of God and how to obey it in order to grow up right.
The church is no different:
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and
gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing
with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant
church, without stain or wrinkle or blemish, but holy and
blameless" (Ep 5:25-27). Healthy, organic church growth does not
occur without instruction and obedience in the Word. Satan would love to
trick us into divorcing loving God from loving His words. On the other
hand, he would also like for us to substitute an understanding of how to
do things according to Scripture for a close love walk with Jesus.
Understanding, even deep understanding of the word of God, is not
enough. It must be accompanied by a loving relationship with Him. This
is an even more important truth, but both are important truths,
and neither should be emphasized to the exclusion of the other.
ultimate test of our love for Jesus is not our Bible knowledge, or even
the time we spend in joyful communion with Him.
To summarize how these two truths work out in
application, we should walk closely with Jesus. Along the way, He will
often stop to teach us. We must listen very attentively! And then, we
must be careful to quickly and completely obey His words. Why? Because
the ultimate test of our love for Jesus is not our Bible knowledge, or
even the time we spend in joyful communion with Him. Make no mistake,
these are vital expressions of our love, but alone, they are
insufficient indicators of it. The acid test of our love is our obedience.
Jesus made this crystal clear in Jn 14:15 when he said, "If you
love Me, you will obey my commandments."
the example above, we tragically see many of the forces which seduce men
into personal and group elitism at work. But let's not condemn, lest we
be judged by the same measure. Iím sure that most, if not all of us,
as we have been considering these things, have been examining our own
lives and our own churches and seen these tendencies at work in varying
degrees. Perhaps we are grieved to realize they have been at work to a
We must avoid elitism, sectarianism,
and the pursuit of vain glory. This means seeing the members of the body
of Christ with our spiritual eyes, and recognizing that each has an
important and vital place. It involves not becoming puffed up with our
own importance, or the importance of our own group. It also means not
boasting "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Paul."
Lastly, it even means not implying superiority over sectarian
Christians with the boast, "I am of Christ." That is a form of
sectarianism in itself.
must guard ourselves carefully against elitism and conceit, and
recognize that all of those who are in Christ are members of one body
with us, equally important, and precious and loved in Christ. Each has
his or her own unique gifts. Each has insights and gifts that we do not.
No one of us, and no group of us is complete in and of ourselves. We are
only complete with each other.
This is no argument for ecumenism.
Iím not a member or promoter of the World Council of Churches. Iím
not promoting the idea of church institutions merging into an amorphous
blob in which the truths of the gospel are compromised. We should live
by the truths that God has revealed to us in scripture, and not
compromise them for the sake of unity. Iím simply arguing against
thinking we are superior to others in the body of Christ, and isolating
ourselves from the spiritual body of Christ as a result. Iím asking
that we open our spiritual eyes to see the importance of others in the
body of Christ. Even when others are elitist or sectarian, we should not
be. We should be willing to learn from others in the body of Christ, and
recognize that they have value and validity, just as we do. God does not
reveal everything to one person or one group. There are always more
insights to be learned from others in the body of Christ, and more
examples to be imitated.
If ever a man saw the body of Christ
with his spiritual eyes, Paul did. He did "not cease" to pray
for the church at Colosse [Col 1:9], a church he did not even start.
Epaphras planted that church. Yet Paul constantly thought of them, so
much so that he took the time to write a thoughtful letter to them, a
letter that is to be cherished through the ages. How much do we pray for
those in other churches? How much do we care for them? Do we show our
care with actions? The New Testament pattern was that there was one
church in each city: the church at Corinth, the church at Phillipi, etc.
Surely, we should not completely isolate ourselves from other churches
in our town!
The New Testament even demonstrates
that we should be concerned for the welfare of believers outside of our
town. Some of the saints in Jerusalem were still struggling to
understand law and grace. Many of the Gentile Christians seemed to have
a better grip on grace, thanks to the teaching of Paul. But did Paul
encourage "us vs. them" thinking? No. He encouraged the
Gentile churches to take up an offering for the poor saints in
Jerusalem. He saw that those Jewish believers were members of the same
body with the Gentile believers.
May God grant to us the vision Paul
had of the body of Christ, that prompted him to write, "besides the
other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the
churches" (2Co 11:28, emphasis added).