The Humble Church
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
Sometimes I am afraid that in the church we find it much easier to develop a sense of Christian identity by comparing ourselves to others instead of by humbly recognizing our need for mercy. Like the Pharisee, we stand apart from the crowd and try to disassociate ourselves from those who appear less holy (or even less “cool”) than we are. In addition to hiding the true nature of Christianity, this behavior makes sharing life in community with other believers incredibly unappealing. If you don’t dress right, smell right, act right, or know how to say the right things, a church gathering may be the last place you want to find yourself on a Sunday morning.
The second chapter of James provides an example of a rich man and a poor man who visit the same church and enjoy a very different sort of welcome, but there are many other examples of comparison that are less obvious. When the Baptist is shunned by the Methodist community, or the Charismatic is not welcomed in the Anglican church; when the elderly and the sick are overlooked because they cannot contribute to the community in the same way as the young and the strong; when the parents with children cannot find a small group because they never have extra time during the week (and a babysitter); when the person without financial means cannot afford to get dinner after church with the other folks and is slowly edged out of the community; when the boomer generation doesn’t take the time to teach the teenagers the value of the ancient hymns and the teenagers see no value in listening if anyone of them would try; when the yuppies change churches as often as they change clothing styles; when the worship leaders become celebrities and the single mom sits unnoticed in the corner; when the glamorous positions of service are occupied but no one ever knows who picks up the trash or cleans the toilet after the service; when we thank God that we are not like that awkward couple or the ex-gang member with the missing teeth; when we look jealously at those who appear more spiritual than we are; when we come to church to measure our level of spirituality against everyone else and hope we do not embarrass ourselves… we have become that Pharisee.
If we were around in Jesus day, we would have probably been embarrassed for Him because of His association with the ‘other denominations’ and those who were not religious at all. In addition to embarrassment, we would have quickly become frustrated and indignant like the Pharisees because Jesus’ actions would force us to recognize our own unmistakable idolatry of pride and self-identity through dis-association: “We are not like them. Our way is better. Our synagogues play the cool music…”.
In contrast, Jesus crossed the line over and over again, making Himself approachable to the least-accepted in society. He spoke with Samaritans, He travelled with women, and worst of all He sat down with a woman who was a Samaritan living in adultery! He ate with tax collectors, and even invited one or two political revolutionaries (Zealots) to join His group of disciples. I think He might have been trying to make it clear that His followers have no valid reason to exclude people from their lives or communities—whether those people are Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Pagans, members of a different denomination… or just really weird.
Within the Christian faith, there is no Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, slave or free, rich or poor, black or white. God is not a respecter of persons (1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 2:11; James 2:1-13). As He said to Samuel, who was sent to anoint David the king over Israel, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Paul personified this idea in his missionary expeditions by taking on the characteristics of those he ministered to: “To the Jews I became as a Jew…” (1 Corinthians 9:20).
However, Paul did not preach a message of conformity, but of transformation. Recognising that there is a distinction in the expression of individuality among believers, Paul, James, and Peter all addressed sections of their letters to different groups of people in the church. Instructions on marriage, singleness, fatherhood, and servanthood are all directed to individual groups of people within the church. In the case of spiritual gifts given for the service of the church, Paul notes that everyone has receive a unique set of gifts and should not be discontent with what is theirs to use. Not everyone is called to speak in tongues or prophesy, but everyone is called to love (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). More than that, all are called to appreciate and value the differences in each other. The body cannot function if every member is an eye, and “neither can the head say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:14-26).
Thus, the commonality between believers exists on two diverging planes. We are called to be part of a shared communion, blessing, and story of redeeming humanity; but we participate in this common story through very distinct expressions. Before God, all men are equal, but all men are not the same. As colourful expressions of the infinite and diverse nature of God, each individual is unique and no two will ever be exactly alike. The call to share in the communion of Jesus is not a call to bring an end to one’s identity, but to approach this identity in a new way. Rather than defining ourselves by the uniqueness of our expression, Christians have the privilege of seeing ourselves as children of God who are fully accepted and loved for our character and our flaws. The Christian journey (as explored in this CP round table) is a process of transforming the corrupted part of one’s identity through recognition and submission to the love of God and the transformation of the Holy Spirit.
Because we do not have the need to differentiate ourselves in order to find acceptance and worth, Christians have the potential to spend our lives looking outward, to recognize and build up the identity of other children of God who may not yet know who they are called to be. Jesus knew that He was the Son of God. He was perfectly accepted and did not have to separate Himself from the crowds or build His own identity by pretending to be great or thanking God that He was not like the rest of humanity. In fact, Paul says that Jesus did not even seek for equality with God, but made Himself the servant of all (Philippians 2).
On the other hand, His disciples had a hard time understanding this concept and spent a considerable amount of time arguing over which of them was the most important. To resolve their contention, Jesus called a child to Him and said: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-3). He did not say, “James, if you were were only more of a skeptical intellectual like Thomas,” or, “Peter, if you could only be more content and relaxed like John….” Despite their drastic differences, they were all His disciples. He did not compare them to each other, but called them to follow His example of humility.
Even today, Jesus does not walk into the church with expectations of other people, or the desire to compare how well someone measures up. He doesn’t mention to the older folks that they no longer appear relevant to society. He doesn’t criticise the artistic or musical taste of the teenagers. He doesn’t tell the children they need to act more grown up and mature like the older people in the church. He doesn’t expect the new believer to act like a saint or the evangelist to be as effective in the same mission field as another. Even the gifts of church leadership are apportioned by the Holy Spirit in order to build up the church to maturity, not for the exaltation of those who serve as prophets, apostles, pastors, or teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Christianity has the potential to transcend multiple denominations, locations, age groups, and special interests, to become one body, with one head, and many different functions. Because of the common identity we have in Jesus, believers can abandon our comparisons and expectations of others and ourselves to pursue a transformational community where people from every age, background, and lifestyle come together for the sake of celebrating and growing into their unique expressions of identity as children of God. Some will be bad at singing. Others will fear opening their mouths in public to pray. Many will struggle to get over their pride, and others will battle feelings of inferiority. Some will have different denominational backgrounds and everyone will be at a different point in their spiritual journey. But each one is still a child of God with a unique expression of His nature that can bring life, joy, and love to the church community.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:1-4).
Instead of thanking God that we are not like someone else, let us ask for His mercy and grace to live in humility and consider others better than ourselves. Have you seen this happen in your church community or your own life? Leave a comment and let us know what it looked like.
Image courtesy of Philip Brookes.