There Is No 'Better Than'
The idea of "better than" is a special problem for renewed Christians in a dead congregation. The renewed ones see ways that the church can become alive, and then set out to 'encourage' the 'corpses' into going along. Satan starts dancing a jig when you do his dirty work for him by playing the power game. 'Us vs. them' will return with a vengeance. A radical dependence on the Holy Spirit, however, means (among other things) letting the Spirit bring about the needed changes. Just bear witness to Christ's love, and the corpses will stir, because the Holy Spirit will stir them through that witness, rather than you or your fabulous spiritual experiences, testimonies, practices, gifts, training, position, intelligence, abilities, or anything else about you. This is a matter of patient love, not timidity or silence.
It's great to have spiritual experiences, right doctrine, and knowledge! But they're not a measuring stick of a person. And even if they were, Jesus would have us refuse to make any measurements with it.
Working to bring people together is a duty for nearly all of us. But some of us just seem to have a knack for pulling people apart. By :
- Starting arguments.
- Spreading gossip.
- Creating cliques.
- Creating fear.
- Carrying grudges.
- Deliberately undermining those in authority.
- Pitting one person off against another.
- Setting up rules in order to create social barriers.
- Being a racist or sexist or elitist.
- Giving orders and demanding obedience.
- Using principles (or even 'righteous' anger) as an excuse to cut off contact.
- Personalizing a political dispute.
- Raising the stakes in disputes.
- Having an 'I win, you lose' attitude.
- Acting without concern about how it affects others.
The tighter the group is, the worse such divisiveness can get. It starts to feel like combat. In many churches, this is what church life is like -- just ask the steady stream of once-active Christians who walk away in disgust. These people have been burned by the world, so they turn to the church as their burn unit, but instead of being healed they get torched with a flamethrower.
Jesus gave us a better way than 'better than'. He taught us to love one another with God's love. Paul laid out the vision when he wrote about spiritual gifts: they are to be used to build up each other and all of us as a whole. The apostle Paul also wrote about peacemaking and having a ministry of reconciliation. The Christian faith is full of struggle and even conflict, but also full of healing and strengthening, conflict resolution, nourishment and growth. Have you gotten the message?
"Despise no one, and carp not at anything; for there is no one who does not have their hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place."
*Ethics Of the Fathers*, 4,3
Found in a church bulletin :
The conference on peacemaking scheduled for today has been canceled due to scheduling a conflict.
How the Brethren Divide
In a dissertation in 1981, Tormod Engelsviken bared a key issue about charismatic and Pentecostal practices. While he was writing about Lutheran charismatics, it applied to all:
"Although the ... interpreters of the charismatic experience take pains to avoid the charge of dividing Christians into groups or classes with regard to their experience of the Spirit, it seems to be inherent in *any* theology that views the Charismatic experience as a desirable goal for *all* Christians ... Whether the fullness of the Spirit is understood as a gradual process or an instantaneous event ... may make a difference with regard to the possibility of observing the distinctions between Christians, but does not change the fundamental reality of two (or more) classes of Christians."
-- *The Gift Of the Spirit* (Aquinas Institute, Dubuque IA) p.260.
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand is the fact that most Pentecostalist church members, and a large minority of mainline-Protestant and Catholic charismatics, act as if people are not 'really' or 'fully' saved unless they have had some sort of experience of being filled with (or overcome by) the Holy Spirit. Those without the experiences are often called "HTRs" (hard to receive). Instead of thinking that the Spirit may be acting in some other way, it is assumed that the HTR is blocking or even fighting the Spirit because they're not behaving in the expected fashion. The HTR's expression of Christian faith is then slighted as not being Spirit-led. This divisive belief cannot be explained away or disclaimed. It is done every day by people who think they don't operate that way, and who say out front that they don't do it, and who even speak against it. It is a fact that can be seen and measured, and has real-world consequences. Like it or not, by definition it sets up an 'us/them', 'greater/lesser', 'superior/inferior' split within the Church. Any such split flies in the face of the New Testament, which bluntly states that among ourselves there are to be no such distinctions. One cannot obey Christ and support social castes. Period.
On the other hand :
(1) The truth is that all the other parts of the church have set up their own superior/inferior classes. Just to name two out of many: clergy/lay, and theologically educated/theologically illiterate. Within each of these camps, the mainline/evangelical Protestant schism makes for elites, too. We've learned how to disguise these splits within our ranks. We use silken words and fair ground rules to smooth the bloody edges. But these differences still quack like the duck of caste. What are the critics of the Pentecostalist caste system doing to break up their own caste conflicts, especially the ones against those in their own ranks who share the same spiritual experience as the Pentecostalists?
(2) If today we lived in a church (or, for that matter, a world) where there were no distinctions to divide us, we'd burn the midnight oil to come up with something to divide us tomorrow. We create classes among us because we want them to be there. And we want them to be there because that within us which is not given over to Christ still buys into the idea that 'I' am better than 'they' are. One would think that Pentecostalists, as reborn Christians, would be able to just make up their minds not to let elitist thinking rule over them. But, alas, Pentecostalists are people, and people, whether Christian or not, think naturally in terms of us/them. Sheer willpower cannot get rid of it. It is this fact, and not their theology, that causes the problem. Their theology just gives it something to work with.
I'm convinced that Engelsviken was missing the point. There's nothing that makes talk of 'spiritual experiences' any different at root from talk of 'spiritual growth', 'theological education', 'ordination', 'holiness', 'devotion', and so on. Any of these good things can be used to make class differences, because some people get them and not others, but they don't have to be used in a divisive way.
There is a 'moreness' to any blessing or gift of the faith. (If there wasn't, we wouldn't call them 'blessings', would we?) However, these 'morenesses' take place within the context of a life in this world, within believers who are also sinners to the core. Within such a world, you can't 'more' your way into superiority. Getting 'more' or 'better' can't change the fact that you're still in the same basic dilemma as everyone else, and only Christ can resolve it. There's not enough 'better' in all of existence to make you or anyone else 'better than' anyone else. And there are always some matters you have 'less' in. Once this is clear to us, we can still embrace the fact that it is better to know than not to know, better to grow than not to grow, and better to follow Christ than not to follow Christ. Becoming more wise, more whole, more mature and more Godly really does matter, not because it gives rank but because it is what God wants of us. In that same way, a Christian can very well hold that it is better to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit (who has been there for the baptized since baptism) than it is not to experience that presence. We are free to embrace what's better because such things do not determine our value as people or God's love for us or our citizenship in God's Kingdom. All of that will still be ours whether or not God bestows on us abilities or experiences or knowledge or wealth or certain kinds of gifts, and whether or not anyone thinks that what we're given is 'better than' someone else's. Whatever we are granted, it comes from Someone Else, not ourselves. Each 'moreness' can then be harnessed to serve the One who gave them more effectively and truthfully. Blessings are from the Kingdom. Cliques, elites, castes and divisive 'in-groups' just aren't a part of that Kingdom, whenever it comes and wherever it breaks into today's world, because of how they divide. We are to be living witnesses to that. We are responsible to God for the loving use of what we receive.
A reader writes :
you criticize the modern Pentecostal apostles rather harshly for the crime of "elitism". I see your point about how we treat HTRs [[hard-to-receives]]. But when I look around me, I don't see much classism or elitism among ourselves. Aren't you just against having an authority?
I don't know about your church, because I've never been there. But your family of churches has a real problem with this. Does this sound like your church:
- Do they talk about "overcomers", "mighty men of God", "the remnant", "manifest sons of God", "Elijah's Company", "the purified", or such similar terms? If they are, they're saying that some are more divine than others, some are more saved than others, some are or will be perfected on earth. They are saying that those someones are beyond questioning by oafs like you and me. Isn't that elitism? Jesus deserved such an honor, but for the most part refused it. The "overcomers", however, are apparently too good to follow that example.
- Do they speak of those who have a 'religious spirit', who are 'negative thinkers' and 'naysayers', 'accusers' who have the "Jezebel spirit", and 'rebels', especially when someone is challenging them? If they are, they're talking about those who have the nerve to carry out the biblical call to test all things. They're talking about those who raise questions, who don't follow in lockstep, who live in the freedom in Christ that Paul wrote about, who won't accept their assigned roles as peons.
- Do they talk about attaining "levels" or "planes" of the Spirit's power, climbing "the steps on Jacob's ladder" to god-like-ness, or other such things? If they are, they're importing into Christianity the very same ideas that were so crucial to helping Hindi leaders create what was (and still is) the world's tightest caste system. Those above you are, in practice, free to step on you. They'll draw on any idea it takes if it will get you to obey.
The Bible speaks very harshly of the evils of Ba'al worship. Yahweh sent prophet after prophet to fight it off. The word ba'al means 'master' or 'the One in control'. The god Ba'al was seen as the source of all sexual, social, agricultural, religious, and economic potency -- a god for the winners of the world and the power elites. But the God of Abraham is different. God is eliter than any human elite, but it's in God's character to be bound in covenant to those who, at least humanly speaking, are 'lesser'. Yahweh went into a covenant relationship with Israel that gave its people levels of freedom and equality that were unprecedented in their time. This same Yahweh sent Jesus to be God-with-us, an act not only of love but also of solidarity with us. This Jesus was God taking on the punishment that was justice for the wrongs we humans have done. Then the Spirit was sent to each and all who believe, not just a select few. Time after time, God chose to be one who loves, not masters; one who shares with us instead of zapping us into line. By asserting the right of a few to have mastery over the many, elitism is a divisive modern analog to Ba'alism, and you know what God thought of that!
On being divisive
from an email:
I believe God is moving in my congregation, and that He will soon bring a revival or renewal to it. May I use parts of the text on your web page, to show to people or to print up, in order to stir things up?
I am all for people trying to stir up their congregations in order to get them to really use their members' gifts. (And I'm all for using my Web materials for it; that's why they're there.) But there is a way to do it, and a way to be better off not doing it. The Spirit can cause division, even conflict. But the Spirit does not set out to do so. The Spirit sets out to bind wounds, assist, help, and bring together. Sometimes, those who get a sense of power from splitting-up and wounding people will get real tough and demanding and divisive -- but that is their choice and not the Spirit's. It is people who cause the division, by being selective about their love.
So whatever you do in your church, please, please do things the Spirit's way. Work at bringing people together, at giving them opportunity and encouragement to use their gifts for the good of others. Be the one who prays for and with them, and comforts them in time of need. And reject the idea of seeing people as enemies that must be fought instead of people that must be loved and fellow members in Christ that must be heard out. If done in that way, stirring things up may well be the Lord's role for you. In fact, stirring-up would be inevitable. But you can only do it right if you live the Spirit's renewal yourself.
rise to the top
Challenge #1 : When the people around you are using questions of faith to create a 'better than' distinction, step forward and say, 'No, that's against the gospel'. This can create anger and division -- but it is the same kind of division Jesus had to face in His own hometown synagogue. Truth can cause division, but it's the kind of division that strips away the blindfold layers over our eyes, so we can see the way forward.
Challenge #2 : If you're in a divisive situation at work or in church, think of ways of harnessing the conflict. For instance, there may be theological lessons the combatants may need to learn. Or there may be common links or roots or purposes or commitments in the factions' different practices or tastes. Or there may be people who have the respect of all sides. Find these, and think of how to use them to strengthen commonness between them. A hint: you can't do this without listening, and then sharing what you've heard.
"The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me : all mankind is of one author..."
------ John Donne, *Devotions*.
"GOSSIP: (n.) A person who will never tell a lie -- if the truth will do more damage."
back to the Top
------ a definition, found on-line.