The clouds peal with thunder, that the house of God will be established throughout the world; and yet these frogs sit in their marsh and croak, “We are the only true Christians.” (Augustine)
Like silly past fashions, many stupid, past actions of Christians are embarrassing for us today:
- The marginalization of women
- The coercion of the crusades
- The ill treatment of Galileo, Joan of Arc, John Wycliffe, and more
- The hysteria (and brutality) of the Salem witch trials
- The dehumanization and cruelty of the slave trade
If we examine our own personal Christian histories honestly, we will also find embarrassing excesses in some of the mistakes of our own spiritual influences.
As a kid, I was involved with Basic Youth Conflicts (now its leader has resigned amidst scandal). I was involved in the early Charismatic renewal (but now many of its leaders are obsessed with the spectacular over the gospel). I was involved in an excellent, influential Christian community (but many accused us of being elitist).
Hundreds of Christian movements have helped millions of believers. Yet many—maybe even most—of these movements grew imbalanced over time, exuding a sense of elitism, a touch of arrogance, a croaking, “We are the only true Christians.”
Do you love the Christian movement (or circles) that you are now involved in? How do we protect them from becoming just another embarrassing haircut from our yearbooks?
The worst Christian excesses (like the crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, and American slavery) were inflicted by Christians who couldn’t differentiate between their culture and the gospel.
The Bible didn’t teach such stupidity and dehumanization (though it didn’t hide people’s imperfections either). The stupidity and brutality came from men and women who refused to distinguish their culture from the gospel; they adopted it and dressed it with Christian jargon.
While good gospel presentations express timeless truth in the particular language of our age, “the bad preacher does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity” (C. S. Lewis).
You and I are infected right now with cultural diseases. We don’t feel them because everyone around us is likewise infected. We all have measles but everyone thinks they’re just freckles.
Someday our children—or their children—will see our spots and laugh at our ignorance and cowardice. Just like we laugh (or blush) at the ignorance and cowardice of our ancestors.
The other adversary we face (in addition to cultural creep) is the horrible enemy of arrogance. Every successful Christian movement eventually has to learn real humility. Or else Christian history (viewed by our children) will doom it to disrepute and disgrace.
When we first meet the Lord (or when we re-meet the Lord through a fresh presentation of the gospel), it’s like nothing else. It’s better than sports, careers, and romance.
And we become very loyal to the group (or person) that changed our lives. We tell everyone about them. When friends respond that they too have met God, but through Campus Crusade or another speaker, we sigh—and let’s admit our sighs are condescending—and we insist they really need to hear this person. And maybe they do.
But maybe we need to hear what our friends learned. We are not the only true Christians.
Paul uses the metaphor of the body. He says the eye can’t say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” Sometime we think we are “The Answer.” Paul says our movements are a part, not the whole.
Identifying the creep of culture and arrogance
Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, cultural infection and arrogance boil up in us slowly. We don’t see it day-to-day, we only sense it over time. How can we identify our slowly heating pot?
- Arrogance is seen when we are far more eager to tell our friends what we’ve learned about God (through this person or that) than to listen to what God has taught them through someone else. (Sensing our own condescension is also a pretty good clue.)
- Cultural Creep is seen when ideas of culture perfectly sync with the ideas of our movement. The two waves form a compelling tidal wave in our hearts. Yet the modern answer for ancient problems are hair-fashions, soon restyled, again and again.
Perhaps the best identification is found in our choices of scripture passages (that we quote over and over) while explaining away seemingly contrary verses. Continued growth is found when we let uncomfortable passages address us. As Lewis says, that’s what forces growth in science:
Phenomenon which doesn’t fit in with the current scientific theories is the phenomenon which leads to new knowledge. Science progresses because scientists are constantly seeking them out.
There will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellent doctrines. Progress is made only into a resisting material.
If we love our movements, let’s protect them
When our messages and culture’s messages agree, let’s examine ourselves for spots. The only real, life-changing standard of Christianity is found in the timelessness of scripture. All of it.
When we sense arrogance in our movements—the croaking “we are the only true believers,”—let’s cook up some frog legs.
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date” (C. S. Lewis).