“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
The evil queen never grew tired of having her magical mirror affirm that she, indeed, was the most beautiful woman in the land. Even as you watch the evil queen in the celebrated Walt Disney tale Snow White, you sense a foreboding that is palpable even to small children. It’s impossible to become so obsessed with your own image and remain happy, or successful. When people succumb to narcissism, surely a mighty downfall is near. Anyone who has watched a Disney movie, or read the Bible, knows this to be true.
Remember the sage wisdom of the book of Proverbs? “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). It also warns: “A man’s pride will bring him low, but the humble in spirit will retain honor” (Prov. 29:23). You never have to look far in the Bible to discover God’s disdain for the proud.
Sadly, pride seems to be reaching epidemic proportions among Christian leaders today. Those who know the Bible best are sometimes the worst offenders of Scripture’s clear admonitions against allowing pride to creep into their life. This may be in part because it is seemingly so easy to conceal brazen pride under the cloak of spirituality.
Here are a few ways this is currently being done.
1. Giving all the glory to God. “Since I came as your pastor, we have built a
new state-of-the-art auditorium. We have added a television program, and we have led our state in baptisms four out of the last five years . . . All to the glory of God.” Or some equivalent. Many preachers have come to believe that they can indulge in a weekly brag-fest from the pulpit as long as they end every homily with, “To the glory of God.” I see this especially in pastors’ conferences where ministers are preaching to one another. If they really want to get going, they may introduce their bragging by disarming their audience with a homey cliché such as, “Now, I’m just a poor country boy, but I . . .” (You know you are in for a doozy when they begin their talk that way!).
Now I am all for relating the great things God has done in our lives and church. But there is a certain way preachers can work in their most significant achievements into their sermon so that listeners come away impressed with the preacher instead of being impressed with God. It all stems from attitude.
I will never forget travelling to Louisville, Kentucky to speak at a small conference. The night before the meeting, the program speakers were taken to a nearby restaurant. I happened to sit across the table from a man named Bob. I asked Bob what he did. He told me he was “just a pastor.” He seemed like a nice fellow and we had a pleasant conversation. I was the featured speaker for the event the next day, while the others were giving testimonies and providing music. I asked Bob what his role would be. He told me it was to say the introductory prayer. I was somewhat surprised the hosts were including this humble pastor in the meal at the restaurant for such a minor role.
Near the end of the evening, a deacon from Bob’s church who had accompanied him gently pulled me aside. He asked me if I knew who Bob was. I didn’t. He told me the pastor was Bob Russell, senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church, one of the ten largest churches in America. The deacon then told me that President George Bush was doing a $1000-a-plate fundraiser dinner in Lexington that same evening and had asked that Bob say the prayer at that event. However, Bob had already committed to say the opening prayer at our little event and his word was inviolable. So he had spent an evening eating across from me instead of next to the president of the United States. No wonder God used that man mightily!
Proverbs also admonishes: “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth, a stranger and not your own lips” (Prov. 27:2). God has been convicting me that I talk too much about myself and not enough about Him. Most Christian leaders would do well to let others sing their praises rather than always feeling compelled to sing their own solo.
2. Criticizing others. One of the most blatant ways pharisaical pride is demonstrated these days is by one Christian leader criticizing another. As I was developing as a young minister, I loved to listen to the great biblical expositors of the day. After hearing them, I dearly wanted to know the Bible like they did and to be able to also clearly articulate its life-changing truths. But over the years, I noticed something happen to some of my early heroes. They began to believe their own press. And, as a result, they grew to be critical, negative, and prideful. The other day I stumbled upon a sermon by one of my heroes. I eagerly turned it on to listen, like the good old days. I was supremely disappointed. Before the preacher had even made it to his text, he had spent fifteen minutes criticizing other denominations and church practices. Then he spent the next portion of his message telling his audience how grateful he was that his ministry was not guilty of anything he had just condemned in others. I was sickened at the prideful, arrogant, critical person he had become. I wanted to cry out, “Just get to the text! Talk about Jesus!” But he was fixated on exposing the faults of others.
Sadly, men and women like this have many followers. They are raising up a generation of young ministers who take just as much pride in finding fault with others as their mentor does. Of course, such arrogance is always cloaked in terms of “being concerned for truth” or “defending God’s word.” But as you listen to the glee with which these ministers deride their contemporaries, you quickly discern a pride that in no way resembles the attitude of Christ. Twitter as well as the blogosphere is littered with accusations of heresy and poor exegesis. Social media is not used to humbly appeal for people to consider certain texts of Scripture, but to lambast those who do not hold uphold orthodox theology and to simultaneously boast of their own unsullied doctrine.
Seminaries and churches are cranking out prideful, aggressive theological pugilists who seem better equipped to enter a boxing ring than to shepherd sheep. I am not advocating the acceptance of sloppy or heretical theology. However, there is a dangerous line we take when we assume the orthodoxy mantle and assume it is our role to point out every one else’s shortcomings. I have found it is almost always more effective to exhort others to heed the truth of Scripture than to condemn those with whom I disagree.
3. Refusal to be honest. I am aware of several high profile cases where a prominent religious or political leader was exposed for having committed immorality. As a result, a group of men were brought in to administer discipline and to hold the fallen leader accountable. In several cases, one of the men who was asked to hold the fallen minister accountable was later proven to have also been committing adultery at the same time! It seems inconceivable that a pastor could be loudly denouncing a fallen minister even while he himself was committing that very sin himself. But it happens far more often than we probably realize.
There are many pastors today who, based on their sermons, are perfect. They never share personal anecdotes where they are anything less than godly and faithful. They apparently have no shortcomings. Some hide behind a position in which they make little or no use of personal illustrations, but only “preach the Bible.” Some preachers avoid personal illustrations because they don’t want to invite people into their private life. Instead, they serve up sterile, safe illustrations from the Reformation era. The result is that these ministers present an image of themselves to their people of someone who doesn’t struggle with sin or a bad day. In fact, there are some church staffs that would fear for their jobs if they dared to point out a shortcoming to their senior pastor.
The truth is that, although no congregation wants to hear an ongoing catalogue of their minister’s failings, authentic ministry is desperately needed. People need real life examples of how to be sanctified. They are certainly glad that Martin Luther took a stand for his beliefs, but people want to know how that would look if they were to do that with their struggling teenaged child. People can smell hypocrisy a mile away. People respond far better to an authentic minister than to a perfect one.
Pastors and church leaders may have slick ways to contort biblical phrases and theological terms to camouflage their hubris, but it’s pride all the same. The Church continues to lose able, intelligent ministers because they became fixated on themselves instead of their Savior. It is impossible to truly walk with Christ and to remain prideful. Any place Christ enters, pride must flee. Too many ministers today are loudly declaring that they know the words and intentions of Christ, but they bear little resemblance to His character. Would it not be wise for each person to heed the words of the One who promised: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?”