"Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them."
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I am quite sure that most of the scribes and Pharisees were very nice people. They were polite, civilized, cultivated, and just generally OK human beings. Though there may have been some who resented them, most of the people -- including the apostles -- responded to them with respect. But Jesus' assessment of their hearts was different.
To many, today, just as then, the appearance of godliness is godliness. Firm handshakes, friendly voices, and sincere-looking grins become the substance of love and unity in the Church instead of the fruits of a Spirit-borne love described in the Bible.
It is most often not those who consistently live holy lives who are regarded as pillars of the Church, but those who best reflect middle-American values and tastes. Businessmen are held in high esteem in churches even when they display such unChristian attributes as lack of compassion toward employees, shady business practices, and callousness toward the poor within our own congregations.
For the sake of appearances, many church boards hold the practice of taking straw votes among themselves on church issues before the recorded vote. This way, when the "real" count is made, the dissenters will join the majority and give the appearance of unanimity to the congregation and the world. The appearance of unity, then, equals unity. But the underlying division is never dealt with.
Equally, the American Church puts more emphasis on overt sin that might prove embarrassing to the individual and the Church than to the corruption inside that rots the very soul. Often, while adultery would be denounced as great evil (and it is), such things as pride, under the name of good self-esteem and self-confidence, and greed, under the guise of business acumen and seeking the blessings of God, are vaunted as virtues. It is often those that display these dubious virtues that are held up for emulation rather than rebuke in the American Church.
It is a curious blindness that is so taken with the beauty and cleanliness of the exterior that it fails to inspect the most important surface -- the inside of the cup and plate where the food and drink rest. Since we are to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2), our failure to clean the inside of the cup is like offering God a meal on a moldy plate. But this acute blindness allows us to offer our outwardly cleaned-up lives as acceptable righteousness to God. We delude ourselves into thinking that our having quit drugs, drink, fornication, cursing, and other outward sin that we have attained to some level of holiness that God is bound to recognize. We become angry without a cause, but so long as we say or do nothing overt, we see no sin in it. We cast an envious eye on our neighbor's new car but we do not steal it, so we walk away feeling clean. Churches boldly make public stands against racism, but relocate to the suburbs where the issue is moot. Pastors thunder against the indiscretions of public office holders -- especially those who claim religion -- but are ever so discrete about the adulteries of elders in the church.
The common practice is to have an adulterous elder submit to "counseling" while continuing in his duties of church leadership. Perhaps worse, and maybe equally common, is allowing an adulterer to quietly resign and move on to another church -- without a word of warning to the new church -- where the poison can infect other parts of the Body of Christ.
Is it any wonder that American Christians still follow leaders after they fall -- often repeatedly -- into sin? So long as they make an impressive, tearful public show of repentance a la Swaggart, they are accepted without question. It is the appearance of repentance rather than the fruit of repentance that makes an impression.
The "Ugly" Principle
-- Paul V. Salgado
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The scribes and Pharisees specialized in exactly the right religious garb, the correct demeanor, titles of learning, the open prayers, public almsgiving, scrupulous avoidance of the unclean, endless recitation of the Holy Writ, discussion of theological nuances, and pious pronouncements. Their whole attention was toward polishing the outside of the cup. The people generally believed them to be holy men. Even the twelve were aghast when Jesus said that these -- with all their blessings of riches -- might enter the kingdom only with difficulty. But inside, their carnal natures continued unabated -- albeit in religious trappings.
As Jesus so aptly described them; they were whitewashed tombs -- allright to look at, but full of moldering putrescence and uncleanness. They made all appearances of righteousness but robbed widows houses and escaped the righteous requirements of the law with their legal niceties. More and more, their efforts were bent toward finding escape clauses in God's Word -- for themselves.
They sat around the synagogues eruditely discussing the law -- and its loopholes -- while the poor and the needy were mistreated around them without their slightest notice. The Sanhedrin, while divided on many theological issues, was monolithic in its corrupting influence on the faith. No longer was it sufficient to read "Thou shalt not steal," but one now had to know under what circumstances it was or was not stealing when one took another's property.
But Jesus was not fooled. He knew what was in man -- even if they did not. Jesus knew that the "Ugly" Principle -- the carnal nature -- was still at work.
Where the Bones Are Buried
The first report of this in my files comes from a 1984 Gallup poll report, "1984 Religion in America." While the secular press focused on the disparity in the study between the rise in religiosity and its effect on morality (George W Cornell, Pollster Gallup finds religion on rise, but morality declining, The Oregonian, 7-17-84), Christian publications trumpeted, "Gallop Poll Indicates -- Church Reviving; 11.7% Rise in Offerings, Surging Attendance" (Christian Update, May 1984). Note on this last, the emphasis of appearances and money as the indicators of "revival" only serve to illustrate my points in the last two chapters.
And while evangelicals gloat over the rise in attendance chalking it up to people's desire for objective, solid truth as opposed to the touchy-feely sentimentalism of "mainline" denominations, there is actually very little demand for anything but outward conformity to certain Americanized strictures within their churches.
While we pretend a great regard for "living right," little or no attention is given to having a clean heart. In many cases, our Antinomian teachings betray us even in the area of outward behavior. Some of us subvert the crucifying of the flesh with psychological or philosophical trickery. We permit -- and even encourage -- sinful anger when it proceeds from "inner rage" caused by past abuses. In this, the liberal mainline denominations make no pretense of submitting to the literal commands of Scripture. They, at least, leave their "dead men's bones" out on display.
But the closeted skeletons are kept hidden primarily by the American Church leadership who promote and encourage surface Christianity. It is we who maintain the impression that God is not much interested in our thoughts and intents, but cares a great deal about how things look. This message is preached in a thousand ways. Our church buildings and services are designed to attract people on the basis of appearances. Church improprieties are covered for the sake of appearance. Invisible sins of the heart are either ignored or magically transformed into American virtues -- stubbornness becomes "rugged individualism," covetousness changes to "wanting good things for your family," and compromise with pagan government demands emerges as "respect for law and order."
"Take up your cross and follow me," is rarely heard in earnest from the pulpits and "I die daily" is inimical to the American gospel.
Kingdom Approval Ratings
-- Luke 16:15
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We all crave approval. The true natural desire for approval from God is -- as in all sins -- perverted by our sinful natures into a craven desire for the approval of other fallen men. Such desire is blinding. Jesus asked, "How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another, and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?" (John 5:44)
Jesus rightly points out that those who accept the praise of men and seek the witness of men will be limited in their ability to see the glory of God. He told them -- because He did not trust men -- that He sought only the glory and witness of the Father.
More often than not, seeking the glory of God has brought the derision not the praise of men -- even from within the Church. A cursory reading of the Bible and Church history will validate this. The prophet who railed against Israel stark naked for three and a half years never got a Preacher of the Year award -- until the year he died and got it from God. I suspect Daniel and his friends -- for all their courage -- were not highly regarded by the Jews in captivity -- especially when these few stood unbending while all the other Jews had their noses on the pavement. Noah certainly never won a popularity contest -- or even a sanity contest. Jesus Himself drew crowds of the poor, but no one with the wherewithal to offer Him a Dove Award or a seat on the Sanhedrin. The only crown He received was one of thorns.
Just as the Pharisees of old, we have ways to disguise our lust for the acclaim of men. They sounded the trumpet before the men who gave gifts to the temple in Jerusalem, we record it on church rolls and with the IRS for tax purposes and dedicate our pews with plaques.
The largest givers in our churches are often (coincidentally?) the deacons and members of the board. Rarely does a church hold these offices for those who meet the qualifications listed in the first book of Timothy. We depend instead upon the honors of men in the form of degrees acquired from the institutions of men rather than the character of the men themselves.
Rabbis and Reverends
-- Matthew 23: 8-9
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"So, what," we ask, "is the problem with these titles?" Obviously, there is more import than we often assume in that Jesus addressed the issue during His major denunciation of the corrupt Jewish religious system. He made a comparatively big deal out of the issue (eight verses out of 29). The command sprang from the very issue we are discussing in this chapter -- the inordinate desire for position and respectability. Nor is the warning only against hypocritical leaders. Jesus commands us "do not be called" as well as "do not call. "
Again, these are all titles within the religious context. But the consistent reference of Christ to "One is your" Leader, Teacher, or Father indicates that the primary objection is that the titles rightfully belong to God. That is a thought that should make us uncomfortable enough to "not be called" any of these. By way of illustration: If you saved someone's life, would you feel right about being addressed as Savior by that person? It is one thing to identify someone as a pastor or teacher -- that is, to define them by the work they do -- but altogether another thing to grant a title belonging to God.
Another objection in the text is that "you are all brothers." Titular positions tend to create a false hierarchy which reestablishes a third-party religion -- a priestcraft which makes access to God impossible except through other human agency. This is precisely the thing that the cross of Christ ended.
Further, human nature is already prone to pride. It is only with difficulty that men restrain this fallenness. Why, then, do we cast out a stumbling block by elevating our brother with such addresses? And what is the motive behind our own acceptance of titles? This very portion of Matthew 23 warns us against exalting ourselves. This is no mere coincidence or accident of placement. In fact, we find no positive example in Scripture of such titles being used in either Testament. Paul tells some to regard him as a father -- but never to call him father. (1 Corinthians 4: 14-16) Nor does Peter, when referring to Paul, call him Father Paul, Pastor Paul, Apostle Paul, Reverend Paul, but "our brother Paul." (2 Peter 3:15)
For my Catholic and Orthodox friends, not only are there no positive examples of the titles, there is here a specific command not to use these titles. I submit to you that the burden of proof is on you to justify the practice by Scripture.
To my Protestant readers, Reverend, Pastor, Bishop, and Deacon all create an artificial clergy/laity distinction among those who are brothers and are a distinct stumbling block for an already unmanageable pride.
Jesus said, "They love . . . respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, rabbi." (Matthew 23: 6-7) If we who have been given such greetings are honest with ourselves, there is the same kind of boost in it for us. From it, we receive status and respectability. We stand a little more erect when a parishioner sees us in the Safeway market and says, "Oh, hi, Pastor!"
Phylacteries and Ph.Ds
Credentials from men are paramount in American churches. But this issue is not new. Consider and compare the credentials of two men in Scripture -- Nicodemus and Jesus. Rabbi Nicodemus was the teacher in Israel, a member of the high council of the Sanhedrin, an upright Pharisee, and obviously sincere about his religion. Yet, none of this availed him and he was in the dark about the simplest teaching of Jesus. The woman at the well was quicker on the uptake than he. Jesus, on the other hand, was a suspicious character to the Pharisees. His credentials were the signs and fruits of the Spirit -- but He had no degrees. (John 7:15) The scribes and Pharisees could not bring themselves to hear the words of Jesus because he bore no learned pedigree. The religious system of Jesus' time was rooted in those things that men value -- the notice of men, fitting into the system, and spiritual correctness (the religious equivalent of political correctness). But the inner man -- individually and collectively -- remained untouched.
Jesus, it was said, taught "as one having authority" (Matthew 7: 29); that is, he did not, as was the custom of the credentialed teachers, constantly cite various teachers of the law. Jesus cited Scripture directly and taught from the words of God without hedging His interpretations based on other men's works. But this tendency still exists. In order to gain acceptance, modern teachers will cite the works of men more readily than the Word of God.
There is also a self-congratulatory system within the evangelical world that obscures deep problems within the American Church. The system is comprised of respect for degrees instead of deeds, training instead of track record, salutations instead of service. One person gains a reputation and recommends another -- who then is accepted without question.
The honor of Church leadership, in God's book, goes to those who exhibit the proper godly character (the fruit of true knowledge of Scripture). No mention whatever is made of educational requirements.
But a Ph.D. or a DD is a form of human acclaim. In today's Church, it often replaces Scriptural investigation of a man's character. (1 Timothy 3) It is not that the education itself is valueless, but that we use it as an indicator of spirituality and character rather than what it is -- an indicator of certain intellectual skills and abilities.
The fruit of many of our "educated" leaders in the Church has been to sow doubt about the veracity of the Word of God and to infuse worldly philosophy into the doctrines of Christ.
Let me clarify one thing before proceeding: I do not contend that education per se is evil or causes the evils I describe. It is the use to which education is put that poses the problem. I have seen examples of men who have taken education and submitted it to the Word of God. Of such, only good can come.
I have, in Chapter 4, referred to the works of Christian "thinkers" trying to discern where and when babies might justifiably be killed by abortion and mollifying the guilt of women who kill their children. Others have squeezed out the transforming power of the Holy Spirit by suggesting that "born" homosexuals just have to resist temptation -- but will never be changed. Still others attempt to sift the words of Jesus for what He really said and what He did not say. Christian psychologists dig for alternative reasons (or excuses) for sin. Creation is declared a myth or an "overall pattern" -- anything but the truth! It is not the education itself that causes these problems, but education without love puffs up. (1 Corinthians 8:1) This academic arena is often the place where the citing of everything except the Word has caused the most havoc.
Yet it is these very educated men who use learning to cast aspersions on the integrity of God's Word that the American Church most honors. They broaden their resumes and lengthen the list of accomplishments in their introductions -- and we fall down in awe.
They Shall Know You By Your Baubles
Phylacteries -- boxes containing Scripture attached to the forehead and the hand -- and tassels -- a fringe on the edge of the garment commanded for all Israelites -- were common. They were competitively worn by to either display or prove spirituality. The wearing of these things of itself was not sin, in fact, some of it was commanded -- but the underlying, unseen motive was sinful. The competition for recognition was intense. The distinctives that God commanded were now a way of self-aggrandizement instead of a reminder of their duty of holiness toward God.
Today, the equivalent of the scripture box on the forehead is for someone to become a verse dispenser. This is a person who has an instant Scripture quote for every occasion. When someone dies suddenly, instead of weeping with those who weep, this person offers "All things work together for good . . ." or some other unwelcome (and unrelated) sophistry. This is one place where Scripture memory -- unaccompanied by Scripture action -- has a bad result.
While clerical collars are not as popular as they once were, they are still conspicuously worn by some at public functions. Often, however, the collars are merely replaced by "dove" pins or other religious paraphernalia.
Today, depending on the branch of Christianity to which one belongs, one may exude a spiritual appearance by toting a dog-eared, well-marked Bible or wearing plain clothes. Some of us put a "fish" on our business card or car -- but save themselves from the responsibility of having to act Christian by including a "Christians Aren't Perfect, Just Forgiven" bumpersticker. Another bumpersticker says "Honk if you love Jesus." And we may honk -- but we will not stop to help someone change a tire. We plaster our homes and offices with tacky plaques or posters emblazoned with verses by which we are unwilling to live. Others develop an elaborate prayer style or making a show of blessing our meal. We make gratuitous use of ejaculations like "praise the Lord" when our self-centered lives would be an embarrassment to Him and bring disgrace to His Name.
In these ways, we announce our goodness unto the world under the guise of "giving a witness" when we are plainly told that the world would know us by our love one for another. In general, those of us who display tokens of our Christianity are often those whose fruit is lacking. At a time when the American Church's love for its own (or anyone else except self) is on the wane, Christians engage in more trumpeting than ever. Is it any wonder that 9 of ten Americans believe in God but fewer than 5% will say that our beliefs affect the way we live? Is there any mystery why the Church is so powerless?
The Feast of Fools
"They have their reward in full," Jesus warns us who seek the notice of men in our good deeds (only popular good deeds need apply). It is not that the acclaim of man is evil, but rather the seeking of that earthly glory. I would not be concerned that Billy Graham and Mother Teresa have received some recognition unless they were expressly looking for that glory.
How insidious is this serpent of the soul to tenderly squeeze the strings of our motives so that all appears to the glory of God! What a waste of our efforts if all we accomplish is receiving the weak and beggarly praises of creatures formed of dust. Yet, we tempt our carnal souls by offering the recognition of men for every good deed. Even prayer is hardly secret. We shine lights on our "goodness" where we are unwilling to light up the dark and wicked world of our own sins. The American Church brags of its missionary involvement -- publicly exacting all its labors. It corporately reports the number of homeless sheltered or fed in the year and the exact pennies spent giving aid to the needy. Individuals follow suit. We tell the IRS of our alms and count up the worth of our gift items to charity (usually valued in "new" prices). If Jesus says that in giving we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, how, then, can we justify letting the IRS know what our right hand is doing?
Churches encourage this false motive by applying for tax-exempt status and highlighting the tax advantages of giving to the church rather than to the poor. I have seen churches promote writing off full value for used materials given to the ministry and deducting the full price of fund-raising banquet tickets -- both are patently illegal.
The motives of the churches in these things is obvious. What dangers lurk under state incorporation of churches is not always as apparent. Next time you get a chance, look at your church incorporation papers. At the top is should read something like, "A Corporation of the State of ---."
This plainly states who the church belongs to and is an organ of the state, not Christ. Experience in recent years has shown how the state will abuse its power over the churches by forcing them to obey ungodly regulations. To rewrite a phrase, "The power not to tax is the power to destroy."
In churches and at evangelistic crusades, "pulpit chairs" are set up to display the church elite -- usually alongside the local business and political elite. Fundraising banquets for church sponsored community projects provide a gazingstock of local notables at the head table. In some churches, famous visitors seated in the congregation are singled out for public introduction.
Pastors now scramble to be selected to "give the invocation" at public events -- events with the dual purposes of making a show of the local Christian creme de la creme and raising more money for local charities. We hope to have our names embossed on the advisory board columns of the letterhead stationary of high-profile charities. Many seek induction into the local ranks of the religious, political, and social elite. "The better to influence them, my dear," we chime while being photographed for the society pages.
I recall a few years ago when a large evangelical organization invited the new mayor as a speaker to one of their breakfasts. The mayor, during his campaign, had gone out of his way to declare himself a "born-again pagan" and has continuously diminished the influence of the Church in public affairs.
Unlike Moses, these eschew the shame of Christ outside the gate and claim their calling is to the hot, burning sands of the socialite soirees.
All are ready to be seen in the glory of public recognition, few volunteer to suffer public humiliation for Christ. Everyone wants their picture taken while ladling food to the homeless or ringing the Salvation Army bell, none want the infamy of public arrest to save the lives of the innocent unborn or the ignoble invisibility of being covered with puke as we minister to a dying relative in our own home.
Our carnal natures instinctively seek personal acclaim and glory. There are many subtle, religious ways of obtaining this end to which the devious "self" will resort. Jesus reminds us that we are not to assess ourselves above what is warranted -- that we should honestly take the lowest seat at the banquet. This way, if and when God chooses to exalt someone, He will do it.
Here, as with so many other places, it is the motive that tells the tale. There is nothing wrong with recognizing someone's good work or in being recognized. Having attained a degree is no sin -- unless it is falsely used. But the thoughts and intents of the heart can be monitored only by God and the individual.
The Divine Jester
--1 Corinthians 4: 10a
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While we strive for respectability in the eyes of one another and the world, Christ calls us to simply follow Him. Sometimes our willingness to follow will bring respect, but there will most assuredly be persecution. (2 Timothy 3: 12)
What a fool Noah must have appeared to preach righteousness to a rainless world and predict the destruction by flood. How foolish of Abraham to leave all his family behind for the promise of land coming from an invisible God. The prophets all found great unpopularity for their antics -- prophesying naked, digging holes in walls, wearing camel skin and eating locusts. But history would indeed be different if these were concerned for appearances.
None of this means we can go out and join Jerks for Jesus. We are nowhere commanded to make ourselves deliberately odious to others. But we are distinctly told that representing Christ and the gospel will "be a savor of death" to many. (2 Corinthians 2: 14-16) Nor are we to shrink from being labeled fools and worse for His sake.