Is Your Church Self-Righteous?

[“Loving the Church: The Soaring Theological Vision | The On-the-Ground, Messy Reality” is a new ongoing series for HR. The Process of Missional Engagement is still underway, and there will be random blog posts from here and there, some from guest contributors]

The church is beset by ailments innumerable, of which many voices in the blogosphere regularly remind us. One of the churchly plagues most offputting for younger Christians is self-righteousness, that religious disorder of assumed superiority, a superiority (falsely) premised on the grounds of better spiritual performances or loftier spiritual perspectives than others. Young believers have a highly keen sense of smell when it comes to self-righteousness—they can sniff it out instantly.

But here is the surprising thing about self-righteousness: The moment you hear or read the term “self-righteous” and you immediately think of someone else, then you know you are self-righteous yourself.

If on reading the opening paragraph of this post you thought of someone other than yourself, or if you thought about some demographic of Christians other than your own, then it may well be a sign of self-righteousness. We can sniff self-righteousness all over the place … except when it is stuck on our own clothes and eking out of our own souls.

The purpose of the “reader entrapment” underway here is simply to point out that self-righteousness is one of those plagues you don’t even know you have. That’s the nature of this disease, isn’t it? Self-righteousness comes with a spiritual pride that blinds us to all self-righteousness except that which is in others. Hence that haunting question posed by Jesus:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3).

Self-righteousness is not a disorder stereotypically unique to the church establishment. A mutated strand of the disease is flowing through my own veins. It has infected as well, perhaps, an enormous host of our younger generation of disgruntled Christians for whom critiquing the church is now rather vogue.

Let’s consider that parable Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Lk 18:9-14, emphasis added). In the scenario he creates, Jesus contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector, both of whom “went up to the temple to pray.” Here is the account of how the Pharisee prayed …

“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 …”

Could we possibly re-word the voice of the Pharisee in the parable to express the attitude that many of us in the younger crowd have toward the church …? Something like this, maybe:

“The embittered young Christian, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the institutional church-goers, legalists, homophobic, hypocrites or even like this older lady who has been attending that traditionalist church up the road for years.  I am culturally savvy; I give to social justice causes …”

You get the picture. And it is a picture I have found myself in many times. Enlightened in my 20s by an authentic experience of Christ and Christian community unfettered by traditionalist trappings, I have at times assumed a position of spiritual superiority over “institutional church-goers.”

I am not suggesting the institutional church—its cultural irrelevance, its politicizing tendencies, its neglect of the poor—should be immune from critique. I am just thinking if I myself dare to offer any sort of critical observations, my preliminary discipline should be that of ripping all the massive, ugly logs out of my own eyeballs … because I’m stricken with many of the same spiritual diseases.