“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready…” 1 Corinthians 3:1-2
Spiritual elitism is a subtle sin. It is sin because a significant component of elitism is pride. Pride, said one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, is the first – maybe even the root – sin.
One of the factors that brought me into vocational ministry in mid-life was a season of spiritual renewal that started about ten years ago. Several things converged together to create a storm that re-awakened my love for Jesus, my desire to serve him at a greater level, and to sharpen my biblical-theological understanding. In summary, my spiritual life ramped up.
As I entered into this new ‘neighborhood’ of faith, I had to realize that not everyone around me was in the same place. I had to fight the idea that I was in a “better” spiritual place than my other friends. In fact, one of the minor frustrations that some of my other pastoral mentors have admitted to is a relative lack of faith in their congregations and even in church leadership. Certainly, your average spiritually-healthy full-time vocational pastor should be more spiritually mature and is committed to living a life of faith in service to Jesus than most of his congregation. But that can be frustrating. The pastor says: ‘I see the blessings that can come into your life if you’d trust God more fully, but you don’t want to really do that.’
I wonder if Paul was a similarly frustrated: “I’d really want to get you folks to a greater level of maturity, but you are acting like babies. Since you aren’t ready to go further, I can’t treat you like grown-ups so that’s why I treat you like babies.” Ouch.
Now I think there is a distinction between understanding that your spiritual journey is a bit farther down the road than some others of your friends, and the sin implied in thinking that you are better than those who haven’t travelled as far. Paul was also careful to recognize this sin – especially in the context of church leadership – when he refers to Proverbs 16:18 (‘Pride goes before a fall’) in his first letter to Timothy (3:6). And again, Paul says this to every Christian when he warns us to understand ourselves rightly (Rom. 12:3) – not too high or too low.
I’m still coming to grips in understanding this distinction because this is an area where I fall into sin. But I think the distinction is this: a proper pastoral concern for his flock’s relative immaturity focuses on them; but spiritual elitism is self-centered and is much more about the sinner’s reputation, esteem, and ‘position.’
This is where Paul’s frustration comes in: he cares very much for his friends at the church he planted and wants them to enjoy more blessings in Jesus. But they are so distracted by personality cults, ‘toleration’ and moral relativism, dysfunctional conflict, weird ideas about marriage, superstitions, money, church time, spiritual gifts, and a confused understanding about the gospel. All of these problems are preventing many of the folks in the church from living the lives that God wants for them. This is frustrating!
This would be like a parent who watches his children divide up Halloween candy and get into a terrible fight over one piece of Tootsie Roll while completely missing the pile of candy that they each have in front of them. The mature parent doesn’t point out the silliness of their fight because he or she wants to appear wise and morally superior; no, the mature parent realizes that the kids are missing the overwhelming blessings of a sugar-induced coma because of a very minor thing. They want their kids to learn perspective: don’t focus on the little thing, consider the big pile in front of you – especially when the little thing is keeping you from the big pile.
So from this section of scripture, I see some interesting pastoral applications. And my conclusions is this: a pastor has to be just a tad set apart to help people along on their spiritual journey. As Eugene Peterson says: “It is the pastor’s responsibility to keep the community attentive to God.” (Working the Angles, 2).