We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel. I begin republishing a post from February 2, 2008 —
(1 Pet 5:5b-6) All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
I’m convinced that part of the psychology that drives many of us within the Churches of Christ toward legalism is the pleasure of feeling smarter than the church down the road. I don’t mean to imply any insincerity — far from it. Nor do I think this feeling of superiority is conscious. No, it’s deeply buried in our psyches, and this is one reason it’s so very hard to root out.
Some of the desire to feel superior derives from the inferiority complex that infected much of the South in the 20th Century — feeling looked down on for being rural, poor, racist — for losing The War, etc. (Around here, there was but one war — The War). Leroy Garrett, always the astute observer of the Churches of Christ, once commented much to the same effect.
The complex is still with us Southerners, just not as bad. Here in Alabama, we have this saying: “Thank God for Mississippi!” At least we’re only 49th among the 50 states!
Of course, it’s really part of the human condition generally. We all like to feel superior to somebody. We American’s like to look down on the French, the French sneer at the Germans, the Germans look down on … the French (The German cockroach is called the German cockroach everywhere except in Germany, where it’s called the French cockroach!)
Do we really have an inferiority complex? Well, consider this from Wikipedia —
This feeling may be manifested in withdrawal from social contacts or excessive seeking for attention, criticism of others, overly dutiful obedience, and worry.
Does this describe your church?
Or consider this from Dr. Barney Katz, a Christian psychologist —
The adult [with an inferiority complex] seeks attention by explosions of temper, bitterness toward others, and constant irritability. Criticism of others is an effort to project inferior feelings onto others and to minimize personal failures by pointing out the faults of others. Overly dutiful obedience or extreme submission is often used to compensate for known weaknesses. Also, undue worry about many things may be the result of a lack of self-confidence. Indeed, the mistakes of the past and the attainment of success in the future can be constant objects of too much concern.
Now there’s a certain irony, well understood by psychologists, in being driven to feelings of superiority by an inferiority complex. It’s called “compensation.” We deny the obvious reality to accept a fictionalized reality that we prefer.
Hence, we overlook the lack of growth of the Churches of Christ and our increasing inability to keep our own children in the church. We overlook the evangelistic and mission successes of others and our own weaknesses in this area. We sneer at the larger congregations in town and tell ourselves that we are are purer, truer, and better. We say we fail because God doesn’t give the increase. We’ve been faithful. If we don’t grow, if our children leave — well, we did exactly what God asked. We could have done nothing differently. We are the faithful ones.
As the evidence of deep, institutional problems in the Churches of Christ pile up — divisions, splits, rancorous fighting among and within congregations, church bulletins filled with slander and invective, evangelistic failure, plateaued [JFG: now declining] attendance that doesn’t even match our population growth — we deny the reality and insist more and more intensely on our distinctive practices and doctrines.
Rather than honestly recognizing and dealing with today’s reality, we find comfort in a fictionalized past that we remember as glorious, built on the same truths to which we so tenaciously cling. When the historians point out that the Restoration Movement was built on doctrines we now deny, we damn the historians and go on praising our misremembered history. The Gospel Advocate publishes articles praising Alexander Campbell and, in the same issue, damns anyone who agrees with what he actually taught!
Paul understood how a desire to be superior perverts Christianity. This is why he so-often condemned boasting —
(Gal 6:14) May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
It’s one of the hardest lessons there is, because we have to give up so much to obey it. It’s hard to give up feelings of superiority. It’s tough on our self-esteem. We have to entirely rebuild our self-image. We have to admit our failings and no longer live in the imaginary reality we’ve created for ourselves.
Rather than feeling worthy because of our learning or our perfect replication of a pattern, we must rely on God’s tender mercies. Of course, God’s grace is a far, far safer place to be, but it doesn’t feel safe to those who are used to fending for themselves.
(1 John 4:15-18) If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
It’s really quite simple. It’s just hard to accept.
When Rick Atchley preached to the Richland Hills Church of Christ about adding an instrumental service, one of the most common objections was: even though we know instruments aren’t wrong, we’ll lose our identity! You see, we are the people who sing a cappella.
Identity? Why would we want to be known as the people who sing a cappella unless we considered that a compliment? And why a compliment unless that somehow makes us better? And what drives us to want to be better than everyone else? (I don’t mind being different, so long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking our differences make us better.)
I don’t know the people Rick described — except I do. I know us. And our self-identity, to us, is we are the people who cared enough to get it right. And we’d hate to lose that. You see, being right on how to divine the meanings of the silences has been a source of great pride — that is, of feeling superior.
The solution, as I said, is a hard one. It’s called humility.
(Phil 2:3-8) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
Humility is not low self-esteem. Jesus had no self-image issues! But he was humble. Humility is giving up what you’re entitled to, what you deserve, for others who are less entitled and less deserving. That’s what Jesus did.
For the Churches of Christ, humility is giving up our identity and giving up separation from our brothers and sisters because we think we are more pleasing to God. Humility is having confidence in God, rather than ourselves. Humility is the solution to it all.
Now, I’m not saying that the use of a cappella music reflects a lack of humility or an inferiority complex. It doesn’t, necessarily. But it does if you think it makes you better than your believing neighbor. It does if you let it define your identity as a Christian. You see, our true identity is the sacrificed Jesus —
(Gal 2:20) I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(1 John 4:12-15) No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. … 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
Notice how the Spirit inspired the writers of scripture. As a Christian, I have a new self. This “self” is Jesus or God living in me through the Spirit. It is me reshaped by God into faith and love.
And so, what is our identity supposed to be? Well, we’re the people who love and have faith. And we’re the people who have hope — boasting in what we’ve been given, not what we’ve done better than anyone else.
The true mark of the church — of genuine discipleship — is not the absence of a piano. It’s love.
(John 13:34-35) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
We can claim no other identity.
We have misunderstood very nearly everything.