Real Worship: Part 13: Coping with Selfishness

Churches are always going to be filled with selfish people. If we managed to preach all our members into selflessness, we’d be so attractive that we’d soon have hundreds of converts — who’d be immature Christians and therefore selfish. Unhealthy churches have longtime members who are selfish. Healthy churches have new members who are selfish. And so all have selfish members.

To understand how to deal with selfishness, we have to start with root causes. I copied this bit of wisdom from Yahoo Answers

Narcissism is a manifestation of low self-esteem and arrested development. People who suffer from pathological narcissism were not given the message as children that they were lovable, valuable human beings and special to their parents, just because they are who they are, not because of what they do. These children instead are given the message, either directly or implicitly, that they are somehow defective or unlovable or that love wasn’t deserved and had to be earned, and they grow to adulthood with this belief of being unlovable and the unfulfilled need to be special, along with some other traits normally associated with infants like not being able to see separation between themselves and others and the outside world. They spend their adult lives trying to find ways to be special and valuable. They create a false self image to cover these deep painful feelings. This false self image requires constant maintenance (narcissistic supply) so as to keep them from feeling seeing their real self image. They’re always searching for recognition and special status, trying to be right where others are wrong, always comparing themselves to others, trying to be smarter, stronger, nicer, more deserving, more beautiful than others, which can appear to be more selfish than others. In reality, they’re just trying to get that which others were given in their childhoods, but they were denied.

This feeling, of being special, valuable and lovable is difficult to get filled in adulthood. The adult world is typically results oriented and can reinforce the narcissists belief that it’s what he/she does that makes him/her worthy. Friends just don’t hang around no matter what you do, the way your parents should have. Lovers leave if you become too demanding. It’s hard to find the unconditional love you needed when you were young.

Now, our members may be selfish (I use “selfish” in much the same sense that the author of the quotation uses “narcissism.”) because of problems with their actual childhoods or because of problems from their earlier Christian walk. If they came up in a church that taught a works salvation (as many Churches of Christ do), they could easily feel that God sees them as “somehow defective or unlovable or that love wasn’t deserved and had to be earned.” Such a person may well compensate by becoming very demanding in church as a way to demonstrate to himself that he’s important.

Indeed, when the older members get upset over the musical choice, they are often more upset with not mattering than any doctrinal concern. You see, it’s often the case that when they were younger they held positions of influence that allowed them to veto any church decision. Maybe they were elders or elders’ wives. Maybe they were major givers. Maybe the church was smaller and every member had a veto.

Now that they’re older, they’ve lost influence, and therefore they’ve lost control over the congregation. Sometimes they vent their frustrations by seeking to regain control — just to feel important and appreciated.

And so, here are some suggestions —

* Preach grace over and over. Members who grew up in a legalistic church need to be reminded that they are loved despite their imperfections and failings. They need to be reminded over and over that God loves them even though he is fully aware of their failings. Help them grow in God by being comfortable in his arms — with no need to put up a false front.

Younger members may find such preaching tedious and redundant, but the older members won’t. Perhaps you make a point to cover grace more often in their Bible classes or small groups. Remember: many of these good people were severely wounded in their youths by legalistic preachers — and those wounds may never heal. They have thought and emotional patterns that are deeply rooted and that will require decades to overcome.

Cover it over and over and over — until they tell you to stop.

* Make the older members feel appreciated. Sometimes you might review the history of the church and thank them for their hard work — in founding the church, in building the building, in building the spiritual foundation on which today’s church is built.

Ritual and ceremony matter. Look for a time to express thanks. It’s deserved and needs to be said.

* When a big decision is going to be made, solicit their input. You may not follow their advice, but be sure to hear it. You may be surprised at the wisdom you hear!

* Consider carefully the identity you build. Most in the Churches of Christ have an identity that “we are the church that follows the correct pattern.” You can teach grace for 30 years, and this thinking will still be present. It’s not enough to confront the error of patternistic thought — you have to replace the old identity with a better identity: “We are striving to be transformed into the image of Jesus” — something like that.

And then preach it over and over. Create a new sense of identity so that a change in worship style does not threaten the church’s sense of who they are.

* Teach mission. Replace the old “our mission is to preserve the pattern” with “we are here to be Jesus to the world” or the like. Help the church take a healthy pride in works of service, in relationships built, in the formation of Christian community, in souls saved, in seeing God’s Spirit at work within the congregation.

Now, mission and vision statements help — but not much. Banners and logos in the church bulletin help — but not much. People’s deeply rooted sense of what the church is about and who they are in relationship to God is hard to change. It requires constant, repeated reinforcement. The staff and leadership will get tired of the reminders long, long before many hearts are changed. You have to be ready to be incessant, constant, and persistent in getting the message across. A sermon or even a sermon series won’t do it. It requires years of repetition, teaching the same lesson in many ways, from many angles.

* Celebrate those things that reinforce the new identity and new mission. Often.

* Never treat those more legalistic than us or those who resist change with contempt. This is perhaps the hardest piece of advice of all. It’s hard not to be angry with those who once made us miserable with false, legalistic doctrine. It’s hard not to get frustrated with those who insist that we change more slowly.

But love compels us to be patient and gentle, not letting zeal trump compassion. Just insist that we’re going to all change together — and figure out how to do it, do the hard work, and be patient. The older members will appreciate the gesture.

That doesn’t mean that the church has to agree 100% with every change and that you can’t lose any members. You may lose some along the way — but you should count those departures as defeats because you failed to heal a broken heart.

Those who struggle to change aren’t bad people. They are wounded people. Work hard to heal them — to let God heal them — and perhaps you’ll not lose them.

* Avoid reinforcing selfish behaviors. When members make selfish demands, treat their demands as a teaching moment. Don’t submit to ultimatums. Indeed, once an eldership relents due to an ultimatum from selfish members, the selfish members will have gained control of the church — and that just can’t be a good thing.

Sometimes the proper response is to rebuke the ultimatum as sin. Sometimes it’s to get both sides in the same room, put a human face on the issue, and insist that the two sides talk through the issue as brothers in Christ. It’s just too easy to demonize your opponents if you don’t have to do it their faces.

Sometimes you have to call the bluff of those making selfish demands: “We love you and pray that you don’t leave, but we’re not going to ban the use of PowerPoint or have a separate PowerPoint-free service. We just can’t do that. There’s no doctrinal reason to do that. We’re glad to meet, discuss, and pray with you further, but we’re not negotiating over PowerPoint.”

Sometimes you have to let them leave — but this is never anyone’s first or second choice. The fact is that no matter how well you teach, counsel, and love your members, some are going to leave. Indeed, if your church is torn up over applause, don’t be surprised if a member leaves in a huff only to join another church that applauds! You see, the leaving is often not really about conscience as much as power — and some members can’t bear the thought of staying after they learn they’ve lost their influence — especially if they lose their influence by making unfair demands and not getting their way. They may feel shamed and feel forced to leave just to save face.

Therefore, leaders should look for ways to keep the fight from becoming about winning and losing or who has say so or power in the church. Sometimes just showing enough concern to listen to the complainers is enough to help them feel influential enough to stay, even though they know they won’t get their way this time.

The worst mistake to make is to fold in the face of pressure. You see, this not only empowers the selfish, it tells the rest of the church that their humility and submission will result in the church being run by the self-centered — and many of your most humble, servant-hearted members will leave rather than suffer under the authority of spiritual midgets. You see, sometimes an eldership tries to avoid a split by letting the self-centered members have their way, only to so alienate the spiritually mature that they leave instead.

Therefore, there is no tactically safe ground. Therefore, don’t bargain for safety. Make decisions that are faithful. Do the right thing, and then shepherd the weak through the difficulties of change. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that giving in to selfishness will hold the church together. In the longterm, it won’t. Not ever.

Now, the toughest case is a church that has routinely, year after year capitulated to the demands of the spiritually immature. The immature will have been empowered by these tactics and will have developed a sense of entitlement. Eventually, there will come a truly important decision where the elders just can’t give in to the selfish members — but because they feel so entitled and empowered, they’ll react to not getting their way in a spiritually immature, childish way. They’ll throw a tantrum. They’ll threaten to leave. They’ll withhold checks. They’ll engage in  power plays. And the church will split.

Therefore, it’s critically important that the selfish lose some unimportant battles long before they have to lose the important one. While your instincts will be to put off the day of reckoning, the fact is that putting off the day makes the day far worse. The sooner you have the confrontation, the better. The smaller the issue, the better. Far better to overrule the selfish members over the choice of song books or who gets to pick the carpet color than over who the next preacher hire will be or whether the Holy Spirit will be preached from the pulpit.

But, of course, the need to take away the sense of entitlement of the selfish doesn’t justify acting resentfully or treating them as less than important, beloved members of the church. It just means that, like any other group of members, they won’t always get their way.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to Real Worship: Part 13: Coping with Selfishness

  1. There is a lot of wisdom in this post. I particularly like the following:

    "There is no tactically safe ground. Therefore, don’t bargain for safety. Make decisions that are faithful. Do the right thing, and then shepherd the weak through the difficulties of change. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that giving in to selfishness will hold the church together. In the longterm, it won’t. Not ever."

    This made me think of the words of Jesus: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35, ESV).

  2. David Himes says:

    Selfishness v selflessness — that is at the root of the struggle to live and love as Jesus loved.

    Great post, Jay

  3. guy says:


    If someone genuinely believes that a particular change being considered is sinful and displeasing to God, and that person insists the elders not implement that change or says he/she doesn't believe he/she can continue with the congregation if that change is implemented–is such a scenario *always* equivalent to a "selfish demand"?


  4. aBasnar says:

    If it were grace against legalism, I'd be on your side, Jay. But that's not the real issue.


  5. Price says:

    Jay, Guy brings up an interesting point.. sort of… I don't see where an individual member has the authority to "insist" that the Elders do anything…But…how do you interpret I Tim 5:19-20.. It appears that a congregational member or members can bring an accusation against an Elder….And if guilty, he should be called out on it… Exactly who has the responsibility to "accept the accusation" and who gets to decide if what the Elder or Elders are doing is sinful ?? Is there some sort of unofficial standard of majority opinion ??

  6. Jerry Starling says:


    1 Timothy is addressed to an evangelist, and the verses you cite are in the 2nd person. That is, Timothy is the one addressed. This of course runs counter to our idea that the evangelist serves "under" the elders. Maybe a better way of expressing the elder-evangelist relationship is that the evangelist serves "with" the elders and the elders "with" the evangelist.

    But, we are too hierarchical in our thinking to suppose that this would work, aren't we?

  7. theophilus.dr says:

    Jay addresses a major problem in the church and the source of baggage people carry into a disagreement or conflict. One thought at the end needs to be completed.

    Jay said, "Therefore, it’s critically important that the selfish lose some unimportant battles long before they have to lose the important one."

    Once I would have agreed that the idea presented by the above statement is "critically important," but the scripture has laid out for us "a more excellent way."

    There is a better way than 'conditioning those selfish people to get accustomed to being on the losing side.'

    Matthew 5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."

    James speak of two kinds of wisdom. (1) A false wisdom that is of the world, of the human sinful nature, and selfish. What is the result when this "wisdom" dominates? Disorder. (2) A true wisdom that is from God and of the Spirit. Peace. What is the result? A harvest of righteousness.

    Selfishness and the other works of the flesh produce disorder and chaos in the body of Christ. The opposite of disorder is order and of chaos is peace. Peace and order are the same. What is in order with God's creation and God's will is at peace with God.

    James 3:13 "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
    17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."

    Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is not put them down, cower them into submission, or acclimate them to defeat. Peace is not the fire-hose when a combustible event gets out of control (disorder). Peace describes the relationship we have with one another in the body of Christ that is irreversibly linked to love and unity.

    How many sermons are preached about peacemaking? About living in peace? About establishing a culture of peace in a congregation? How many times do we have to repeat a cycle of chaos from conflict?

    Jay said, "you have to replace the old identity with a better identity: 'We are striving to be transformed into the image of Jesus'" {Jesus, the Prince of Peace]

    Jay said, "Cover it over and over and over — until they tell you to stop." Cover it over and over until Jesus comes again to find a bride in love, unity, and peace.

    Peace, love, and unity are the character of God; they were modeled by Jesus in relation to the Father; they are relationships we are to have with one another in the body; they are the actions by which we grow into the fullness of Jesus Christ and into the righteousness and holiness of God (Eph. 4:24).

    Eph. 4:3 "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."

    I recommend investigating Peacemaker Ministries. www dot peacemaker dot net. It can revolutionize your thinking about peace.

  8. theophilus.dr says:

    Jerry, right on!

    Out of all the so-called models of church leadership trying to make sense of the roles of elders, ministers, etc., I like "the paraklete" model, in which elders and ministers "come along beside" (para) one another in counsel and advocacy to help each one fulfill their God-given responsibilities better and more effectively. It is the model of the Holy Spirit, but it doesn't fit too well inside a flow diagram of boxes filled with organizational titles. Usually what can be diagrammed is what prevails.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Price asked about —

    (1Ti 5:19-20 ESV) 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.

    Jerry correctly points out that the instruction is written to the evangelist Timothy. But the “charge” is made by someone in the congregation. Paul is silent on who does the judging.

    I think the implication is that the congregation does the judging, which would be consistent with —

    (Mat 18:17 ESV) 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.


    (1Co 5:4-5 ESV) 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

    — although an argument could be made that the charge should be considered by the other elders (where they are not also accused). After all, in the Israelite cities and synagogues, the elders made these kind of decisions.

    But “charge” does not mean “disagreement.” I think “charge” is a reference either to a sin serious enough to justify disfellowship or something else that disqualifies the man to be an elder.

    There are enough difficulties here to write a book!

    Whatever view you take, the elders must have the ability to serve without every decision about hymn books and song selection turning into an impeachment. This is not about overruling their decision. It’s whether the man charged remains as an elder at all.

  10. Skip says:

    A former church that I belonged to spent a year trying to come up with a mission statement. They paid an outside expert thousands of dollars to help them craft the perfect mission statement. In the end their mission statement was to "Love God, Love the Members, and Love the Lost". Wow, it took them a year and lots of money and all they had to do was actually read their Bibles. This is one reason it is so hard to combat selfishness in the members. They don't know or understand the most fundamental convictions that every Christian should possess.

  11. aBasnar says:

    The more I think about it, this post is more or less directed against "conservatives" in the church whoi don't like the changes the "progressives" want to make. "Conservatives" are labeled as "legalistic" and even "selfish", while the "progressives" are the "grace-people" should be willing to change (redifine) the church a little slower out of "sacrificial love".

    The examples are interesting as well:

    Indeed, when the older members get upset over the musical choice, they are often more upset with not mattering than any doctrinal concern. You see, it’s often the case that when they were younger they held positions of influence that allowed them to veto any church decision.

    Number one on the list – again and again and again: Music (or Instrumental Music). You know that this statement is unfair, Jay. Those who want to change things are in general those who are the more intellectual people. The older ganeration of chutrch members (which is true in our church as well) hold faithfully fast to what they have been taught without knowing all the reasons for it – which is not necessary BTW.

    Now comes a seminary trained youth minsiter and starts a debate on music with these people. Oh, and it is so simple to point out that they don't have sound doctrinal arguments, but only "non mattering" ones or even just "emotionalism" – aside from some legalistic thought patterns.

    We've discussed all of this at length, and I am even more convinced, that all the changes in this area are very harmful to the churches. Not only resulting in splits, but also introducng a kind of worldliness that is terrible (we had this under "Contextalization and Surrender") – I don't want to warm that up. But most of my arguments have been brushed aside or ignored, and those who just "want their MTV" disengaged from the debate. That was kind of a frustrating experience, because I did not expect us to be that far apart.

    But we have to that far apart, because you can only lable us as "dumb and unfounded", yeah even "selfish legalists".

    And this one is quite harsh as well:

    Now that they’re older, they’ve lost influence, and therefore they’ve lost control over the congregation. Sometimes they vent their frustrations by seeking to regain control — just to feel important and appreciated.

    I don't belong to this generation, but I feel this is quite disrespectful. But, well, it comes from our society that the world belong to the younger ones. Who was it again the 60ies that sang: "We are the young generation, and we have sopmething to say" (I think "the Monkeys", but anyway)? And this attitude crept into the church.

    But the church is to be led by the older generation. Older women teaching younger women, older men being an example for the younger ones, Elders (a comparative to old – lt. "The Older Ones") shall be the church leaders. So who are the selfish ones? The old ones who claim their right to beheard instead being overruled? Or the young ones who can't wait till they have matured and grown old?

    So, the more I think about it, you draw wrong lines, Jay, and misrepresent and mislabel the conservatives trying to get them used to "losing the battle", which is an interesting way of describing your "strategy":

    Therefore, it’s critically important that the selfish lose some unimportant battles long before they have to lose the important one.

    Which translates (as I understand it): Don't give "conservative demands" any foothold, not even in minors. Silence them!

    Would you accept it to be the other way round, Jay? Submit to Elders who insist on the "Old Paths", who think about not hiring any longer pulpit ministers from the Christian Universities because so many of them are a source of unhealthy innovations? Would you lay aside your hope for an egalitarian treatment of women or instrumehntal worship in order to maintain unity? I doubt it.

    The selflessness portrayed in your post is a tactical selflesness, a detour to getting what you want – show respect and appreciation for the older generation, but insist (your words!) that they also will have to change. This does not make me feel taken seriously as a church member, in fact, it makes me distrust you deeply, because here you show two different faces.


  12. Skip says:

    I agree with Jay's assessment. The solution is debatable.

  13. guy says:


    i wasn't trying to make much of the word "insist" or whether a member can insist anything–that's not really important. The real point is this: Read back over your post, but this time, try really hard to read it as someone who might disagree with your assessment and solution. It seems you've hedged all your terms and criticisms in a very strategically political way–such that if anyone disagrees with you, that automatically paints them as selfish or legalistic or just an old person who needs to feel important.


  14. Roger Scully says:

    Thanks, Jay. This is one of the most helpful things you’ve posted. Our church is going through a big change from legalism to grace and this info helps greatly. No one has threatened to leave yet, and I hope no one does, buy we are determined to stay on track with healing our current members and using our new Christ-like identity to bring others to Jesus.

  15. Adam says:

    I show 2 faces everyday. Everyday I intentionally and deliberately chose to embrace the immature, the weak, the simple, the unaware as brothers in Christ. Every day I chose to subdue the "flesh" that wants to cry out against these people, and I chose to bring forth the "spirit" that can love and accept.

    I would argue we all have 2 faces, that we all fight this battle. At least I hope that we can all be honest about it, as that is the only starting point from which
    Christ can begin to move us closer to him.

    It seems unfair to me to withhold trust because Jay is honest about this.

    Your critique also seems unfair to me, almost as if you are intentionally misrepresenting the spirit of Jay's post. In particular you take Jay's statement:

    Therefore, it’s critically important that the selfish lose some unimportant battles long before they have to lose the important one.

    and interpret it as "Don't give "conservative demands" any foothold, not even in minors. Silence them!"

    Jay ends his post with "t just means that, like any other group of members, they won’t always get their way."

    It seems to me that Jay is saying nothing more than "just because they are loud, just because they threaten inappropriate things, just because they are selfish, just because they are immature – we, as elders, must continue to treat them as we treat all others." It seems to me that Jay is preaching equality to all, which is analogous to preaching protection of the weak, the poor, the outcast – those without a voice. Those who make the most noise have no right to special treatment. They will be like everyone else.

  16. Skip says:

    Roger, Great news to hear.

  17. Jay Guin says:

    What Adam said.

  18. Price says:

    Jay…thanks for the comments…Big Daddy, or if you prefer, Abba Father, did indeed mess up the whole concept of a religious flowchart…Instead of flowing up and down between "Ranks" it appears to be flowing In and Out of Him…via the Holy Spirit… Interesting use of the term impeachment… I've seen this process used against all sorts of leadership positions in the church…

    And, I sure hope one day that more will recognize the Leading of the Holy Spirit and finally figure out that He is neither Conservative or Progressive…He just IS…

  19. Todd says:

    Because it is a "hot button" issue we tend towards the music question in such posts. But having been a part of a leadership that was attempting to lead an established congregation into a new area of ministry I can say that Jay has hit the nail on the head. Every change – carpet, paint, cross/no cross, version of scripture read, powerpoint, just words or words and music, thirty minute sermons instead of twenty minute sermons, children's assembly, using video presentations in Bible class, how we extended benevolence to the community (and "who" we shared with), office hours, hospital visitation, the content and length of phone messages, congregational meetings or the lack thereof, the directions of the lines in the parking lot, why were we upgrading the play ground equipment, etc. Every issue was fought out, hard, from the perspective of personal preference. Attempts to get folks to think about mission were met with rolled eyes and scoffs. Selfishness and none of it about tried and true methods or what the Bible had to say. Pure sin!

  20. Jay Guin says:



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