[“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 off-putting 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, emphases 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 that the institutional church—its cultural irrelevance, its politicizing tendencies, its neglect of the poor—should be immune from critique.  I am just thinking that 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.






5 thoughts on “The Surprise of Self-Righteousness”

  1. Well said. That is one of the reasons I think affirming the centrality and authority of Scripture in all these conversations is so important: because Scripture is always that other voice that we fail to hear properly and that prophetically critiques us before, during, and after we apply it as wisdom in any given situation (at least, it ought to, if we are open to it and to God’s voice through it).

    1. Thanks, Rory. Good to hear from you! Scripture’s authority is extremely important, of course, but so many of us can be self-righteous about our particular views of Scripture! Being open to Scripture, as you suggest, refers to a disposition of the heart, exactly what is needed to understand the Bible’s wisdom and to have our self-righteousness exposed.

  2. I relate very much to this blog post. I identify with the sentiments expressed. Except I am not a young cynic criticizing the older traditionalists. I am the older. Which threatens me with even more self-righteousness because, unlike my peers, I see what you younger folks see. I hope more will be written guiding us “insightful critics” because we need to address the failings of the traditional church and not be silenced by an awareness of our own fallibility on the one hand nor yet be self-righteous.

    1. Thanks so much for writing, Stanley. I love your phrase, “insightful critics.” This is a bit forward of me, I suppose, but my book on cynicism is devoted entirely to that vision— that is, to discerning how we might critique the church biblically and lovingly. This was a task shared by the prophets, the sages, some of the psalmists, the Apostle, and—most importantly—the Christ. If you ever get a chance to check ‘Faith Without Illusions’ out, I would love to hear your feedback!

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