Column: What has been the biggest problem in the churches?

The writer is pastor of Church of God congregations and a regular columnist for The Journal.

By Melvin Rhodes

DEWITT, Mich.--What's the biggest obstacle within the Churches of God to preaching the gospel more effectively?

The more I dwell on this, the more I feel the answer is self-righteousness. Looking back at our collective past and looking around at the many choices for the Sabbatarian community, I think it becomes apparent that this is the major obstacle to our being more effective in sharing God's truth in today's world.

Self-righteousness is defined in my dictionary as "thinking oneself more righteous or moral than others." This definition helps one realize this has been the perennial Christian problem. Whether it be the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War that led Catholic and Protestant to kill each other by the tens of thousands from 1618 to 1648, colonial missionaries risking their lives to deliver their message to the most primitive peoples on earth or today's religious right with all its bigotry; self-righteousness seems an inevitable symptom of the Christian condition.

Growing up

Not having learned from the past, Christians seem doomed to repeat their self-righteous behavior.

As the Roman philosopher Cicero put it 2,000 years ago: "Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child all your life."

Immature decisions result from a lack of understanding of the past and further the problems that have plagued mankind down through the ages.

So it is with Christian self-righteousness. Sabbatarian or Sunday observing, those professing to be Christians have sinned greatly in this area.

We want to feel we are right with God.

In that context, the Sabbatarian community, because of our history of believing we are the exclusive, one-and-only church that God is working through, wants to believe our group is the group.

We seek to justify that perspective by looking down on others, finding fault with them, nit-picking about minor differences of doctrine or administration, even categorizing others as Laodicean while we are Philadelphian.

Self-righteous independence

It's not just church organizations that have this problem. Seeing the faults in the organizations, many people have chosen to disassociate themselves, feeling that independence is God's preferred model. Some even talk of doing things the biblical way.

This in itself is self-righteous because it implies that the independent route is God's way of doing things, in itself exclusivist. It sounds rather like the people in Corinth who were not of Paul, Apollos or Cephas but prided themselves in being of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12).

Others talk of moving on or progressing into new truth (in my experience new truth is always an old debate resurfacing again; here's where history comes in useful) or no longer needing a schoolmaster (read minister)--all of which are attitudes judgmental of those deemed left behind.

The problem can rear its ugly head when doctrinal or administrative differences crop up.

Many people outside of our tradition might possibly accept that we keep the Passover rather than Easter. But explain that we have dozens of different ideas among us as to when and how the Passover should be observed and they go away thinking we are all crazy.

Passing judgment

The same with administrative differences. We were small to begin with. Our division into ever-increasing numbers of churches must appear farcical to the world at large. It certainly did to many of our young people, long since gone from our midst.

Self-righteousness shows itself in other ways. How many times have we read of prominent religious leaders caught in an act of impropriety? Yet those same people often vocally put down non-Christians as beneath contempt.

Self-righteousness can manifest itself in various ways. A happily married Christian couple may look down on a single mother who is divorced or on other couples who seem to argue a lot or don't show enough affection in public. They may pass judgment on the children of other Christians because their children aren't nearly perfect as their own.

Christians can be especially unforgiving of sins they themselves have not committed. A person who has never had a problem with alcohol, for example, can be quite judgmental of those who have, rather than showing the Christian compassion that Jesus Christ taught us. Jesus Himself was judged harshly by the self-righteous religious people of His day as a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19). In spite of such criticism, He continued to spend time with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:11).

Jesus' accusers had to have things their way. That's the point. Self-righteousness is thinking that my way is better than the other person's, even though the other person may also call himself Christian.

We come by it honestly

Much of this in our community of churches goes back to our own tradition. For decades people were taught that God worked through only one church, that the Worldwide Church of God was the one true church, that we must submit to the government of God within the WCG, that the pastor general was God's apostle and the ultimate authority on doctrinal matters, that other Christians were pagans or, if holding to beliefs similar to ours, had rebelled against the government of God.

With a history like that, is there any wonder we are plagued by self-righteousness?

This is not to transfer the blame to those in the past. Every Christian must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

Nor should we see our past as necessarily entirely different from that of Sunday-observing churches. The biggest church in the world considers itself exclusive, the one and only church, with people in all others being officially heretics, anathema from Christ. Many sects of contemporary Christianity have been exclusivists, including some big-name churches.

As I said, self-righteousness has been a Christian problem for the best part of 2,000 years. It does, of course, go back even further. Remember the Pharisee who knew he was better than the man beside him at the altar? (Luke 18:11).

Plenty of Pharisees

The opening words of the parable are significant. Jesus addressed it "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (verse 9). Nobody likes to think of himself as a Pharisee, but Pharisees abound.

Self-righteousness is the hardest problem for people to see in themselves. Many reading these words will think they don't apply to them.

Until we learn we are nothing and each of us is far from perfect--with imperfect marriages and imperfect families, members of imperfect congregations who have no right to look down on others--we will continue to be our own biggest barrier to being used effectively by God and the biggest barrier between ourselves and others whom God might call. Self-righteousness in Christians has always disgusted non-Christians.

Our attitude as Christians should be the attitude of our elder Brother in John 8, when some scribes and Pharisees brought before Him a woman caught in the act of adultery. Jesus refused to condemn her (verse 11), though He clearly did not condone her sin. Jesus' words come down to us through the centuries: "Go and sin no more."

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