The “Best” of Religious Society

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Every human society seems to have some sort of honored elite (sometimes more honored by themselves than by anyone else), the special in-group, the privileged few, the informed and superior inner circle. There are religious elites, political elites, power elites, wealthy elites, educated elites, and so forth. Labeling select groups like these should not persuade us that elitism is above or beyond any of us though, because the tendency to behave as if some people are better than others flows through every level of society. In every group and sub-group there are those who seem to be more “in” than others, those who are recognizably cool or respectably capable; those who can talk right or move right or buy right, or look right or some way just be “right.” And elitism, the sense of superiority/inferiority it cultivates, always divides and excludes, always exalts some at the expense of abasing others.

In Jesus’ day there was a recognizable religious elite, a “better” religious society. Some of the prominent priests and Pharisees considered themselves above the common Jew and despised those they considered their religious inferiors, people who couldn’t possible understand what the law and prophets were getting at. The chief priests and Pharisees who were the in-group of the Jerusalem temple crowd felt that the beliefs of the crowds following Jesus were useless, their opinions without value. They asked, “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” (John 7:48-49 NKJV). This was religious elitism, snobbishly honoring the perspective of the “better” religious crowd, ignoring the thoughts and hopes and needs of the untrained and uninitiated commoners. The circle was closed, and in closing the circle around an honored elite, their minds were closed too. Pride of station (perceived station) resulted in pride of interpretation, exclusion of new ideas and better approaches, and ultimately, disaster. This is the “knowledge” that produces arrogance (1 Cor. 8:1-2). The elite, those religiously “better”, should have listened to the crowds they despised. Pride of station, certainty that they already had it, prevented them from hearing the truth and seeing the potential of a man named Jesus who wouldn’t join the in-crowd or chase the privileges and recognition that elitism seemed to offer a select few.

The same religious elitism that prevented many of the prominent priests and Pharisees from seeing the reality of Jesus identity came out in the form of harassment in the story of the blind man Jesus healed on the Sabbath day (John 9). When the man’s neighbors couldn’t readily explain an abnormal event like his being healed, they declined to wrestle with the implications of it and chose instead to shove it up the ladder to the “better” crowd of Pharisees (John 9:8-13). They accepted the idea of an elite that ought to handle matters that seemed mysterious, and the Pharisees to whom the matter was referred basked in the glory of their own religious superiority. They made several unsound assertions about Jesus and the man who had been healed (9:24, 28-29, 34), ending with a total rejection of the man, saying, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” and kicking him out of the synagogue. Facts and reason had little to do with the process that was followed in this inquiry, and closed-minded elitism carried the day. The Pharisees in this story couldn’t even consider the feelings or thoughts of the healed man in a reasonable way, because they were sure of his inferiority, their superiority, before they started.

One doesn’t have to be a chief priest or Pharisee though to engage in religious elitism of this sort. Any one of us can easily slip into a pattern of “better than” thinking. It is terribly easy to think of ourselves in all our doctrinal wisdom and insight as having arrived when few others have. Perhaps we see ourselves sometimes as better than those Israelites in the wilderness, better than those slow learning disciples, better than those first century Jews, better than those people down the road who haven’t gotten hold of the truth like we have. Of course we really aren’t better than any of those people, but are essentially the same as them (Rom. 3:23, remember) and just miss the point when we feel or sound superior to anyone. Paul specifically excludes any sense of religious “better-than-ism” in Romans 11:6-22 (as well as 2:17ff and several other passages in this epistle and others). “Do not boast against the branches” he tells us, and “remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” And “do not be haughty, but fear.” It is still a terrible blunder to think that we have received God’s grace because we are somehow better than someone else, and it is still a terrible mistake to despise another human being because of their genetics or their possessions or their beliefs. Having an exalted position in Christ is not dependant on or augmented by the degradation or belittling of anyone else. Being exalted in Christ is dependent on God having fulfilled his promises, and continuing to do so in His Son, Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:3-5, Eph. 2:4-9).

Religious elites might perceive themselves as being better than other people, more capable of knowing God’s will, but they actually set themselves at odds with God, whether they are a particular priesthood, or sect, or church. The “best” of religious society does not set itself up as an elite, a group of “better-thans”, but instead always searches for truth, and always seeks for souls. The “best” of religious society doesn’t need to pat itself on the back, or push the other guy down, but is content to rest in the promise of Jesus that he will exalt and lift up the one who trusts him (Rev. 3:9). The “best” of religious society knows that the battle is won (by and through Jesus), and is able to be humble without needing to humiliate anyone else. And the “best” of religious society knows that absolutely anyone has full opportunity to get in, to be included in the chosen few, to be accepted as a child of God, without prejudice or partiality on the part of God or his family.

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