On occasion, I have come into contact with congregations in which the majority of members see themselves as theologically superior. In such churches, it is generally believed that they have reached a level of maturity in which their understanding and practice of the Christian faith is more advanced than what is commonly found in modern evangelicalism. And, more often than not, these people are correct—they are well-grounded in theology, in terms of knowing what the Bible teaches. The problem, however, is that this type of congregation can become elitist, almost by necessity (in any association of people, elitism perpetuates itself).

Inevitably, there is a standard by which individuals and families are measured within such a group. While professing to be guided by Scripture in terms of association and fellowship, the people within this congregation will, in reality, follow a list of “checkpoints” they have composed as they encounter others. This assessment helps them determine the compatibility between new arrivals and the existing membership. This is regarded as an expression of wisdom. But, again, there is a big problem. Attempting to determine compatibility in order to decide to what degree, if any, you will welcome someone into your fellowship is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. The Church of Christ is intended for all who follow the Savior (cf. Rev. 5:9). Setting up some kind of “entrance exam” obscures this truth.

In addition to the Bible’s prerequisite for membership status in the visible church, which is a credible profession of faith, an elitist congregation will expect (or even demand) conformity to a number of secondary practices, convictions, and regulations. And it will be maintained with enthusiasm that these secondary issues are, in fact, matters of obeying God.

Appropriate household management, for example, is one of the most prevalent subjects stressed in an exclusivist congregation. You are likely to find dogmatic assertions regarding dress, entertainment, employment, education, hobbies, and even food. The Bible speaks to all of these issues, of course, but in the congregation I am describing, these assertions go well beyond Scripture and, as I just noted, matters in which God has given us liberty become matters of obeying or disobeying the Word. Consequently, they are also means of determining if you “belong.”

I will conclude with a fundamental question: Can the gospel function as intended in an environment of elitism? No, the gospel may be present—in the sense that some are truly born again—but, as it is taught in Scripture, the gospel cannot function as designed in such an atmosphere. There are at least three reasons for this. First, the gospel is relevant to people where they are, so to speak. The gospel is for sinners—all kinds of sinners at all stages of sin. The gospel does not require a certain level of understanding or conformity before it can deliver a sinner from the domain of darkness (cf. Col. 1:13). Spiritual elitism, as explained above, does not accommodate a person wherever they happen to be in terms of knowledge or maturity.

Second, and related to what I just said, the gospel makes no distinctions between sinners; it is a message to be broadcast to all people in all nations and at all times (cf. Matt. 28:18-20). A congregation characterized by religious exclusivity, however, must, by necessity, create distinctions between one sinner and another. The system by which new arrivals are “screened” and by which existing members are judged is grounded in elitist presuppositions. Therefore, some will be welcomed into the group and embraced, but others will not. Rejection of some will occur because they appear not to be convinced of the extent of rigidness associated with the congregation as a whole in matters neither commanded nor condemned in Scripture.

Third, once believed and flourishing in the heart of a sinner, the gospel produces humility. This comes from the recognition of our lowly estate, our offensiveness in the eyes of a holy God, our inability and unwillingness to seek after God in our fallen condition, and His marvelous grace by which we are saved in spite of our status. Spiritual elitism, by contrast, smothers humility while encouraging pride. This is a simple matter of understanding how the flesh reacts when we believe that we have achieved a level of maturity that is not common to all who profess to be Christians. Any commendation of the flesh results in the cultivation of pride, which is always lurking just under the surface, so to speak.

The “cure” for spiritual elitism is, of course, the same gospel it obstructs. A strong and enduring grasp of the gospel—its nature, power, and purpose—will prevent the development of an elitist perspective in us. And, by way of implication, if the members of any fellowship or congregation know the character of the gospel well, the prideful appraisal of one another will have no ground in which to thrive. 

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