The Church Culture of Church Exceptionalism

Back in May, U.S. President Barack Obama called out the Christians in America to focus more on poverty than divisive issues like gay marriage and abortion. An article on reported on it:

“There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue … this is often times viewed as a ‘nice to have’ relative to an issue like abortion,” Obama said.

He argued that churches should spend more time pursuing “powerful” ideas such as helping those in poverty in order to attract more followers.

“Nobody has shown that better than Pope Francis, who I think has been transformative just through the sincerity and insistence that this is vital to who we are, this is vital to following what Jesus Christ our Savior talked about.”

I find it interesting that this is basically a reflection of what the church often does to President Obama. I could cite a million things that Christians have said that were critical of the President.

Christians get so defensive when the church is criticized. There’s an immediate rush to defense of Christians through all generations. We try to explain away the Crusades. We dismiss the crazies who want to burn Korans. We rush to support Christians who mess up and claim God’s forgiveness for them, while not offering grace to non-Christians who mess up.

All of these things are symptoms of what I would call “church exceptionalism.” And it’s one of the most dangerous things about Christian culture today.

What is “Church exceptionalism”? From my perspective, it’s this:

Seeing the church, both locally, nationally and universally, as above reproach and as an example of what is right. Perhaps there is some acknowledgement of weakness, but generally there’s a distinction given where the church is higher than, for example, the government, Hollywood, the media, any non-Christian entity.

There is a sense where we are called to exceptionalism. But just because we’re called to it doesn’t mean we can claim it for ourselves.

The Church Isn’t Better than the World

See, the Church is no better than the world. It’s not better than the government. It’s not better than Hollywood. It’s not better than the media. Let me prove it to you.

What do we bash the government for? Cover-ups, not following up on their promises, being fake and phony.

There’s a whole website called dedicated to “Shining light on Baptist clergy sex abuse.” I was stunned to find it. There’s a list of articles detailing different cases of pastoral sexual abuse. Is there some hokeyness and probable over-exaggeration on the site? Sure. But the news articles – like this one on a Baptist pastor whose molestation of young boys was ignored for years – speak to the dangerous truth that we cover up things all the time.

In 2011, a pastor named Jim Moats was revealed to have never been a Navy SEAL, which wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that he told his congregation at the Christian Bible Fellowship Church in Newville, Penn., and The Patriot-News newspaper that he was. Apparently, this deception is common. Don Shipley, a retired SEAL who reportedly has access to a database of all former SEALs, said, “We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up.”

What do we bash Hollywood for? All the divorces and cheating, disregard for and mockery of people of faith, their liberal politics.

The recent Ashley Madison hack and revelation of who used the site is a prime example about how no one is exempt from the temptation to cheat. R.C. Sproul, Jr., a professor at Reformation Bible College and the son of theologian R.C. Sproul, was one of the more prominent names to surface on that site. Christian vlogger Sam Rader was another popular name that came to light. Blogger and researcher Ed Stetzer guesses there were somewhere around 400 pastors on the list.

Think about this: how often do we make fun of or speak disparagingly of other religions like Islam? Members of the Church have called for burnings of the Koran. I’ve heard and read un-loving hate speech towards other religions like Mormonism, Judaism, atheism and agnosticism come from Christians.

What do we bash the media for? Blowing stories up more than they “should be,” an anti-Christian bias, pushing agendas.

We push agendas. Let’s be real. Is our agenda more God-glorifying, Jesus-exalting? Sometimes. Sometimes we spend way too much time focusing on the Supreme Court decision to make gay marriage legal. Sometimes we spend way too much time focusing on pastors having sin in their life. Sometimes we spend way too much time on saying how terrible Hollywood/teenagers/government/secular music is. The church may not have an anti-Christian bias, but like Hollywood, we echo the media in how we mock other faiths.

The Church Is Called To Be More

To a degree, we are called to be set apart from these institutions. There’s an obedient stature to be taken inside that “Church exceptionalism” definition.

As a set-apart people, this is our calling: to go make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), to do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), to seek holiness in all our conduct (1 Peter 1:15). We are supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be that light on the hilltop, that salt on the steak (Matthew 5:13-16).

And if you look at how the Church has behaved, there’s a significant distance between how we’ve acted and what we’ve said we’re about. So there’s no room for Church exceptionalism. There’s no place we have to claim the Church is better. But we ignore that.

What’s the side effect of that ignorance? A few things.

We don’t talk about how we mess up because we think we have to be “better.” The everyday Christian sees him or herself as generally a good person, so we don’t think it necessary to confess the gossip we partake in every day at work, the lust we hold in our hearts towards that person at the grocery store or the bitterness towards someone from long ago. We know we’re supposed to be a “good person,” so we don’t talk about or we ignore the crap we’ve done/we do, the crap we’ve thought/we think and the crap we’ve said/we say.

We are highly critical and shaming of others. We ride our high horses all over the Internet to bash President Obama, CNN and Hollywood progressives who don’t interpret the Bible how we’d like them to. Forget the fact that Jesus wasn’t that way towards those types of people. We’ll go on Twitter and use all 140 characters to lament the state of the country, the state of the media and the movies in the theaters. We say, “Why all this ‘separation of church and state’ talk? It’s not even in the Constitution!” “Look at Hollywood screwing up the Bible!”

We don’t accept the need for grace in our own lives. We get scared if we talk about grace too much. But the truth is we need it so bad! We need grace desperately. We’re a messy people in need of a thorough Savior. If we see ourselves as exceptional, we can miss the need for the Gospel being applied to Christians.

We’re called to be more. But we’re not. And, honestly, we will never be.

The government will never be perfect. Hollywood will never be perfect. The media will never be perfect. The Church will never be perfect.

That doesn’t mean we don’t raise our voices when we see issues. We just keep those things in mind when we examine those entities. And we act/speak/think accordingly.

We give grace and patience to those institutions. We speak grace and love. We avoid harsh, judgmental, overboard criticism. We speak loving truth. We lead with love – the greatest of all things that will abide (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Let us be a Church that leads with love, that always leads with love. If we’re going to be exceptional in anything, let it be that. Let the ego that’s led us die out, and let it be replaced by love, patience, grace, hope and an understanding that nobody is even close to being perfect and never will be.

We’re no better. That’s a fact. But it’s OK because of grace. We’ll make it.


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