The problem with ‘Saints’

Depending upon the English translation you’re using, saint(s) appears between 60 and about 100 times in the New Testament. It’s my conviction that saint was then, and is now, another name for any believer. The Greek word (hagios) means holy, set apart for God. So lowercase sainthood means being called out or set apart, made holy since we cannot do it ourselves.

Uppercase Saint, as defined by Catholic, Orthodox and other churches, means someone extraordinary in their holiness or devotion to God. (My apologies, because I am oversimplifying to avoid getting sidetracked.) It’s my conviction that this distinction is an extrabiblical one, even though it traces back to the early centuries of the church.

By ‘Saint,’ however, I don’t mean the Catholic or Orthodox version. By ‘Saint’ I mean something that is unbiblical, and its practice can be found anywhere, even among so-called “nondenominational” churches that bend over backward to avoid exclusivity. I equate it with what Paul described as “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos” (1 Cor 1:12), the situation he learned was taking root in Corinth and which warranted his immediate attention (where there were no denominations as we know them). If you read the passages carefully, you’ll see this is not just semantics.

There are, of course, distinctions among believers when it comes to ministry. Paul wrote that it was God “who gave some to be apostles . . . prophets . . . pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11), not many. It’s also true that “[w]hen you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation,” (1 Cor 14:26), but these occasional (i.e., on certain but not all occasions) instances of ministry differ from the ongoing gifts of teaching, pastoring, etc.

But as Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate, the important common denominator is that these are all gifts:

“Then you will not take pride in one man over another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:6-7).

But as we all know, men have turned this on its head. They make distinctions on their own. Every one of us is a saint in God’s eyes. It’s only men who turn saints into ‘Saints,’ and by doing that sow the seeds of division.

As I wrote in an earlier post, ministry is a calling not a coronation. What I mean by that is that prominent ministries today grow and sustain themselves by popular acclamation, or more simply, popularity.

In the relatively free and prosperous West, that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority of believers, just a sizable enough minority to support the ministry. Ministries are graded according to their followers, in much the same way that entertainers, movie stars and other celebrities are graded according to their Twitter followers, re-tweets, Likes, etc. Sorry, but if you’re pastoring a church of 65, no one’s offering to publish a study Bible with your name stamped on every cover.

T.D. Jakes, John MacArthur, Paula White, John Hagee, Joyce Meyer, David Jeremiah, and dozens of others, all have sizable followings. So did Joshua Harris (before he “excommunicated” himself) and Rachel Held Evans (or still do, for all I know). So at what point in “following” have some crossed the line Paul warns about?

One reliable indicator is something we see in the partisan political environment in the United States that exists also in the church: the double standard. When we turn a blind eye to the sin in the one we follow but call out the one we don’t follow for the same sin, we have crossed that line.

We don’t need to use the honorific ‘Saint’ to turn someone into something more than what they really are. With our double standard, we can simultaneously make someone greater and someone else less in God’s eyes (or so we foolishly think).

We may look down our nose at ancient and medieval portraits of saints with golden halos about their faces as something that belongs to a less literate and sophisticated time. But we can do something like that in the way we revere our favorite preachers, teachers, authors and pastors.

Subtly and incrementally they no longer appear to us as “only servants.” In our minds, they are “set apart” as something more than that. They not only get the benefit of the doubt when controversy arises, but we automatically presume their critics have some nefarious, malevolent intent. But is this the way God sees them?

When David determined to have Bathsheba for himself, his orchestration of Uriah’s death was revealed in all its sordid detail (2 Sam 11:6-17). When Peter denied Christ there was no “spin” to soften the shame of his cowardice. As history and biography, the Bible is like Oliver Cromwell’s portrait, “warts and all.”

This is why Paul wrote, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4).

And this: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8).

Do you remember the standard Jesus set? “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Mt 6:1-2).

If you feel called to ministry, it’s worth asking yourself some questions. Do you dream of standing before packed sanctuaries and huge crowds who hang on your every word? Selling books, giving interviews, building a work that will make the world sit up and take notice?

Joseph dreamed of his brothers bowing down before him (Gen 37:5-11). But before the dream was finally fulfilled–and it was fulfilled–Joseph traveled a road that seemed always to go lower, not higher. It was not until meeting his brothers in Egypt that he understood this: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mt 10:43-44).

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

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