‘Every wind of doctrine’: Spiritual pride

“Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 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 Corinthians 4:6-7)

“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detaill about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Colossians 2:18-19)

The winds that drive us off course blow from every direction. Here’s another:

The wind of spiritual pride. I riffed on cessationist theology in the last post, so it’s only fair to riff on charismatic chaos in this one. As it happens, the post-election debate on the outcome yielded a crop of unfortunate examples.

And before I go any further, I am distinguishing the wind of pride in the previous post from the wind of spiritual pride here because I am treating spiritual pride as something born of spiritual fruitfulness. It’s pride in both cases—that independent, disconnected-from-God spirit—but of a different variety.

When I was introduced to a more comprehensive ministry of the Holy Spirit through the so-called “charismatic renewal” about 40 years ago, one of the new principles that stood out was recognizing that operating in one or more of the spiritual gifts was not to be equated with spiritual maturity or status.

I’ve never forgotten that. Unfortunately, however, that’s because I’ve observed it working insidiously—and occasionally pretty obviously—in nearly every charismatic or “Spirit-filled” fellowship I’ve been a part of since then. It’s like the weeds that grow up between the cracks in your sidewalk.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Paul pinpoints pride as a source of trouble in the first NT letter to Corinth. At the outset, Paul says that the Corinthians were “enriched” in speech and knowledge (1:5) and amply supplied with spiritual gifts (1:7). With gifted ministers such as Paul and Apollos in residence, that shouldn’t be surprising.

But it was pride that caused the divisions Paul was so concerned about, pride in his or Apollos’s or Cephas’s ministry that led them to “be puffed up in favor of one against another” (4:6). Puffed up is a better description than just pride because of the self-exalting connotation, or, as Paul phrased it elsewhere, “think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Rom 12:3; also a passage on spiritual gifts).

No doubt it was pride that created a lot of disorder in public meetings, as participants jockeyed to prophesy or share a revelation or a word of instruction—all of which was from God but distributed through vessels of clay (14:26) who weren’t immune from basking in the glory of public ministry.

Many believers have bemoaned how dead church services can be. But a surfeit of spiritual gifts and ministry creates another, entirely different set of problems.

So to rein in this enthusiasm, Paul threw in this cup of cold water: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). 

Knowledge–true spiritual insight and revelation–is desirable and to be valued.  “But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (8:1). You can be proud of your knowledge and ride rough-shod over your sister or brother who doesn’t know what you know—you who are “so wise,” as Paul wrote.

Paul’s antidote for this is pure genius. He tactfully reminds the Corinthians that they came from modest backgrounds (“not many were wise . . influential . . of noble birth,” 1:26). So what they’ve become spiritually they owe solely to God.  

“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?” (4:7)

When I was in my 20s, my grandfather gave me some shares of stock. (I don’t recall their value at the time, the 1980s, but it was a generous gift.) They became mine when he gave them to me, but beyond that I couldn’t claim anything about having assets of x value just like that. In fact, at the time, I wasn’t a very good manager of my money.

So, for example, if you looked at the checking account of another twentysomething at the time who had worked two part-time jobs while taking college classes at night and had, through hard work and thrift, accumulated a balance of x, equal to me, you can’t make any character judgments based solely on x dollars in assets.

I could boast to that hard-working peer that I had just as much as he did, but he could just as easily point out that what I had was a gift, and he’d be right. Each of us could put those assets to work—they belonged to me no less because they were a gift than his wages belonged to him—but I would certainly have nothing to boast about.

Which, after this long digression, brings me back to the election “prophets.” There was no shortage of voices predicting that the former president would be reelected, even when state after state certified the opposite. It was going to be pyrotechnics on the order of Elijah routing the prophets of Baal as God descended in flame on the drenched sacrifices.

The more hopeless it looked, the more incredible—incredibly foolish—and even bizarre the prophetic elaborations became (former president Trump will be “inaugurated in heaven“!?).

From the walls of Jericho to Lazarus several days dead in the tomb, I don’t have to dwell on how unlikely outcomes may appear to the observer apart from faith. After all, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). 

The most zealous among us always hold this wild card: “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (1 Cor 4:10) It seems to justify our desperate faith in the impossible. It puts us in the esteemed company of Paul, Gideon with his band of 300 or Moses at the Red Sea.

But the irony is too great to miss. Is there any way to account for the wild, incredible and spectacular fizzle of what was supposed to be an hour of God’s power other than out-of-control spiritual pride? They weren’t “fools for Christ”—they were just fools, and now their manna will be humble pie.

How do you believe that angels from Africa and South America are coming to secure Donald Trump’s reelection—unless through your exalted view of yourself and your “faith” that suspends all rationality you have “lost connection with the head”? (Col 2:19).

And what else but stubborn spiritual pride could remove us so far from the gospel truth that “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? (Mt 5:3). “So wise”–and so foolish.

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