Thabiti Anyabwile|10:09 am CT

A Quiet, Deadly Disease

It’s difficult to resist.
It grows in our heart–pastor and people, pulpit and pew.
It taints the way we talk about ourselves, yet sometimes motivates our best efforts.
It makes us ashamed, but lives on pride.
It destroys contentment, but promises happiness.
It rejoices at the losses of others while mourning our own.
It turns everything into itself, and ruins everything by doing so.
It presents itself as defense, but it’s usually on the offense.
It prompts both noble sacrifices and wretched cheating.
It may make us Niccolo Machiavelli or Frederick the Great.
We feel it toward others but resent it being expressed toward us.
It could either make us fearful or stir great courage.
We wish it weren’t there, and yet we hope for its fruit.

The disease: Competition.

It’s been interesting to follow the discussions of church polity (multi-site vs. single site) and well-known pastors (notoriety or celebrity). On one hand, the two discussions can be had independently of one another. But on the other hand, in many of the comments in the different discussions one can’t help but detect a unifying theme: a certain competitive pride.

Pride wears many faces. It has many arms. It’s a hydra.  So, we ought not be surprised that it shows up as competition and that competition itself shows up in many forms.

So, we hear ourselves say things like:

“There are no good churches in my area, so I’m glad people leave their churches to come to mine.”  –Joe Pew

“If the preaching at our church is better than other preaching around, why shouldn’t we do multi-site?” –Phil Pulpit

“The mult-site down the road is destroying our small congregations and putting the average guy out of business.”  –Aunty Walmart

“Small church guys are just jealous of the growth and success of larger churches.” –Ima Player

“Our new church has a more polished service and more outreach programs.” –Sally Consumer

“We’re missional.  We really care about reaching the lost in the community.” –B. Dozer

“Our church is large.” –Bob from Texas

“Our church is small.” –Marge E. Nall from NH

This post isn’t about any of the presenting issues–polity or the notoriety of pastors or the strength of preaching.  It’s about a more fundamental issue–our hearts.

All the sample comments above have two qualities about them.  First, they represent legitimate concerns and perspectives on some of the issues.  But, second, they sometimes reveal competitive pride, jealousy, and even indifference.  Such comments unveil a certain parochial concern.  They show us that important discussions with good desires continue to be laced with depraved cravings, smallness of heart, selfish desire.

At the bottom, we too often mostly care that our church does well.  We don’t exclusively care that our church does well.  We have more love than that.  But we simply want to be first.  We want the blue ribbon.  We’re tribal, competing for our local congregations in a game of congregational Survivor.  At the very least we want to finish in the top tier.  We have, as Dr. King put it, “The Drum Major Instinct,” an insatiable craving to be first.

Others can do well, but we don’t want to be… dare I say it… “average” (insert cringe, shiver, and mortified “ooooh”).  If our church fails or continues as “average” and every other church “succeeds” (however we measure that) then we’re going to have difficulty rejoicing in the success of others.  And if we’re the church that’s “succeeding” on some measure, we don’t want to have an “off” year or slide in our mental ranking of “successful” churches.  Someone has said, “The defect with equality is that we only require it with our superiors.”

The often-forgotten reality is that my local church and your local church are not in competition with one another.  We’re not.  We belong to the One Lord who has one Church serving one mission.  We’re family, though we forget it.  We hang our signs, print our cards, develop our programs, and fill our niche–often with our conscience stabbed by competitive pride–but we’re one Church.

I’m not in competition with the two churches on the same block as my own.  And I don’t have to argue about who was there first.  I’m not in competition with the Independent Fundamentalist church down the street.  They can run the race alone if they like.  I’m not in competition with churches that have better preachers or better choirs or better children’s ministries.  I’m not in competition with the older churches in our area or the new church plant or the church that split off from us.  I’m not trying to “win” some prize for the church with the shortest service or the longest service, or come in first place as the church with the most up-to-date technology or the most conservative style of gathered praise.  We don’t need an award for our website or need to craft a totally unique look for our church.

As we say down South, “I ain’t got no dog in any of dem races.”  We’re not trying to “win” something over other Christian churches.  Nor are we trying to be “excellent” if by “excellent” you really mean “better” than the nearby congregations.  If we were, we’d be destroying the mission not advancing it.

And, yet, there it lurks.  There’s one of its many heads.  Now it whispers and quietly tempts.  The flesh is a competitive animal.  That worm will not die.  It demands ranking, applause, and, yes, notoriety–not to mention celebrity.

But we must ask ourselves–that is, our flesh–”What’s wrong with an ‘okay’ or ‘average’ local church?”  ”Why aren’t we happy if we’re average, and why must we be ‘better’ than the rest?”





Thabiti Anyabwile|1:14 pm CT

“Pastoral Narcissism: The Shadow Side of Ambition”

A very good article on pastoral narcissism, otherwise known as “pride,” over at CT.  A snippet:

Recently I came home to find my wife researching narcissism on the computer. We have been in counseling for a few years and during a session where we discussed my relentless ambition, the phrase “narcissistic leanings” came up. My wife was researching the concept to see if it fit me and what the implications might be for our marriage.

At first she was embarrassed that I caught her, but I was interested as well, so we read the characteristics of narcissism together on the screen.

My immediate thought was, This isn’t a problem for me. Narcissism is the adulation of the self, the diminishment of others, and often expressed as reckless ambition. Nothing could be more inconsistent with the character of Christ—the self-sacrificing servant who sought only to do the will of his Father. How can I be a pastor, a servant of Christ, and struggle with this?

But as we read the definitions online, without saying a word we both knew we were reading an accurate description of me. I am a believer and yet I remain a sinner. I am a pastor and I’m often a self-promoter. I endeavor to serve Jesus and I also have narcissistic tendencies.

Consider the entire article for a bit of helpful heart-searching, conviction, and grace.  I especially appreciated the way he points to community as both a necessary corrective and also a place of temptation (people pleasing).  Good stuff.  His conclusion:

So there is a tension between being committed to our community (which keeps our calling within healthy boundaries) and being committed to God’s calling upon me (which keeps our community from having too much power over our leadership).

So now I recognize the twin temptations: pleasing people and pursuing personal platforms. Both extremes are disastrous.

So I confess: I am a pastor and a narcissist. There, it feels good to get it out. I’m still struggling, and I know others are as well. But together we can flee these temptations and pursue humility and faithfulness. I pray that a generation of “recovering self-promoters” can resist our narcissism and help our churches do the same.

HT: Shane.





Thabiti Anyabwile|9:04 pm CT

What Do You Do?

HT: Mockingbird





Thabiti Anyabwile|1:02 am CT

Pride and Knowing God

“In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that — and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison — you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” (italics added)

From C.S. Lewis, quoted in Keith Mathison’s review of C.J. Mahaney’s book,Humility: True Greatness.

Lewis captures well why my mama wouldn’t let me have a Muhammad Ali action figure when I was growing up.  Only my mother was more efficient with her words: “He talk too much, and got the big head.”





Thabiti Anyabwile|8:25 am CT

Calvinist Confessions, 2

I am a Calvinist. And I am a Pharisee. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is. Admitting you have a problem is the first step in getting better.

Last time I tried to reflect on how a certain “bent” toward precision, accuracy, concern for detail seems to blend together with the rich exacting resources of Reformed theology and history to make Pharisees of those who lose sight of the object of our attention and affection: Jesus. If you care more about “getting it right” than you care about “getting close to Jesus,” then you’ll drift toward the Pharisees. You’ll swallow a camel and strain a gnat.

But let me not project onto you the things that happen in my heart and head. I am bent toward all those things, and I lose sight of Jesus too often and for too long.

I’m a Pharisee. And I’m a Calvinist. And I’m told and believe those two things don’t belong together. But why do they so often come together, like a dark prize hidden in the Cracker Jacks of the faith?

Here’s the second reason I’m a Pharisee and Calvinist, or, another reason why those two things happen together far more often than they should. The Pharisee and the Calvinist are both suspicious.

Now I’m suspicious of a lot of things, but I’ll just mention one. I’m suspicious of joy. Yep. Now, not my joy. That’s another problem.

No. Like a good Pharisee, other people’s joy makes me nervous. Not all people. Just those people who don’t express their joy the precise way I think they should. You see, without the “appropriate bounds” their joy just may make them careless, lead them to error, hurt the church and cause of Christ. Their joy is combustible; it’s dangerous. It’s enthusiasm and flights of fancy that need to ballast of sobriety and sound theology.

You see, that bent toward intellectual and precise things, that concern to “get it right,” sometimes leads us to suspect and question mirth, lightness, or merriment because those emotions appear too close to “trivial” for the Pharisee. If I’m serious about the truth, how can I be joyful?

I say to myself, perhaps you say to yourself, not out loud, of course: “All these happy people–happy about everything but the Truth, giving themselves to their happy little pursuits, singing loudly and clapping their hands, enthusiastic about everything–can’t be trusted. They are to be suspected. They’re to be watched carefully and ‘taught’.”

I know. I know. Teaching is good. Teaching is essential. Teaching guides the emotions. Teaching is commanded. Pharisee.

Didn’t Jesus warn us of the Pharisee’s teaching? For good reason. I wonder if for some of us “teaching” is simply another word for “behavioral modification,” for “rehabilitation,” for “re-education,” for “concentration camp.” People must be “taught”–by which we mean made to see everything just as I do. Pharisee.

I am a Calvinist, and I am a Pharisee. I’ve been “taught”. Sometimes “taught” right out of joy.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that joy may be expressed in all kinds of ways. I know the strong, silent type doesn’t express his/her joy like the naturally outward and gregarious type. And I know that joy itself has many flavors–jubilant, quiet, solemn, tearful, and so on. But Pharisees like me only trust the quiet, solemn types. If joy gets too loud, it needs to be silenced. Pharisees like it quiet.

But then there is my good friend, C.J. Ah… there’s “Reformed” spelled “p-a-r-t-y!” I love that brother! He dots all my “i’s” and crosses all my “t’s”. So, his joy is okay. Cool, even. But he is an exception, of course, because I’m a Pharisee.

Also there is my good friend, Mark. If you think C.J. is the life of the party and Mark is a sour puss, you don’t know Mark. About as silly, giddy, happy, optimistic, bright and joyful a man as you’ll ever meet. Don’t let the “SBC” or “Calvinist” labels fool you. Those labels are like the FBI warnings on your rented video or the “do not remove” tags on your mattress. Mark is a big… excuse me, slim ball of joyful energy. His love for the truth, like C.J., and Al and Lig’ and Piper and R.C. and so many others, leads them to joy! Have you ever heard these men laugh? It’s rowdy! They’re serious men. And (I almost wrote “But”; you see the problem?) they’re joyful men.

But not me. Not the Pharisee.

When did I become suspicious of joy? I mean joy is what the angels announce for crying out loud! (Luke 2:10)

Some of my oldest friends, going back to high school and college, would describe me as “silly.” I know. I know. What happened to that guy?

Well, he got saved and he started with joy; then he turned into a Pharisee.

Now, I’ve always been serious. Really. Always. Ask my mom. She still tells family and friends about how my friends used to come over to play, and rather than play with them, I’d connect the Atari (now that’s ol’ school) to the TV and then go into my room and read. From my early teens, I’ve been the family counselor. I’m an old soul, born with a veil over his face (little family superstition, there), and serious.

But I used to be fairly joyful, too. I think. Maybe. You see… I can’t remember. Perhaps you’re like me. It’s been so long since you’ve had a sustained life of joy, you can’t remember the last time you were joyful. As a disposition not an episode. Do you remember? Having a joyful disposition for a long time?

Maybe you’re a Pharisee, or a Pharisee in the making. Stop before it goes too far. Get happy. Now don’t get serious about joy. Just get joyful. Or else you’ll be a Pharisee. Like me.

The Pharisee lacks joy because he lacks Jesus. I don’t mean Pharisees like me aren’t Christians. I am I trust. I mean “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matt. 13:44). There’s something implicit in this parable that if not made explicit leaves room for my inner Pharisee. What do you suppose the man did after he bought the field? The Pharisee doesn’t go on to imagine the answer. The joyful do. In his joy the man sold all and purchase the field so that he might possess and enjoy the Treasure therein. We may lack Jesus by not enjoying Jesus, by not coming into His presence where there is fullness of joy and pleasure forevermore.

The Calvinist knows this. The Pharisee forgets this. Feed the Calvinist and strangle the Pharisee.

There once was a Calvinist (speaking anachronistically, of course), who was not himself a Pharisee but dealt with them a lot. He prayed for joy–my joy and yours. Here’s how He prayed, “I am coming to you [the Father] now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them” (John 17:13). Let that sit with you. The Savior prayed for what the Calvinist Pharisee needs: the full measure of His joy.

Dear Sovereign Lord, the Joy of the world, let us know you, and thereby grant our heavy hearts liberating joy.





Thabiti Anyabwile|11:56 pm CT

Calvinist Confessions, 1

I’m a Pharisee. And I’m a Calvinist.

Those things should not go together. But they do in far too many instances. The Calvinist should be the last to become a Pharisee. Our theology should keep us humble. Or, so we’re told.

But I’m a Pharisee. And I’m a Calvinist. Which means I’m a bad Calvinist.

Here’s the first reason I’m a Pharisee and Calvinist, or, one reason why those two things happen together far more often than they should. The Pharisee and the Calvinist are both exacting persons. They care about precision, about “getting things right.” They care about the letter because each believes getting the letter correct is important. And it is.

So, there is this “bent” toward intellectual things. There is this tendency to live in our heads. And when that meets with a theological tradition as rich and robust as the Reformed tradition, sparks fly–in our heads. Add to that a pinch of argumentative spirit and out comes the Pharisee.

But you know what’s lost? The spirit, or the Spirit. Sometimes both. The letter kills. That’s what happens with us Calvinist Pharisees.

In my particular case, the letter became pretty important once I realized I had spent a few years of my life giving praise to an idol. Once I realized I had believed a lie and bowed to a god who was not God, well getting things correct theologically became desperately important. Who wants to “get it wrong” in the things of God? I certainly didn’t any longer.

I didn’t know it, but I began the Christian life with this impulse that could either help me grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and/or push me into peevish, narrow, gnat straining regard for “getting it right.” I’ve experienced both in my Christian life. The difference is made by where you’re aiming: those who aim at knowing Jesus escape so much pharisee-ism; those that aim at “getting it right” become so much more Pharisaical.

Perhaps you’re like me. You’ve had some experience that’s left you zealous for getting it right. You love the Book in part because you love parsing things, dissecting them, weighing them, identifying what is wanting, tossing the chaff and holding onto the wheat. There’s a joy that comes from discovery–and refutation. Soon, you’re proud you’re not “one of those publicans” that explains the Trinity in loose language, that balks at giving various views of the atonement, that’s read the latest book from one of “those authors.” “Lord,” you pray, “I work to get it right. I avoid mistakes. I protect your word. I’m not like those who ‘happily’ accept ‘weak’ doctrine.”


Truthfully, it isn’t our theology that keeps us from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. Our theology, and the smugness of “Reformed” correctness, are part of the problem. Oh, I don’t mean we have aberrant ideas mingled with our theological outlook. We’d never have that. I mean all this heady truth barely lights our hearts. Our theology becomes the handmaid of our pride and our empty orthodoxy. Our fine theological theorems too seldom ignite liberty, joy, love, or anything else that accompanies the Spirit. Honestly, how often does your theology leave you with Jesus?

I know. The Lord reveals Himself in and by the word. The Spirit and the word belong together. Pharisee.

Do you remember that time when you were free? No, I mean happily care-free in your walk with the Lord. When there was lightness to everything?

Do you remember when you could share with others something God was teaching you, perhaps with imprecise language and a lot of enthusiasm, without first hesitating to make sure you were saying it “correctly”? Perhaps you were too liberal in assigning your enthusiasm or ideas to God, but you were happily excited about the possibility that indeed God had done something in you, for you, through you. Do you remember that?

I do. It was before I was self-consciously “Reformed.” I didn’t have a label then, other than “Christian” or “Baptist.” Even those I held lightly. I was label-less, free. And I felt free. I did dumb stuff. I said dumber stuff. But people knew what I meant. Then I discovered what I meant, and knowing what I meant seemed to replace experiencing what I meant.

Now, “experience” is a bad word. Pharisee.

Yep. That’s me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a “Calvinist” because what we popularly call “Calvinism” or “Reformed Theology” looks a whole lot like what I understand from the Bible. I think that’s what the Bible teaches, and that’s what I believe. So, I’m comfortable with the label–if we have to use one. I’m just not comfortable with the self-righteousness I see all too often in my heart and life. I’m sure I was self-righteous before; after all, I was an adherent of the world’s largest works-based religion. Pride and self-justification have always been there. Yep. Certified Pharisee here.

But here’s the bottom line: As long as my inclination toward detail ends with “getting it right” and not with getting more of Jesus, I’m going to be a Pharisee. Our theology doesn’t keep us humble. Jesus keeps us humble. I think there are a lot of Calvinist Pharisees out there, like me, who push deeper into the theology trusting the next truth to abase them before God. But we keep getting “puffed up” instead. Why? We settle for knowing more rather than knowing Jesus. We don’t stop to sit at Christ’s feet, to adore Him, to commune with God the Spirit. Far too often, that’s not the goal we have in mind.

My grandmother couldn’t cite you two theological terms if you paid her. She probably never heard of the theological “giants” of church history, and certainly never read them. You know what she did? She “had a little talk with Jesus, told Him all about her troubles. He would hear her faintest cry, and answer by and by.” With all her “little talks with Jesus,” she had infinitely more than I’ve gotten from my books. She walked with the Lord about like Enoch.

I know. Books are not the enemy. Books are our friends. Communing with the saints is important. That’s how we get it right and avoid mistakes. I know. I know. Pharisee.

There was another “Calvinist” (speaking anachronistically, of course) who won his bout with his inner Pharisee. He wrote: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). I want to be more like that brother–gripped by the greatness of knowing Jesus.

Lord, let us know you and cease the pretension of Pharisees.





Thabiti Anyabwile|8:06 pm CT

Edwards on Pride

Quoted at Christ Is Deeper Still:

“There is no sin so much like the devil as this for secrecy and subtlety and appearing in a great many shapes undiscerned and unsuspected, even appearing as an angel of light. It takes occasion to arise from everything, it perverts and abuses everything, even the exercises of real grace and real humility. It is a sin that has, as it were, many lives. If you kill it, it will live still. If you suppress it in one shape, it rises in another. If you think it is all gone, it is there still. Like the coats of an onion, if you pull one form of it off, there is another underneath. We need therefore to have the greatest watch imaginable over our hearts and to cry most earnestly to the great Searcher of hearts for his help. He that trusts his own heart is a fool.”

Jonathan Edwards, Thoughts on the New England Revival, page 155, edited slightly

Related Posts:
Pride and Preaching
Good Words on Faithfulness, Fruitfulness, and Pride





Thabiti Anyabwile|9:09 pm CT

Back in the Day…

Fifty pounds and 20 years ago… when I was in my prime… I still couldn’t do this… not even close! Impressive.






Thabiti Anyabwile|10:24 pm CT

Make It Plain Preacher!

Derek Thomas asks:

Which of these two statements do preachers most like to hear: a) “I didn’t understand much of what you said, but I love to hear you preach,” or “You know, when I hear you preach I say to myself, ‘I could have seen that in the text”?

Read here for his short response.





Thabiti Anyabwile|3:03 pm CT

Good Words on Faithfulness, Fruitfulness, and Pride

“Humbled for past unworthiness, let elders work on steadily and prayerfully, looking for and expecting the blessing. There will be fruit of our sowing, for that is promised; and usually we shall see fruit, though that is not promised. Some men have passed away from their work to their reward thinking that they had been of little or no use in the world, when it was found that much good had been done by them. With others, again, there is a tendency to exaggerate in their own minds what they have been enabled to do. While it is very encouraging to know that the Lord has blessed our work, it requires much grace for ourselves to safely see much fruit. Everyone is not led to say, or at least to feel, as Dr. Chalmers did when told of a conversion under his preaching, “That is very humbling.”

“Then we are apt to forget a great principle of God’s Word: “One soweth and another reapeth” (John 4:37). In the rescue of a drowning man, one person might give the alarm, a second might bring a rope, a third might throw it to him, and a fourth might draw him to shore. It could be said truly of all these four that they were instruments in saving the man from death. So it is in the salvation of souls, as proved by the history of individuals. God works all in all, but he often uses several different instruments for the ingathering of his elect, “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:29). How often would our poor hearts try to get credit for being the only instrument in the salvation of a sinner! Now, we can be of much use, and I believe often are of much use, where we see no necessary connection between our own work and the salvation of men. It is, in one sense, a humbling view. It excludes all boasting in ourselves. It is well for many that the good they do is hidden from them till they are able to bear it. And yet it is very encouraging too, for though we may not be able to do any great thing, we can yet do many little things. Let us rejoice to be even the smallest and humblest link in that chain of love and grace by which Jesus is drawing sinners to himself. How well for us and the souls we care for that, from first to last, “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9)!”

From David Dickson (eds. George Kennedy McFarland and Philip Graham Ryken), The Elder and His Work, P&R, p. 126-127.