As a preface, I want to make clear that my intent is not to cast stones. This is an honest introspection of the new orthodox, and my hope is that any observations made will prompt repentance where needed.
Catholicism has taken quite a beating over the centuries, and much of it was well-earned. What often goes without rebuke in Reformed sectors is an evil just as ancient as anything pointed out within Vatican tradition. I would like to begin by stating that Protestant Christianity is a Club. Not only is it a Club, but it has many different chapter groups such as Restorationism, Adventism, and even Evangelicalism that aren’t always the friendliest to outsiders.
If that sounds a little too outlandish, consider these similarities: The Lamb’s Book of Life from Revelation is our membership roster (that we like to supplement with church directories); we have mission statements, minutes, and meetings; we have bylaws and rules of conduct; the trendier among us even have nifty t-shirts and letterheads. And we even have very specific rules about kicking people out of the club (Matthew 18:15-17, which was intended to be instructions on how to win your brother back instead of divorcing him in Jesus’ name).
Whether we pledge to a common cause or rally under a dogmatic banner, the tendency is there to define ourselves by anything other than the name and person of Christ Jesus of Nazareth—to become a club.
I once had a conversation with a fellow Christian that perfectly illustrates the Church Club mentality. I briefly told him about someone very dear to me who had made a series of poor life choices in the past, but then began to see their life restored through the grace of God. I likened this person’s journey to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), which is essentially about a foolish son who takes an early inheritance from his father, squanders it, returns home with his head hung in shame, yet is celebrated for having learned that home is where he belonged. Jesus said that the angels rejoice in Heaven when a sinner finds their way Home, so the response from my co-worker and fellow believer made my jaw drop.
“Yeah, if only [that person] skipped all those bad choices and went straight to the good ones.”
But is that how the Gospel works? It would’ve certainly been better for the prodigal son in the story if he hadn’t hit rock bottom by squandering his inheritance, but then the parable loses its point. It would’ve been just a story about a good if imperfect son who met the expectations set for him. It would’ve been a story about anything other than redemption.
As much as I appreciate my spiritual brother, I realized that his thinking is symptomatic of the Club Mentality: Join it early and all will be well, and shame on you for the poor choices you already regret. What’s more is that as I thought on this further, I concluded it’s not a recent development.
When God established the children of Israel as His chosen people, it took some time for that to sink into their collective minds. Israel had very meticulous requirements in their covenant—they had to be circumcised; they had to rest one day out of seven; they gave rest to the land from their farming every seventh year; they had to maintain temple laws and ceremonial ordinances. If they would do these things, then they would be the people of God, and if they neglected those requirements, God would punish them.
Once the national identity of being God’s chosen people was solidified, the Israelites reveled in the notion of being special in God’s eyes. Over the generations, the nation oscillated between wickedness and holiness, but they kept that badge of honor through thick and thin.
The result was a sense of entitlement. The Israelites began to believe they weren’t special because they held God’s favor, but that they held God’s favor because they were special. A view was taken that God owed them His favor due to their covenant with Him – the God Club was born.
This sense of entitlement was challenged by one of Jesus’ parables. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the story about a poor beggar who lived outside the mansion of a rich man who ignored the plight of others. Both of these men die around the same time, yet their fates in the afterlife could not have been more different, with the beggar ending up in paradise (which the Jews called “Abraham’s Bosom”) and the rich man suffering in torment.
What is really interesting about this parable is how Jesus began with a common story of the day, but He flip-flopped the ending. Imagine if someone ended the story of the Three Little Pigs with the pigs blowing down the wolf’s house. The Pharisees were used to this story ending with the rich man in paradise because they assumed earthly blessing indicates divine favor, which they falsely concluded results in a happy afterlife. They further concluded the beggar was cursed by God, and therefore they thought he would not find life-after-death very pleasant either.
This same mentality is illustrated clearly in John 9:1-3. Even the disciples had to be corrected of the thinking that an earthly affliction is the result of divine retribution or disfavor—it was just the standard assumption of the day.
When Jesus turned the parable of the rich man and poor man on its head, what He was trying to say is that the perceived loophole of being in the God Club while not actually being right with God is bogus. According to Pharisaical theory, an evil man could expect God’s favor so long as he maintained and performed the terms of the covenant and maintain his club membership. This is why Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for tithing herbs from their urban gardens (which they planted for no other reason than to say they tithed from it) while ignoring the “weightier matters of the Law, such as justice and mercy.”
When John the Baptist came on the scene, he had words to speak against the notion of the God Club.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two primary religious denominations of the day (think Protestant and Catholic, if that helps).
John the Baptist was baptizing people in repentance, but when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to scope out what he was doing, John chastised them for their presumption and arrogance. The basis of their God Club was the promise given to Abraham, and as Abraham’s descendants, they simply claimed that promise by right of birth.
John the Baptist put it to them straight: do not presume salvation because you’re Abraham’s descendants; you still need to repent! He even went so far as to say that God could raise children of Abraham from the ground, for all the entitlement that provided (Luke 3:8).
But what did Jesus have to say about the spiritual superiority complex?