Vainglory has no place in ministry

Godly leadership should have nothing to do with the pursuit of power – instead it should have everything to do with the service of others. It should not be about climbing a greasy pole but about putting others first.  “The greatest among you will be your servant”, said Jesus. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23.11-12). The way of Jesus is ‘down’ and not ‘up’.

Alas, the reality is often different. ‘Vainglory’ abounds. I like that word ‘vainglory’. It denotes, on the one hand, ‘excessive elation or pride over one’s achievements and abilities’; and, on the other hand, ‘empty pomp and show’. It is not a word one hears much today. It appears in the Authorised Version Gal 5.26 and Phil 2.3 to translate a Greek word which literally means ‘empty glory’ (kenodoxia). It was also used by John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress. There charges were brought against Faithful for railing continuously against “our noble Prince Beelzebub and his honourable friends, . . . Lord Old Man, Lord Carnal Delight, Lord Luxurious, Lord Desire of Vainglory, my old Lord Lechery, Sir Having Greedy, with all the rest of our nobility”!

Jesus attacked the religious leaders of his day precisely because of their pursuit of ‘vainglory’: “they do all their deeds to be seen by others” (23.5). The underlying Greek is instructive, for the verb (theathenai) is a word from which we get our English word ‘theatre’. Their deeds were all for ‘show’. Not surprisingly Jesus repeatedly called them ‘hypocrites’ (for instance, 23.13, 23, 27,29). The underlying Greek word ‘hupocrites’ was used for actors who in classical Greek theatre used to strut the boards holding a mask in their hand. These leaders were all ‘show’ – they used their religion for personal advancement.

Jesus highlighted a number of examples of this pursuit of vainglory:

  1. “They make their phylacteries broad” (Matt 23.5) or as the GNB translates, “Look at the straps with scripture verses on them which they wear on their foreheads and arms, and notice how large they are!”. Both the Book of Exodus (Ex 13.9, 16) and the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 6.8,11, 18) called God’s people to take to heart God’s Word – God’s commands were to be “like something tied on your hand or on your forehead” (GNB). The Scribes and Pharisees took these words literally and made little mobile ‘prayer boxes’ for themselves, but failed to observe the spirit of God’s Word. Interestingly, Jesus’ word for these ‘prayer boxes’ (phulakteria) could also refer to magical ‘charms’ – it may well be that Jesus was criticising too their superstitious beliefs that these boxes could ward off demons and accidents. Jesus had no time for religious ‘tat’. Also, said Jesus, “they make their fringes long” (Matt 23.5) or as the GNB translates: “Notice also how long are the tassels on their cloaks”. Scripture commanded God’s people to place blue tassels on the corners of their clothes (Num 15.38-39; Deut 22.12) to remind them of God’s commandments. This command, however, was turned into an excuse for religious dressing-up. Jesus, by contrast, would have no truck with this form of showmanship
  2. “They love to have the place of honour at banquets and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (Matt 23.6). Literally, they love the ‘first’ (proto) seats and the ‘first’ chairs. Or as the GNB says, they wanted “the best places at feasts and the reserved seats in the synagogues”. In other words, they wanted to be seen to be important: leadership was not about service but about promotion of self. As Frederick Bruner notes in his commentary, this desire to be ‘number one’ was the most frequently attacked desire in the Gospels, for “when this desire becomes religious it is pernicious”. Bruner goes on: “’Greatnessism’ is a major social-spiritual disease… and it is exposed now by Jesus as a principal source of false faith”.
  3. “They love to be greeted with respect in the market places and to have people call them rabbi” (Matt 23.7). In the Middle East the length of the greeting corresponded to the status of the one being greeted. In particular, the leaders of Jesus’ day loved to be called ‘my great one’ (the literal meaning of ‘rabbi’).

If all this seems far removed from the world of Christian leadership today, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase makes clear it is not: “Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowering prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattering, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend’” (The Message). Ouch! The fact is that ‘vain glory’ – religious showmanship or what Bruner terms “carnal megalomania and title hunger”- is well and truly alive, both in traditional and contemporary forms of church.

At all times Christian leaders need to remember that the way of Jesus is ‘down’ and not ‘up’. This is not always easy when people wish to honour their leaders. In this regard I was grateful for a nugget of wisdom I received from a friend about how to respond to the many generous things said about me at my retirement: “Enjoy the accolades and cast down the crowns at the feet of Jesus” (see Rev 4.9-11). The truth is that at no stage is there place for vainglory in ministry.

One comment

  1. How right you are ! I have just been reading CS Lewis’ book Mere Christianity in which he states that pride is the most destructive of all sins. But what a difficult thing it is to avoid, sometimes in its most subtle form. My son Andrew and I were agreeing the other day that we hate to look foolish, and that is still the case for me even at 72! Hopefully recognising the fault is a step in the right direction…

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