Flattery and ingratiation are self-serving sins that damage the church

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This may come as something of a shock: Christians are not supposed to be people full of pride. Gospel-centred sermons typically teach that the sinner saved by grace has more reason to be humble than most. Indeed, the very expression of faith inherently necessitates an acceptance of yourself as a sinner who has fallen short of God’s glory. The very certainty of our salvation stands on the premise that there is no means by which we can save ourselves. Little wonder the Bible states “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Given this, it is generally accepted that those who are self-important and full of themselves are not well suited to ministry roles. Partly because this measure suggests they may not be believers at all, certainly not mature ones at any rate, but mainly because both Titus 1 and Timothy 3 say that such character traits rule a person out. Paul tells Titus not to appoint anyone who is “arrogant… or greedy for gain”. Though arrogance is clear enough, I take it that greedy for gain extends beyond just the pursuit of money and includes the desire to gain position, status, respect, etcetera. Likewise, Timothy is told that an elder “must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit”.

This certainly isn’t a new phenomenon; not only did Titus and Timothy have to be warned about the possibility of electing arrogant and self-important people to eldership, 3 John discusses an abusive elder “who loves to have the preeminence” or “who loves to be first”. Evidently what was a problem for the early church is no less a problem today. But, given this, how do such people get into ministry roles? Certainly it is not by acting in the openly arrogant way Diotrephes did (1).

If the arrogant and self-important are disqualified from eldership and ministry, how do so many end up holding office in the church? The answer is almost certainly by flattery and self-ingratiation. As Mark Jones comments here:

There is a game that has to be played in the church in the interests of personal advancement. Very often, a flatterer is a “friend” who, to quote Aristotle, “is your inferior, or pretends to be so.”

Aristotle makes an important point: the flatterer should be your inferior, but almost always the flatterer is simply pretending to be so in order to get something from you. Flattery is selfish. It pretends to give, but in actual fact it takes, abuses, and controls…

…Flattery is complimenting others to make yourself more likeable and perceptive. It is a form of lying. It breaks several commandments, especially the 6th, 8th, and 9th. Flattery is a form of manipulation that has selfishness written all over it.

I have lost count of the number of people I have met who have no regard for you when they believe you are but a mere pew-filler yet who suddenly cannot fall over themselves fast enough to get to you when they find out you are a minister who may be able to do something for them. I don’t mean those people who are in need so much as those people who want advancement, to make a name for themselves, within the Christian world of mission and ministry. Indeed, I have seen both when I was a serving church member and as a serving church minister.

I have noted the characteristics of such people before:

They are the ones looking for position in the church, those desperately hoping to catch the eye of elders and ministers. They shoehorn theological training into conversation, the places they have preached are mentioned apropos of nothing and, serendipitously, their latest set of sermon notes happen to fall out of their bible right in front of the minister. If they are musical, they happen to be at the piano after the service, just ‘messing around’ of course. They name-drop in the hope you may know and respect the people with whom they are connected. They are networkers, talking to all and sundry without ever really finding out about, or listening to, those whom they are speaking. They ask you about these same things to find out where you stand in the church pecking order. They cosy up to those who can get them on and laud it over those they perceive as inferior. They are the proud, superior church climbers seeking position and recognition.

We know the proud and arrogant have no place in ministry or serving in mission but flattery and ingratiation seem to be the tools by which they get themselves noticed. The sycophantic tweets to folk they clearly do not know well speak to the ingratiation. The constant (and often public) praising of those they do know better and who might give them a leg up. The internet has even given us a word for the other tool of their trade; humblebrag. That means of dropping pieces of vital information necessary for Christian advancement whilst simultaneously seeking to appear like totally humble about my seminary education in Greek where I was told all year that I would flunk but I like totally ended up finishing top of my class which I guess says very little about my institution. These are the people who, on paper, we all see are unqualified and yet consistently get put forward for ministry opportunities time and again.

The worst thing about it is not that these people exist. Of course they do. What is sad is that we consistently fall for it. As Mark Jones rightly points out:

Flattery is also so easily received. We love a good compliment, and will even believe a lie because of our pride. Spinoza said that “none are more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not.”

The problem is that because we so readily receive the flattery that we do not see the arrogance, the pride and the disqualifying traits. It is all the worse when folk come with an otherwise really quite helpful set of skills. From our perch, they seem like encouraging men with a real heart for the work and a set of skills that is highly beneficial to the church. Perhaps, from the perspective of those who can do nothing for them, things may look a little different. And once they are given roles and positions, the crawliness doesn’t stop, it simply shifts towards big-name ministers, conference speakers, denominational and non-denominational directors and others who can make a name for them by way of their church.

Here is the thing. This sort of flattery and ingratiation is damaging the church. It is placing men into leadership of the church and the heading up of mission who are unqualified to do so. They are about personal advancement not advancement of the name of Jesus. And we enable it when we fall for their flattery and ingratiation. Please, please, let’s stop it.

Notes

  1. Clearly this particularly brazen abuse of power came only after he was appointed an elder, otherwise he wouldn’t have had any power to abuse. But I suspect (or perhaps just baselessly presume) that the arrogance and pride underpinning this abuse of power was not obviously on display before his appointment to the eldership. I suspect this because his reputation is clearly known by the apostles and one struggles to believe they would not have said something prior to his appointment had they known.

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