By Steve Wallace
In many countries, a sign of an important state event is the presence of the elite guard. If we find that the doctor treating us is among the “elite” in his field it gives us great comfort. It is an honor for a student to be considered among the elite in his field of study. However, the word “elite” also has negative connotations. This is seen in the form of the word we consider herein.
“Elitism” is defined by Webster: “consciousness of being or belonging to an elite” (404). “Elitist” is not found in either of the Webster dictionaries in this writer’s possession. Roget’s Thesaurus (II) defines it, “Characteristic of or resembling a snob” (adj.) and “One who despises people or things he regards as inferior, esp. because of social or intellectual pretension” (315). As we reflect on these definitions we can see that elitism would be a problem to most people. We consider herein some problems it can cause God’s people.
1. It can lead one to trust in himself. Certainly the Pharisees were elitists among the Jews. In his parable in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus chose a Pharisee as an example of one who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18:9). Today, one can be tempted to this by thinking about how long he has been preaching, how many crises he has come through, how many meetings he holds, etc. When one starts trusting in himself he is cutting himself off from God and falling into a state about which all preachers have tried to warn denominationalists (Prov. 16:25; Jer. 10:23).
2. It can cause one to look down on others. In the above mentioned parable Jesus says the Pharisee therein “despised others” (v. 9). The Pharisee in the parable looked down on “the rest of men” as “extortioners, unjust, adulterers” and especially on the just publican (Luke 18:11). This can lead to other symptoms of elitism.
3. It can lead one to make harsh judgments of others. We see this in the Pharisees (John 7:49; Luke 18:11). If a group of men stand together for the truth of the Gospel elitism could lead one to call them a party. When it comes to handling given situations, the elitist can sit back and judge others as being “too harsh,” “too soft,” or generally not being able to conduct themselves on the high plain he has constructed in his own mind. Elitism can lead one to fail to allow for differences of opinion, personality, and ways of handling various matters. It can lead to a person rendering judgments while exempting himself from his own chosen standard of judgment (Matt. 23:2-4). Other manifestations of elitism can follow after this.
4. It can cause one to believe the best about unworthy men and the worst about worthy men. Again, the Pharisees provide an example of this, upholding their own and looking down others (John 7:48-49; Luke 18:11). In the current discussion on unity with error, men who are clearly leading others to commit adultery are being lauded while those who would warn of such men are being falsely accused and demonized.
5. It can cause one to think his own way is always best. The Pharisees exemplify this (John 7:48-49). They even reproved our Lord! (Matt. 12:2; 15:1). It is a sign of wisdom to hearken to counsel and of foolishness to despise instruction (Prov. 12:15; 15:22; 1:7). The elitist has no time for those whom he views as being “beneath” him, which can tend to another manifestation of elitism.
6. It can lead to stifling discussion. When the Pharisees heard views at variance with their own, they blew them off (John 7:45-52). It can be impossible to discuss differences with one who looks down on others, makes harsh judgments of them and/or is convinced his own way is above theirs. Those who offer discussion are simply not worth the elitist’s time. (Brethren today who are refusing discussion of their views on the current issues need to hear this.) Thus, the elitist fails to learn from others and hears only from those with whom he agrees. This has consequences.
7. It can affect one’s doctrinal position. The Pharisees made “void the word of God by [their] tradition” (Mark 7:12), appealing not to the word of God but to opinions of learned men among them (Matt. 15:2; 19:3; John 7:48). Today, elitism can lead brethren to appeal to what “the church has always done” or the convictions of some well known brother in place of clear teaching from the word of God. Some are doing this.
8. It can cause one to fail to do what he knows is right (John 12:42-43). Who cannot but fear similar occurrences among God’s people today? Some brethren protest their “soundness” on a given issue (like MDR) — and then justify one whom they believe to be teaching error (e.g., by saying they are not false teachers). We will let them and the Lord decide if they are elitists.
Elitism can be fostered by any number of things. It may come when brethren see themselves as members of an elite group (Isa. 65:5) or think of themselves “more highly than they ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). It may arise when we use others as a standard for measuring ourselves, rather than using Christ (2 Cor. 10:12) or ascend too far too fast (1 Tim. 3:6). However, all of us can see that it does not come from God and his word. Hence, we should not be surprised at the fruits of elitism.
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