The Perverted Concept of Self-Esteem

By Walton Weaver

The current emphasis on building self-esteem as the focal point around which our preaching and teaching are to be centered is being received enthusiastically by many leading theologians today. During the last ten years the book market has been flooded with books on the subject. What was first laid down as a guiding principle in child-rearing has now been brought over into religion and is being held up as a sound biblical principle which should be utilized in the pulpit and across the dining room table.

Is A New Reformation Needed?

Robert H. Schuller, who is identified with the Reformed Church in America, and founder of the now 10,000 plus members Garden Grove Community Church in California, has written almost twenty books in the last fifteen years or so, and positive self-esteem has been the central theme in nearly all of them. Schuller is bold enough to say that nothing short of a “New Reformation” will do. Believing that the Protestant Reformation was a “mid-flight correction” which preached a God-centered message by emphasizing that man is a sinner, Schuller believes it is now time for the church to have another “mid-flight correction.” This time, however, the correction must be man-centered rather than God-centered. The man-centered approach is what is needed today to “communicate spiritual reality to the unchurched. ” The God-centered approach was what was needed in the Protestant Reformation, but not today. Only the “human needs” approach will work in our time. And, according to Schuller, the one basic human need – “the deepest of all human needs” – is “salvation from sin and hell.” But when Schuller defines the terms “salvation,” “sin,” and “hell,” so that they will nicely fit into his theology of self-love, or dignity of the human person, it is readily apparent that he is far removed from the Bible itself in the development of his new theology (or, as Martin Marty says, “a philosophy which makes room for God more than a theology that incorporates psychology”).

In Robert Schuller’s book, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, he leaves no doubt as to where he is coming from. Every key word like sin, hell, salvation, anger and hatred is defined in relation to self-esteem.

Self-esteem: Self-esteem is the human hunger for the divine dignity that God intended to be our emotional birthright as children created in his image.

Sin: Any human condition or act that robs God of glory by stripping one of his children of their right to divine dignity. Or, stated another way, sin is that deep lack of trust that separates me from God and leaves me with a sense of shame and unworthiness. Again, sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem.

Hell: The loss of pride that naturally follows separation from God – the ultimate and unfailing source of our soul’s self-respect. A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem.

Anger, hatred, What is anger? What is hatred? It is really fear. And what is fear? It is the feeling of being

fear, insecurity threatened – a deeper feeling of insecurity. And what is that feeling of insecurity? It is a lack of self-confidence: self-confidence to cope with the ‘threatening, situation. And what is that lack of self-confidence? It is the result of a too-low self-esteem. ‘I don’t think I can’ rises from the deeper, ‘I don’t think I am.’

Salvation: To be saved means to be permanently lifted from sin (psychological self-abuse with all its consequences as seen above) and shame to self-esteem and its God-glorifying human need-meeting, constructive, and creative consequences.

Redefining the Bible

There is no question that the Bible is being reinterpreted by those who are promoting the new doctrine of selfism. What is called “Christian Psychology” today is largely a borrowing from humanistic psychology. And from the kind of definitions we have just seen of key biblical words there can be no doubt that psychological definitions are winning out over biblical definitions. This is what Dave Hunt calls “the seduction of Christianity.” Every gospel preacher should read his two books, The Seduction of Christianity, and Beyond Seduction: A Return to Biblical Christianity. He has some good things to say about this matter of redefining the Bible to make it fit into this new self-love theory.

As soon as the door was opened for the ‘truths’ of psychology to shed further light upon Scripture, a subtle process began that is bearing its deadly fruit in the church today. If ‘all truth is God’s truth’ and psychology is part of that truth, then it must be given equal authority with the Bible. Of course Christian psychologists deny this: They assure us that no psychological theory will be accepted that contradicts the Bible. But in actual practice ‘psychological truth’ is imposed upon the Bible and becomes the new grid through which Scripture is now to be interpreted. We are plainly told by some Christian psychologists that theology must be brought into line with psychological theory. Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ has even been baptized into the church and dressed in biblical language, in spite of the fact that Jews taught the opposite. (Maslow puts food, clothing, shelter, etc. first; Jesus puts them last and says to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness first. This plain truth is reinterpreted by the new experts, and anyone without training in psychology is disqualified from taking issue with them (Beyond Seduction, p. 140).

Schuller uses the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples to pray as the basis for developing his new theology of self-esteem. He sees the theology of dignity or self-respect coming through in every part of this model prayer. But to find the gospel of self-love in every segment of this prayer he is forced (as he was in defining sin, hell, etc.) to redefine the terms used in the prayer so they will fit his self-esteem theory. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” reminds us of how great we are as God’s sons and daughters on planet earth; it is to make us conscious of our belonging to the family of God. So we are really praying, “God is my Father! I am his child. I am somebody! I bear his honorable name.”

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, ” raises a hope for every human being to discover the lost glory his heart desires. It assures me that I might be able to be someone for somebody. It means God will give us a human need-filling dream to feed our self-esteem. “Give us this day our daily bread” is redefined by making “bread” mean life’s basic needs. That may, not seem at first to be a new definition, but when Schuller tells us that fife’s basic needs are summed iip in possibility thinking, or a process of thinking that is stimulated and sustained by trust, that is a new meaning of “bread”! Forgiving is living, so “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is meant to help us avoid the guilt of perfectionism without diffusing the drive to excellence. “We’ll take a giant step up the let’s-feel-good-about-ourselves-ladder when we experience the profoundly positive, regenerating, rejuvenating, revitalizing peace, love, and joy, that is the emotional reward of the person who receives and offers forgiveness,” Schuller says.

It is at this point that Schuller deals with the question of how one receives forgiveness he so desperately needs before he can really feel good about himself. In dealing with this question he discusses the terms sin, salvation and repentance. We’ve already seen how he defines sin and salvation. The core of sin is the lack of self-esteem, he says. The most serious sin “is the one that causes me to say, ‘I am unworthy. I may have no claim to divine sonship, if you examine me at my worst.’ For once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” Salvation is deliverance from sin (psychologically defined) and shame to self-esteem. Salvation is based on God’s unconditional grace. What is grace? God’s love in action for people who don’t deserve it (you are worthy, but you are not deserving, Schuller says). In keeping with his positive approach, Schuller describes the incarnation of Jesus in positive terms, i.e., instead of it being the humiliation of Christ it wag God’s glorification of the human being. The cross of Christ is also to be viewed positively; it places God’s value upon us. By his resurrection Christ has given us his highest honor (again a positive interpretation) – he has given us the opportunity to do his work and take his place in the world. All of this means that we really are somebodies!

Repentance is also defined as a positive creative force. It does not mean self-condemnation, self-denigration, self-abasement. “Rather, it means the turning of one’s life from sin to the Lordship of Christ. It is a turning from sin, with its rejection of self-esteem as the way to self-fulfillment to sanctification – the way of the Cross It is at this point that one is tempted (and thus the significance of that part of the prayer which says, “And lead us not into temptation”) to reject God’s plan for his fife, because the price will be high. But there can be no success without service. The Cross becomes God’s solution to humanity’s shame. On the Cross God made our human problem His problem. Our problem was and is a lack of self-worth, and on the Cross God demonstrated the infinite value of any and every person. So, to choose success as a goal (and setting goals is the only way to be enthusiastic) is to choose the Cross as the Way! This call of Christ to self-denial is a call to a commitment to do something creative and constructive. So it is a positive self-denial. The cross He calls us to bear will be offered as a dream, an idea. The greatest temptation will be to reject our cross out of fear of rejection, the possibility of a public humiliating failure, and this fear is a terrible threat to the ego. We should not be surprised by now when Schuller comes to that part of the prayer which says “deliver us from evil” and defines evil as fear, and then in this way comes back to his theme of a negative self-image, a lack of self-esteem, as the real evil we need to be delivered from. For what could evil be but fear, and what could fear be but a negative self-image?

Things to Remember

Now that we have Schuller’s view clearly before us, it might be well that we bring before our readers a few things to remember. An exhaustive response is not possible at this time, but a few things presented in a general way are certainly in order.

1. We should remember that any new emphasis that calls for a complete redefinition of all the key words that have to do with God’s scheme of redemption is to be viewed as highly suspect to say the least. Many false systems have been established in religion by someone taking one element in the Bible and seeing that element everywhere, or by misunderstanding some point of Bible teaching and then defining other terms related to the subject in light of that false definition. This danger must be avoided at all costs. As A. Berkeley Mickelsen warns:

. . . If a sectarian emphasis dominates our interest, we can make any passage a prelude to our favorite theme. Therefore, any out-of-balance interest, even if it is in a major element of the Bible, harms the interpreter. He loses a true sense of perspective. Once lost, a balanced perspective is difficult to regain. Under the illusion of being exhaustive in our study, we “find” what we are looking for in places where no one else has ever seen it (Interpreting the Bible, p. 371).

My teacher in hermeneutics during my junior year in college used to say, “If you allow a false teacher to create his own vocabulary, his arguments will be unanswerable.”

2. We must remember that many theological systems have been built upon extra-biblical presuppositions rather than upon the Bible itself. Schleiermacher’s theology was founded on pantheism. Hegel interpreted Christianity on the basis of logical pantheism. Kant’s notion of Christianity was guided by his theory of ethics. Ritschl’s theology is predicated on Kant’s philosophy. Much of neo-orthodoxy is inspired by Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Ebner, Kant, and Buber (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 168). I am persuaded that it has been demonstrated by Paul Brownback, in his book, The Danger of Self-Love. Re-Examining a Popular Myth, that the new theology of self-love is rooted in the philosophy of existentialism and in the humanistic psychology of Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow.

3. We must remember to take into consideration all the relevant material on the subject at hand so as not to be guilty of giving a distorted view. All subjects that the Bible treats are not of the nature of an either/or proposition. From what the Bible says on the subject of man’s worthiness one does not have to come down either on the side that says that man is totally worthless in God’s sight, or on the side that man is really somebody. There are passages that indicate that man is to have a certain amount of dignity about himself because he is made in the image of God, and he is made for a very high purpose. Looked at from the other side however, Paul asks, “For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7) When extremes are taken on either side of an issue like this one, false conclusions are reached in other ways as well.

As a case in point, take Robert Schuller’s statement that “. . . once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” Now wouldn’t it be interesting to see Schuller square that statement off with the fact that Paul from the time he first learned the truth about Jesus and himself, and was baptized and “immediately . . . preached the Christ in the synagogues,” viewed himself as the chief of sinners? (Acts 9:20; 1 Tim. 1:15) And even though he viewed himself as such a terrible sinner, he acknowledged that he was saved by the marvelous grace of God! Here then is a man who did believe he was an “unworthy sinner” but who honestly accepted the saving grace of God. Had Schuller not allowed himself to adopt such an extreme position on what he calls “the sacred right of every person to self-esteem,” he could have spared himself of making such a ridiculous statement.

Schuller’s view of every person’s sacred right to self-esteem is so distorted that he repeatedly tells us that we should spare the dignity of folks by not calling them sinners. If he is right, will someone please tell me what Paul was doing when he stood before the “unchurched” Felix and reasoned “about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come,” and by such preaching made Felix “afraid.” Schuller is telling us that preaching that makes people afraid, fearful, or feel bad about themselves, destroys their feeling of self-worth and should be avoided. Don’t call people sinners, he says. Did Paul not know that he should have been trying to build Felix’s dignity, make him feel good about himself, and make him feel like he was somebody?

4. Finally, let us remember that we cannot build strong churches by positive preaching and teaching alone. We must never be mean or obnoxious in our approach, but faithfully preaching the word of God does demand that we meet the person where he is. Paul preached to Felix what Felix needed to bring about necessary changes in his life. This same design must characterize all our preaching and teaching. This applies to the churched and the unchurched alike.

The admonition to “preach the word . . . reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2), applies to all who need to be reproved, rebuked and exhorted! There is a need for building up and for planting, but there is also a need for plucking up, breaking down, destroying and overthrowing (Jer. 1:10). When we see a self-love advocate like Robert Schuller define the new role of those who have been “led . . . into an existential encounter with . . . unconditional love and acceptance” as that of building people up and not putting them down (in essence by not calling them sinners), we know right off that the “New Reformation” he is calling for is not biblical. Robert Schuller, and most other advocates of self-love today, are advocating a perverted concept of self-esteem.


Are we ourselves in danger of being influenced by this new theology of self-worth? There is no doubt in my mind that we are in serious danger. Most of the sermons being preached in pulpits in some “conservative” churches are being developed right out of the books being written by “evangelical” writers in the denominational churches. Men like Chuck Swindoll, Warren W. Wiersbe, John White, Anthony A. Hoekema, and many others. Admittedly, not all of these men are self-worth advocates. But the point is that some of the churches are not getting all they need by way of good balanced preaching. Some controversial subjects are being ignored altogether. The only preaching some are doing is positive preaching. How long has it been since you have heard the preacher where you worship preach on instrumental music in worship, worldliness, church support of human societies, the sin of sectarianism, the identity of the New Testament church, salvation by grace through faith, etc. You may be hearing some good sermons on prayer, how to build a stronger relationship with the Lord, how to surrender to Jesus, the Lord’s life, death and resurrection, etc., but how much plucking up, breaking down, destroying and overthrowing have you seen lately?

It is time for concern when religious papers are being circulated and churches are being built on a totally positive approach. It is time for concern when preachers are reading more from Tim LaHaye, and other modern “evangelical” writers, than they are from T.W. Brents, J.W. McGarvey, David Lipscomb, Roy Cogdill, and other good seasoned and sound Bible students from the past, as well as those who are with us today. It is time for concern when we are being told that the Samaritan woman of John 4 was not lost because she was a sinner, but because she did not believe in Jesus as Messiah; or, in other words, she was not lost because she was in the wrong church, because the man she lived with was not her husband, etc. Brethren, had she believed in Jesus as the Messiah and yet remained with that man who was not her husband, and had she continued in the “Church of the Samaritans,” would she have been saved anyway? Or, if Jesus had never come, would she have been lost or saved? If lost, why? Tim LaHaye, or Chuck Swindoll, or Warren Wiersbe, and all the other “evangelical” writers would have liked our brother’s statement about the Samaritan woman. But I still believe R.L. Whiteside was right when he said, “The gospel was designed to save a world already condemned. It is only in a relative sense that people are lost because they do not obey the gospel. Primarily people are lost because they are sinners” (Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, p. 23). Read his illustration about the man drowning. He refuses to be rescued. Why did he drown? Because he did not get into the boat, or because he was in the water? Because he was in the water. He would have drowned just the same had there never been a boat.

Brethren, it will take only one generation of totally positive preaching, where there is no plucking up, breaking down, destroying and overthrowing, for the Lord’s church in our time to completely lose its identity. May God save us from ourselves!

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 375-378
June 18, 1987