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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Live Humbly

We often tell kids to behave at church. If you’re raising boys like me, their rowdiness often spills over into the church lobby, indifferent to elderly saints with walking canes or various foyer decor and furniture. Their mother and I spend more time than we’d like reminding the boys that while it may be okay to wrestle in the floor like heathens at home, it isn’t an ideal behavior on the way to Bible class. Every churchgoing parent at some point has said, “No fighting in church!”

We rarely remember to tell the adults.

If you attend the same church for long, you will unavoidably be exposed to childlike pettiness and immature arguments. We dress it up to look more grown-up and dignified, but we know deep down that our disputes are rarely more than selfishness, pride, and tantrums masquerading as adult concerns. In selfishness and pride, we bring disunity and embarrassment to the church.

‌But what can we do about it? How can we fuss and fight less in our church? We all know we shouldn’t, but it happens anyway. Churches are made up of sinners, and even the best intentions can put brothers and sisters at odds. It isn’t new either. There were already some notable church fights in the first century of the church. One conflict in Philippi between two notable women raised such concern that Paul talks about it (Philippians 4:2-3).

I take great comfort in knowing that Jesus foreknew the occasional pettiness that would shadow his flawed disciples in the centuries to come. He witnessed a mother of two disciples request, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:20-21). In his teachings, he was already working to chart a course for a different kind of leadership and harmony among his people.

​One of the more notable examples of his teaching comes from the discourse on leadership and community life that begins in Matthew 18. It opens with precisely the kind of childishness that leads to bad behavior in a church. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” (Matthew 18:1) During Jesus’ self-sacrificing ministry, the disciples had asked a self-serving question. They were thinking of themselves, their status, and their rivalries rather than looking outward to a world needing good news.

Jesus took the opportunity to teach a powerful lesson. “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:2). The visual element of looking at an actual child carried powerful weight. The text of Matthew reinforces this element, repeating “little child” or “little ones” seven times in the first fourteen verses of the chapter (v. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, and 14).

‌The disciples are turned away from their self-centered questions and told to find a better (and surprising) role model. Ironically, the key to repenting of their childishness was thinking more like a child. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).

Small children have many qualities that we might not wish to imitate (for example, table manners), but their opinion of themselves is the very image of Christian humility. A child is smaller than an adult, and, therefore, dependent on adults for safety. A toddler has less dexterity and mobility than a parent, so the toddler comes to trust the capacity of the parent to do more tasks than the toddler could do. While we may have forgotten this humble posture as teenagers, we all began with an innate understanding of ourselves as small creatures in a big world. In calling us to be like children, Jesus demands that we humble our opinion of ourselves and remember the dependence and smallness we have forgotten.

​Continuing the theme of children, Jesus commands these disciples who sought to be great to look with care for the smallest among them. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5–6). Jesus answers the disciple’s question about greatness by pointing to the least. We typically assume that being important means you get more attention paid to your needs and desires. Instead, Jesus claims that greatness comes from giving attention to those people around us with the greatest need and the least ability to provide for it. Greatness does not come from self-interest but from self-sacrifice.

In addition to humbling our opinion of ourselves, we must elevate our view of the needs of others. Children - and all those who are unable to provide for their own needs - deserve more of our attention, not less. As Paul would instruct, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). How many church conflicts could be solved by both parties addressing the other person’s needs before their own?

This does not mean we never look to ourselves. Jesus is quite clear on the need for introspection. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes” (‌Matthew 18:7). When a church dispute unfolds, we are always ready to describe the faults of the other person. But how often do we honestly pause to ask how we have contributed to the dispute? How often are we willing to even entertain the idea that we ourselves are the cause of the problem, “the one by whom the temptation comes”?

When we find fault in ourselves, we must not allow pride to keep us from acting to remove our shortcomings from the equation. ​In vivid imagery, Jesus compares it to the amputation of a diseased appendage. “Cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 18:8-9).‌ Or as Daniel once admonished Nebuchadnezzar, “Break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed” (Daniel 4:27). We must look to find faults in ourselves and opportunities for service in others, not the other way around. We come to our brethren to serve, not to be served.

The opening of the Matthew 18 discourse on leadership teaches that to lead the church successfully, the disciples had to learn true humility. Likewise, we can all learn that to be a harmonious church, we must learn and practice that same childlike humility that Jesus required of his apostles.

As I mentioned above, the church at Phillipi had some interpersonal conflict between two prominent women (Philippians 4:2-3). It should not surprise us then that Paul offers Jesus and his message of humility as the solution. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8). Humiliation is not merely a part of the gospel; it is the gospel. Humility is not simply an attribute we need to find; it is the reality of our status before God. Likewise, pride is not merely a sin; it is the root of all sin.

“The first and worst cause of errors that abound in our day and age is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. … Until this disease is cured, medicines are applied in vain to heal all other diseases.” (Jonathan Edwards)

Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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