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Theological Elitism and the Sin of Partiality

In 1971, Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted seminal research on group membership, preference, and prejudice. Tajfel concluded that when humans organize themselves into different groups, the propensity for in-group favouritism abounds. This is defined as “the tendency to respond more positively to people from our ingroups than we do to people from outgroups.”

In-group favouritism can explain why most of us have close relationships with those who look like us. Young children prefer to play with others of the same sex, for instance. It also causes us to view our own group through a more positive lens while being more critical of those who don’t belong.

Sadly, Christians often do this with each other. We gravitate towards those who espouse similar doctrine and worship the way we do. This is problematic because Jesus desires for the entire church to be one in Spirit (John 17:21). Unity is a task for all believers, not those we don’t have to struggle to agree with.

Denominationalism isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it can give rise to theological elitism. By this, I mean the idea that our approach to Scripture is not only correct, but superior to others, resulting in a denigration of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It also has the reverse effect by making us prefer those with whom we are in agreement. Social media is rife with partiality stemming from theological elitism.

In June 2020, Kevin DeYoung wrote a somewhat controversial article for The Gospel Coalition in which he insisted Christians should have more children than they think they can handle and boldly asserted, “The future belongs to the fecund.” DeYoung was encouraging Christians to procreate as a means of winning what he describes as a “culture war” that believers are losing because we are out numbered.

As a single woman with an endocrine disorder that inhibits my fertility, those words stung, but as a friend to someone whose wife miscarried their child just a few days before that piece was published, I was enraged. I can show you letters from students who told me that I, not their parents, was the strongest influence on their spiritual life. I could also tell you about my coworker, a pastor’s wife, whose four adult children, despite being homeschooled and attending Christian school, all abandoned their faith as adults. Having children doesn’t equate to adding souls to the church, although I understand that DeYoung’s argument is rooted in a different theological worldview than mine.

I know DeYoung has previously written and/or preached about the high calling of singleness and the idolization of family, and I applaud him for that (I’ve written about this as well). This article seemed to contradict all of that, however.

For the record, I have benefited immensely from Kevin DeYoung’s writing (“The Hole in Our Holiness,” which I finished reading on June 19th is one of the best Christian books I have ever read). I can disagree with one article while still respecting DeYoung as a brother in Christ. Decimating his article isn’t my intention, and even if you agree with his premise, that doesn’t change the substance of my argument.

The bone I have to pick is with those who quickly rose to his defense. It was honestly disheartening for me to see so many Christians belittling the experiences of infertile couples who explained their desire yet tragic inability to follow DeYoung’s counsel. On the other hand, it was humorous to see unmarried young adults, or couples with only one child, defend the article against these believers. If they liked it so much, why didn’t they live by it instead of trashing those who physically cannot?

It was also quite ironic that the same people decrying others for talking about race and encouraging them to ‘just preach the gospel’ were wholeheartedly agreeing with an article that said ‘just have babies’. I’m willing to bet that the Venn Diagram of those who think Christians should have two dozen children and those who mock single moms on welfare is a perfect circle. This begs the million dollar question: if Paula White had written an article with the line ‘The future belongs to the fecund” and encouraged readers to have as many children as they could regardless of their financial situation, how many of these same people would have encouraged us to follow her advice?

Herein lies my thesis. Many Christians are willing to believe something as true just because of the source and not the veracity of the claim. There is an impulse to defend those who are in ‘our camp’ and reject everyone else. Discernment bloggers and podcasters who sift through books by prosperity teachers with a fine-toothed comb don’t do this to books by John Piper, John Macarthur, or Tim Keller (or Kevin DeYoung).

Why? Because of the unconsciously biased assumption that these men with impeccable (in their view) track records will always present biblical truth to us. This is perhaps also because their views align neatly with these men. However, these same people, and I can attest to this, would mock even biblical tweets by those they disagree with. We’ve heard it said that even a broken clock is right twice a day, but even the best clock isn’t free from mechanical damage every now and then. All claims must be tested against Scripture and love must be extended to our neighbours always.

The DeYoung situation blew over quite quickly, yet as always, there is a storm brewing on social media. The latest scandal on Christian Twitter involves an upcoming novel by Doug Wilson about a Christian who goes on trial for murdering his neighbour’s sex bot. Those who subscribe to Wilson’s disturbingly patriarchal views quickly came to his defense as they usually do. After all, there is a lot Wilson needs to be defended for. Among other things, Wilson has called women derogatory slurs (like c*nt), defended sexual abusers, and praised slavery.

Again, this is not a commentary on Doug Wilson, but his defenders. What if Beth Moore wrote a novel about sex bots? Would these same people tell us not to judge a book by its cover? If patriarchy demands that your job as a woman is to homeschool your kids lest they be brainwashed by the evil public school system, why is it then okay for you to defend a man who uses language that would get a teacher who worked at said evil schools fired? Should a pastor not be held to a higher standard? After all, if your ten year old son called a woman such a demeaning word, you’d wash his mouth out with soap.

Who we defend says a lot about what we believe. Orthodox doctrine from the pulpit doesn’t negate hateful conduct. However, perhaps what’s more important is why we defend who we defend, and this is rooted in a grievous error. Partiality in all its forms is sin (James 2). Siding with those clearly in the wrong just because they’re one of us isn’t the way of Jesus, because He doesn’t view us in terms of our doctrinal divides. All who hear and respond His voice are His sheep, regardless of creeds and confessions.

It’s amazing how quick we are to defend grown men who can speak for themselves yet choose not to. Contending for the faith doesn’t mean making excuses for people we don’t know, who should have had the wisdom and foresight to choose their words wisely in the first place. You’re not defending Jesus by proxy, and that’s not the goal anyway. Our most ardent defense of anyone should be direct and of our Saviour, not fallible men. We are not commanded to coddle men in leadership. In fact, Jesus reserved His harshest rebukes and even insults for the religious elites of His day.

This could also be a case of idol worship. Our favourite preachers whose books and resources we love are hoisted upon a pedestal they should not be on in the first place. Maybe there is an unconscious need on our part to legitimize everything they say so we can justify continuing to follow their teaching. This is a problem because it elevates the messenger above the message. Someone isn’t special because they’re a vessel—God can also speak through donkeys (Numbers 22).

Whether Kevin DeYoung or Doug Wilson are justified in their writing is completely besides the point. We must hesitate before blindly defending someone whose actions may have hurt members of the body of Christ. We serve one God and are part of one body. As Watchman Nee says in his book “Revive Thy Work,” the human body in its entirety is a beautiful thing, but a disembodied limb or head is the stuff of nightmares. The true beauty of the church lies in how its many parts are connected and work in concert with one another. This is impossible if the hand doesn’t see fit to work with the arm.

Extending grace only when it benefits us, due to association by label, isn’t the way of the cross. Evil and wrongdoing aren’t contingent upon who the offender is. If you wouldn’t defend the same words and actions if it came from someone outside of your denomination, then don’t overlook them when the source is within your circle. This is partiality, and it is wrong.

Where we plant ourselves in the local body or the secondary tenants of faith we subscribe to shouldn’t make us elitists or puff us up. If we are to take pride in anything, it should be in Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “The one who boasts must boast in the Lord” (HCSB).

Our most devout allegiance should be to Jesus, not other Christians or ideology.


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