Pride, Prejudice and Privilege in The Church

Yesterday, we talked about pride, prejudice and privilege in society. Today, I want to think more about it in the context of the church.  One church that particularly struggled with division, rivalry and pride was the church at Corinth.

Right at the start of 1 Corinthians, Paul has to rebuke the church because of this. 

10 I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters,[c] by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. 11 For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. 12 Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,[d]” or “I follow only Christ.”

13 Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not! 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 for now no one can say they were baptized in my name. 16 (Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but I don’t remember baptizing anyone else.) 17 For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News—and not with clever speech, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power.[1]

The divisions here appear to be primarily theological with Christians uniting around their preferred leader, though there may have been other factors which encouraged specific personality cults and tribes. We also know from the New Testament that ethnic division between Jews and Gentiles  and in Corinth we may also have seen examples of division based on wealth and status with brothers in the church suing each other in secular courts to gain advantage over each other and the circumstances at the Lords’ Supper were some seemed able to be well fed whilst others went without.

Paul’s solution to this was two-fold.  First of all, he emphasised the true unity that was possible in Christ[2] because there is one Lord[3] meaning that there is one body represented in one cup and one loaf.[4] Secondly, he reminded them that the Gospel strips away our pride because it is foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews.[5] The Gospel draws people who were nobodies into God’s kingdom, we are reminded that Christ did not choose us because of our own greatness, strength, wisdom, giftedness or wealth.

“ Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy[g] when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world,[h] things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.”

The church therefore is no place for people to be enjoying and guarding privilege, no place to be throwing about our power and no place to be taking pride in our own achievements. None of us has a special claim to position based on our abilities or accomplishments  and certainly not on the basis of race or class. We are all nobodies who did not deserve God’s love, we are part of the church because of grace, not merit.  The cure for pride, prejudice and privilege starts with theology, the Gospel and our hearts.

But, this should move us to action.  It is right then to stop and check whether those theological truths reflect what our churches look like. Is the evidence that we know that the Gospel unites us, and that we are equal dependents of grace reflected in the look and the structure of our churches.

It is right to stop and ask

  • Does our church genuinely reach people from all different backgrounds represented in our background? Do we have a commitment to share the Gospel with all? Do we discriminate in terms of targeting particular people because we see them as more useful to our mission?
  • Does our church genuinely reflect the community in terms of membership and participation or do we set barriers to participation because we structure involvement and engagement around particular cultural assumptions?
  • Can we hand on heart say that the only criteria for leadership is character, gifting and calling? Or do we set up leadership structures resulting in people being excluded because their face or voice does not fit, because they are from the wrong class or ethnicity.

Note that I am not calling for positive discrimination or quotas here. I’m not suggesting that we need to take special measures to ensure that we have representation against a particular mathematical formula. What I am suggesting is that we can, sometimes unwittingly put up barriers that disproportionately exclude.

Those barriers can include cultural expectations about social behaviour, requirements that people must reach a certain level of standing economically and in society, favouring particular academic qualifications and experience as a measure of gifting and the preference of certain accents over others.[6]

Can we start to pray that we will see more and more churches genuinely reflecting the wonderful diversity of our communities, the Gospel and the hope we have of a day when people from every tribe and tongue will gather round the throne?


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:10 -17.

[2] ! Corinthians 1:31.

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:5

[4] 1 Corinthians 10:11-16.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:18-23.

[6] Yes I’ve heard people comment that certain accents are hard for them to understand, which may on the one hand be true but ignores the point that we all come with accents and people may find our accents and dialects difficult to grasp too.

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