Intellectual Superiority in the Christian Life
Does Christianity entitle us to some sort of intellectual superiority over others? Some Christians seem to think so. They demonstrate a haughty approach to the unsaved world, but the early church demonstrated a very different approach. Consider the following five themes that run throughout the history of the New Testament Church.
Theme #1 – Christians are not superior beings
Please understand what I am saying here. There is undoubtedly a great difference between the sons of God and the children of darkness. However, this difference is not because Christians are a naturally superior class of beings. Rather, Christians are on the same level as others in the world, except that they have been rescued – by no virtue of their own – from the corruptions of the world. In other words, the difference between the saved and the lost is not a difference of natural value, but of divine redemption.
Notice how Paul describes himself, and fellow Christians:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
…though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:13-15)
Theme #2 – Christian intellect is not superior, though it is renewed
The apostles never advance the idea of intellectual superiority. Unlike the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and the attitudes of some Christians, the only authority that we can stand on, and preach the gospel from, is the authority of God’s word. Our own opinions only matter if they are based on that foundation. Intellectual superiority – in the sense that we can think well while the unsaved cannot – is not found in the New Testament.
At the same time, there is a difference between Christian intellect and that of the world. The intellect of the Christian is renewed. Paul urges us:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
As a result, Christians recognize the truth for what it is. Unlike the world, which is opposed to God and tries to think and reason without considering the Divine, Christians have a mind that is taught by God. It is no surprise, therefore, that Christians often train their intellect to think clearly and acutely.
Theme #3 – The Apostles presented evidence as witnesses
Far from presenting their views as superior individuals with superior intellects, the example of the apostles is that of witnesses who presented evidence. When you start to look for this, you will see it all over the New Testament.
Peter, the great apostle to the Jews, recounted the life of Jesus of Nazareth, noting that his audience had literally killed this promised Savior. He concludes the story of Jesus’ life by stating, “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15).
Peter and John, when dragged before the Sanhedrin, never boasted in themselves or their abilities. They simply explained, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
The apostle Paul recounts his divine mission, stating that God told him to be “a witness…to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).
Finally, the apostle John simply describes his own interaction with Jesus in the character of a witness: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you…” (1 John 1:1-3)
Theme #4 – The Facts Speak for Themselves
If the early church acted as a witness to present evidence to the world, it based its authority on the evidence. Admittedly, the apostles often presented the evidence and then made drastic, stringent demands on their audience. You might pick up a sense of superiority or demeaning when the apostles command the world to repent and believe their message.
However, this straightforward and direct approach with men’s souls is simply based on the reality that the facts speak for themselves. The truth is so obvious, the apostles believe, that the only appropriate response is to accept it. To demand repentance and faith is not intellectual superiority; it is simply the only logical response to facts that are so clear and obvious.
That is one reason why the life, death, and resurrection of the Jesus Christ are presented in so much detail. These are the facts, and they force each one of us to come to some sort of a conclusion about who Jesus really is.
Theme #5 – The Apostles urged and exhibited humility
The early church did not exhibit an attitude of haughtiness in its dealings with the world. Their attitude toward God and man was one of meekness and humility. It is essential that Christians demonstrate this same humility to the unsaved world today! Even if the world is offended by our message, can they recognize our humility in word and action as we interact with them?
Paul certainly demonstrated this quality. It was so obvious that he appealed to it, reminding the church that they had seen it in his life:
And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews… (Acts 20:18-19)
What about Jesus Christ?
Didn’t Jesus Christ demonstrate an attitude that sanctions intellectual superiority among Christians? Doesn’t his example prove that we can lay the truth on heavily? Here are four thoughts about how Jesus dealt with people:
- Many of Christ’s observations come directly from Scriptures. When he drives the money-changers out of the temple, he appeals to the Scripture, that God’s house ought to be a place of prayer. When he rebukes the Pharisees, he appeals to Scripture, that they are the ones who break the law. Jesus is deriving his authority from the Scripture.
- Sometimes Jesus appeals to his own position as the Son of God (ex: Matthew 12:8). Christians cannot follow his example in this.
- Most of the direct confrontations between Christ and the Pharisees occur in a public, open setting. In this sense, Christ’s confrontations are not simply with the Pharisees; He uses these confrontations as teaching opportunities for the people. We cannot assume that Jesus dealt with individual Pharisees the way that he dealt with them in a public arena. In fact, we know that he did not; Christ’s approach toward Nicodemus in private was quite different than his confrontations with the Pharisees in public.
- Finally, we don’t want to indicate that there is no place at all for a strict confrontation. Sometimes this is an appropriate response to evil. John Piper reminds us that “What we meet in the biting language of Christ is a form of love that corresponds with the real world of corruption and the dullness of our hearts and the magnitude of what is at stake in our choices.”
Summary and Conclusion
There is no doubt that the Gospel is offense. While Christians are never called to act in haughtiness, or demonstrate an attitude of intellectual superiority, the message of Christ and His cross will be sufficient to cause offense.
As we share truth with a watching world, let’s model our actions after the apostles, who presented an offensive message of Divine reconciliation in the garb of humble witnesses.