The Church and Self-Esteem

An ad in a church bulletin recently caught my attention. It was advertising an upcoming ‘Self-Esteem Seminar’. Nothing unusual about that. There must be zillions of such self-help seminars being run in churches throughout the Western world. They have become a very common feature of contemporary church life.

What got me thinking however was what the early church would have thought about all this. Don’t get me wrong: I know absolutely nothing about this particular seminar, and I am sure that it is a most helpful and profitable course. There are certainly plenty of believers out there with flagging self-esteem, and a course like this can provide a valuable service indeed.

But still… Such courses simply highlight the very real gulf between spirituality in the early church and that of today. One simply can’t imagine such courses being offered in the early days of the church. It is unlikely that there would have been a notice circulating back then advertising a self-help seminar each Thursday night at Catacomb 47.

Sure, things were much different back then, and persecution was a big part of the life of the early believers. It is amazing how persecution, like imminent death, so focuses the mind. One’s priorities are very quickly sorted out in such circumstances, and majoring on the majors becomes much more common.

But even without the persecution, it seems that the early church had a clear sense of its calling and mission. It really did not need so many of these how-to courses. It did not offer seminars on discipleship or evangelism, for example; it was too busy simply doing these things.

The early Christians did not have ‘kingdom finances’ courses, or ‘how to strengthen your marriage’ courses. They certainly did not have ‘divorce recovery’ courses. They were just too busy with the work of the Kingdom. They knew what mattered, and did not have time for trivial pursuits and worldly concerns.

Of course I do not mean to imply that finances, marriage, and the like are unimportant or worldly. But they tended to fall into place, because the overriding passion of most believers back then was the glory of God and the good of the Kingdom. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto you”.

All these various issues are of course vitally important, but they tend to look after themselves in a sense, when we are living lives 100 per cent sold out for Jesus. When one sees oneself as God does, and one takes seriously the injunctions to die to self, take up the cross, and follow Jesus in a radical way, then things like self-esteem seem to take care of themselves.

Indeed, consider just one character in the early church who surely would have been an ideal candidate for a self-esteem seminar. Peter, as we recall, had just renounced and betrayed Jesus, denying him three times. After three years of walking with his Master, he betrayed him during a difficult and crucial period.

If anyone was a major candidate for healing of memories and long-term therapy, it would have been Peter. Yet when we next read about him he seems to be a changed man. It is clear that he has repented of his actions (we are told he “wept bitterly” about what he had done), and has resolved to go on with Christ.

Thus when Jesus next encounters Peter, he asks him three times if he loves him (presumably matching the three denials of Peter), and he is ordered by Jesus to “feed my sheep”. He is given his marching orders as a disciple of Jesus. He is not sent to a twelve-week twelve-step program, or put in some remedial course to deal with his inner demons.

Peter gets on with the job, and is known the world over as a pillar of the church and one of the great leaders in early Christianity. The same with the other disciples. They all went through traumatic times and suffered much. Their fragile egos and self-esteem would also have taken a battering. Yet it was their total dedication to their Lord, and the recognition that the servant is not above his master that kept them going. And we know that they turned the world upside down as a result.

And we could also mention an even more worthy candidate for self-esteem training: Jesus himself. He was misunderstood by his own friends, rejected by his own disciples, and hated by the world. Yet he went on about his Father’s work. And we are all so very thankful that he did.

Indeed, he pressed on unflinchingly to do the will of the Father. And we are called to do the same. Sure, we are all wounded, broken and needy followers of Jesus. And many quite helpful courses and seminars can bring real healing and growth to many of us.

Yet I sometimes wonder: just how much of all these various courses would we really need, if we were as passionate and dedicated to Jesus as the early disciples were? If we were sold out for Christ just as the early church was, perhaps many of the “extras” in the church today would not be as pressing or urgent.

Again, I am thankful for all those who do offer these courses, programs, and seminars. They can do a great amount of good for many, and deserve our support. But I keep coming back to the early church: why did they do such extraordinary things for Christ and the Kingdom? Why did they seem to get along just fine with basic Christianity? Perhaps there are important lessons to be learned for all of us today, as we reflect on the life, vitality and vigour of those early followers of Jesus.

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28 Replies to “The Church and Self-Esteem”

  1. The earliest Christians were humble people. They lived as honest citizens in Rome, in Jerusalem and throughout the Empire of the Caesars.
    They didn’t stand out from their fellow citizens in exterior appearances. What they did was to help the poor, the widows, the sick, orphans – and by their example and by the Word many of those they helped came to Christ and to fellowship on the Church. The best self esteem is found in the Lord through the love and humble service of His followers ministering to one another and to strangers.
    When we decrease by putting aside the old self and allow Christ to help us put on the new self that He offers we then become transformed. He increases within us.
    Michael Webb

  2. 2 Timothy 1:7 tells us that Yahweh has given us a spirit of Power, Love and a sound mind. – Not a spirit of timidity.

    The lack of self esteem then would appear to be associated with something other than His spirit? Further, much of our programs today are of the soul rather than allowing His Spirit to search us, as Michael Webb above suggests.

    Ray Robinson

  3. Bill, you did an excellent job of keeping the question abstract rather than pick on anyone or any group in particular.

    However, although I agree with you up to a point, I wonder how much it’s merely a difference of form, in that we convey teaching through seminars whereas the early church leaders conveyed teaching by writing letters. That plus (slightly) different issues facing us today, or at least us being under different pressures.

    As for self-esteem, perhaps this was the point of verses such as Hebrews 3:13: “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

    Philip Rayment

  4. Thanks Philip

    Yes I have no problems with new methods and styles of teaching. I guess my point however was not so much the form of teaching but the content of the teaching. I was asking why the church today seems so full of extracurricular stuff. Could it be because we have lost some of the fire, devotion and zeal of the early Christians? Just asking questions here, not making accusations. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Bill, there is an old saw that goes “The biggest enemy of ‘the great’ is not ‘the bad’ but ‘the merely good'”

    That principle is applied in a number of fields. Once trivial example in my field: the worst enemy of computing excellence is computing mediocrity, the idea that we can get by with ‘just enough’ improvement in procedures… very tiresome.

    John Angelico

  6. Bill,
    There is simply nothing wrong with selfhelp and motivational seminars as it is of help to many and certainly we all need to have a very positive outlook in life. But what is worrying is that this has become an every Sunday thing, especially in megachurches where it has given birth to a different gospel ala the positive prosperity gospel of health and wealth, a gospel different from the one the apostles taught (Gal 1 : 8,9). This is the kind of positive message regarded ‘relevant’ to the world today and the kind that will bring in the unchurched and cause church ‘growth’. No wonder even the pastors and leaders of smaller churches don’t want to miss out on this and many have jumped into this bandwagon of the positive gospel. Otherwise, even their own sheep will move out in hordes to the greener pasture of the positive and rosy.

    Barry Koh

  7. Bill,
    Thanks for your thoughts. In your comments you said, “Yet I sometimes wonder: just how much of all these various courses would we really need, if we were as passionate and dedicated to Jesus as the early disciples were?” I believe what is missing is a love relationship with Jesus and His mission. We only get that when we are seeking him and him alone. I believe the church is too inward focused and not outward focused enough. Jesus commanded us to be outward focused when he told us to preach the gospel and make disciples. I believe as you do that if we put God’s kingdom first and live righteously then, He will give us everything we need. (NLT)
    People need to be a part of something bigger then themselves and when we become a real disciple of Jesus we get that purpose. Our purpose as believers is to know Christ and make Him known to others.

    Jim Cooper

  8. It is the case that we live in a largely secularised society where help and healing groups of all types are needed to replace the emptiness that surely many people experience.
    I should imagine that we could expect some measure of spill over into religious organisations as they don’t exist in a vacuum and are to a some extent influenced by this secularism.
    Some of these groups can serve a useful purpose such as marriage encounters, to enable a closer union with each other.
    I also believe though that a true love of Christ will never be replaced by any of these and in fact make these groups largely redundant.
    Gerry Van Hees

  9. Thanks Bill, and very true.

    I was imagining an early church Self-Esteem Seminar put on at the residing prison cell by Paul, what would he have called his seminar do you think?

    Rom 7:24: O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

    Donna Opie

  10. All this sounds like self-validation. Last year, I attended a so-called forum, in Salisbury Cathedral, conducted by Katherine Jefferts Schori, the primate of Anglican Church in America, TEC. She massaged the souls of around 400 devotees with Mark 1:9 -11: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’.”

    She then asked us all to close our eyes for seven minutes and to think just how much God loves us too. She skilfully managed to bypass the cross so that we were imputed with Christ’s righteousness without that little inconvenience, of dying to ourselves, or recognising why Jesus Christ died on the cross in our place.

    I suspect that many of these self-validation programmes have nothing to do with building up the body of Christ but are merely narcissistic programmes that puff up the self-esteem and pride of the participants.

    By contrast Tertullian, one of the early church fathers wrote this to his wife: “How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts… Psalms and hymns they sing to one another.
    Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is, there evil is not.”

    David Skinner, UK

  11. “I know absolutely nothing about this particular seminar, and I am sure that it is a most helpful and profitable course”

    If one knows absolutely NOTHING about this particular seminar then logically one cannot be entitled to be sure that the seminar had any merit. There are seminars and there are seminars.

    There is an emerging trend in psychology in the U.S.A. to question the worth of self-esteem building courses. If they have subjectively reported favourable consequences, where is the evidence that these are something more than short term effects of suggestibility? Some people ought to feel low self esteem anyway, whether they feel the justified bite of conscience or are nacissistic personalities just bitten by Reality.

    I never had the impression that early Christian leaders had fragile egos but if they did then one wonders what their associated mental defences were. I could think of some that would not be arguments for personal integrity. However, there’s no need to go down that road. One need only read sociologist Rodney Stark’s marvellous book on the rise of early Christianity to appreciate how stubbornly good Christians could be in often oppressive circumstances. No moral relativism amongst that lot!

    John Snowden

  12. You are too generous Bill. I would say of these kinds of seminars that they are yet one more evidence of how superficial the contemporary church has become. It’s laughable to think of the early church being involved in such pursuits as a ‘Self-Esteem Seminar’. And yet they didn’t even have the Bible in complete form. We, however, have about 50 different versions, have Christian radio, TV, books, magazines, websites, etc, etc, and yet we are still largely impotent to effect the culture.

    Ewan McDonald.

  13. I’ve been reading and studying through the life of Moses this year (still going!). One thing that impresses me greatly is that from the point of his return to Egypt he grew simply by just doing the work God had called him to. He is a different man even just a year or two later. And his focus is not on himself – twice God offers him the opportunity to destroy the rebellious Israelites and make him into a great nation but he rejects the offer out of love for the people and concern for God’s reputation. (Exodus 32, Numbers 14) When he is smeared by his sister and brother he did not defend himself but let God handle it. (Numbers 12) Moses also consistently asks of God first, whatever the issue or problem.

    Were there self-esteem courses back then either? Some of us (myself included) might just do best in life by going through the tough things with daily deference to God to supply our needs.

    My point is, maybe if we focus on God-esteem first the rest will come. I’m not dismissing what can essentially be described as brothers and sisters in Christ helping each other, but I’m reminded that Jesus did tell us to seek God’s kingdom first. …and that the Lord’s Prayer opens with praise for God. Some of what we get offered today just seems to me to be lesser than what is on offer from God 24/7 just a prayer away.

    Mark Rabich

  14. Thanks John

    The reason I could acknowledge the possible benefit of the seminar is not because I knew of its contents, but because I did know a lot about the church which was sponsoring it, which I respect enough to believe they will offer helpful material. But the point of my article remains.

    And yes, I am aware that these self-esteem programs are of questionable worth, as I have written up elsewhere, eg.:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Thank you Bill. Glad to see that you question the worth of self-esteem programmes. My problem with Christianity is that it has been too accomodating to secular “wisdom”.
    John Snowden

  16. Dear Bill,
    As I see it, the early church understood the new covenant. ie that they were included in the vicarious work of the incarnated Son of The Father. They knew that their salvation was this man Jesus Christ, and that He had accomplished all that was necessary for their inclusion in the kingdom of God. They knew that it was not up to them to accomplish something in order to get in. They were in and they knew it! So what is the difference between the Apostles and us? Why the lifeless spiritual lives that you describe? It is because we are included, just as they were/are, but we don’t know it! We have been duped by religion into thinking we have to repent to get in, as if it is our repentance that actually gets us in. This is where religion can manipulate and kill us spiritually by giving us the set of rules by which we show the results of our so called repentance. This just kills us stone dead! Repentance is simply accepting that we are accepted in Christ. It is the receiving/realisation of a gift that we already have-not one we get as a result of our repentance. We receive subjectively in our minds the objective reality and rejoice in that wonderful truth that sets us free from religious manipulation! It is for freedom that Christ HAS set us free. Once we experience the reality we were ALL born again in Christ, no thanks to our effort or accepting Jesus into our lives as if He wasn’t there in the first place, we will as a description of our spirit lead lives be filled and live to the full. That is how the Apostles lived! Out of covenantal response-not contractual religious doing!
    Be blessed,
    Lou d’Alpuget

  17. Lou

    Repentance plays a major part in salvation:

    Mar 6:12 And they went out, and preached that men should repent.

    Luk 13:5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

    Act 3:19 Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;

    Act 17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

    Rev 3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

    Donna Opie

  18. Aren’t we forgetting that in the early Church Christians were faced with the prospect of violence and death at any moment. Of course many were called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for the values they knew were eternal. There is nothing like the prospect of an imminent death to make an individual focus on the things that really matter. The saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes” comes to mind.
    Dunstan Hartley

  19. Thank you, Bill, for showing that we must esteem Christ highly. If HE gives us eternal life, so that we shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck us out of His hand, I thank Him for my well-being. I am secure.
    If his Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasing Father, Prince of peace, then I have excellent, inexhaustable resources.
    When He said, ‘All authority is given to me’, His power, liberty, authority, jurisdiction, right and might are conferred on me. I am opulent in eternal value.
    He promised to His bride, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you peace’. I feel comfortable with all that My heavenly husband is to me. I highly esteem HIM.
    Harrold Steward

  20. Lou, I just wish to clarify something.

    I have always assumed that Jesus Christ invites us to die to ourselves and to somehow enter into his suffering. Our living sacrifice is necessary but is only made acceptable because Christ has done it perfectly for us first. Surely this is what repentance and baptism signifies. But even this we are able to do only through God’s grace – the gift of being able to repent. I suppose one would call this the “feel bad” factor.

    Romans 8: 17 “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

    I have also assumed that Christ came to free us not to just sit around but to be free now to obey his commands and free to be work out our own salvation and sanctification. He came to free us so that we might do greater works even than his works (apart from the one work that was unique to him); John 14:12-14 says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

    John 15:1-8: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
    ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples’.”

    Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

    1 Corinthians 3:10-15: “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

    1 Peter 1:17 “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”

    Finally, this can be costly. 2 Timothy 3:12 says “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

    Davdi Skinner, UK

  21. It could be said perhaps that those early disciples had their minds transformed as well as their hearts. The imminent return of Jesus was a reality for them, no? On a talk I heard the other day John Stonestreet addressed his youth audience and told them that he believes many Christians today are naturalists with a Christian twist. I think the point he was trying to make was that many believers (especially my generation) feel that their believe in Jesus Christ is against all reason, and they need more ‘faith’ to combat this dichotomy that has formed in their mind, between the ‘real world’ and ‘their beliefs’.
    Perhaps this is why it is no wonder people are not becoming spiritually mature, because of this dichotomy and the misunderstanding of faith and spiritual growth?

    Good article Bill, right on the money (sic)!

    Keith Jarrett

  22. Hitler was full of self-esteem. Yes yes yes, I know this will be unpacked to show that he appeared to be but was not.
    Stan Fishley

  23. Keith, yes, the dichotomy is nothing less than this dualism of divorcing the real world from that of faith and also the public world from that of the private.

    Deuteronomy 29:29 (The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law) is echoed in James 1:22 (Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says).

    The dreadful irony, however is that whilst Christians are busily trying to separate matter from spirit, western governments are in effect going in precisely the opposite direction.

    But Mr Brown, with a “clunking fist,” does not hesitate to legislate freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom to debate. Indeed, he has increased the amount of repressive legislation over that introduced by Tony Blair. The history of twelve years of New Labour government has been a frenzied approach to law-making and an obsession with controlling the minutiae of everyday life, where dissent from “another kind of love“ (pansexuality) will now apparently carry a seven year prison sentence. Neither do we see any salvation coming from David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, who has publicly declared that he also will ignore the views of the silent majority and carry on the LGBT programme of oppression against any who oppose them.

    The most iniquitous thing about this government is that it has said that there should be a clear distinction between public and private morality; and the ‘real world’ and religion. Whilst the government wants to compartmentalise private and public, and secular and religious it does not hesitate to intrude into every area of our lives; it legislates for every thought, emotion and sneeze. No longer is the Department of Education called as such but, instead, the Department of Children Schools and Families. It has blatantly assumed the role of social engineer and reduced parents to becoming mere operatives. In addition, Dr, Katherine Rake of the government funded Family and Parenting Institute has said,” We want to transform the most intimate and private relations between women and men.” Clearly she thinks that she is God Almighty, for only He has the power and authority to transform sinners into saved men and women.

    David Skinner, UK

  24. There should be a distinction between public and private morality? That doesn’t make any sense and is entirely counterintuitive. What if a mother chooses that beating her child senseless is the moral good for her child? Of course that same government would no doubt try to intervene… thus affirming a public morality, or violating a private morality. And Dr. Rake’s comments are slightly disturbing… what is with people thinking they can improve on something that has stood the test of time.
    Keith Jarrett

  25. John Angelico, that old saw you quote was most succintly put as “the good is the enemy of the best.”

    Winston “Never give in!” Churchill had an interesting take on that: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” He’s suggesting that not even accepting the bad, let alone the good, is the path to the best.

    Bill Cosby’s take at first glance looks like the opposite, but in reality is more thought-provoking than one might assume: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

    Leon Brooks

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