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Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #15: Why Your Credentials Don’t Matter.

…If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. Philippians 3:4-6 NIV

A number of you know that I donated a kidney to my sister this past fall. It was a bit life changing for me and I am doing well, thank you very much!

But at one point of the extensive pre-qualifying process and only a few days before the scheduled surgery, I was told that one of my tests indicated I might not be able to donate. The kidney transplant coordinator probed how I felt about that. I thought of my sister’s tears when she heard the news. Yet I responded without hesitation that my identity was not in being a kidney donor. And that, of course, was what needed to be true. The center sent me back to test again and I easily passed it the second time around.

Identity is a powerful drug, especially for leaders in the church. We have invested time and money into gaining knowledge. We have spent reams of time serving God and others. These things shape how we see ourselves as people and therefore, we hope others see us accordingly. I do not mean that we are intentionally arrogant, but hard-won identity can torpedo humility.

Think about this in the arena of conflict. Who you are can cloud your judgment about how you choose to fight what we think of as spiritual battles. “My identity is to protect the church.” “My identity is to be the one who holds to the truth.” “My identity is to be the last man standing.” People often have a lot at stake in being right. “I have been a believer in the right denomination—a pastor—a teacher—a Bible student—a seminary graduate—a D.Min for many years. I am smarter, more grounded, with better credentials than my opponents. Therefore I have to be right!”

Paul, who understood conflict from the inside out, taught that the labels we wear are of no weighty value. He had spent his whole ministry life in conflict with those who opposed the gospel—Jews and Gentiles—and, sometimes, with his co-workers as well. What he knew was that the message of Christ was so great a truth that it did not need to be propped up by the qualifications of the messenger.

And he had them in spades. He was an offspring of the tribe of the youngest son of Abraham. He knew his opponents best arguments about the law and Christ because he was a student of Gamaliel and had been a card carrying Pharisee. Furthermore, he had mastered the law to the point he could claim a level of faultless competency. As such, he had shown his passion above and beyond everyone else by persecuting the followers of the renegade Jesus.

But this was not his identity. Not anymore. Nor did he want the Philippians, particularly Euodia and Syntache, to hear that having the right credentials would give more weight to their beliefs.

I have lived long enough to comprehend why Paul needed to say this. In my life, many church battles have been fought and are being fought now. Some are cultural in nature, seeking to clarify how the gospel applies to the emerging (or more accurately, re-emerging) behaviors embraced by a world flying headlong away from the gospel. But just as many are being fought inside the cage, the contestants being other believers who put on their gloves and come out swinging. “You are not really a Christian if you do not agree with me. Here’s my credentials that prove I know what I am talking about.”

What makes this sad is that most issues that divide believers reveal their hearts. They demonstrate that their hearts are not set on the gospel, but on the illusion of power in the church. They think they will win by trotting out their authorities—writers, educators and preachers of note. Or by appealing to traditions that are the product of preferences from a past generation of believers. This is their identity. This is their ‘hope.’ This is, unfortunately, their idol.

One of the more intriguing stories recorded about King Hezekiah pertains to the bronze serpent that Moses made at God’s command to deliver the Israelites from the fiery serpents He had sent to punish them. Those who looked to the serpent would live. But in 2 Kings 18:4, Hezekiah, seeing that the people worshipped the antique bronze serpent as a god-substitute years after the event, destroyed it, calling it nehushtan—a useless piece of metal.

For Paul, his credentials were nehushtan. Nothing he was could possibly add anything to the gospel. No conflict he engaged in was based on the worth of Paul, the wisdom of Paul, the status of Paul. It was only the sufficiency of Christ and what Jesus does in our lives apart from anything else that mattered to Paul.

In the end, you have nothing but what is given to you. No righteousness of your own. Your identity is not a statement of the superiority of your message. The gospel itself is what is great and amazing.


-Steve Smith