In an interview I was once asked, “Use a word to describe a person of faith.”
I answered, “Christian.” He smiled. “Choose another,” he said.
“Christ-follower,” I replied. His smile faded a bit. Again he repeated, “Another?”
Now I realized what he was getting at, and I resisted giving in. “Follower of The Way,” I said.
I could do this all day.
“The word that I was looking for was ‘Saint’.”
“I know,” I said, smiling.
“You can’t use that word around here…”
The process of becoming a saint in the Protestant church is fairly clear: Everyone who is in Christ is generally considered to be a saint. For the Roman Catholic church, the list of Saints is smaller and the process a bit more arduous:
- Wait five years (unless the sitting Pope waives the wait)
- Become a “servant of God”
- Show proof of a life of “heroic virtue”
- Have two verified miracles (unless you are a martyr, or the sitting Pope waives you down to one)
How different groups define the word saint helps to explain why the interviewer wanted to disabuse me of any use of it. Using a word that has multiple meanings can cause confusion… and hostility.
Words are funny that way. Highly religious people, on the other hand, are sometimes not-so-funny. Sad, if you think about it. Jesus was quite a joy-filled individual with a wonderful sense of humor.
But back to the subject of saints…
Though the Reformation rift left little common ground between Protestants and Roman Catholics, both faith traditions were able to come to mutual agreement on the idea of saints in 1975’s The Common Catechism, which said:
“The main intention of the veneration of the saints is to glorify God’s grace in real men and women as they exist in historical time. Veneration of the saints is not adoration of the saints, but celebration of them as witnesses to the triumphant grace of God and as models for the Christian life.”1
It recently struck me that the church has long been found to be more concerned with how to become a saint than with how to avoid it. This has been the case since, well, since the beginning.
In Acts 6-8, we are presented with the story of Stephen, a church waiter who becomes embroiled with some overly-religious people who were jealous of Stephen’s grace and power. Crying foul, these liars trump up charges against Stephen before the very same jury that convicted Jesus. You can see where this is going. Stephen is righteous, but his time is short thanks to a group of religious (but not Godly) zealots. Stephen will become the first martyr of the Church, after Christ himself.
His trial is not unlike many other encounters between the overly-religious and the actually-Godly… a hot unrighteous mess. I once heard a Pastor refer to these types of meetings/encounters as being run by “People with callouses on their backsides sitting in judgement of people with callouses on their hands.”
People who know everything but whose hands have accomplished nothing are dangerous indeed.
To be far to the stoners, I doubt Stephen’s accusers and jury set out to be misguided religious zealots.
No one ever does.
It is always a slow slide into fanatical Phariseeism—sinful pride, exclusivity, and self-righteousness parading as faith. Larry Osborne calls these people “Accidental Pharisees.” This is the dangerous, dark side of faith, and formely good church people fall into it all of the time. One often becomes an accidental Pharisee when one’s concept of “truth” becomes greater than one’s capacity or willingness for “love.”
Larry lists some of the defining characteristics of an accidental Pharisee:
- DISDAIN FOR THOSE AT THE BACK OF THE LINE
Instead of a Jesus-like compassion for those who can’t keep up, we view them with a deepening sense of frustration, cynicism, and a cocky arrogance.
- A SPIRIT OF EXCLUSIVITY
When thinning the herd becomes more important than expanding the kingdom; or raising the bar becomes more important than helping people climb over it, something has gone terribly wrong.
- EXTRA-BIBLICAL RULES AND EXPECTATIONS
The spirit of legalism still runs strong.
- A PATTERN OF IDOLIZING THE PAST
Like the Pharisees of old, we rip on the living prophets and then build monuments to them once they die.
- A QUEST FOR CLONE-LIKE UNIFORMITY
Jesus had room for Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector, unlike many circles of fellowship today that are tighter than Jesus’s circle of acceptance.
- GIFT PROJECTION
A toxic belief that my calling is everyone else’s calling.2
Sound familiar? Most of us know people that may in fact be an accidental Pharisee… but few of us are able to recognize it when/if it exists in ourselves. This is why it is so important to surround ourselves with wise counselors and be willing to consider their insight (and when warranted) rebuke. These prophets are rarely appreciated, though, and for 2,000-years the spirit of the Pharisees lives on once-well-meaning people.
May this be fair warning to all of us. Those who are find themselves feeling saintly on this earth rarely find themselves as saints on the other side. Or in other words, some receive their reward this side of Heaven.
Avoiding sainthood, no matter how one defines it, is unwise. May we spend our time being about the Kingdom work of Christ rather than building our own prideful kingdoms based on extra-biblical rules, exclusivity, arrogance, and uniformity.
In short,If you want to avoid sainthood, then avoid being like Christ. Click To Tweet
PRACTICE: Invite someone of stronger faith to give feedback on your spiritual health and direction.