Prestige and its Unimportance in the Christian Life

I’ve been reading the autobiography of theologian Carl F. H. Henry recently. It’s entitled Confessions of a Theologian and it is engrossing reading, particularly for those who enjoy study of twentieth-century Christianity. If you want an in-depth, personal look at this slice of history, you could do little better than to tackle this text.

In the course of the tale’s telling, the matter of cultural and intellectual prestige comes up a number of times. The “new evangelicals”, as they were called, wrestled throughout their existence as a movement with the matter of cultural prestige. Were they, in fact, to seek it? If so, how could get they it? If they got it, what would they do with it? These and other questions related to the matter of academic and cultural respectability constantly confronted and were raised by the neo-evangelical leaders–Graham, Henry, Ockenga, and others.

It struck me in reading this important and insightful book that we Christians care far more for strategy than we do for prestige. What do I mean by this? Only that a major factor for us in our decision-making must be, is this option strategic? What kind of kingdom-building strategic value does it have? This, and not, “Will this be prestigious? Will it gain cultural acclaim?” is the kind of question we must constantly be asking ourselves.

The point I am making here is basic, and for many of us, is not a matter of major struggle. But it seems to me that we can easily lose focus here. This is especially true if we find ourselves in social situations in which prestige is highly valued. Those of us in such places must constantly refer back to the apostle Paul’s words: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20) The world’s wisdom, and the acclaim that comes from aligning with the world’s wisdom, is not our end. Of course, we need not fear cultural respectability, and it is no bad thing to use the culture’s systems (of intellectual development, for example) for kingdom purposes. In addition, I don’t think that we should intellectually bury our heads in the sand and studiously avoid engagement with cultural and intellectual thought. One need not be consumed by prestige to occupy prestigious positions in society or to use the world’s standards for the purposes of kingdom advancement.

But with that said, we’ve got to be careful, don’t we? If we allow our main criteria for our churches and organizations to be grounded in the desire for cultural prestige, we place such institutions in direct conflict with a biblical worldview. Far better to ask the question of strategic value than the question of prestige. “How can I use my mind to advance the kingdom in the realm of science?” “How can I use these literary abilities for the glory of God?” “What is the most strategic college in which I may educate young minds?” “As a future pastor, how can I train myself for strategic service to the church in my education?” “Who can I study under for the purpose of strategic positioning in terms of the academy?” These are all valid and helpful questions to ask of one’s life choices. They reflect not an interest in self and self-promotion, but in Christ and kingdom-promotion. I would argue that they should be asked by any and all Christians, regardless of vocation, no matter the calling.

The drive for prestige will cripple us. Indeed, you can search your whole life for fulfillment in this area, it seems, and never truly find it. We don’t have to shy away from culture and cultural systems to avoid this pitfall. We can educate ourselves, make good, strategic educational choices, make connections in life and business and ministry, and generally be wise as serpents in all that we do. But we should always do so out of the desire not to be prestigious, but to be strategic.

In this way, I think, we emulate in our callings our Savior, who cared nothing for fame and power, and who gave everything He had to strategically advance His kingdom for the glory of the Father.


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