There are a few places in scripture with lists of requirements for service in the kingdom of God. In each instance the balance of gift vs. character skews heavily to the side of character. The more elevated the position, the more important the character becomes. This exposes what is of import to the Lord. (Acts 6, 1 Timothy, Titus 1)
Whether it be the selection of an apostle to replace Judas or an elder in a local congregation, scripture prioritises holiness over the skill or gift of the individual. It is not that gifts do not matter. God gives gifts to individuals and to the church but many of these same gifts are held also by people in opposition to the kingdom of God. Gifts alone do not make one qualified to serve in the church.
What we celebrate is what we promote. I hear talk in many circles about creating a “culture of honour”. The fruit I see from this is the affirmation of gifts. While that isn’t inherently evil, it results in elevating individuals according to skill rather than holiness. Rather than celebrating a new area of repentance or someone’s nature becoming more like Christ, we tend to celebrate a sermon or singing skills, giving no thought to that person’s spiritual health.
I love the way God inspects what he has created and declares “it is good”. His nature is to inspect (or judge) in order to affirm, not just correct. Public affirmation should be given only for things God is affirming. If we create rules of our own and affirm people for following them, it can lead to a return to a form of the law or create a cult. This is what people like Luther and Bonhoeffer were correcting after a period of the church leaders forming their own rules.
For a person to be obedient in their pursuit of Christ, everything they do should be in service to God. All gifts have been given by God just as every breath in our lungs. As such, each breath and gift is in service to him. Our spiritual health requires understanding how we have uniquely been created to serve the Lord. Our gifts, however, are only a by-product of our discipleship, not the supreme focus.
The overemphasis on gifts sidelines the primary focus, the spiritual health of the individual, and often alienates certain gifts. The gifts a culture is comfortable with will be celebrated while the others cause shame in people. If the development of gifts becomes a by-product of discipleship, everyone serves and excels in their gift as they are called in season.
It is more difficult to focus on spiritual maturity than the presence of gifts. A test of someone’s vocals is easier than a testing of the fruit of the Spirit in a person’s life. This is a more intimate and invasive process but is hopefully done out of love.
Issues can arise from public affirmation of the function of a gift. It can place a false import on the gift. Secondly, it may cause followers of Jesus to replace the affirmation of God with the affirmation of man.
Remember the reaction of the 72 (0r 70 depending on translation) upon returning to Jesus? (Luke 10:17-24) They celebrate because the demons were subject to them. Jesus responds with “celebrate that your names are written in the book of life.” It is not wrong to celebrate deliverance. What is harmful is the pride that arises from the celebration of a gift instead of gratitude in the grace of God.
Expressing gratitude for the work of God is the way we should affirm. To acknowledge the continued work of the cross in a person affirms who they are in Christ and their surrender to it. Praising the accomplishments of an individual lends itself to pride. Acknowledgement of a gift should be used in the attempt to encourage a person into greater obedience, not greater ego.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1
Public affirmation of righteous acts tends to enable direct disobedience to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:1. We often crave affirmation. We struggle to find satisfaction solely in pleasing the Lord. Thus, we seek opportunities to please people instead. Our desire to please people is often used to keep society in line. As a society we create a system of approved actions and affirm the people who accept them and cancel (or mute) those that disagree. A desire for affirmation can lead us to mirror those around us.
Dualism is created within a person when their public and private lives disagree, for example, righteousness in religious settings, and depravity in private. That is why a pursuit of holiness from within should be encouraged rather than just a set of actions to emulate.
Again, I say, public affirmation of actions or gifts is not inherently evil. But proceed with caution. It lends itself to creating a culture that elevates self rather than God and can lead us astray down the path of pride. Gifts are given by God, but we are not to celebrate the gift but appreciate the gift and honour the gift giver.
We all need the affirmation of our Creator. To hear the words “well done my good and faithful servant” is what we seek. An insecurity in this affirmation drives us to seek it from other sources. For believers, this other source is often just slightly off the mark as we look to our Christian leaders as the conduits for the Lord’s affirmation.
We are running the race for that eventual prize. We look for confirmation we are on the right path and the affirmation of the Lord awaits us at the finish line. This promise is meant to be enough. While affirmation from each other can at times be good, it is not when it generates insecurity in the Lord’s affirmation.
There is a big difference between joining the affirmation of the Lord and replacing it. But that difference can be blurry at times. Sometimes our created systems of “honour” may cause men and women to perform for affirmation rather than act out of obedience and compassion. The Lord is after the heart of a person not the picture of righteousness.
In many cases I have discovered public affirmation does not encourage the transformation of the heart but creates an increased hunger for people’s affirmation. Affirmation then becomes like a drug causing those who crave it to abandon the path of righteousness or get buried under a list of duties.
There is a reason why Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Public displays of righteousness expose the insecurity in the affirmation of the Lord and ultimately point to who you serve. You are a slave of the one whose approval you need.
Do not withhold affirmation when you know the Lord is affirming someone. Be like Jesus affirming the disciples for their confession of who he is. Affirm people they are loved by Jesus as John so often does. Affirm the signs of freedom arising from a life of repentance. Ask God to reveal what he is affirming in those around you and join him in affirming it too. His affirmation is what we need just like all creation did when he inspected what he made and called it good.