Narcissus is a character in Greek mythology who, upon seeing the beauty of his reflection in the water, falls in love with it. He devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection. From this we get our term “narcissism,” a fixation with one’s self. I fear that in the church we have created a narcissistic form of pseudo-discipleship that is less about taking up our cross and following Christ and more of an attempt to use Jesus to help us live a better life.
A morally Christianized narcissism has invaded many churches where congregants read the Bible and hear sermons in a pursuit of individualized self-improvement. Corporate worship is often understood as a matter of convenience in assembling individual Christians who seek individualized answers to individualized questions. The result is a malformed expression of Christianity in which the church is seen simply as a tool to help each individual grow spiritually. Thus, the church exists to provide us the support we need for our personal discipleship.
The problem at Corinth
In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul confronts the problem of divisions in the church. He writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were divided into factions, based on congregational personalities and ministry leaders.
Paul writes, “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor. 1:12). He goes on to rebuke their divisive party spirit as “the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:20). Paul contends that the answer to their factiousness is for everyone in the congregational community to remember that no one is anything (1 Cor. 1:26-29) apart from Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The word of the cross is the wisdom of God that makes foolish the wisdom of the world, which defines life outside of the lens of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:20).
Our modern problem
I fear our problem today is worse than the one Paul faced in the church at Corinth. At least, the divisive factions in the church at Corinth were focused on following particular teachers in the church. The divisiveness in many churches today is completely self-referential. Many read their Bibles as if the Scripture was written only for them. Many hear sermons as if the sermon is only a word to them as an individual.
The consequence of such thinking is a self-protective touchiness among Christians. The divisive party identity begins with the particular life situation of the individual and considers everything from that perspective. To borrow the phraseology of Paul, “What I mean is that each one of you says, I am of single, I am of married, I am of children, I am of without children, I am of young, I am of old.” Everyone feels the obligation to defend themselves and their party identity by demanding attention. Many pastors are hesitant to celebrate truths the Scripture calls us to celebrate because they fear those in the congregation who will say, “But what about us?” (which rightly interpreted means, “But what about me?”).
For instance, consider a pastor who celebrates the blessing of children in worship service and a sermon. He might receive a letter from a married couple without children that says, “Please make sure that we remind members that marriage is still valuable if don’t have children yet!” The pastor wants to be sensitive to the members of the congregation, so he preaches on God's gift of marriage and receives a letter from a single man or woman worded almost exactly the same way as the previous, save for one word, “Please make sure that we remind members that singleness is still valuable for those who do not have a spouse yet!”
The compassionate pastor beleaguered, but determined, to meet the needs of his flock responds by preaching a sermon on the inherent value of being able to have a single-minded focus on Jesus as a single person only to receive a letter from a married couple with children that says, “Please make sure that we remind members that marriage is a blessings and so are children!” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Some pastors and churches handle this factious problem by superficial and sentimental Jesus talk. They do not focus directly on specifics like, age, gender, marriage, or children. In other words, they take a lowest common denominator approach to Christian discipleship that only talks about things everyone can affirm, and they treat the gathered congregation as generic individuals not a diverse community of faith. Contemporary, psychologically oriented felt-needs preaching, has fed this narcissistic attitude toward Christian discipleship rather than confronting it. The result is a misshapen understanding of Jesus where he is viewed as an itinerant therapist or a cosmic Christian version of Dear Abby.
The Answer to our Narcissism
The result of capitulating to this narcissistic corruption of Christian discipleship is a failure to celebrate many things that God would have us to celebrate in full measure as a corporate body. It also weakens our cultural influence because self-referential individuals do not make for a strong corporate witness in the public arena. We must respond to this contemporary problem of congregational divisiveness in the church the same way the apostle Paul responded in Corinth—Christ crucified.
Self-referential divisiveness is a gospel issue. We must ask the probing question Paul asked the Corinthian church, “Is Christ divided?” The tendency to think about our Christian lives in individualistic terms must be confronted with the gospel. The answer to the question, “What about me?” is “What about Christ and his church?” We must reverse the order of our thinking. The Bible is not about me and Jesus. The Bible is about Christ and is written to his people. We must consider how biblical truth applies to our individual lives as a part of the community of faith not abstracted from it.
Reading our Bibles and hearing sermons in light of Christ crucified and in the plural of Christian community allows us to love one another because we are not competitors, we are one in the body of Christ. God's blessing on someone else in the church is a blessing on us as members of one body (1 Cor. 12). In Philippians, Paul unambiguously asserts,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:3-5).
Narcissus is present in too many of our churches. He is found contemplating his personal spiritual life, falling in love with it, and devoting the rest of his life to his own reflection. The problem is Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).