The “me” monster unleashed in today’s churches

July 7, 2014

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).

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24