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On being elitist

Those who advocate conservatism in worship become accustomed to accusations of elitism. This comparison is employed for several reasons. We are elitists, it is alleged, because we advocate styles of worship that are associated with Western high culture: the music we would use in worship is more commonly played at symphony hall than anywhere else, and the audience there is more wine and cheese, less stock car racing. QED, we are elitists.

A second reason for the accusation of elitism is our insistence that certain worship forms are superior to those we’d like to see unseated. The claim that “ours is better than yours” is sufficient to convict us of elitism. (Left unstated is our opponents’ insistence that their innovations in worship are of worship we’ve inherited and attempted to conserve.)

A third reason for the accusation of elitism is that our position can be reached only through special training. No Christian would ever come to our conclusions from his Bible alone; he needs to read Bernstein, or Weaver, or Postman, or Bauder. Given our subject, this accusation is not merely populist, but theological: Christian elitism is Gnostic. Our hidden knowledge, necessary to obtain the higher levels of spirituality, is found only among the initiated.

The reason for making the comparison to Gnosticism is obvious: if the charge sticks, it is a one-word refutation of our entire position. The success of an argument by analogy depends on the nature of the comparison; if the point of comparison is not the one relevant to the discussion, an argument by analogy is just a variant on the fallacy of the undistributed middle. In this case, the contention is that Gnostics demanded uncommon knowledge as necessary for Christian maturity, the conservatives say that uncommon knowledge is necessary for Christian maturity, and therefore conservatism bears the relevant similarities to Gnosticism that we can compare it to known heresy.

I think that this analogy is misguided. To illustrate, let me offer an additional parallel. Consider the stereotypical church that derides “cemetery” education in general and perhaps Calvinism in particular. A pastor who is trying to help them understand what (he’s convinced) the Bible teaches about election is likely going to have to set up a fairly elaborate argument, anticipating objections, drawing together inferences from Scripture, etc. The parishioner, by contrast, will likely appeal to the simple and straightforward reading of the Bible, and insist that if the pastor must offer such a complex and difficult argument, his position must not be biblical. This is especially the case if the pastor appeals to or cites the writings of Calvin or Warfield or Piper. He has become a Gnostic.

I suspect most of our readers would understand that the parishioner’s opposition to the doctrines of grace cannot be sustained simply by attributing Gnosticism to his pastor. The pastor is forced to offer a thorough argument, not because what he’s teaching is not found in the text of Scripture, but merely because what he’s teaching (for any number of reasons, cultural and otherwise) is not obvious to his audience.

That a position is not obvious, even to Christian people, cannot be the basis for determining that it is wrong or Gnostic. Too many factors determine what is obvious to some group of people to make obviousness anything like a reliable truth-detector.

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.