5 ways to practice spiritual one-upmanship

Feb. 3, 2017 | by Brian Thorstad

We might as well admit it. We’ve all used spiritual one-upmanship to win an argument or get our way in a board meeting or committee debate. 

My dictionary defines one-upmanship as “the technique or practice of gaining a feeling of superiority over another person.” Spiritual one-upmanship uses questionable appeals to the Bible, claims to godly values, “God-speak” language or stories of God’s subjective leadership in order to feel superior, or to gain the upper hand in a discussion. 

Specifically, here are some choice spiritual one-upmanship phrases we use to greater or lesser affect:

“I’m following God (or ‘the Spirit’) not man”Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? The problem is that this phrase is often used when we are defying God or despising God-ordained leaders. “You unspiritual people have to obey the elders, but I’m beyond that.”  

This type of phrase is also used by those who are choosing to ignore the counsel of the wise. If several wise friends tell you you’re making a mistake, the chances are good that you are, in fact, making a mistake, not following the voice of God.

Those of us from fundamentalist backgrounds have been set up for this error. We were taught that it is godly to stand alone (which it is, sometimes). We memorized  sayings like “God and I make a majority.” That’s true, if it’s true, but too often it’s not “God and I” making a majority, it’s just little old me, making a foolish decision.

“God has shown me (or ‘God has told me’ or ‘the Spirit is telling me’) that we have to do it this way.”If this really is true, then we need to boldly and humbly tell others what we ourselves have heard. 

But if we say it, it had better be true and we’d better be aware of how easy it is to mistake our own feelings or opinions for God’s feelings or opinions. Paraphrasing Larry Osborne’s helpful Sticky Teams,this is a “card” which the pastor should play very sparingly and he’d better be sure that he’s right.

“The Spirit within me was grieved by that remark (or song).” Most often, this simply means that we didn’t like it. It’s okay to not like it, but let’s be careful about claiming to know what the Holy Spirit likes or doesn’t like.

“You guys haven’t prayed enough to make this decision tonight.” Really? How do you know how much I’ve prayed? This might be true, or it might be a holy sounding ploy to keep a decision-making group in a state of gridlock, at least long enough for the user of this phrase to convert others to his viewpoint.

“This doesn’t sound like a Christ-like (or a ‘loving’) thing to do.”I was once (justly) challenged for putting the term “Christ-like” in a board member covenant. My phrase was “We’ll always behave in a Christ-like way.”

But what exactly does this mean? Was Christ being Christ-like when he threw the money changers out of the temple? How about when he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”? The truth is that church leadership boards, like our Lord Himself, have to do some tough, hard things which others may not see as being Christ-like.

The appeal of spiritual one-upmanship is very real and very powerful. These phrases often work; that’s why they are as common as they are. In light of the subtlety of sin and our great proclivity for self-deceit, here’s my suggestion: Any time you are tempted to use any of these phrases, or phrases similar to these phrases, stop, think, pray and then proceed very, very carefully.

Topics: Commentary, Conflict, Personnel & HR, Turnaround

Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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