Let me back up.
For those who are new to Christianity, new to the Christian faith, new to church community, new to the powerful transformation the gospel brings to us as individuals, words like “elite” and “elect” probably don’t translate well in slightly unfamiliar territory. So that we begin with the same view on the same side of the hill, here’s a primitive definition:
Elite means the same inside the church as it does outside: roughly, “a group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger group.”1 I’d add that this group likely knows or innately understands that they hold this influence and power.
Elect, however, takes on a wholly Biblical meaning here, taken from the original Greek ekletos, meaning “chosen,” and illuminated in such passages as Romans 8:30-33, 2 John 1, and Colossians 3:12. There are others, but for the sake of this discussion, I’ll point you to those and let you dig for the rest if you are so inclined.
The apostle Paul wrote quite a lot on the subject of being “elect,” so much so that those who hold to a Reformed view of Scripture and a theology that declares that our salvation rests solely on God’s choosing us rather than our own free will use his letters to the churches in Rome and Galatians (and all the others, really) to prove their stance on soteriology, or how God saves man.
What did Paul say about being chosen, or elect? Basically, that those who are called to follow Christ were chosen to do so by God Himself. Unlike the Jews, who were set apart as God’s chosen people, Christians under the saving grace of Jesus Christ and His redeeming work on the cross are not saved simply because we were born of Jewish, or of Hebrew lineage. Paul himself was born a Jew, but he makes a distinction here that is important because it speaks to the level playing field, so to speak, of all who can and will be called to follow God and find their salvation through Jesus Christ. Not just the
Israelites, but all of humanity for all time. Those whom He calls, He saves (Romans 8:30).
When we remember that it is God who does the choosing, that we have really nothing to do with how He saves us (regardless of whether we believe as the Reformers did or assert that we have a hand in deciding to follow Jesus), when we recognize that Jesus paid it all, when we step away from our own attempts at saving ourselves and acknowledge that we have a difficult time even motivating ourselves out of bed in the morning, let alone saving ourselves to eternal life, how in the world can elitism puncture and penetrate our lowly, dependent selves?
And where does our ugly spiritual elitism spring out of in the first place? Likely the same starting point as all our other ugly elitism: pride. Doesn’t it feel gratifying to have others acknowledge our intelligence and theological acumen? Don’t we want to be identified with the other smarty pants in the room?
Back when the “seeker sensitive” church movement began to pick up steam in California in the ’90’s, my husband and I were parenting three little boys in our mid-twenties. We both had expensive university educations, and when we began to become uneasy as we increasingly heard verbiage that embraced a departure from exegetical preaching, we left our mega church on a quest to take the time to understand exactly where we stood theologically.
We found ourselves jumping straight into the Reformed camp, which lined up with our more orthodox views on Scripture. How the Reformers couched their words and parsed passages was largely in agreement with how we viewed the Bible, too. This was good stuff! For the first time in my life, I began to understand that what I knew to be true of God’s Word actually had a theological “camp,” and I was happy to put a label on the systematic theology I had grown up hearing from the pulpit.
One day a man visiting our home began to talk theology with me. As we sat in our living room, kids playing outside and spouses serving up iced tea and conversation, he declared, “I’ve come to believe that those who hold to Reformed Theology are really the upper echelon. I mean, we’re just really onto a higher understanding of God, aren’t we?”
Well. My ears were tickled and my heart probably skipped a beat, too. Me? Upper echelon? I mean, I knew I was smart. I was labeled “gifted” in kindergarten. Yes, yes, certainly I was onto some higher understanding, and my poor fellow believers left behind in our seeker sensitive and basic evangelical churches just don’t get it. Poor them.
It was about this time that we also jumped into homeschooling, although our reasons at the time had far more to do with a precocious four-year-old than anything religious. But as I began to read the articles that zealous Christian homeschoolers would write, when I listened to the speakers at conventions proclaim that we homeschooling parents were in the business of creating world-changers and the best of the best, guess what happened in my heart, there, too?
Soon I began to define myself by the choices we had made. We weren’t Christians, we were Reformed Christians. We weren’t Christian parents, we were Christian homeschooling parents. That meant something: We were serious Christian parents, determined to be faithful and do everything right and deliver our children to the mark.
It wasn’t until all of our definitions and misplaced identity failed us, until God allowed rolling waves of blinding whitewater to batter us about and we emerged on the sizzling sand sputtering and coughing and gasping for breath, that we began to see that we were behaving more like the elite than the elect. It took the cracking of our ice-cold theology and pride to allow the warm, refreshing abundant life-water of Jesus Christ to bring us to our knees and acknowledge our daily need for him. We needed to learn to live in the truth of the gospel from here on out.
The elite define themselves by their status and accomplishments. They talk in a language meant at once to impress and exclude. Ironically, as the Reformed elite we had forgotten the doctrines of grace and the five Solas of the Reformation. 2 We were, quite simply, what the Apostle Paul warned the church at Corinth: puffed up and arrogant. 3
The elect, on the other hand, define themselves by Jesus Christ’s status as God’s son and our Redeemer and His accomplishments on the cross at Calvary. They endeavor to build purposeful relationship inside and outside the church so that they can speak the gospel into each other’s lives. They humbly acknowledge the fact that they must daily return to the knowledge of the role of grace in their salvation and understand that the grace poured out upon them is an indicator of how loved they are by God, not because of any special knowledge they possess or spiritual performance, but simply because of God’s unrelenting love for them.
Something is terribly wrong when we behave more like we're the elite than the elect, but living as the elect changes everything. Where do we start if we recognize that our pride has cornered us into the status of “elite”? Live as loved. Live as if the God of the universe looked down the corridor of time, saw what a wretched sinner you are, plucked you out of that slough of despond, and set you high upon a rock. Because He did.
2 We are saved by grace alone (Sola Gratia) through faith alone (Sola Fide) in Christ alone (Sola Cristus), believing in Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) to the glory of God alone (Sola Deo Gloria).