by James M. Bramblet
All through the history of Israel and the Church, God's people have erred by adopting terminology and ideas of the world which are contrary to the Word of God. Today when God is allowing mankind to explore and understand so many of the secrets of His universe, we are especially susceptible to ideas that appear to be scientific and practical. If such ideas are in the area of philosophy, psychology, or some other pseudoscience, it is easy to be deceived before we become aware of the anti‑Biblical nature of the teachings.
Modern humanistic psychology has developed the hypothesis that in order for a person to be psychologically healthy, he must have a high opinion of himself. This favorable opinion of oneself is called "self‑esteem" or "a good self‑image." This teaching did not begin in the Church or any Christian Bible study, but in the psychology of the world. A number of Christians who are also psychologists have picked up this teaching in their psychology studies and have brought it over into their church‑related Christian instruction. Unfortunately, these men are psychology students rather than Bible students, so they fail to see the contradiction between this teaching and the teaching of the Bible. It should be mentioned, however, that there are a few Christian psychologists, such as Jay Adams(1), who have not been deceived by this error.
Since the final result of a Christian experience is a good feeling about ourselves as new creatures in Christ, it is easy to confuse this feeling with the worldly concept of self‑esteem. The world, however, attempts to build this good self‑image outside the Christian experience and thus imposes on people a monstrous lie that everything is "OK" when it really isn't.
Many Christians also emphasize the human desire to feel better above the Biblical admonitions concerning justification and regeneration. On almost every hand in Christendom, people are using the terms "self‑esteem" and "a good self‑image" with the assumption that these are desirable traits. Few seem to recognize that these are worldly terms and have no foundation in Scripture. In Bill Gothard's notes, the first division is "Self‑image." He handles the subject better than most, but he does use the humanistic rather than Biblical terminology.(2)
The subtitle of James Dobson's book Hide or Seek is "Self‑esteem for the Child." For 155 pages Dobson presents the current humanistic psychological thinking concerning self‑esteem. Only in the last four pages does he make a belated effort to reconcile these thoughts with Biblical truth. There he admits that "The need for self‑esteem becomes more demanding as it is gratified,”(3) but he still does not advocate repentance, regeneration, or justification.
In a (June, 1983) publication of the Fundamentalist Journal, (Jerry Falwell's magazine) an article was included entitled "Help Your Child Develop Self‑Esteem." The author is Daniel Barlow, Professor of Education at Liberty Baptist College. Without referring to Scripture, Mr. Barlow assumes that self‑esteem is a good thing. An inset in bold type gives the key to his thesis:
"It is of critical importance to understand the two ingredients needed to help your child develop self‑esteem: a perception of personal worth, and perception of having some control over what is happening to him."(4)
A comparison of this statement with Genesis 3:6 will reveal a startling similarity. Eve became convinced that the forbidden fruit would make her wise and thus help her develop a perception of personal worth. She took control of her personal life by eating the fruit and gave some to Adam. In taking control of her life, she attempted to remove God's control.
The above‑mentioned writers are fine Christian men who have inadvertently used the terminology of humanistic psychology rather than the words of Scripture. But there are also pastors who have fallen into the same error. Robert A. Schuller, senior minister of Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, has written a book entitled Self‑Esteem, The New Reformation. Dr. Schuller does understand theology, and he carries the self-esteem doctrine through to its logical conclusion. He believes that the Protestant Reformation based on justification was fine for that time, but that we now need a new reformation based on self‑esteem. He is desirous of breaking down the tension which exists between theology and psychology. In order to establish this new theology, he finds it necessary to redefine many Biblical terms. The Biblical doctrine of human depravity (Jeremiah 17:9) he cannot reconcile with self‑esteem so he denies it as follows:
"The core of original sin, then, is LOT – Lack of Trust. Or, it could be considered an innate inability to adequately value ourselves. Label it a 'negative self‑image,' but do not say that the central core of the human soul is wickedness. If this were so, then truly, the human being is totally depraved. But positive Christianity does not hold to human depravity, but to human inability."(5)
He redefines the new birth in this manner:
"To be born again means that we must be changed from a negative to a positive self‑image – from inferiority to self‑esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust."(6)
Following such a new birth he says that we can now pray the Lord's Prayer thusly:
"Our Father in heaven, honorable is our name."(7)
If brothers Gothard, Dobson and Barlow could see this logical result of the self‑esteem teaching, they would brand it heresy as does the writer of this paper.
Much of the present day emphasis on family problems and child training is permeated with this humanistic heresy concerning self‑esteem. We often encounter this teaching at Christian school conferences, and the practice of some Christian schools has been altered to meet the self‑esteem standards. If it were true that high self‑esteem is good and low self‑esteem is bad, then one would expect to find such teaching in the Bible. By using a concordance you will find that the derivatives of the word esteem are used in the English Bible a total of twenty‑two times. There is only one verse where "esteem" is used in conjunction with the word "self," and that is in Philippians 2:3 where it says:
"Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves."
This verse is really speaking of other‑esteem rather than self‑esteem. The "lowliness of mind" recommended in Philippians 2:3 appears to be just the opposite of the kind of self‑esteem being recommended by modern psychology.
When Christ was on earth, there was apparently a similar heresy among the Jews of that time. In Luke 18:9-14 we read a parable which is prefaced by, "And he spoke this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous." In other words they were people with high self‑esteem. In the parable He tells about two men who went to the temple to pray. One of the men had a very high self‑esteem. When he prayed he listed off the good things about himself. He was not an extortioner or an adulterer and he often fasted and always tithed his income. Perhaps then as now there were psychological sessions to build self‑esteem where patients took turns expressing their virtues. Or perhaps he had been taught as a child what a good little boy he was, with as little mention as possible of his faults. In any case, he had learned his lesson well for he certainly had a good self‑image and was able to list his many virtues.
The other man was a despised tax‑collector, and he had a terrible self‑image. He stood far away from the Pharisee. His head was hanging and his eyes cast down. He smote his breast in anguish, and the only prayer he could muster was, "God be merciful to me a sinner."
The Lord's comment on this parable was that the second of the two men was justified but not the first. Notice that He used the word justified rather than how they felt. No doubt the man with the self‑esteem still felt very good about himself, but the word justified refers to God's opinion of them. The tax‑collector asked for God's forgiveness and received it. The Pharisee's self‑esteem was so great he felt he did not need forgiveness, so he failed to ask for it and thus never received it. He went down to his house feeling great, but lost.
This story points up a number of errors that stem from the self‑esteem doctrine:
1. Self‑esteem therapy works as well for unsaved people as for Christians. Getting people to feel better about themselves brings them no closer to salvation by the blood of Christ. The Pharisee came into the temple unjustified and he left unjustified. It is difficult to practice self‑esteem therapy and be a soul winner.
2. Self‑esteem therapy does not lead to repentance. The better we feel about ourselves the less we feel the need to repent of our sins. This, of course, is in direct conflict with the teaching of the Bible. Both John the Baptist and Jesus began their teaching with "Repent ye" (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). Peter, preaching at Pentecost, instructed the people, "Repent ye" (Acts 2:28). When David's terrible sin was brought to his attention, he confessed and repented (II Samuel 12:13). When Christians sin they are instructed to confess their sins (I John 1:9). But repentance does not make one feel good. Repentance is humiliating and very hard on our self‑esteem. But God says, "Repent."
3. Self‑esteem therapy does not lead to justification. Justification is a legal term indicating that God has declared the sinner righteous because of the work of a crucified Savior. God's grounds for justifying sinners is stated in II Corinthians 5:21, as follows:
For he hath made Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
Our salvation is dependent on God's opinion concerning our righteousness. Many people with high self‑esteem will be cast into hell unless God sees them as "in Christ."
4. Self‑esteem therapy leads to self‑righteousness rather than God's righteousness. The Apostle Paul, like Christ, wrestled with the self‑esteem cult among the Jews of his day. He said concerning them:
"For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God" (Romans 10:3).
Christ also indicated that the kind of self‑satisfaction or self-esteem advocated by the Pharisees was not enough when He said:
"For I say unto you that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).
Having a good self‑image may make us feel better, but it falls far short of meeting the righteousness which is required of God. Only the imputed righteousness of Christ will meet that standard. The Lord Jesus reserved His most scathing denunciation for the scribes and Pharisees. He said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…" (Matthew 23:13‑15, 23,25,27,29). After each of these exclamations He explained why He considered this outward righteousness so despicable: It was an outward show and in their hearts they were filled with extortion and excess. Following the heresy of self‑esteem will produce this same kind of self‑satisfaction based on personal pride which covers a heart of sinful desires and godless rebellion.
5. Self‑esteem therapy tends to break down Biblical, God‑given moral standards. Since the goal is to make each individual think more highly of himself, it becomes necessary to explain away or condone his misdeeds. The alcoholic is sick not sinful. The homosexual has made a different sexual preference which should not be condemned. Many counselors speak of sexual partners rather than husband and wife so as not to give a guilt complex to adulterers. Some churches have softened the Scriptural teaching concerning divorce and remarriage, and if the self‑esteem heresy continues to grow in Christendom, we will see a breakdown of Biblical moral standards in other areas as well.
Philippians 2:3 recommends other‑esteem rather than self‑esteem. It teaches that self‑esteem will result in strife and vainglory. From this verse it is easy to predict what will happen to Christian people if the self‑esteem heresy is allowed to grow in our midst. Actually, it is what we have seen happening among people of the world since self‑esteem therapy was introduced. Deliberate self‑aggrandizement among Christians will result in:
1. An increase in family discord, separation and divorce. If there is any relationship where other‑esteem is essential, it is in the family relationship. Family living requires love and a loss of individuality. The "I" life must give way to the "we" life. The Bible says that God hates divorce or "putting away" (Malachi 2:16).
2. Disobedient and runaway children in Christian homes. Children are told in the fifth commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother" (Exodus 20:12). This command assumes other‑esteem rather than self‑esteem. Parents are told to "Provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). Here again other‑esteem is essential. Strife and vainglory in the home is disastrous to the relationship of parents and children.
3. Conflict among Christian people in our churches. Other‑esteem in the church is particularly referred to in the Bible as follows:
"And we beseech you, brethren, to know them who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves" (I Thessalonians. 5:12‑13).
This verse refers to having esteem for pastors and other leaders in the church. It clearly indicates that the result will be peace. Self‑esteem, however, will result in strife and vainglory among church members which will in turn lead to church fights, church splits, and general chaos. I Corinthians 3:3 indicates that this comes about first with envying, then with strife, and finally with divisions. Anyone who has been through a church fight knows the suffering and hurt that ensues. If the self‑esteem cult is allowed to grow in our churches, it will result in more and more unhappiness in the place where we should find peace – the local church.
4. Dissension and divisions in our Christian schools. What was said above concerning churches is also true concerning Christian schools. Schools are particularly susceptible to the self‑esteem heresy because this thinking has been so strongly promoted by modern secular educators. Many Christian school teachers and administrators pick up the self‑esteem teaching in their secular college classes and bring it over into the Christian school without realizing it is contrary to Scripture. Also, some speakers and writers in the field of education who espouse the self‑esteem doctrine are professing Christians, so their influence affects the thinking in our schools. If this is allowed to continue, we will see a continual escalation of student rebellion, teacher dissatisfaction, board strife, administrators continually moving from school to school, and schools dividing because of strife. In other words, there will be an increase in the "strife and vainglory" mentioned in Philippians 2:3.
It was earlier mentioned that the final result of a Christian experience is a good feeling about ourselves as new creatures in Christ. The Bible speaks of a Christian having "joy" (John 15:11) and a "conscience void of offense" (Acts 24:16). Is this not self‑esteem? The answer is “No.” The Christian feels good about himself, not because of his own righteousness but because he is "In Christ" (II Corinthians 5:17) and he is fully aware that:
"In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him, who is head of all principality and power" (Col. 2:9‑10).
This is not self‑esteem but Christ‑esteem. We need to seek not for a good self‑image but a good Christ‑image. Instead of self‑esteem therapy, we need to practice the Christ‑esteem therapy advocated and abundantly illustrated in the Bible.
Christ‑esteem demands that we accept the physical, mental, and emotional characteristics with which Christ has created us. "But by the grace of God I am what I am . . . " (I Corinthians 15:10). Christ‑esteem also causes us to be satisfied with the financial, social, and vocational situation in which He has placed us. "And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” (I Tim. 6:8).
The Bible instructs each of us "Not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith" (Romans 12:3). The Lord tells us that any man who follows Him must "deny himself" (Matthew 6:24), but He nowhere mentions that His followers must esteem themselves.
The Apostle Paul in writing to Timothy warns that in the last days, "men shall be lovers of their own selves" (II Tim. 3:1‑2). In the verses that follow he lists the unfavorable traits that result from this self love. Today we are being taught the very doctrine that the Bible says will prevail in the last days. Verse five tells us that this teaching will lead to "a form of godliness, but denying the power of it." From such doctrine and practice we are told to "turn away" (II Tim. 3:5).
Although self‑esteem is taught by many Christians, it did not originate in the Bible but in the thinking of godless, humanistic psychologists. Many of these psychologists call themselves counselors. The Psalmist begins the Psalms by saying, "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly" (Psalm 1:1).
1. Jay Adams, The Christian Counselor's Manual, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973, p.145.
2. Bill Gothard, "Self‑Image," Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, Pages 1‑8.
3. James Dobson, Hide or Seek, Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1971, p.157.
4. Daniel Barlow, "Help Your Child Develop Self‑Esteem," Fundamentalist Journal, June, 1983, Vo1.2 Number 6, p.29‑31.
5. Robert H. Schuller, Self‑Esteem, The New Reformation, Waco, Texas: Word Book Publishers, 1982, p.67.
6. Ibid., p.68.
7. Ibid., p.69.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
James M. Bramblet was my late father-in-law and a retired Christian school administrator.