Thou Shalt Not Flatter (At Conferences)

There are certain acceptable public sins in the Reformed world. In my experience, flattery is the acceptable sin on the popular conference circuit and in social media circles where people are angling for approval from their superiors. If you want to hear a good obituary of a living person, listen to how certain speakers are introduced before they give their talk at a conference. Publilius Syrus (85–43 BCE) said, “Flattery, which was formerly a vice, is now grown into a custom.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

At conferences today, speakers will remark, “I’m merely the warm-up act for the guy after me”; or, “I don’t know how one follows that...”

Tacitus, the Roman orator and historian, said that flatterers “are the worst kind of enemies”; indeed, they labor “under the odious charge of servility.” The flatterer appears to be one’s friend to all, but the desire for self-advancement is a form of slavery that masquerades as kindness when in fact it is selfishness that is driving the praise.  

To the watching public, flattery is fine, so long as the person being excessively praised in public is someone that we approve of. Then, as far as they are concerned, it is not flattery, but honor and respect for a good man. If we like the person being praised, it is okay to say, “I think that 5% of this good man is worth more than the whole evangelical world put together.” Yet, as Owen Feltham (1602–1668) duly notes, “there is no detraction worse than to overpraise a man, for if his worth proves short of what report doth speak of him, his own actions are ever giving the lie to his honor.” Over-praising someone puts an unnecessarily heavy burden on them.

I remember speaking at an ostensibly Reformed theological conference in Florida many years ago and Ravi Zacharias was the only speaker to receive a standing ovation after his talk. He was treated like a god, a god who can determine his own rules for living! Anyone who fails to see the dangers of excessive praise upon a mere man is foolishly naïve. Reformed people emphasize the power of indwelling sin, but evidently their theological heroes are immune from pride and would never let constant, effusive praise get to their head. An old English proverb poignantly reminds us, “When flatterers meet the devil goes to dinner.” One wonders where the devil has his best dinners.

Men who are constantly flattered, due to their public standing, usually receive very little pushback of substance. They are rarely challenged, exhorted, or called to repent for sin. Some of them are not real pastors who shepherd a flock, but professional speakers who travel around giving talks, which puts them in an even more dangerous position. Conference speakers often have a type of immunity in their immediate circles, which means we should be circumspect about what praise they receive in public.  

The Danger for the Person Flattered

Jeremy Collier (1650–1726) wisely remarked that “flattery is an ensnaring quality, and leaves a very dangerous impression. It swells a man’s imagination, entertains his vanity, and drives him to a doting upon his own person.” Even in our state of sanctification, when we receive excessive praise we quickly and easily start to believe the hype, especially if it is offered time and time again. The danger of flattery to our soul is incalculable. John Flavel said that we carry gunpowder about us, and so we should avoid those who carry fire (lest we explode): “it is a dangerous crisis when a proud heart meets with flattering lips.” Those who flatter are guilty of breaking (at least) the sixth, ninth, and tenth commandments.

Do we really need to hear more than what Christ will tell us? “Well done, good and faithful servant” are words that are promised to the faithful by Christ himself; yet we want to outdo Christ when we say, “this servant is worth more than 10,000 others!”

Imagine introducing the Apostle Paul at a conference today? Instead of thanking God for a good and faithful servant, we might hear: “I’d like to welcome the Rev. Dr. Apostle Paul who has more reason to have confidence in the flesh than anyone else here; he was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel…we are so happy to have the most blameless person with us, who is also the greatest of all the Apostles.”

Paul’s own desire was to make sure Christ had the honor and glory, since God is jealous for his glory and the glory of his Son. Paul’s resume was marked by weakness, sufferings, and persecutions for Christ’s sake.

What kept Christ humble?

The Father ordered Christ’s life in such a way to keep his own beloved Son humble. If anyone was able to deal with praise it was Christ. But he was designated as a suffering servant of the Lord. He would be rejected constantly and even when many made claims of faith in him, he queried whether they truly believed (see John’s gospel). Jesus shied away from public declarations that he knew did not come from a place of truth.

Jesus asked his disciples, whom he had chosen through prayer, concerning “who” he was (Luke 9:18, 20). Was he praying that they would recognize his Messianic identity? If so, he got his answer with Peter’s confession of him as “The Christ of God” (v. 20). Far from such an answer prompting Jesus to pride, it would remind him of the misery to come for God’s Messiah. Thus, immediately after Peter’s confession, Christ reminds them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). If there was ever praise – and one cannot speak hyperbolically about the glories of Christ – there was sufficient humiliation to keep him from pride and self-sufficiency.  Jesus was a theologian of the cross, which shaped his outlook on himself.

So why do we turn into theologians of glory when it comes to our brothers who are supposed to be exalting Christ? It seems odd to me that so many receive their own exaltation immediately before telling others to exalt the Savior.

A Plea for Sanity

I’ve had the privilege of being able to speak in many different countries as well as listen to speakers at conferences all over the world. While I am deeply thankful to God for the wonderful theological blessings that have come from America to the rest of the world, it seems to me that Americans have a particular penchant for flattery and hyperbole. It is so common that they may not even be aware of how bad it appears.

It would be nice, I think, if we could ease off the excessive praise of individuals in public. Those who do this very often appear to be acting in self-interest and it needs to be curtailed and repented of.

Remember, flattery is ultimately harmful: “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28); “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Prov. 29:5).

Psalm 12 is a community lament, and one that seems appropriate to our day:

Psalm 12:1 Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone;

                        for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.

            [2] Everyone utters lies to his neighbor;

                        with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

            [3] May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,

                        the tongue that makes great boasts…

May we cut out flattering lips and simply acknowledge and praise God for faithful servants of Christ so that God’s people are left in no doubt who the glorious One is when, sadly, sometimes it is hard to tell. 

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.