The Problem with “Self-Righteousness”
The term “self-righteous” is not a biblical term. Yes, the Bible does speak about a type of righteousness that is not of God, but the nature of this false-righteousness is rather different than commonly assumed.
Romans 10:3 speaks about this fact: “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Note that all three subjects of this verse are plural. Paul is talking in corporate terms. We try to read “they” as a generic “every individual person in the world,” but here Paul is talking about his fellow Jews—a specific cultural group of people as a whole.
Here is a paraphrase capturing the group dynamics of Romans 10:3: “Since ethnic Jews did not know that God’s covenant love was intended for Gentiles too, they have falsely sought to limit it to their own group. They have rejected God’s arrangement for all nations to be blessed with God’s salvation.” (To really capture the meaning of Rom 10:3, one must Romans 9-11 with the categories of Jew/Gentile.)
In this light, the term “group-righteousness” (e.g., “my family/clan/ethnicity is superior than yours”) seems more helpful than “self-righteousness” (e.g., “I’m proud of being a morally upright person!”). In honor-shame contexts, people promote the superiority of “us” and inferiority of “them.” When people’s primary identity is group-based, they inevitably advance the status of their group at the expense of other socio-cultural groups. This means more honor for their own group, and that is most important.
So, What is Boasting?
These same ideas apply to the word “boasting,” which is a rather common biblical word. Boasting is not the basic pride and arrogance in one’s moral goodness over against God (as Bultmann existentially interpreted it). Rather, boasting in Romans was about false claims to honor based on cultural status (cf., Romans 2:17; 22; 3:27; 4:2). It is basically ethnocentrism, or cultural imperialism.
God’s own people–the Jewish nation–dishonored God by boasting in their special calling. “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” (Rom 2:23-24). They thought the law made them unique and superior, compared to Gentiles. They were not boasting in their moral achievements, but in the ascribed status of their election.
Boasting dishonors God. Israel’s claim to honor based on its unique status (i.e., boasting) dishonored God because it led to ethnocentric tribalism. Israel limited God’s salvation within the highly protective walls of their own cultural distinctives (e.g., circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath). By keeping the covenant blessings to herself (2:17-22, cf. 10:3), Israel has made God out to be the god of the Jews and not the God of all people (cf. 3:29-30). Excluding other ethnic groups from participation in the community of God limits the honor to only Israel (cf. Jonah 4).
An Application for Evangelism
Most evangelistic approaches focus on peoples’ self-righteousness (e.g., “Your good works are never good enough for God.”), but addressing group-righteousness could also help people see their need for God (e.g., “You’re trying to be a part of the wrong group; only God’s family will be honored,” or “God says that your group is same as all others, shameful.”
Read more in this series, “Honoring Theology“: