Wednesday, October 01, 2008

In Defense of Tall Poppy Syndrome.

One of Driscoll's 18 Points of criticism was that Sydney suffers from a sin called 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', so that the churches can't seem to grow to more than 1000.

For my American readers, Tall Poppy Syndrome refers to the crude way in which a society levels the social playing field. Put simply, if someone rises above the pack - socially, economically or politically - then you can count on Aussies to cut them down to size. They try to thwart, destroy and make foolish the successful. Success, therefore equals criticism. (The exception being sports heroes).

It is a phrase used in the UK as well, among other places. Kellahan speaks about it here. Interestingly, according to this reporter, the Syndrome is actually on its way out in Australia.

I agree with Mark. I really do. Tall Poppy Syndrome is crude and rude. It is a sin. But I want to push against Mark's comment for a moment, just so we can capture the nuance of Scripture.

Here is a thought.

I can't help get the feeling that God has his own pure form of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Not a sinful one. Not an evil one. Not one born out of pride. Nor envy. Nor cultural blindness. But, instead, one born out of his passionate desire to be glorified as the one and only God. He will tolerate no other rival. And more often than not, the language used in the Bible of those whom he cuts down are those who are built upward. That is, God appears to cut down Tall Poppys!

Without understanding this, people may never know the true and living God, for he is a jealous God.

What after all, is the lesson in the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9?
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. ...

7 "Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech." So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
What does Mary say when she hears that she is going to be the vessel for the humble birth of the Messiah in Luke 1:50-55?
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
The simplest may be in 1 Peter 5:5:
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
But the one that links this pattern of God's with the humble downward action of Christ on the Cross is, of course, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. It is at Christ's lowest point that he wins over man's highest success. He does this so that no one will boast. Consider:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (...)

27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
OK. Some thoughts:

I do think that Tall Poppy Syndrome, as it is expressed in Australia, is a sin. I have no doubt about that. And I know it in my own heart. May God spare us from such an ugly sin. And may the humble Gospel grow everywhere in the world, like the growth of the mustard seed, that God may be honored in all the earth. If the Spirit determines that this means larger churches, then may it be so. If it means more believers and more churches, then Tall Poppy Syndrome must be confronted as a sin. I'm with the Dris.

But at the same time, it is worth pausing on what successes ought to be held up. For not all success is good success, as God so powerfully declares in Scripture. Surely success is where Christ is honored and God's kingdom grows. But don't let your triumphalism and capitalist culture run ahead of you.

This kind of success can be present in a humble stable; or in a woman who simply submits herself to her God, as in Mary's case. Or in the person who goes to the toughest place to evangelize and stand for Jesus and promote Christ's honor, even if that person is considered one of the 'weak ministers' in what will naturally be called a 'weaker church'. Surely, success is in the care of the poor, among others who are downtrodden and suffering. Surely success is to 'love the loveless'? Surely 'when I am weak, then I am strong'.

Is this not the message of the cross? The message of the cross is not just a declaration of what God has achieved on the cross, but also a call to a specific kind of downward action of non-worldly love? It's not just success, but a specific kind if success.

May all God's servants be lifted up in due season -- all of them -- no matter what their success looks like in this crude and rude, broken and fallen world.


Pic on Flickr by Steely Man.


Jenny said...


I mentioned the tall poppy syndrome (very briefly) in a post this week. Jinx.

And, I posted a picture of Sallie's drawing yesterday - we visited the art gallery.

Anonymous said...

Hey Justin
At the same conference that Driscoll spoke about tall poppy syndrome, Carson was interviewed about Memoris of an Ordinary Pastor - the memoir of his father's ministry in French speaking Quebec. It was touching to see him tearing up about a man whose ministry flew completely under every human radar. Carson encouraged us to see that 99.99% of the ministry God is doing in his world is by ordinary pastors. He urged us not to go away having heard Kent Hughes, Mark Driscoll and others and think how unworthy you or your minister is, but to praise God for the way he is at work through them & you.

SamR said...

It seems that 'pride' is what God is consistently opposed to in at least the majority (if not all) of those references?

Perhaps we need to see the nuance between pride and success. Success may often-times lead to pride, but not always.

God is opposed to pride. Tall poppy syndrome is opposed to success.

Can you be successful and humble - I think so. Does the tall poppy syndrome make any distinction between the too? No. Does God? I think so.

SamR said...


two not too.

byron smith said...

Sam R - I agree, though Justin's post pushes the question further to ask "What then is success as a Christian minister?" And the answer is more about "faithfulness" than "results" (in terms of church growth).

Justin said...

Nice work, Sam. That is why I argue that Tall Poppy Syndrome is an ugly sin in Australian culture.

In fact, the 'success' that God requires is humility. A point made most strongly by our Lord's cross.

Martin Kemp said...

RE the faithfulness vs success issue...I note more pastors are using the parable of the talents (Matt 25.14ff) to support the idea that we should be looking to our results as a measure of our faithfulness. What do people think? Bad exegesis?

byron smith said...

Yep, bad exegesis, I reckon. It is God who gives the growth (2 Cor 3), and the shape of that growth is (as noted above) cruciform. Was Jesus' ministry successful during his passion? The "results" were that all of his (male) disciples abandoned him, including his treasurer running off with the cash! The true results were only visible after the eschatological judgement of God (i.e. resurrection!). The parable in Matthew is also about results being revealed and evaluated at the return of the master: eschatological judgement. This will be first a judgement upon Israel and the disciples when Jesus is raised: who has been faithful with what they received? But it is also true beyond Israel. I don't think it either invites or allows us to begin working out now who amongst us is producing "results".

Roger said...

Justin with you all the way. The issue that I think is far more challenging is discerning when someone who is humble, faithful and a servant of God should not be carrying out the ministry they are in.

In my experience what you have helpfully articulated can be used wrongly as a defence for poor leadership and a questionable "fit".

It’s a powerful defence particularly if the person is already feeling victimised, isolated and burnt-out. Could it be that the issues are not addressed by other leaders for fear of being considered a Tall Poppy?

BTY (for what it's worth) Driscoll's Point 16- There are a lot of No 2 guys in No 1 slots, I think, is also a result of the tall poppy syndrome.

Justin said...

Byron -- Thanks for the reflections on Matthew. Very helpful. I love that word cruciform. I shall take it up again in normal usage.

Roger -- for what its worth, my post speaks nothing to the actual realities on the ground in the Anglican system. I just don't want to accept a critique without looking first at the Scripture. Americans don't have TPS because they value success more than Australians do. But I didn't want to swap one cultural sin for a potential second one.

But practicalities on the ground: much harder. That's why Mark's assessment was so great -- it was so earthy!

BTY (for what it's worth) Driscoll's Point 16- There are a lot of No 2 guys in No 1 slots, I think, is also a result of the tall poppy syndrome.

I'd love you to elaborate here. In the Anglican system, it is tenure that keeps a #1, #2 or #10 in a #1 slot. Not sure it has much to do with TPS.

Roger said...

I take your first point and agree–as regards my second point I think it works-or used to work like this in the Sydney context:
You have said TPS is that “Put simply, if someone rises above the pack - socially, economically or politically - then you can count on Aussies to cut them down to size.” To “level the social playing field” At times I think this cultural bias has influenced practice by implying that anyone who is faithful and a servant of God who exercises ministry can also be a leader of a congregation-we are all on the same level. The reason you become a leader of a congregation is that you are faithful (that is fundamentally important!)-but also that you have taken the time to further your training.

So in the presbyter selection process the question I often heard was: Are you faithful (the character question) and capable of ministry (e.g. preaching)? Not are you faithful and capable of the ministry, including the ministry of leadership. If my observation is anywhere near correct the tenure question just exacerbates the situation.

I know things are changing and wonderfully there is now a broader acceptance of the value of team ministry and the different ministry roles people can have. YM's can be deaconed!

p.s Strangely with TPS I’ve noticed the reverse is often true in youth ministry the one who stands out with charisma is valued over the one with character.

Pete said...


Not all of our sports heroes are exempt from the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I'd suggest there is a reason why more Australians have time for Pat Rafter than Lleyton Hewitt.

The key is success without losing the fundamental laid back attitude, though this is a bit hard to see in practice.

I think part of tall poppy is about success, and part of it is about pride, but sometimes it seems most Aussies can't distinguish between the two.

But I think we need more value for small churches.