I was recently introduced to a cultural term-Tall Poppy Syndrome-which was new to me but which expresses a phenomenon I have repeatedly observed. It is a term that expresses a cultural notion, prevalent in the English-speaking world, to despise people or organizations of influence, wealth, prosperity or superior skill. Apparently it originates from several ancient literary accounts whereby rulers would enter a field or garden and cut the tops off the tallest poppies or crops in order to symbolically send a message to their armed forces to kill anyone that sought to stand above the average man. “Tall poppies” were briskly decapitated for their apparent smug superiority.
The Effects of Tall Poppy Syndrome
It is not hard to see the enduring effect of Tall Poppy Syndrome on politics, education, employment and religion. The tendency to demonize the government for lording over us, despise the honour roll student for excelling beyond us, deride the employer for oppressing us, or disdain the growing church for their size-affirming arrogance is the subject of blogs and the conversation of coffee shops from Texas to the Yukon.
Are Tall Poppies Unbiblical?
Admittedly, history is littered with examples of people who have become “tall poppies” at the expense of others. Jesus himself came to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18) and did not hesitate to chastise the governing elite for causing their oppression. He also warns us to watch for weeds among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30); and, if you have ever gardened, you will know that weeds can be exceedingly tall. Not every exceptional person, government, church or organization is of God, but Jesus never chastises tall poppies for simply being tall poppies. Instead, a broader look at Scripture showcases multiple examples of tall poppies that God used to accomplish mighty deeds. Job and Abraham were exceedingly wealthy. David and Solomon were rich, powerful and wise. Daniel must have had an IQ of 200! In the New Testament, Joseph of Arimathea, Philemon, Cornelius and several others were influential and well-off, and we are still inspired by the successful preaching of Peter where 3000 were saved in one day (Acts 2:41)! Each was blessed with affluence, influence or skill and leveraged it to extend God’s righteous purposes. We all cherish these tall poppies for their exceptional impact, and we know that premature decapitation-before they had accomplished their work-would have harmed us too.
Symptoms of Tall Poppy Syndrome
Of course, it is far easier to appreciate the exceptionality of tall poppies after they are dead and gone. From church history, we appreciate the stature of tall poppies like Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham for the way they advanced the Gospel, even though they were targeted by haters while living. But why is it so uncommon to honour tall poppies while they are still alive? Why are we so apt to say,“I have no need of you,”, even though the Bible expressly forbids it (1 Cor. 12:21). In the present, we still observe Christians trying to cut off tall poppies by:
- Automatically assuming that growing churches must have compromised in order to grow while overlooking the multitude of failing, dysfunctional, stalled or even heretical churches closer to home.
- Disparaging high-profile preachers for every error and subjecting them to standards far greater than any human can ever attain.
- Insecurely teaching that the more average the church, the closer it is to the New Testament ideal.
- Teaching that averageness is the only form of faithfulness, and exceptionality must be a manifestation of pride.
These incessant attacks do not serve to preserve the Gospel or fulfil the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), but to:
- Dishonour God by failing to acknowledge the work that he continues to do through extraordinary people and churches.
- Justify our own jealous competitiveness instead of surrendering our insecurities to the Lord.
- Kill off tall poppies or at least discourage them from reproducing themselves, thereby slowing the advance of the Gospel.
- Keep us from taking risks, planting new churches or making bold decisions lest we be numbered among the beheaded.
For there to be tall poppies there must be many averaged-sized poppies. That is the way God has designed the church. The Body of Christ is composed of prominent and less prominent members, but each must work together to see Christ exalted through the church (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Rather than attack tall poppies, average poppies should help them grow taller, and vice versa, all for the glory of God, so that in everything Christ might be exceedingly preeminent above us all (Col. 1:18).