The Pharisees will always be with us

The Pharisees never really went away. They will, much like the poor, always be with us. Many confuse pharisaism and legalism. For sure, the Pharisees were legalists. They believed they were acceptable to God because of their adherence to the law i.e. works righteousness. But pharisaism and legalism are not the same thing.

The hallmark of the Pharisees was not their works righteousness. The overwhelming majority of Jews would have functioned out of the same legalistic adherence to the Mosaic law. What set the Pharisees apart was their penchant for fencing the fences. It wasn’t their adherence to the law that was at issue (relative to other Israelites), it was their additional rules and fences to keep people as far away from the law that set them apart.

There certainly is a strain of legalism in the Evangelical church. It is usually attached to the gospel. So it typically finds expression after one has come to believe in Christ. It can manifest as gospel proclamation that one believes by faith alone in Christ alone for salvation but, upon belief, very quickly lands hard on duty and can lead to a sense of ‘paying God back’ through our service. Whilst it is possible to please God by our obedience, it quickly takes on an edge that says – despite having Christ’s righteousness imputed to me and God, therefore, being perfectly happy in me in the Son – unless I do A, B and C, God will be decidedly unhappy with me.

But far more frequently in Evangelical churches, we see pharisaism. Nobody is quite arguing that our performance will lead to our salvation (legalism) but the duties God requires of his people in pursuit of his glory, and the behaviours we are to eschew, are expanded beyond what scripture demands. The fences get fenced and everything, despite where scripture draws the boundaries, is verboten.

Nobody likes the accusation of pharisaism. Let’s be honest, who wants to be associated with the dudes that we’ve been told since Sunday School days are the pantomime villains of every encounter with Jesus? Everyone knows they’re the baddies so we definitely don’t want to be like them. But there are some subtle ways their pharisaical attitudes end up running rampant in our churches that are otherwise entirely solid on the gospel.

The first is through the constant refrain, ‘but just think where that will lead!’ Now, there are things that really are sinful of themselves that will lead to other things that are even more sinful. There is nothing wrong with pointing such direction of travel out but, essentially, the reason the thing is wrong is because scripture tells us it is wrong, not because it may lead to other wrong things happening as well. We point to scripture when calling something ‘sin’ not to the potential ramifications of a course of action.

But the Pharisee will land hard on direction of travel. In a bid to (rightly)stop us getting to sinful destination X, they determine that actions A, B, C and D are all sinful themselves despite the fact that scripture doesn’t say so. The boundaries are not drawn where scripture draws them, they are drawn wherever they happen to perceive the potential for things to gravitate toward X.

The big problem with this is that everything you could possibly do comes with inherent dangers. A person who prays could end up praying wrongly. They might pray wrongly to the Spirit instead of the Father or they could go further and pray to Mary. Do we stop people praying in order to keep them from errant practice? That would obviously lead us to other sin. But it’s clearly a potential danger. Anybody serving in any ministry of the church could do so out of all sorts of false motives. Do we stop people serving because they might do so wrongly? That is not a credible response.

But when we begin fencing the fences and adding extra boundaries beyond where scripture places them to keep people from sin, we have imbibed the attitude of the Pharisee. We call what is not sin, sin. We call what Christ calls legitimate, illegitimate. We begin loading people with burdens they cannot bear because we want to keep them from things that the Lord does say are wrong.

But the second way the Pharisees walk among us is by adopting a superior attitude over keeping the extra boundaries. ‘Thank you, Lord, I am not like those who go much closer to what is sin than I do.’ No matter that the person has not actually sinned, they have failed to keep the additional boundaries the Pharisees has set for them. They then view themselves as superior because they also keep away from other things that are not sin. In other words, modern day Pharisees create boundaries where scripture doesn’t and feel superior to others when they keep them and the others don’t.

Have we allowed this attitude to exist in our churches? Nobody ever thinks so. But here is how we can begin to figure it out:

  • Can you give a genuine Biblical reason for what you expect of your members?
  • Is your church culture based on clear Biblical boundaries or have you allowed unbiblical things to form your culture?
  • Do the cases of church discipline centre on clear Biblical imperatives or are they often based on other cultural or extra-biblical things?
  • Do you often employ slippery slope or ‘the danger is’ arguments in stating your case for why something is or isn’t a problem?
  • Are people encouraged into service by being made to feel guilty?