Church, Obedience

Neo-Pharisaism

 

Has anyone ever called you a Pharisee? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called that name by professing Christians from all walks of life. And let’s not try to sugar coat it, when somebody uses that term, it’s not meant as a compliment. It can be anything from rage-fueled “Christian profanity” to a well-intentioned but biblically misinformed attempt to quash perfectly scriptural words or actions  – but it’s a pejorative term, whatever the motive behind this name-calling might be.

The Bible first introduces us to the Pharisees in the gospels, during the ministry of John the Baptist, and right away, it’s clear that anybody who’s truly on God’s side of the aisle is going to have a problem with these dudes. “You brood of vipers!” is the first sentence spoken to or about the Pharisees.

But why? Why was this group of respected Jewish leaders and Bible scholars consistently painted in such a negative light by John, Jesus, and the Apostles?

Because the Pharisees were the false teachers of Jesus’ day. They were teaching the false doctrine of legalism – the idea that Jews could earn right standing with God by obeying His laws. And because they didn’t want to even come close to disobeying God’s law, they came up with their own man-made laws that were way more restrictive than God’s laws. The Pharisees required the people to obey those man-made laws and said people who broke them were sinning.

It was kind of like having a pool in your back yard with a fence around it. The pool was sin. The fence around it was God’s law. The Pharisees came along and put an additional fence around the perimeter of the property, keeping people out of the back yard altogether. Only God didn’t say we couldn’t use and enjoy the yard, He just said, “Stay out of the pool.”¹

And then Jesus arrived on the scene and put His foot down – God’s law reigns supreme, not man’s law. For those who follow God from the heart, His commands are not burdensomenot a yoke of slavery. And by burdening the people with laws God had not commanded, and setting those laws on equal footing with God’s laws, the Pharisees were the ones in sin.

But this just didn’t compute to the prideful, hypocritical, self-righteous Pharisees. They were so set in their ways and ensconced in their power and position that they doubled down on their false doctrine to the point that their self-deception led them to view simply obeying God’s law as written – nothing added, nothing taken away – as sin.

This is why we see the Pharisees losing their cotton-pickin’ minds over Jesus and the disciples plucking and eating (harvesting and threshing to the Pharisees) kernels of grain on the Sabbath, and Jesus healing (“working”) on the Sabbath, both of which – eating and doing acts of charity – were lawful.

The legalist Pharisees saw Jesus and His followers as antinomians – those who were a threat to the people of God by preaching license, disobedience, and “everybody can do what’s right in his own eyes.”

My how the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

Today what we have is antinomians calling some of Jesus’ followers Pharisees because these modern-day antinomians believe that striving to obey God’s Word as written – nothing added, nothing taken away – is legalism.

Is it wrong to label everyone an antinomian who has called a brother or sister in Christ a Pharisee? After all, antinomianism is heresy. It’s a pretty serious charge – not one that should be casually and superficially flung around. Well, so is the charge of legalism, which these folks are leveling every time they call someone a Pharisee. If they’re going to dish out charges of heresy, they ought to be man or woman enough not to cry foul when that same charge is leveled against them.

But the truth is, among average Christians, there are very few actual full-blown legalists or full-blown antinomians. As with nearly every other aspect of Christianity, there’s a spectrum of antinomianism and legalism with heresy on either end, and the majority of Christians falling somewhere in the middle. Most genuinely born again Christians hover somewhere around that sweet spot in the middle that we would call obedience to Scripture, but we all have a general fleshly tendency toward legalism or antinomianism. And furthermore, we can tend toward one or the other in various issues in our lives. There are issues in my life in which I tend toward antinomianism out of fear of man, or because I want to give in to the desires of my flesh. And, there are issues in my life in which I tend toward legalism out of pride or a lack of trust in God. We can all fall into the ditch of antinomianism or legalism depending on the circumstances and our personal weaknesses and sins.

So when I say that Christians today who call their brothers and sisters in Christ Pharisees are antinomians, I don’t mean that the vast majority of them are full-on heretics who think Christians can go out and sin as much as they want and nobody has to obey Scripture. Honestly, I’ve never even met anybody like that. I’m talking about Christians who tend toward antinomianism when it comes to the specific area of ecclesiology. What does that look like in the life of the church? Often, it takes the shape of overlooking sin instead of dealing with it biblically in order not to make waves or hurt someone’s feelings. It can also find itself in those who get on the bandwagon of the latest Christian – or worldly – fad, method, celebrity, or worldview, and chiding those who rightly deem it unbiblical. A few examples I’ve experienced or been told of:

Do you expect Christians to be at church every week unless Providentially hindered? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.

Dare to speak up against false teachers? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.

Think worship should be reverent and orderly rather than evangeltainment hoopla? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.

Do you believe it’s sin when women preach/teach the Scriptures to men or hold unbiblical authority over men in the gathered body of Believers? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.

Have you ever asked why your church doesn’t practice church discipline? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.

Do you warn your friends in apostate churches of the false doctrine they’re being taught? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.

But who’s really the Pharisee today? Well, just like in Jesus’ day, it’s people who might (or might not) know Scripture, but they’re not handling it correctly. Sometimes, it’s well-known Christian leaders protecting their position and power. Sometimes it’s the people in the pew who like the status quo in evangelicalism, their church, or their family just fine, thank you very much, and they don’t want you bringing the Bible in and messing everything up.

Who’s today’s Pharisee? It’s often the person calling other Christians Pharisees.

As you might expect, the legalist Pharisees of Jesus’ day had hundreds of very specific, clearly defined laws you had to obey: You could only walk so many steps on the Sabbath. You had to wash your hands in a certain manner. You probably even had to fold your underwear a specific way.

Our modern-day antinomian-leaning “neo-Pharisees” have just a few nebulous, loosely defined rules of which they, not Scripture, are the final arbiters:

  • You can’t be unloving.
  • You can’t hurt people’s feelings.
  • You can’t rock the boat.
  • Why can’t we all just get along?

And though it was relatively easy to count the number of steps you took on the Sabbath or make sure your underwear stacked up at a 90° angle so you could stay on the right side of the legalistic Pharisees’ rules and regulations, it’s much harder to tell whether or not you’re obeying the neo-Pharisees’ laws.

Their laws, though few in number, are subjective, broadly interpreted and applied, and constantly changing. Charges of being “unloving,” for example, are not supported by Scripture passages in their proper context clearly defining biblical love, but are based on the personal feelings and opinions of the person leveling the charge. A “peace, love, and harmony” definition of “unity” is frequently prized over fidelity to Scripture. What was right last month could suddenly be wrong next week because it has upset someone.

It’s not easy to hit such a fast-moving target, and practically anything you say or do (even if it’s straight from Scripture) that rubs the neo-Pharisee the wrong way is going to break one of these rules – man-made rules that they insist other Christians keep or those other Christians either aren’t saved or are sinning. So while the quality of their rules is antinomian-ish, the application of their rules is legalistic. This is fleshing itself out in dozens of different ways in evangelicalism.

Case in point: progressive Christians who have taken up the social justice cause, particularly as it relates to race. One recent example – if you don’t see whiteness (whatever that means) as wicked and something you need to renounce, you’re not being loving to people who have darker skin than yours, and you’re hurting their feelings, and you’re refusing to get along with them. So because you’re breaking these laws the neo-Pharisees have made, you’re sinning at best and not saved at worst. But what is whiteness, precisely? How can I tell whether or not I’ve fully renounced it? What if I’ve fully renounced it in the eyes of one person but not another? Who is supposed to pronounce me absolved of this so-called sin? And daring to ask any of these questions or push back against these ideas can earn you the label of Pharisee.

Another example I’m hearing more and more people say they’ve been taken to task  about is tone. For some neo-Pharisees, it doesn’t matter how gently, kindly, and patiently you state a difficult biblical truth, if it hurts someone’s feelings or rocks the boat, you’ve been unloving and said it in a harsh tone. And you’ll probably get called a Pharisee.

But who is the judge of my tone or yours? One person’s “harsh tone” is another person’s “matter of fact tone”. One person’s “loving tone” is another person’s “spineless tone”. I once wrote an article about a certain false teacher about which I was told my tone was too harsh by some and too nice by others – about the same article! We all have different personal, subjective opinions about tone. The problem is that the neo-Pharisee is elevating her opinion about what constitutes an acceptable tone to the level of Scripture. Because if you use what she thinks is the wrong tone, you’re sinning.

So what is the solution to this messy morass of legalism, antinomianism, and neo-Pharisaism we suddenly find ourselves in in evangelicalism?

The Bible.

We must become good students of the Bible so we know exactly what it says – and doesn’t say. The Bible doesn’t condemn anyone as wicked based on the shade of her skin. But it does tell me I’m to love my brothers and sisters in Christ. It tells me that God shows no partiality and I shouldn’t either. The Bible doesn’t qualify which tones of voice are harsh and which are acceptable. When it talks about speaking the truth in love, it’s talking about motivation of heart – which only I can know and only God can judge – not tone of voice. Am I motivated by love? Does the Bible say we need to be faithful to the gathering of Believers or not? Does it really say women can’t preach to men or not? Is that person actually a false teacher according to Scripture or not? We need to know Scripture, so we can rightly obey Scripture, so that no one will actually be a Pharisee.

We’ve all got to do our best to present ourselves to God “as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) When I lean too far toward legalism, I need Scripture to pull me back to that sweet spot of simple biblical obedience. When you lean too far toward antinomianism, you need the Bible to bring you back to center on diligent biblical obedience. We need to help each other, iron sharpening iron, not call each other names.

Let’s get rid of Pharisaism once and for all and simply spur one another on toward holiness and obedience to God’s Word.


Additional Resources:

Sacrificing Truth on the Altar of Tone

What Does it Mean to “Play the Pharisee Card”?

Basic Training: Obedience: 8 Ways To Stop Making Excuses and Start Obeying Scripture


¹Pool photo courtesy of Protect-A-Child Pool Fence Company
Basic Training, Obedience

Basic Training: Obedience: 8 Ways To Stop Making Excuses and Start Obeying Scripture

For more in the Basic Training series, click here.

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:17

Excuses, excuses.

We’ve all got them. We’ve all used them.

“The dog ate my homework.”

“I was going to, but…”

“I’d like to, but I can’t, because…”

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons we can’t take part in certain earthly activities. Time conflicts: If a birthday party and a wedding are scheduled for the same date and time, you obviously can’t be in two places at once. Financial constraints: Maybe you’d really like to attend that conference, but there’s no money in the budget. Prioritized responsibilities and loyalties- you’d like to travel as much as you did when you were single, but now that you have a family, taking care of them comes first.

Those aren’t really excuses, though, they’re reasons – totally understandable ones – that you can’t do something. But we’re so much in the habit of explaining why we can’t do something in the day to day logistical realm that it never occurs to us that this isn’t right when it comes to the things of God. When God’s word tells us to do something, we are to obey it, not make excuses about why we can’t.

Most Christians seem to grasp this concept when it comes to one of the “big” commands. Take abortion, for example. We know that abortion is a sin regardless of the circumstances, even when those circumstances are huge and scary. We reach out to pregnant women with the gospel and with practical help so that they won’t commit that sin. We love the homosexual who wants to come to Christ but is being pulled the other direction by her lifestyle, living arrangements, and loved ones, by compassionately providing for her needs while holding firm to the biblical gospel that says she must turn from her sin in repentance if she wants to be saved.

But when it comes to the “little” commands like…

…submitting to your husband

…being a faithful, active member of a local church

…refraining from teaching men or holding authority over them in the church

…refusing to be anxious about anything

…lots of those same Christians (including me) who are so clear that abortion and homosexuality are sins requiring repentance regardless of the circumstances, have at the ready, all kinds of excuses and reasons and circumstances to offer up as to why we can’t obey God’s word.

“I just don’t think my husband’s decision is the right way to go.”

“A church hurt me in the past, so I’m done with church.”

“None of the men in my church will step up and lead, so I have to.”

“I’m in a really bad situation. I can’t help it if I’m constantly stressing about it.”

Uh uh. No excuse for disobedience that we can come up with is going to wash with God. There is never any acceptable reason or excuse to say, “I can’t,” when it comes to a command of Scripture. God expects us to be obedient. So how can we move from excuses to obedience?

1. Understand that obedience to Scripture is not “legalism” or being a “Pharisee”

As much as pop evangelicalism would like us to believe it, obedience to Scripture is not legalism, nor is someone acting like a Pharisee if she’s teaching that all Christians should obey Scripture. Legalism is when you think obeying God’s commands will save you, make up for your sin, or somehow make you right with God through your own fleshly efforts. Pharisee-ism is making up your own bibley-sounding laws – usually ones that are related to Scripture, but more restrictive than Scripture – and insisting that others adhere to them or they’re not saved, not as good of a Christian as you are, etc. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about rightly handling God’s word in context, understanding what His commands to Christians actually are, and joyfully submitting to them in obedience.

2. Embrace what Scripture says about obedience:

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:17

Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Matthew 28:20a

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” Luke 17:10

And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.” 1 Samuel 15:22-23a

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. John 14:15

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 John 2:3-5

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 1 John 5:3

Scripture says that Christians seek to obey God’s word, and when we don’t, we’re sinning.

3. Know that there are no commands of Scripture followed by asterisks

“You shall not murder…unless…” “Do not worry…except in circumstances X, Y, or Z, then it’s acceptable.” “If no men will step up and teach that co-ed Sunday School class, it’s OK if a woman teaches it.” Nope. You will not find a command of Scripture that contains exceptions or caveats. When God says “do” or “don’t”, He means it. He means it for you. He means it for everybody. He means it if it’s difficult or inconvenient. He means it regardless of your circumstances.

4. Realize that God is sovereign over your circumstances

God controls everything in this universe. Nothing happens anywhere that He hasn’t either allowed or caused. Translation: you’re in the circumstances you’re in because God either put you there or allowed you to be there. Everybody has some sort of situation in her life that makes obedience to Scripture difficult or inconvenient. Do you think God intends for everyone to use those circumstances that He sovereignly decided to allow or put into their lives as an excuse to disobey Him? Adam and Eve tried that. Did God accept their excuses? Isn’t blaming your disobedience to Scripture on the circumstances you’re in just another way of saying it’s God’s fault you’re being disobedient? That if God had just created you differently or put you in a different set of circumstances, you’d obey, but since He didn’t, you have no choice but to disobey?

5. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to obey?”

When we really want to do something, we find a way or die trying. Be honest- have you checked out every single church you can get to and explored every available resource and option for finding a church before giving up and saying you can’t attend church? Have you actually tried submitting to your husband even when you think he’s making a boneheaded decision? Is anybody at your church going to die if all of the women refuse to teach men and that co-ed class is disbanded? Are you so willing to obey Christ that you’ll do whatever you have to do in order to find a way to obey Him?

6. Consider that this might be a test

Remember taking pop quizzes when you were in school? Unless you were a child genius, you probably don’t look back on them fondly. They were unpleasant. Hard. Sometimes scary because so much was riding on them. Maybe you were like a lot of students who could easily answer questions on the subject matter while studying, but went blank during the quiz because of the fear and pressure.

The testing of our faith can be a lot like those pop quizzes. We know the test is coming, but we’re never quite sure when. We’re supposed to be studying the Textbook and asking the Teacher for help every day so we’ll be prepared. But when the test comes, we have to take it. There’s no opting out and saying, “If this test weren’t happening I’d be able to obey easily.” Of course you would! It’s easy to obey God when it’s convenient and everything’s going your way, but obeying when it’s difficult or inconvenient pushes you. Stretches you. It reinforces what you’ve learned, reaffirms your commitment to Christ, and refreshes your trust in God. Don’t give up in the middle of the test. Hang on to Christ, hang in there, and…

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

7. Look to Christ as your example

Christians are supposed to “walk in the same way He walked” (1 John 2:5b). Christ is the perfect example of someone who determined to obey God regardless of His circumstances. Just look at everything He went through. Don’t you think He was awfully hungry after fasting for 40 days in the wilderness? Wouldn’t it have been extraordinarily easy to strike down every Pharisee who got on His nerves? Couldn’t He have decided the cross was just too much and that redeeming mankind wasn’t worth the trouble?

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Hebrews 12:3-4

Jesus gave up His body – His life – in order to obey God. Are we willing to give up whatever it costs us to walk in the same way He walked?

8. Remember that God has promised to help you

What an amazing God we serve who doesn’t just give us a bunch of rules to follow and leaves us to figure it out on our own! The Holy Spirit is right there, indwelling His people, always ready to help, guide, strengthen, and comfort. First Corinthians 10:13 says:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

God isn’t going to put you into a situation in which you have no choice but to disobey Him. Jesus proved that with His own life. Have you asked God to provide you with a way to obey Him? The Bible tells us that when we pray for things in accordance with God’s will, He will give those things to us. It is definitely in God’s will for you to resist temptation and obey Him, so it is His delight to answer when you ask Him for a way to do that.

Ladies, obedience to Christ is not optional. We don’t get to pick and choose which of God’s commands to Christians we want to obey and which ones are OK to let slide. He expects us to follow after Christ, who obeyed to His last breath, His last drop of blood. And He promises to help us, even when obeying Him is hard. Let’s stop making excuses and start looking for ways to submit to, and obey, God’s word.