When we think of a modern-day Pharisee, most of us immediately think of a stereotypical “us vs. them, holier-than-thou” legalist, pointing a judgmental finger at others and trying to force his or her narrow religious views on all of society. But lately I see a new kind of Pharisees emerging within the body of Christ, and though their fingers point back at that stereotype, they are every bit as judgmental.
Recently I saw a disturbing Facebook exchange about the scandal involving AshleyMadison.com (tagline: “Life is short. Have an affair”). Sadly, the breach of this hookup website for married people exposed many subscribers who were Christians—even well-known pastors and other spiritual leaders.
Yet the Facebook posts which so bothered me contained not sadness but celebration. One poster crowed, “Folks: Evangelical celebrities are bankrupt…how many more examples do we need?” Another expressed his disdain for a famous preacher, and his hopes that this preacher also would be on the list of exposed subscribers.
I was horrified by the vitriolic glee of these self-identified Christians over the downfall of other Christians. These posters not only rejoiced over those who had fallen; they even hoped more would fall. (Note that I am not saying everyone should just “forgive and forget” about sin, nor am I saying we should sweep it under the rug to protect Jesus’ name from further scandal. Instead, I believe in a church-led healing process of reconciliation, accountability, and restoration. And I believe this healing process is exactly that—a process.)
Yet there was more to come.
Days later, I came across a social media video in which several young adults each proclaim, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not…” and then they fill in the blank with such words as: a hypocrite; homophobic; uneducated; judgmental; closed-minded; unaccepting.
One person says that just because Christians subscribe to “a faith that has terrible people in it, does not mean that we’re all terrible.” Another adds, “A lot of people think Christianity ruins people, but to me, I think it’s people that are ruining Christianity. You never really see the good that happens; you only see the hypocrites that put themselves on a higher pedestal.” A third claims that he is not perfect—with two underlying implications: first, that he thinks some “other” Christians believe they are perfect; and second, conversely, that he expects them to be. In other words, even though he himself makes mistakes, those “other” Christians had better not make any—especially not the mistake of being judgmental, according to his own judgment.
None of these people seem to see that putting themselves “on a higher pedestal,” which they denounce in others, is exactly what they are doing.
The people in the video, along with the Facebook gloaters, sound an awful lot like a new American version of the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable (Luke 18:9-14, NIV), who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” But Jesus condemned that prayer, and praised instead the prayer of the tax collector—the lowest, most despised rung of Jewish society: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Origins of Jewish Pharisaism
In the Gospels, Jesus clearly condemns the Pharisees; yet originally, their movement had noble roots.
After centuries of sin and idolatry, the Jews fell under God’s judgment and, as a result, were conquered and carried away in exile. Decades later, when they finally returned to their homeland, they understood at a deep level that the exile had been their own fault, brought on by their disregard of God and his commandments. So, to prevent a repeat of that hard lesson, they vowed absolute obedience to the Law of Moses.
Sounds great, right? But then they went further. To be sure they didn’t disobey the Law, they began to create “buffer” rules—a kind of padding around the Law to make sure no one came even close to breaking it. For example, the Law of Moses forbade work on the Sabbath, so the Pharisees’ new rules spelled out things like exactly which tasks people could do, or even how far they could walk, on the Sabbath before work was being done. Anyone breaking these “buffer” rules was censured before they could break the Law itself.
In this way, the Pharisees became protectors and arbiters of both the Law and the new rules, trying to make sure everyone toed the line so the Jews would never again experience God’s punishment.
But all of these new rules were extremely intricate and hard to understand, or even to remember, much less to obey. So the Pharisees worked very hard at trying to track and follow them all. In fact, they tried so hard to stay pure and holy that eventually they came to see themselves as spiritually superior to everyone else. They became so proud of their own hard-won “righteousness” that by the time Jesus came, he had to directly challenge their arrogant, legalistic ways.
A brief history of American Pharisaism
A couple of thousand years later, on the other side of the world from the original Pharisees, a small group of Christians fled religious persecution in Europe to establish Christian colonies in the New World—but in the area of Salem, Massachusetts, some of those colonists soon began executing others on the mere suspicion of witchcraft. The persecuted had become the persecutors. Even the passing of two millenia and the crossing of an ocean couldn’t root out pharisaism.
In the early twentieth century, many American Christians believed liberal modernism was infiltrating the church, diluting Scripture and diverting attention from the person and work of Jesus. In response to this threat, a group of theologians wrote The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth—a multi-volume series of essays which spelled out Christian beliefs and their differences from the beliefs of the surrounding culture. This movement came to be called fundamentalism. But eventually it splintered into factions, each one claiming to have the only true doctrine—pharisaism at its best.
In the mid-twentieth century, discomfort with fundamentalist separatism gave rise to evangelicalism, which tried to maintain a Christian identity while engaging the secular culture instead of avoiding or condemning it—but again, in some ways, traces of pharisaism crept in. Then, in response to the free-wheeling 1960s-70s, the 1980s-90s birthed Christian moralism. Like every other attempt to define and protect true Christian belief and practice, this movement was not necessarily wrong in itself—yet like all the others, it contained pharisaical pitfalls.
The new American Pharisee
And now, as mentioned above, a new American Pharisee is emerging. I believe that those in this group, like their predecessors, sincerely desire to obey God’s commandments to “love the Lord your God…” and “…love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, NIV).
Still, though it seems nearly impossible to bring legalism into this commandment, these new Pharisees found a way to do so. Like every human, they too fall into the “us vs. them, holier-than-thou” trap. By claiming not to be judgmental, they judge those “other” believers who they think are – especially believers whose convictions are “unhip” and countercultural, even though Jesus himself was countercultural.
And if one of those “other” believers is caught in sin, they symbolically stone him or her—in order to prove to the world that they are, in fact, loving Christians.
Let’s be honest: we are all Pharisees in one way or another. Jesus calls his followers to unite the church and heal its wounded; but Pharisees, no matter how well-intentioned, always end up dividing the church and executing its wounded.
What if those Facebook posters were to express sorrow over each exposed Ashley Madison subscriber and say, “I disagree with this guy on a lot of things, but he and his family really need our prayers”? What if they humbly admitted that they themselves are just as capable of committing terrible sins?
What if those video makers were to proclaim: “I am a Christian, and I am a hypocrite, and I am judgmental, and I am closed-minded, and I am unaccepting—especially of other Christians!… and I am in need of a Savior”?
What if we Pharisees, both old and new, were to abandon our attitude of spiritual superiority and cry out, like the lowly tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”?
Because Jesus said the tax collector, not the Pharisee, “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14, NIV).
Jesus made it clear: the penitent tax collector had a better understanding of sin and grace than the proud Pharisee beside him ever could.