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On Pharisees and Evangelicals

April 5, 2011 5 comments

“”Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”
-Matthew 23:13, 15

Jesus seems to be saying that the Pharisees are doing two things:

  1. They are making very specific demands on who gets to be saved and who doesn’t, yet they themselves seem to miss the point of the faith they are trying to defend, and are thus leading themselves astray.
  2. They are trying hard to get someone to agree with their list of required beliefs, and when they do find someone who does agree with them, they turn even worse than their mentors.

The Pharisees tried to show outsiders that they were “among God’s chosen”, by showing off the rightness of their beliefs and life choices. Among those distinctive views that they emphasized in order to impress others were their rightness on issues of sexuality, on prayer/fasting and on water rituals, among other things. Their reaction against those who did not conform to their own standards was to call them “sinners” and shun them from their assembly of Pure, Chosen, True Covenant Members.

In a sense I wish these admonitions against the Pharisees applied only to those with the same theology, superficially speaking. Us Protestants have historically divided religious views in only two camps: those who hold to “salvation by works” and those who hold to “salvation by grace through faith”, i.e. the right view. Hence, Pharisees are merely seen as the example of people in the former camp, and Jesus is the person in the latter camp setting and example for those who would position themselves to be in this theological camp.

Something makes me think this is totally missing the point.

First of all, the criticism Jesus continuously gives the Pharisees has nothing to do with a specific theological system of how one is made righteous, but rather of the attitude of religious people trying to reduce the Kingdom of Heaven to a strict set of requirements and expelling and shunning everyone who don’t live up to their standards.

Second, as I already hinted at the start, the Pharisees were not really legalistic in the sense that they were trying to earn their righteousness by moral “actions” – they relied on “works of the Law” in the sense that they tried to show their Covenant membership by doing “Jewish stuff”, rather than by a faith in God and his Messiah.

What sneaks up on me is the realization that Christians who hold to a strict doctrine of Sola Gratia and Sola Fide, may sometimes be the most guilty of being “Pharisaical”. Jesus primarily warned of Hell to those pious religious people who excluded and shunned others, not to sinners.

Now, I’m sure he’d have a word or two to say in an environment that was overly “inclusive” in a way that ignores truth. But what I’m saying is merely that a lot of us conservative Christians should be afflicted by Jesus’ words to the Pharisees. Yes, Liberal theology can be very dangerous.

But the theology that Jesus confronted wasn’t liberal in any way, shape or form. They were in many ways the Evangelicals of 1st Century Judaism.

PS. I’d very much like to talk more about that last verse as well. What are the dangers of evangelism? Can the wrong kind of evangelism make a person into an EVEN WORSE child of Hell than before? Hmm…