We live in a world of laws. There is, for instance, the law of gravity – one that I have grown less enthused about as I have grown older and heavier. There are the laws of thermodynamics and physics and mathematics – most of which I do not really understand.
There are also laws of human interaction, observations about the way things are in our crazy world. Perhaps the most famous of those laws is the one that takes effect every time I pick up a tool to try to do something mechanical – Murphy’s Law.
If anything can go wrong, IT WILL!
There is another law, which perhaps, like the pirates code, is more of a guideline than an actual law. Developed by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, it is known as the Peter Principle.
People will tend to be promoted to their LEVEL OF INCOMPETENCE!
If someone is good at a job, he gets promoted. He continues to get promoted until he finds a job which he does not do well, and tends to stay there. The world, according to Dr. Peter, is run by incompetents. Extreme, but sometimes one wonders if it’s truth can be disputed.
If you have been involved in many political discussions online, you may have encountered the reality of Godwin’s Law. Mike Godwin, in 1990, developed this eponymous principle.
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
If the discussion continues, someone is going to call someone else a Nazi or compare his positions to the policies of Adolf Hitler. Godwin developed the principle as a cautionary to attempt to warn people of the paucity of such arguments. Unfortunately, people continue to label those with whom they disagree as Nazis, label strong-armed police as “jack-booted Gestapo” and keep the truth of Godwin’s Law front and center.
A pastor in Sioux City, Iowa, has developed what is called “Miller’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law.”
Theological discussions will generally result in someone calling someone else a Pharisee!
He has observed that in theological debates and in blogs, the tendency is not to label the opposition as Nazis as much as it is to label them as Pharisees. What the Nazis are to history and politics, the Pharisees are to Christian theology. The ultimate insult you can direct against another is to call that person pharisaical.
There is little doubt that the Pharisees were the chief antagonists both of Jesus and of the apostolic church. There was the power of Rome that provided resistance, and other Jewish religious parties (scribes, Sadducees, Herodians, etc) were part of the problem. But the Pharisees were always there, opposing, scheming and militating against the work of Christ and the spread of the “Way” as Christianity spread. They were the bad guys of the gospel story, the enemies of Jesus who sought to destroy him and the church founded upon his work.
The strange thing is that history gives a vastly different verdict of the Pharisees than the New Testament does. Such historians as Josephus speak of them in glowing terms, though his accuracy and objectivity is questioned by many. But the extremely negative view of the New Testament toward this Jewish party is not generally shared.
Of course, there is not a lot known about the Pharisees. The origin of the name, most often believed to be from the Hebrew for “separate,” but there are those who think that etymology is suspect. Some have tied the Pharisees back to Ezra’s reform movement. They only came to prominence after the Maccabean revolt. Much of what has been known about them, or has been assumed from biblical studies, is disputed in the academic world.
They were the party of the people in the New Testament era. The Sadducees were elite, the country-club crowd, but the Pharisees were more populist and because of that they were popular among the people. They were the party of passion. Like Ezra, they desired for the people of Israel to walk in obedience to the Law of God. They were the party of purity, attempting to accurately exposit and apply the Law in Israel’s life. Again, much is not known about them, but what is known is that the people of Israel in the time of Jesus would have thought well of the Pharisees. They were the good guys in the Jewish religion.
That has led to the accusation that the Pharisees were given a bum rap by the New Testament writers. If you ask a Republican’s opinion about Nancy Pelosi or a Democrat’s view of George W. Bush, you are likely to get a negative review lacking any nuance or redemptive aspects. Such, according to many, is the New Testament’s view of the Pharisees. Written by Christians who stood in opposition to the Pharisees, the New Testament portrayal is biased and unfair.
Obviously, we cannot accept that. We who honor the Word as true and inerrant cannot accept the accusation of bias against the authors, because we believe the ultimate Author behind the human authors is perfect truth! How, then, do we explain the difference between the portrayal of the Pharisees in the gospels and Acts and that very different depiction in historical sources?
We need to understand that the Pharisees were not comic-book villains, the JR Ewings of first century Israel. They were sincere protectors and promoters of a religion they believed passionately. But the problem was that they had become mired in a faith that was not a saving faith and when God revealed the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world, they held on to their religious traditions and human institutions instead of embracing the hope that God had sent them. Instead of recognizing their messiah, they resisted him.
The New Testament authors were hard on the Pharisees not because they were evil villains, but because they embraced an inadequate system based on human traditions and resisted the work that God was doing. They held on to dead religion instead of accepting Jesus for whom he was.
In recent months, I have been preaching through the book of Acts on Sunday night. The Pharisees are at the core of the resistance the apostles experienced in the early days of explosive church growth. But as I worked my way through story after story, I began to have a nagging thought, one that has grown in my mind and has caused me some consternation.
I wonder if modern American Christianity does not have way too much in common with the religion practiced by the Pharisees. When I compare the faith of the New Testament church and the religion of the Pharisees, there is way too much of the Pharisee in our faith today.
The New Testament church was amazing, of course, even though it was perhaps not the perfect utopia we sometimes portray it as. It had every problem that the church faces today, but it overcame those problems and went on to turn the world upside down within 35 years. The early Christians had a passion for Jesus Christ. He had saved them and they died with him to the lives they had and rose with him to walk new lives devoted to him. They walked daily in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, whose power was in evidence on a regular basis. Things happened that could only be described as the activity of God. The supernatural was natural for them as God displayed his power through them. And they had a missional focus. Their lives were given over to the advance of God’s kingdom; every ambition, desire, plan and dream died and was subsumed into the desire to proclaim Christ.
The church was experiencing the power of the Living Christ while the Pharisees were promoting a powerless religion constrained by certain doctrines, legalistic practices and empty rituals.
This was all brought to mind in the story in Acts 3 in which Peter and John heal a man born lame. This man spent his life sitting at the gates of the Temple begging alms. The empty religion could do nothing but keep him alive in his suffering, but Peter and James healed him in the power of Christ. There was a genuine difference between the faith of the apostles and the religion of the Pharisees
This post is the beginning of a brief series of posts for me, reflecting on the theory that has begun to nag at my mind. Have we somehow fused Phariseeism and the Christian faith in modern America? I intend to explore the faith and practice of the Pharisees, identify how it differs from authentic Christianity and how, perhaps, elements of Phariseeism have infiltrated our faith.
This will not be a “blast my enemies” exercise. I’ve seen that. People have rewritten Matthew 23 to attack those who differ with them. Conservatives are Pharisees. Baptist Identity folks are Pharisees. I think that is a low blow and unworthy debate. To paint those with whom we disagree as Pharisees misses the point I think we need to consider.
My purpose is not to label anyone else as a Pharisee. That is why this series is called, “Am I a Pharisee?” not “Why You Are a Pharisee!” I think each of needs to examine ourselves and ask whether elements of Phariseeism have invaded our life, our walk, our thinking or our fellowship in Churches. I don’t need to go around labeling those with whom I disagree as Pharisees. I need to correct the log of Pharisaical tendencies from my own eye instead of trying to remove the Pharisaical specks from others’.
Phariseeism was the enemy of the work of Christ in the New Testament era and it still is today. If we wish to be all we ought to be as the people of God, we must remove any vestiges of pharisaical faith from our churches and our lives.
May God help us!