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Are you an accidental Pharisee?

Are you an accidental Pharisee?
Posted on January 24, 2020  - By Sam K. John

The zeal for doctrinal purity and accuracy is something to be much-admired. We need Martin Luthers in every era. However, it can evolve into a dangerous attitude that many of us could adopt without intending to. I am referring to the danger of becoming an accidental Pharisee. Who is an accidental Pharisee? People like you and me who, despite the best intentions and a desire to honour God, unwittingly end up pursuing an overzealous model of faith that sabotages the work of the Lord we think we are serving (Larry Osborne).

Let’s think about the Pharisees of the New Testament for a moment. The term ‘Pharisee’ literally means ‘separated ones’. In the first century, it was a respectable term to be called a Pharisee. For instance, Paul took pride in the fact that he was a Pharisee (Philippians 3). The Pharisees knew the Scripture, were pious, were ‘not like others’, and considered themselves custodians of God’s truth. They interpreted the Scriptures along with the scribes for others to follow. Even Jesus once indirectly commended their zeal for righteousness (Matthew 5:20). However, no other group came under so much fire at the hands of Jesus like the Pharisees. Why was Jesus so upset with them? Why didn’t he approve their form of separation?

The ‘ultimate critics’

The separation of the Pharisees was lopsided and misguided. They gave importance to outward expressions of separation whereas their hearts remained corrupted and unchanged (Matthew 23:27). They held on to the letter and not the spirit of the Word, which prompted Jesus to comment, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23).

Likewise, the Pharisees kept adding rules and regulations to the laws given by God. In their zeal for protection of God’s truths, they kept adding fences or hedges to the Law. They developed their own body of interpretations, expansions, and applications of the Law that they came to regard as of divine origin. For instance, they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law when He healed people, as they interpreted that as ‘work’. The traditional values followed by their forefathers during the intertestamental period were considered as authoritative as inspired truths. In doing so, they made the people’s lives miserable, tying cumbersome loads on the common man (Matthew 23:4).

In their zeal for protection of God’s truths, the Pharisees kept adding fences or hedges to the Law

Another aspect of the Pharisees was that they made others feel inferior or unscriptural if they did not follow their interpretations. Alexander Strauch writes in If You Bite & Devour One Another, “The Pharisees were the ultimate critics and faultfinders. They loved to judge nearly everyone. Their judgements were quick, harsh, negative and unmerciful. They were experts at condemning others for minor infractions of the law while they themselves, Jesus said, violated ‘the weightier matters of the law.’” What is the possibility of accidental Pharisees amongst us today? Is our separation lopsided and more focused on external or symbolic expressions?

True separation

Israel, in the Old Testament, was called to be a separate people, a holy nation. The Lord clearly told them not to lose their ethnic purity by mingling with the surrounding people groups. Why did the Lord demand His people to maintain separation from others? So that the Israelites would  not practise their patterns of evil and wickedness. Circumcision was given as a covenantal mark to show that they belonged to God and were wholly separated unto Him. Sadly, the Israelites continued to keep the external mark of separation, whereas separation in terms of their lifestyle was missing.

“The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites” (Ezra 9:1-2). Most of the detestable practices of other nations were tolerated, while circumcision was upheld. How ironic that they found it easier to cut their flesh than live a truly separated life. This is what prompted Paul to write in Romans 2:25-29, “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.”

How ironic that the people of Israel found it easier to cut their flesh (through circumcision) than live a truly separated life

Today, even in our assemblies, the focus has more often been on being separated from other denominations with regard to their teachings or worship patterns. Yes, we need to be different in those areas based on what the Scripture says. However, if we fail to show separation in our day-to-day life, especially in matters related to morality, ethics, justice, integrity, relationships, etc, what difference will that make? If our identity is upheld only in terms of our religious practices (what happens during weekly gatherings, use or non-use of titles, head coverings etc), what good is that in the sight of the Lord? Won’t the Lord say the same things he said to the Pharisees?

Beyond the superficial

I’m always surprised why the so-called custodians of the truths of the Bible are silent about the lack of wholesome separation witnessed in our assemblies. Some time ago, I found myself in the company of a leader (also a believer), whose talk was so intimidating and loaded with arrogant statements that I felt like I was in the wrong place and in the wrong company. Where is separation in our words? Likewise, a few years ago, I met a brother who was proudly talking about how he’d managed to get a proxy certificate for his daughter’s work experience with the help of an evangelist! Is that not a major compromise?

And why talk about individuals? Are we not pained when we hear of churches splitting up everywhere? How many of our leaders can greet each other with a warm hug? When will many of them stop behaving like the despots of the world? What boasting and mud-slinging… Where is separation? Are we not just like the rest of the world?

I can visualise someone saying, “These are practical issues. Our concern is about doctrinal truths.” Agreed, but what is the meaning of the word doctrine? It comes from a Latin root, which means ‘teaching’. Didaskalia is the word used in the NT, which refers to both the content of teaching and act of teaching. Any teaching with regard to any issue in the Scripture is doctrinal. Today, we place so much emphasis on getting our doctrinal beliefs right — our Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology and so on. What about the doctrine (teaching) of love, forgiveness, mercy, humility, meekness, and unity?

Attending church every Sunday, participating in the Lord’s supper, doing everything in the church the way it was handed down from our forefathers does not mean that we have kept biblical separation. Real separation is not only concerned with externals or superficial things. It is deeper and wholesome. It should affect every aspect of our being and doing. Otherwise, we are just like the Pharisees of the first century.

The survival of the church is not going to be determined by people who protect ‘pet’ doctrines. Neither is it going to be determined by how ‘different we are from other denominations’. Rather, it will be determined by those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ in all aspects of their life and ministry.

Sam K. John

About Sam K. John

Based out of Bangalore, India, Sam K. John heads Emmaus Academy of Biblical Studies (EABS), a correspondence Bible school catering to assembly believers across India and the Gulf. He is married to Jiji, and they have two children together.



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