The American Pharisee

What is happening?

That question pretty much sums up my social media feeds from last week until now. Ever since the events of January 6, where a mob of pro-Trump supporters infiltrated the Capitol in Washington, DC, our national psyche has been hyper-agitated. Some are worried. Others are angry. Everyone has someone to blame. Conspiracists are having a second Christmas as unproven theories run amok, and every politician is clamoring to take full advantage of the situation. But the big questions still remain unanswered:

  • What went wrong?
  • How did we get to this point?
  • Can we ever recover as a nation?

Nothing New Under the Sun

Power struggles were nothing new in Jesus’ time. The Jews, under Roman occupation (and the Syrians before that, and the Greeks before that, and the…. well, you get the picture) had tried to exert power over their piece of land. The Jews formed themselves into five major sects. You had the Essenes, who were the weirdos. They cut themselves off from everybody and studied some mystic form of Judaism that was more gnostic philosophy than Old Testament. Next were the Zealots. These were the domestic terrorists who believed in a free Israel at any cost. They led uprisings, fomented riots, and even tried to assassinate Roman officials. The Herodians were Roman sympathizers who claimed they wanted peace in the region, but in reality, they wanted power and were given a puppet king, Herod, to reward them. The next two groups were the parties that made up the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem. The majority party were the Sadducees. In our modern parlance we would label them the “liberal” party. They, like the Herodians, wished to appease Rome (which is why they were the majority party), and they had a very low view of the Old Testament Scriptures, dismissing out of hand any miracles that took place. As the majority party they were responsible for Temple taxes, the exchange rate charged by money-changers at the court entrances, and the taxes in the city of Jerusalem. In short, they were highly unpopular with the common people. The other party, the ones we would call “conservatives,” were the Pharisees. They too wanted an independent Israel, but they did not stoop to the violent tactics of the Zealots. Instead they used rhetoric and political influence to try and work towards liberty for the Jews. They were also religiously conservative. They held a high view of the Old Testament and believed that God would bless their nation if the country as a whole would return to obedience to Mosaic Law. They were also racial purists and, if the term existed back then, they were “fundamentalists” in the sense they applied the fundamentals of their religion to every aspect of life.

American Pharisaism

I think it is important here to acknowledge that (1) Jesus, at least doctrinally, was closest to the Pharisees, and therefore (2) many evangelicals are also closest in doctrine to the Pharisees. Why is this important? Because a form of Pharisaism is alive and well today in the American Church.

Usually when such a claim is made, most Christians automatically assume a reference to a brand of fundamental legalism that sometimes makes its bed in conservative churches. Anyone who grew up in or around conservative Christianity has seen such legalism rear its head, whether it is evidenced by doctrinal squabbles, dress codes, hair length, or the “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s. However, the American Pharisaism that I am referring to is not merely legalistic in nature. It is something far more insidious, and harder to detect. It clothes itself in conservative politics and walks proudly down the aisles of our churches and is celebrated by evangelicals across the country.

What is it that makes American Pharisaism dangerous? In short, it blinds adherents to the truth that Jesus wants them to embrace. In John 8 Jesus is teaching, and some Pharisees happen to be in earshot. Some of the phrases the Pharisees take issue with are:

•          “I am the light of the world” v. 12
•          “The Father who sent me bears witness about me.” v. 18
•          “If you knew me, you would know my Father.” v. 19
•          “You are from below. I am from above. You are of this world. I am not of this world.” v. 23
•          “Unless you believe that I am [the Son of God] you will die in your sins.” v. 24
•          “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” v. 32

Each statement is a shot across the bow of the Pharisees worldview. Jesus directly challenges their concepts of Messiah, God as Father, Heavenly Kingdom vs. the world, and forgiveness of sins. He is trying to get them to turn and see a truth hiding in their blind spot; a truth that will set them free. Their reaction? Repentance? A change of mind? A holy “Aha!” moment? Nope. First they display their blindness, “We are sons of Abraham. We have never been slaves.” (v. 33) Really? Then what’s with all the Roman soldiers walking around? In actuality, the Jews haven’t been “free” for quite some time. But Jesus wasn’t speaking of political freedom. He was speaking of spiritual freedom. A freedom from sin.

Instead of repenting, the Pharisees change tack and accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed! As if that’s not bad enough, when Jesus claims to be greater than Abraham, they pick up stones to stone Him to death. Note the progression:

•          Disagreement
•          Arguing the topic
•          Reliance on “talking points” (e.g. “We’re sons of Abraham…”)
•          Insults (“You’re demon-possessed”)
•          Violence

What caused the Pharisees to go from disagreement to violence? Pride and a fear of losing influence over the people they were meant to serve. They were so assured that their position was the right one that any challenge to it was deemed “dangerous” and must be shouted down at any cost. They were so close to the truth that they couldn’t tell that they were just missing it. And that, in a nutshell is the danger of American Pharisaism. And this is what we have seen building over the last decade of American politics until eventually it boiled over into violence. Now, more than ever, Church leaders must speak to the problem of confusing a far-right political agenda with the cause of Jesus Christ, but be warned: these warnings will most likely fall on many deaf ears.

I know too many ministers who fear speaking out against the mistreatment of refugees, or in support of racial reconciliation, or even calling into question the President’s moral character, lest they lose their jobs. Read that sentence again: Preachers are afraid to speak prophetically (i.e. with God’s authority) lest they upset the American Pharisees and they lose their job. Now, whether or not they should speak out anyway is another topic for another day, but the fact that there are numerous churches who place their political priorities over that of the good of their minister whom they hired to speak and reveal to them God’s will is evidence that we have allowed political conservatism to rob the Church of her purpose. These American Pharisees share the same problem that Jesus confronted the Pharisees of His day with: “Why do you not understand what I say? Because you cannot bear to hear my word.” (John 8:43, emphasis mine). Why did the Pharisees pick up rocks to throw at Jesus? Because they couldn’t stand what He was saying, even though it was the truth. I see this principle in my news feed and in the ministries of some of my friends. Truth is put out there, but some refuse to hear it because they can’t bear to be wrong.

I can’t help but wonder at how many people have turned away from the Gospel, not because of its claims about Jesus, sin, and God, but because they associate Christianity with Republicanism and a fight for political power. Jesus did not say we would be known by our politics. Nor did He say we would be known by voting pro-life (which, by the way should include all lives, including black lives, refugee lives, democrat lives, and impoverished lives). Nope. Jesus said the defining characteristic that would identify His followers to the world is love. So, I ask the question to you: Are we known by our love or by our fear? Was it love that stormed the gates of the Capitol, or was it a fear of losing power? Was it love that desecrated the Senate chamber with violence, or was it a fear of losing control? Was it love that propped his feet on the desk of the Speaker of the House, or was it a bully afraid of losing influence in an America that is steering away from white conservatism? Jesus did not call us to preserve the Republican party or to save America through political means. No. Those missions are much too small and diminish greatly in the light of the true mission of the Church: to save the World by the preaching, teaching, and living out the Gospel.