Monday, May 23, 2011

Evangelical or Fundamentalist Pharisaism

Evangelicals like to label who is a Pharisee. Not them, of course. Usually it's someone who has different standards than they do. I ask you to consider the following with this regard.

In Luke 11, Jesus was invited to lunch with a Pharisee. He went and sat himself down without the ceremonial hand-washing required by Pharisaical tradition. When in his mind the Pharisee judged Jesus wrong, the Lord could read the thought and then rebuked it (vv. 39-44). He made several points, ending with three "woes," that is, three pronouncements of God's judgment upon this Pharisee and all the Pharisees in general. So Jesus was confronting Pharisaism for sure with this first of the woes in v. 42:

But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

If you read this whole section, you will find an example of Jesus' dealing with a religious person. If this was a contemporary situation, and they didn't know it was Jesus, almost every evangelical and many fundamentalists would condemn Jesus' technique or strategy. It isn't seeker sensitive or "loving" or even smart. He was turning off His audience and losing an opportunity, according to a typical evaluation from those sources. As interesting as that observation might be, I am thinking about something different from that in consideration of a point evangelicals and many fundamentalists attempt to draw out from v. 42.

Evangelicals, including conservative ones, say, based upon this verse and others like it from other contexts, that Jesus is addressing a particular issue of the Pharisees. They say that the Pharisees emphasized secondary doctrines over primary ones, or tertiary doctrines over major ones. This specific issue is ironically a major one for both evangelicals and fundamentalists, so they "find it" here. And then evangelicals will point to certain fundamentalists and say that they are Pharisees because they make major doctrines out of minor ones or essentials out of non-essentials.

Problem. Jesus isn't talking about primary versus secondary doctrines. That isn't His point at all. Nowhere does the Bible say something like 'feel free to disobey the minor teachings as long as you keep those major ones.' It doesn't. It teaches just the opposite over and over.

What the Pharisees were doing, these legalists, was obeying the easier requirements of the law, while disregarding the difficult or even impossible ones. It was easy to tithe of the little herbs and vegetables and spices that you harvested from your garden. It could also be very impressive. Someone might say, "Wow, those Pharisees sure do pay attention to details! They even tithe of the smallest bits of produce!" And those could be accomplished in the flesh.

On the other hand, right judgment of others and the love of God were impossible in the flesh. And they didn't fit into the Pharisees' agenda. The Pharisees weren't about God or others---they were about themselves.

Rather than admit that they were failures at keeping God's law and repent, they did what Pharisees do, that is, reduce or minimalize the law to something they could keep. That's why one of the Pharisees favorite questions was: what is the greatest of God's commandments? If they could reduce the law to a few they could keep, then they could be righteous through their own ability or in their own strength.

A natural reduction was for the Pharisees to opt out of the hard, weighty, or difficult parts of God's law and then emphasize the parts that they could keep on their own, the aspects of the law that were convenient for them. So instead of being the major versus the minor, this was the difficult or impossible versus the easy or convenient. If a Pharisee could get maximum credit for minimum effort, that would be the ideal choice.

The text of Luke 11:42 backs up the above understanding. Jesus didn't tell the Pharisees to stop tithing. He said "do tithe." However, don't tithe and then leave judgment and love undone. Why would they do something they were supposed to do, tithe of their miniature garden produce, and then not do other laws they were also supposed to do, do judgment and love God? The latter were more difficult, really impossible. The former were easy and convenient. The former would give them credit for obeying the law while they were busy disregarding other parts of the law, the ones that they didn't want to do. The latter were only possible by the grace of God, which the Pharisees did not have.

Evangelicals and even fundamentalists read into, that is, eisegete Luke 11:42 by saying that it regards essentials versus non-essentials. That way they can choose what the essentials and non-essentials are. And what I've noticed that they happen to choose as non-essentials are the ones that they don't like to do, because they are more difficult or more embarrassing in the world. They don't want to clash with the world. That hurts church growth. That doesn't feel good. And so those activities become the non-essentials.

This fictional essential/non-essential, major/minor, primary/secondary doctrine also is a major factor in keeping the fake unity that allows evangelicalism and fundamentalism to be big. Small again is embarrassing and unsuccessful. Big gets attention. Big looks like a winner. Big is popular. Big can even look like "God's hand is upon you." A coalition can be cobbled together when doctrine is reduced to a lower common denominator. And so evangelicalism and fundamentalism chooses what the essentials of unity are going to be, and that list is getting smaller and smaller. Not based upon biblical exegesis, but based upon some popular evangelical or fundamentalist norm. And then this is called unity. This is also what you will hear evangelicals and fundamentalists arguing about, debating, what things that the Bible teaches that someone should expect, since it isn't going to be everything that Scripture says.

The Pharisees practiced their legalism by reducing doctrine and practice. Evangelicals and fundamentalists do the same. And they twist or pervert verses like this one in order to get it done. That's also what Pharisees would do. They would read into the Old Testament what they wanted it to say in order to believe and practice like they wanted to. Evangelicals and fundamentalists do the same. And in so doing evangelicals and fundamentalists pervert the grace of God. God's grace enables us to practice the convenient and the difficult of God's Word. It's all by God's grace. If it is by grace, it is possible. If it is by your flesh, then you must reduce and minimalize, and that's exactly what almost all evangelicals and most fundamentalists call upon you to do.

Now the evangelicals and the fundamentalists call it grace. They call this reduction and minimalization grace. They say they have a superior kind of freedom that is God's grace. However, we don't have grace to disobey Scripture. It really isn't grace at all. It is a container of bondage with a grace label on it. People suck up what's in the container and think they have grace. They are fooled all over evangelicalism and fundamentalism into this kind of thinking just like Israel was by the Pharisees.

So evangelicals and fundamentalists create a non-existent essential and non-essential doctrine. This is a Pharisaic type of practice---man-made doctrines equated as those of God. They corrupt God's grace, by making it a garbage can into which you can pour all of your disobedience to the inconvenient requirements of God. They twist biblical unity. And they encourage disobedience to God's Word. Reader, beware of the leaven of today's evangelical and fundamentalist Pharisees.


Gary Webb said...

I believe that this has been somewhat characteristic of both Fundamentalism & Evangelicalism as movements. Certainly every Christian & pastors in particular must be willing to look at the Bible for what it actually says & teaches versus the standard interpretation/application of their "camp". I must continually be honest with the Scriptures lest I (and our church) develop our own brand of Phariseeism - doing the parts of Scripture that are easier & failing to walk in the Spirit in obedience to all the teaching of the Bible.
Good article.

Brad Gilbert said...

Thanks for the well thought out post on this subject. I have been thinking about it for a while now since the label Pharisee seems to get thrown out a lot by both sides. I am sharing this on Twitter and Facebook for others to read.

Anonymous said...

Hi, these are some interesting points. Can you provide any examples of either evangelicals or fundamentalists twisting the verse that way? It would be helpful to take a prominent preacher's words and point out specific instances of logic failure so that we don't make the same mistake with other verses. And of course I also ask because I have never heard the verse twisted that way, so it would be interesting to see.

Jonathan Speer said...

Great article!

A good thing for all to keep in mind is that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were just like the "Pharisees" of our day: the last thing they were interested in was submitting to the word of God as it had been delivered by God through inspiration and as it had been preserved by God.

They had perverted it profusely, especially during the Babylonian captivity, and then tried to live by their own rules and regulations– not God’s. Instead of placing their faith in God’s plan for their justification and redemption in the face of their utter lack of human ability to keep his law, they invented their own laws, rules, and regulations in an attempt to have peace with God on their own terms. That is the mark of a Pharisee in any age.

It has never been true that the Pharisees were ones who knew and revered the Scriptures, once given by God.

On the other hand, Godliness is exemplified by those who, regardless of the actions or edicts of man-made institutions, simply seek to submit themselves to God through obedience to His word in order to bring Glory to the Father and lift the Son high so that others will glorify their Father who is in Heaven.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Everyone, thanks for the comments.


If you google "Luke 11:42" and then primary, secondary, major, minor, you'll get among others, these:

Jess B. said...

Great article! I'd like to link to it from my blog. I hope you don't mind.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Jonathan, Very good.

Jess B,


The Seeking Disciple said...

How we must guard our hearts from the sin of pride. Humility does not come easy.