the new pharisees

I don’t know if this is the best topic for an ODJ devotional, but it struck me recently that many emergent leaders inadvertently shut the door to the kingdom, which is precisely the problem that Jesus had with the Pharisees.  I’m not sure if my logic holds in the third to last paragraph, but I’m trying to convey the idea that these leaders not only shut the door to the kingdom but also remove its very idea.

read > Matthew 23:1-15

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees.  Hypocrites!  For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (v. 13-14).

Who are today’s Pharisees?  The easy answer is traditional Christians who load believers with legalistic lists of worldly activities to avoid.  Their not-too-subtle message is that good Christians look, act, and vote in particularly conservative ways.  While this threatens the gospel of grace, there is a new breed of Pharisee which is equally devastating.

The new Pharisees shut the door to the kingdom by assuring people that they are not sinners and therefore do not need to believe in the Savior.  Everyone is born already on the inside and need do nothing to enter.

This differs from Jesus, who announced his kingdom by commanding people to “Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15).  He explained that he did not “come to call…those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Matt. 9:13).  Our sin is why Jesus said he is the Door and only “those who come in through me will be saved” (John 10:9).

If Jesus is the only Door, then anyone who denies his necessity is shutting the door to the kingdom.  This doesn’t trouble the new Pharisees, for they believe that everyone is already in.  But a kingdom which includes everyone and asks nothing from anyone is no longer a meaningful concept.  Any set which is everything is also nothing.  So the kingdom no longer exists, and you can’t enter what isn’t there.

Finally, the new Pharisees are as legalistic as any fundamentalist.  They also have distinct ideas about how Christians should dress, eat, and vote, though now their answers lean hard to the left.  It used to be a sin to drink and swear; now it’s a sin not to.

Beware of Pharisees on the left and the right.  Let nothing distract from the beauty—and necessity—of Jesus.

20 Comments

Add yours →

  1. I agree on the principle, and in fact that’s got a lot to do with why I left my former affiliation. But is this what emergent leaders are saying? I don’t recall reading this argument from any emergent leader.

    I am a member of Cedar Ridge Community Church, founded by emergent leader Brian McLaren. This message is certainly not what is taught at Cedar Ridge (and I wouldn’t be a member if it was). We actually have what I think can fairly be described as a Gospel presentation almost every service leading into the time of communion and worship which states God sent Jesus into the world because of sin. And this was true back when Brian was still serving as pastor, not just today when he no longer serves in that role.

    At Cedar Ridge, we definitely know that we are sinners, we need a savior, and that savior is Jesus Christ. It would be hard to attend even a single service at our church, and not get this message.

    Mike, you have this image of the emerging church. The “emerging church” is quite diverse, but I somehow doubt much of it conforms to the image you have of it. Do you actually have experience worshipping with emerging folk?

  2. What do you mean by ‘Any set which is everything is also nothing.’? At least mathematically that isn’t true (but I know you’re not going for a strictly mathematical statement). I agree it renders the idea meaningless. I don’t know how much more you can say than that (though I will think about it more).

  3. Thanks – I have thought this for some time, and the shoe fits well these charlatans.

  4. Marcus:

    I mean that to be meaningful there must be a distinction. E.g., if everything in a book is highlighted then nothing is, if spiritual then nothing is, if everything is God then God is nothing–or just another name for everything.

    Bill:

    I believe that Brian makes this mistake in “The Secret Message of Jesus,” where the kingdom is merely another term for inclusive love. He also implied that everyone is born already on the inside and that as long as we don’t opt out then we are OK. And this is before his latest work.

    You are right that I haven’t worshiped at your church, and I don’t mean to speak to that. I’m only responding to what I have read by some leaders, such as Brian.

  5. Thanks Mike, that’s clearer.

    With that understanding I think that the paragraph works.

  6. Dr. Wittmer, you know your ODJ audience better than I do, but I wonder if your argument in the 3rd to last paragraph could be aimed closer to the root.

    It seems to me that the New Pharisees might argue all-inclusive salvation as following logically from God’s all-inclusive love of humans. (God’s all-inclusive love of humans isn’t a meaningless set.) However, it doesn’t seem the New Pharisees see logic as a main proof (or disproof) of their Kingdom of God.

    I suspect the root issue here isn’t the logic of sets, but of pointing to different understandings of God’s love – its effects and demands.

    Anyway, thanks for sharpening us, Dr. Iron.

  7. hmmm.

    Pharisees to the left.
    Pharisees to the right.
    (stand up sit down fight, fight, fight?)

    seriously. i wonder how healthy it is for all of us (self included) to always try to win discussions by identifying our opponents as Pharisees?

    labels seem to very rarely lead us any closer to unity, or to truth.

    just a thought.

  8. David:

    I think you’re right that there is no value in trying to win a name calling contest. I’m not interested in that, but rather in asserting the purity of the gospel from those who compromise it. The most extended diatribe against the Pharisees comes from Jesus, and I think that he would say that his words in Matt. 23 are important for leading us to truth, and thus unity with those who hold it.

  9. Jonathan Shelley May 25, 2010 — 8:26 pm

    Mike:

    The good news is that your logic in the third to last paragraph is sound. But, sorry, I can’t make the connection between McLaren & co and Pharisaic legalism. I think by widening Pharisee-ism to include both extreme legalism and complete anti-nomism you slip into the everything-becomes-nothing fallacy. Instead, perhaps we could think of postmodern innovators as the new Gnostics. Where the Gnostics believed we needed to escape the material world (the [inherently] evil that causes suffering) for the spiritual world (which is freedom of the true self), the PI’s want to escape doctrine (the [inherently] evil that causes bigotry and intolerance) for personal spirituality (which is the freedom of self-discovery). I think we see this type of misconstrual of the Gospel message quite frequently throughout the New Testament, especially among the Gentile converts. That’s my thought.

  10. Jonathan:

    My connection with the Pharisees is mainly that many of the emergent leaders are also shutting the door to the kingdom–albeit in a unique way–by actually making the kingdom too broad. But your Gnostic point brings up an interesting game–make a list of heretical or otherwise bad views and see how many jumps it takes to put an emergent in it. That is just a joke, for those who are tempted to try such a thing.

  11. It is also my observance that many emergent leaders have placed themselves in the role of determining what the rules are in their game of christianity.

  12. Dr. Wittmer:
    I dare you to link emergent theology to kitch in less than 8 jumps.

  13. Jonathan Shelley May 26, 2010 — 3:01 pm

    Mike:

    Even though I disagree with you, I feel your heart behind this devotional, and I appreciate the value of the conversation. I feel that this experience of exchange has encouraged me on my journey of spiritual self-awakening, so I thank you for challenging my narrow, preconceived notions of Pharisee-ism and ushering in a broader, more inclusive vision of a new kind of Pharisee.

  14. Jonathan, you may have just linked emergent tropes and kitsch in ONE move!

  15. Thanks for taking Adam’s challenge, Jonathan. But I am troubled by how genuine your sarcasm seemed. You are getting entirely too good at this (he said sarcastically).

  16. – A PRAYER FROM JESUS –

    This prayer is from Jesus that we may here from Him, that He may meet our needs. It only consist of three simple steps.

    1) We need to read one scripture. This will focus us in the word that brings everlasting life.

    2) Since this prayer is from Jesus we need to direct our prayer to Him personally. To often Christian focus they’re prayer‘s to G_D the father. Scripture proclaims that Jesus should be the focus of our prayer.

    3) The simplest part of this Prayer is to ask Jesus one question. Please, all that is required for this question is to make it simple. Let Jesus Himself finish the question when He gives you that understanding through prayer.

    The PRAYER

    The scripture that is the focus of this prayer is “ACTS 2:38”. It’s not necessary to do any study into this scripture. Jesus Himself willl bestow the understanding that will resonate in your heart.

    The most important part of this prayer is that we need to direct our prayer directly to Jesus. If you normally would say Father in your prayer, change your focus from the Father to Christ Jesus by lifting Jesus name up every time you would normally use Father in your prayer.

    Maybe the hardest part of this prayer is the question that we need to ask Jesus. For man as we are, always try to understand the question and may add many additional quires. The simplest question is all that is required.

    Simply ask Jesus ‘WHY, Jesus why’

  17. Mike,

    ~ While we have many differences, this is theological positioning more than devotional material. I’m not convinced it’s helpful.
    ~ It’s interesting that you are willing to be incredibly harsh on ’emergent’ people, and yet you recognize the failures of Augustine in your next post. Perhaps more discernment rather than putting all people of ’emergent’ all in the same boat would be more helpful. If we throw out all of Augustine, we still likely don’t have the ‘Trinity.’ They what would we do?
    ~ What if in fact MOST ’emergent’ followers of Jesus are actually more intent on living into the ways of the kingdom than the traditional church?
    ~ From ten years of living into the ’emergent’ church, I have yet to find another group of people in America more passionate about the kingdom of God, love of Yahweh, and love for neighbor.

    Grace & Peace.

  18. quote: “this is theological positioning more than devotional material”.

    Dr. Wittmer: Could you please explain the relationship (if one exists) between right believing and right living? It seems like you could write a whole book on that topic. Maybe even get it published. I am sure everyone who reads this blog would read it.

  19. Interesting, but I wonder if your criticism would describe a Sadducee more than a new sort of Pharisee.

    You said, “The new Pharisees shut the door to the kingdom by assuring people that they are not sinners and therefore do not need to believe in the Savior. Everyone is born already on the inside and need do nothing to enter.”

    Keep in mind, the Sadducees shut the door in a similar way, by denying there is a resurrection (if there’s no resurrection, then this life is all that matters, so why would we need a savior in a spiritual sense?)

    Not to mention, the Sadducees were opposed to the Pharisees – if the Pharisees were the “right” of their day, the Sadducees were the “left.”

    I’d like to add, though, that whether you say “New Pharisee” or “Sadducee,” it really only applies in extreme cases. As has already been pointed out here, emergent covers a wide spectrum, and very many who consider themselves emergent do not deny our sin or our need for a savior.

  20. All are Sadducees and Pharisees now!

    On the horizon is an approaching religious and cultural furore so contentious, any clash of civilizations may have to wait. On one side, a manuscript titled: The Final Freedoms, against all the gravitas religious tradition can bring to bear.

    The first wholly new interpretation for 2000 years of the Gospel/moral teachings of Christ is on the web. Redefining all primary elements including Faith, the Word, Law, Baptism, the Trinity and especially the Resurrection. This new teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with any existing religious conception known to history. It is unique in every respect. 

    Questioning the validity and  origins of all Christian tradition, and focusing specifically on marriage, love and human sexuality, it overturns all natural law ethics and theory. What science and religion have agreed was not possible, has now become all too inevitable.  At stake is the credibility of several thousand years of religious history and moral teaching, and will certainly impact other fields of intellectual inquiry.

    What first appears a counter intuitive [and un-PC] challenge to the religious status quo is worth closer examination;  it carries within its pages ideas an ineffable wisdom which the theological history of religion either ignored, were unable to imagine or dismissed as impossible. An error of presumption which could now leave ‘tradition’ staring into the abyss and humble all secular, atheist  speculation. 

    Using a synthesis of scriptural material drawn from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the world’s great poetry, just as in the beginning, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle, a single test of faith and offers the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a individual intervention into the natural world; ‘raising’ up the man,  correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where ‘death’ is ignorance and ‘Life’ is knowledge,  this personal  experience of  transcendent power and moral purpose is our ‘Resurrection’, and justification for faith. Here, on a perfectly objective foundation of moral principle and virtue, true morality and ‘Life’ begins.

    Here then is the first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged. This new teaching delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition, that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable and ‘extraordinary’ evidence  based truth embodied in action. For the first time in history, however unexpected, the world must now measure for itself, the reality of a new claim to revealed truth, a moral tenet not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! 

    This is ‘religion’ without any of the conventional trappings of tradition. An individual, spiritual, virtue-ethical conception, independent of all cultural perception, contained within a single moral command and single Law that finds it’s expression of obedience within a new covenant of marriage. It requires no institutional framework or hierarchy, no churches or priest craft, no scholastic theological rational, dogma or doctrine, no ones permission and stripped of all myth, ‘worship’ requires only conviction, faith and the necessary measure of self discipline to accomplish a new, single, moral imperative and the integrity and fidelity to the newly created reality.

    If confirmed and there appears both the means and a growing, concerted effort to test and authenticate this material, this will represent a paradigm change and advance in the moral and intellectual potential of human nature itself;  untangling the greatest  questions of human existence: consciousness, meaning, suffering, free will and evil. And at the same time addressing the most profound problems of our age.

    While every day, from every television screen, newspaper, radio and web, the limitations of mankind are becoming both obvious and ominous by the failure to successfully address and resolve the most pressing problems facing the modern world, threatening humanity and the earth itself,  with this revelation, we are offered a way out.

    Providing the ‘means to ends’  this new teaching is asking humanity, choose the future you prefer? The status quo, where existing religious traditions, mired in their own contradictions, corruption, hypocrisy and hocus-pocus, offer little but pretensions and divisiveness, and where existing political process can only feebly respond to the growing chaos of more war, terrorism, economic turmoil, environmental degradation, injustice, spin and whitewash, natural disaster, plague and pandemic; or learn to comprehend that human nature, prisoner to its evolutionary root, exists within fixed limits of understanding, and by taking new personal and moral responsibility, in a single change of mind, heart  and conduct, by faith, transcend those limits and blow the status quo strait to oblivion. 

    Trials of this new teaching are open to all and under way in many countries, colloquial evidence already suggest confirmations are taking place. For those individuals who can shake off their existing prejudices, imagine outside the cultural box of history, stand against the stream of fashionable thought and spin, who have the moral courage to learn something new and will TEST this revelation for themselves, an intellectual and moral revolution is already under way, where hope meets reality and the ‘impossible’ becomes inevitable, with the most potent, political, Non Violent Direct Action any human being can take to advance peace, justice, change and progress. 

    Published [at the moment] only on the web, a typeset manuscript of this new teaching is available as a free [1.4meg] PDF download from an increasing number of links including:

    http://www.energon.org.uk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: