So what was really the big deal with those Pharisee guys? Why did Jesus have a grudge against them, and why do we continue to use their name as a curse two thousand years later? They must’ve done something really bad, right?
Well I’m glad you asked! (or…. glad I asked. You didn’t ask. Why are you trying to take credit for it? Stop that!)
If you don’t know, the Pharisees were a religious sect of Judaism. Think of them like a political party (same political system, different ideas on what the government should do). They focused on tradition and strict, STRICT adherence to the law given to Moses in Exodus. Their goal was to follow the law to the letter! Every “T” crossed and every “I” dotted. When the law said that you shouldn’t do any work on the Sabbath, they viewed even the slightest exertion (even cooking) as blatant law-breaking. They were also great at using the law for their own purposes, like when they used giving their money to the church as an excuse to not care for their aging, ailing parents.
Basically, they used the laws to bolster themselves in society while also condemning those “below” them for even the slightest transgression (even if they had to “twist” the words to point it out). They were merciless legalists.
But in their minds, they were right to do so. God had given them the law, why shouldn’t they follow it with such rigidity? And would Jesus, the guy who GAVE them the law, have such a problem with their painstaking attention to the details?
One problem is that much of what they preached as God’s Law was not at all God’s Law, but were traditions that had taken its place (“traditions of our elders” in Mathew 15). They were claiming the authority of God himself to enforce tradition.
In doing this they burdened the masses with rules and regulations that were not of God. All the while, they themselves overlooked their own transgressions.
Matthew 23:2-5 “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but do not the works they do. For they preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them down on peoples’ shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
But what they were telling them to observe was not of God.
Mark 7:6-8 “Well did Isiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men”
TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE COMMANDMENTS OF MEN!
Man, it’s a good thing we don’t have to put up with that anymore…………………….
(Psst! That was sarcasm).
This is textbook legalism, and textbook legalism is as alive and kicking in today’s churches as it was when Jesus went head to head with the Pharisees. Established, old school church leadership love to preach and enforce their own brands of it. And new Christians, millennials, and those just dipping their toes into the faith can’t stand it. It drives them away in droves.
And those who enforce it LOVE to use scripture to back it up. But as one of my fellow Rogues put it, they enforce the “letter of the law” while ignoring the “spirit of the law.”
Much of the legalism we see today stems from questions on the deeper, more debatable issues of Christianity, and they often divide along lines of denomination. Whether to or not to ignore the Old Testament? Whether you should ready anything except the Bible while studying? Which version of the Bible should you read? Is baptism necessary for salvation? If so how deep do you have to be dunked? Is it a sin to use wine during the Lord’s Supper? Are there essential sacraments that must be fulfilled? Should I go to church on Saturday or Sunday? Is it sinful to play instruments during worship? Can a woman lead a church? Are Christmas traditions evil? Should I roast the chicken or fry the chicken after church?
Okay, I may have gotten a little carried away at the end but I’m not so sure there hasn’t been a church splintering the debate on that last one.
We see it done so many different ways. I have had people argue that you must do something this way because the Bible says so here and here (while there and there the Bible says differently in a different situation entirely). I have also heard the argument that because the Bible doesn’t specifically permit an obscure aspect of how we worship (in fact it doesn’t mention it at all one way or the other), that do worship in that way is a near damning sin.
The point is that if you really dig deep into it, none of these are real questions of faith. When you boil it down, they have nothing to do with what it means to be a Christian. Yet so many are turning away from the church because they see the members bickering over some very silly matters. They see a house divided against itself and think, “Well, I want no part of that!” and away from Christianity they flee as fast as their legs will carry them.
Our debating, our legalism, our hypocrisy are major deterrents. And we wonder why the Christian faith in the West is shrinking?
C.S. Lewis described this best in Mere Christianity.
One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point “really matters” and the other one replies: “Matter? Why it’s absolutely essential.”
Its not that these debates aren’t important or good for growth in ones’ personal faith. The problem is that once we feel that we have an acceptable, truthful answer we want to enforce it as THE TRUTH. As if we are the only ones who understand what God REALLY meant. And that is dangerous because at that point we are close to putting words in God’s mouth. What you or I think about any aspect of Christianity is of no importance whatsoever, and to presume to understand the infinite workings of God and preach them as truth is as dangerous as it is foolish. Who are we to claim to know his mind and intentions?
In the end, we have to ask ourselves if the question debated is a question of salvation. Does my adherence to one side of this issue or the other change what Christ did for me? Am I somehow more or less deserving of salvation because I believe this instead of that?
In the end, one essential belief makes us Christians. All else is auxiliary, not ancillary.