SNL’s Dana Carvey as The Church Lady
The Pharisees were a Jewish faction during the time of Christ. These guys were famous for reducing spirituality to a system of rules. The law of Moses contains roughly 600 laws. The Pharisees, in an ever-nuanced attempt to be right, doubled that number. Whoever didn’t comply with their system of morals, rituals, and traditions risked being criticized, ostracized, or executed.
Jesus denounced phariseeism vigorously. That said, it continues to plague the church to one degree or another. Anytime Christianity is less about Christ and more about a system of morals, doctrines, or traditions, we are guilty of phariseeism.
Secular society calls modern phariseeism “fundamentalism.” (Not to be confused with the fundamentalist movement of the early 1900s). Non-Christians react to fundamentalists’ attempt to impose their extreme religious views on others. I share this concern.
Non-Christians often think phariseeism or fundamentalism is a religious problem. The thinking is that if we get rid of religion we get rid of phariseeism. But phariseeism is a human problem, not a religious problem. As society has grown more secular, we’ve seen the rise of new Pharisees.
The New Pharisees have an ever-growing set of commandments written by their own finger (not the finger of God–Exodus 31:18). These include, “Thou shalt have no gods,” “Thou shalt be tolerant,” “Thou shalt be environmentally conscious,” “Thou shalt not judge,” “Thou shalt blindly affirm you neighbor as yourself,” and others.
In Deuteronomy 6 the Lord told the Israelites to keep His commands before them always. To “fulfill” this command, the Pharisees made phylacteries–tiny copies of the law hung from their hats in front of their eyes. Today, messages of self-righteousness surround me. My coffee tells me it is “ethically sourced;” my shampoo assures me it is “cruelty free” (not tested on animals); every other TV show I watch parades a nice, normal gay couple; my milk jug is made of 35% recycled plastic; many cars have the word “Hybrid” nestled in green leaves. These are just a few of the forms secular phylacteries take.
Millions of people live and die each day trying to avoid the ever-growing list of taboos advanced by secular fundamentalists. And every day someone fails. The actor who says “fag” is whisked away to sensitivity training. Talking heads warn that we’re hastening an environmental apocalypse. And God forbid someone not “buy local.”
My purpose isn’t to argue the relative morality of these things. Some secular commandments I agree with, some I don’t. What I object to is the climate of rigidity, self-righteousness, unforgiveness and hypocrisy. Just like the old Pharisees, the New Pharisees engender this climate.
Jesus’s commentary easily applies here: “They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4).
Christians should regard secular commandments carefully, even when they mirror biblical ones. When an angry crowd threatened to stone an adulteress, Jesus said the one without sin should throw the first stone (John 8:1-11). These days, people are eager to throw stones in the news, social media, etc. Jesus’s words must challenge us. Christians should have no part in such a grace-less environment.
Paul (a former Pharisee) said he was blameless according to the law of Moses (Php. 3:6). That is, he kept the Old Testament commands. Many New Pharisees and their followers might make similar claims about secular commands. But after Christ was revealed to Paul, he said, “I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ” (Php. 3:7-9).
Paul said keeping the law God gave was “filth” compared to knowing Christ. How much more are godless commands filth when compared to Jesus? Unless our righteousness surpasses that of the old Pharisees and the New, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Only Christ pleases the Father. Unless He lives in us, no amount of cultural sensitivity, recycling, social advocacy, or fair trade coffee will save us.