Accidental Pharisees by Larry Osborne has been recommended to me a couple of times recently. Having now read it, I’m wondering if my friends figured that I needed to learn the truth about myself or whether they simply wanted to know what I thought about the book. It has helped me to see more clearly how easily I can fall into pharisaic behaviour. For one thing, it’s easier to see others in the book rather than myself—surely this alone makes me a classic Pharisee! But I can also see my own capacity to make rules where the Bible has none and to measure myself and others by things other than the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This book is sharp, yet gentle. It allows us the gracious assumption that we don’t want to be Pharisees—but it’s easy to accidentally become one.
Accidental Pharisees resonates with a worry that I’ve had for some time–that it’s easier to follow the tribal position than to assess how we think and speak and act in the light of Scripture. I touched on some of these themes when I wrote a post called Get off the Bandwagon. It addresses some of the same issues as Joshua Harris’s excellent little book, Humble Orthodoxy. My worry is that we can major on the minor issues and lose sight of the major issue. And we argue our positions with such a passion that we fail to love the people who take a contrary viewpoint. I’ve seen evidence of this in blog comments and Facebook posts over recent times, with reference to such matters as the Sydney Archbishop election. Sadly, I’ve seen a stronger push for Christians to distance themselves from one another over non-salvation issues, than they have to affirm their unity in salvation.
This is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. Nor that the Scriptures are not the authoritative and clear revelation of God. Doctrinal truth brings life and the Bible leads us to faith in Jesus Christ and equips us fully for every good work. Truth is foundational to life and to unity. But the Scriptures are a message of love, grace, mercy and kindness. If we speak ‘truth’ without love then we are distorting God’s word. If we seek to love without truth, then we will ultimately fail, for only the truth can be truly loving. And so we are called to speak the truth in love and not separate the two (Ephesian 4).
I believe that Accidental Pharisees is a word in season. It addresses all kinds of blind spots. It challenges us against taking the higher moral ground and looking down on others. It warns against the dangers of pride and exclusivity. It unpacks some of the new ways we can introduce legalism. It spotlights the dangers of seeking uniformity rather than rejoicing in our unity in diversity.
There is a tendency among Christians to divide into tribes along non-essential lines. Osborne writes that:
We’ve coined words like radical, crazy, missional, gospel-centred, revolutionary, organic, and a host of other buzzwords to let everyone know that our tribe is far more biblical, committed, and pleasing to the Lord than the deluded masses who fail to match up. (p90)
These labels have their usefulness. They can be used to correct wrong emphases or to call the troops to action. But they become dangerous when used as a shibboleth to divide Christians from one another. We have centuries of tradition in doing this—Baptists separating from Presbyterians; Methodists from Anglicans; Congregationalists from Episcopal churches. There have been good reasons for many of these distinctions and even separations, but the label or the club is not what defines or describes a true believer. That privilege belongs to the gospel of Jesus Christ alone. Of one thing we can be sure—none of these badges will have any relevance in heaven.
Accidental Pharisees also warns against a bullying behaviour that is more keen to separate the sheep from the goats than it is to win back the lost sheep. Some churches and their leaders are very committed to setting a high bar of ‘Christian’ performance and they castigate the under-performing and the luke-warm. This change strategy tends to favour the big stick over the winsome power of the gospel. It can easily become a slippery path to a legalism that has forgotten the gospel all together. We would do well to remember that but for the grace of God go I.
I expect a book like Accidental Pharisees to receive a mixed response in the Christian community. Some will embrace it because they see the Pharisee so clearly in others. Some will reject it because they see it as an excuse for discipline-less Christianity. I recommend we read it with a view to log extraction, so that we can see more clearly to help one another with our various splinters.
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)