Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Are Christians Self-Righteous and Pharisaical?

 For one thing, it depends on how you define these terms. In a just-published study entitled Are Christians More Like Jesus or More Like the Pharisees, investigated this very question. However, their measures of what it means to be “like Jesus” and what it means to be “like the Pharisees” are somewhat questionable. Here are some of their statements that are intended to equate with “Actions like Jesus”:

  • I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.
  • I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.
  • I am personally spending time with non-believers to help them follow Jesus.
According to the first statement, it would be un-Christ-like to do street preaching or to hand out Christian tracts without first listening. Therefore, we are no better than self-righteous hypocrites when we do these things and claim to be following Jesus! Consequently, I fail to see how these statements touch upon the question of pharisaism or even of being Christ-like.

Perhaps I’m just overreacting to the barrage of criticism systematically aimed at the church and Christians. We are routinely accused of being “Pharisees” because we make assessments about others’ behavior – especially in regards to sexual sins. Meanwhile, the “Progressive” church claims that they are more Christ-like, because they accept everyone, just as Jesus did. (Needless to observe, they are not very accepting of Evangelicals!)

Although Jesus did accept everyone, it was always with the proviso that they repent of their sins – the very thing that the Progressives refuse to require. In fact, Jesus insisted that we all had to repent:

·        But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13:3-5)

While the Progressives accuse us of “pharisaism” because we judge, Jesus did as much judging as anyone in the Bible. Here’s just a small sample of His denunciations:

·        "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)

·        "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25)

·        "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:27-28)

In light of this, it is surprising that Barna would list the following statements as reflective of Jesus’ attitudes:

·        I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.
·        It is more important to help people know God is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.

Rather than reflecting the Jesus of Scripture, these statements are more reflective of popular, unbiblical notions about a soft, mellow, and user-friendly Jesus. Instead, the Jesus of Scripture talked more about sin, condemnation and hell than anyone else in the Bible. However, today a holy and righteous Jesus offends modern sensibilities. He explained: “The world…hates me because I testify that what it does is evil” (John 7:7). Should it be any surprise that the world also hates us terrible “fundamentalist Christians” who also talk about sin (John 15:18-20)?

According to Barna’s understanding of Jesus, we are not very Christ-like. We judge and we make offensive distinctions between the saved and the unsaved, righteousness and unrighteousness. However, these are the very distinctions that Jesus made!

I’m not saying that we Christians should be immune from criticism. I criticize myself and also the church. We both deserve it and need it. Besides, it’s healthy to confess our sins. Humility and transparency are to be esteemed.

However, I do object to the one-sided disparagement of the church. It has descended from constructive criticism into destructive condemnation and has become a source of widespread contempt towards the church and has tragically caused many of our youth to turn against the church.

Well then, what does it mean to be self-righteous and pharisaic? Here are the statements that Barna associates with “self-righteousness”:

  • I find it hard to be friends with people who seem to constantly do the wrong things.
  • It’s not my responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves.
  • I feel grateful to be a Christian when I see other people’s failures and flaws.
  • I believe we should stand against those who are opposed to Christian values.
  • People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.
However, these statements have little to do with self-righteousness or pharisaism. What then is it? Jesus told many parables to expose the sin of pharisaism – a trust in one’s righteousness and merit before God. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, he exposed the self-righteousness of the prodigal’s older brother who rejected him, because he regarded himself as more worthy than the prodigal (Luke 15:11-31). He was convinced that he was the deserving son, but the prodigal was being hosted to a celebration by simply returning and confessing his sin to his father. Convinced that he deserved better, it was the self-righteous brother who willingly excluded himself from the blessings.

Jesus told a parable about two people entering the Temple to pray. One was a rank sinner who understood his desperate condition before God, and the other was a self-righteous Pharisee who didn’t. Jesus introduced the parable this way:

·        To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'” (Luke 18:9-12)

The Pharisee merely congratulated himself. He lacked any consciousness of his own sin and need for forgiveness. He was in denial. His problem wasn’t that he had strong convictions. Instead, it was that he had erroneous convictions about himself – that he was righteous, deserving, and better than others. His problem wasn’t that he followed God’s rules and regarded them as more important than any other rules – the very thing that Barna suggests – but that the Pharisee was convinced that his adherence to the law made him a superior and deserving person.

Meanwhile, we are maligned as Pharisees because we follow the teachings of the Bible and regard them as the ultimate revelation of truth. However, Jesus never taught against these beliefs. Instead, He reaffirmed them!

Also, Barna indirectly maligns Christians because they might feel grateful for the freedom they have in Christ (John 8:31-32), when they see the moral confusion of non-Christians. Such gratefulness for the blessings we have in Christ has nothing to do with self-righteousness or pharisaism but everything to do with the goodness of Christ to His children.

Nor is it pharisaic to observe that we are acting more morally than another. (We all make such comparative assessments!) However, it is pharisaical to take credit for it.

Jesus did a lot of judging. Contrary to Barna, He stood “against those who are opposed to Christian [Biblical] values.” Arguably, everything He said was in judgment of a distortion of Biblical truth. And we are supposed to think and act like Jesus (1 Peter 1:15). Therefore, it is inconceivable that by merely making moral judgments or by insisting on repentance, we are un-Christ-like, as the world would tell us!

Barna wrongly equates self-righteousness with the statement, “It’s not my responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves.” However, Jesus taught that there are times that we have to shake the dust off our feet, as a sign of God’s displeasure, and move on. He also warned against throwing our pearls of wisdom before swine (Mat. 7:6). Therefore, it is sometimes Christ-like to not extend ourselves to others. Sometimes, we even harmfully enable people by helping them.

You might think that I am making much out of nothing. However, the secular world has no reservations about calling us “hypocrites,” thereby encouraging acts of violence against the church. We are termed “homophobic” and “Islamophobic,” essentially pasting a target on our backs. Consequently, many are now seeing the target and have begun firing away. Here’s one example:

·        The Southern Poverty Law Council's decision to label ministries that oppose same-sex "marriage" as "hate groups" led directly to the Family Research Council (FRC) shooting, according to a chilling new video. 

However, the mainstream media refuses to adequately report the very violence they incur. This merely perpetuates the problem.

Some Christians believe that when wrongly accused, we should merely rejoice. Yes, we should rejoice, but we should also denounce the injustice. When the high priest unjustly ordered Paul to be struck, he protested:

·        "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!" (Acts 23:3)

Was Paul’s response un-Christ-like? Certainly not! Jesus responded similarly at His arrest and trial. May the Lord also give us wisdom to respond in truth and grace when mistreated and maligned.

Returning to the question of self-righteousness – It is we Christians who have been freed from this life-consuming preoccupation of trying to prove ourselves and our worth. This abscess has been absolutely filled by our Savior who has given us the gift of His righteousness. Therefore, we no longer need to deny the ugly things we carry within. Instead, we can be transparent and cry out, “Christ has set me free!

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