Are You a 21st Century Pharisee?

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I don’t suspect this post will be popular nor well received by some in the “Christian” camp, maybe even by many. But, neither were Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Is this a kind of “Kratzer Manifesto?” Who knows, probably not. But, for sure, it is with strong conviction that I write.

I believe, from personal observation and experience, that our current Christian culture in America and abroad has been infected with epidemic proportions of the religious spirit manifested by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. And yet, for most believers, we are so entrenched in it, we don’t even realize the religious stew in which we soak.

It was the Pharisees who leveraged Judaism into their own self-righteous system of rule keeping, regulations, self-improvement, condemnation, political structures, and inside handshakes.  In many ministry contexts today, we could simply take these same realities and put the title “church” over them and the descriptions would equally apply. Many churches of our time have knowingly or unknowingly created and given harbor to the modern day, 21st century Pharisee and then given them the title “Christian.”

In fact, let’s look at several of the defining characteristics and distinctions of a 21st Century Pharisee lest perhaps maybe you (or I) are one of them?

o.o1 Memorization verses Meditation – In our Christian culture we have determined that memorizing Bible verses is automatically a worthy and necessary pursuit in the Christian life.  There are entire children’s ministries that revolve around having young people memorizing Bible verses, complete with memorization competitions. What could be wrong with that, right? Almost everything.

Unfortunately, the benefits of memorizing Bible verses has skidded off the road into a ritualistic activity of self-righteousness that is purposed on one-uping other Christians, arming for debates, and confronting sinners or those who disagree with you. The truth is however, the Word of God memorized alone merely brings us up to the level of Satan himself, who knows the scriptures back and forth as every good Pharisee did as well. It is a disturbing trend to see people viewing scripture memorization as a spiritual work-out and assume that if you memorize some Bible verses you are growing spiritually. Surely, in many Christian precincts, we have made an idol out of Bible memorization and turned God’s Word into peacock feathers we put on display that others might admire and yield to our spirituality.  To be sure, memorization alone has never moved one single Christian forward in their walk, and in fact, has surely moved many backwards.

It is interesting that the Bible never specifically instructs us to “memorize” the Bible, but rather speaks frequently about “meditating” on God’s Word.

Memorization is something people do to pass tests and regurgitate information, “meditation” is what people do to encounter God and be transformed by His personal revelation into their lives.  Meditation is reading and learning a verse(s) repeatedly, bringing it to mind and heart over and over again, asking God to personally speak revelation into their lives. It is an encounter with God Himself for the purpose of revealing Himself into one’s life personally and uniquely. It is a matter of heart, hearing, and being encountered by the living God on a personal, transformational level.

It is no wonder that the religous spirit of the Pharisees puts such value on memorization, it’s all about passing tests and giving them.  They did this to Jesus repeatedly and are certain proof that one can memorize the scriptures and never encounter God. But, you cannot meditate on His Word without a personal encounter with Him.

The Pharisees memorized words on a page, the whole Torah in fact.  But not revelation from God. Words only take reading (or hearing), memorizing only takes remembering. Revelation takes an open heart, postured in faith and expectancy with a personal connection with God.

The purpose of God’s Word is to lead us into experiencing God’s revelation personally for our lives and living. Meditation provides for this, memorization alone does not. Modern day, 21st century Pharisees memorize, in their minds, what is written, followers of Jesus receive and remember personal revelation in their heart. Big, huge, cosmic difference!

o.o2 Discipleship verses Identity in Christ- Obviously, discipleship as “learning” is a valuable Christian experience. We all need to learn from God and others.

But what many today call “discipleship” has taken on the garments and perfumes of the religious Pharisees. We have turned “learning” and being “learners” into a gnostic-type process of ascent.  With “accountability partners” and “motivational conferences” to do better we have turned “learning” into a spiritual treadmill, striving and trying to become a better person.

In most Christian circles, “discipleship” starts from the premise that there is “someone that you are not, who you need to become.” Therefore you need to come to these classes, attend these groups, listen to these cd’s, and take on these practices and behaviors in order to “become a fully mature person in Christ.”

Yet, living from our “Identity in Christ” begins from the premise of being more fully who you already are in Christ through faith.  This is a huge distinction, and radically changes nearly every dynamic of the Christian life and how we “spur each other onto good works.” Moving from a child of God, to a son or daughter, to an heir, priest, and king in the Kingdom is not a process, it is in fact, a reality already established and accomplished by Christ for those who believe. In Christ, there is no “growing more,” there is only becoming more of who you already are through faith in Christ’s performance in your life, not yours.

Today’s “discipleship” places a certain amount (if not a large amount) of faith and reliance on one’s ability to do better as a Christian. However, living from our “Identity in Christ” seeks to increase one’s placing of faith and reliance on God’s work and will in or lives.  It is not a pursuit of becoming, it is a growing faith in who we have  already become through and in Christ.

Modern day discipleship merely ends at what Jesus has done FOR you, but living from our “Identity in Christ” continues on to what Jesus has done TO you. “Discipleship” focuses our consciousness on what we need to do better and aren’t doing right, “Identity in Christ” focuses our consciousness on the author and perfector of our faith, what He has done to make us right and how to live rightly from who we already are and have in Him.

Therefore, today’s “discipleship” stresses producing fruit, as if producing fruit is something we could actually do. Yet, living from our “identity in Christ” stresses bearing the fruit God produces.

It is now easy to understand how the discipleship mindset of the Pharisees involved levels of ascent, information to be mastered, numerous hoops to jump through, and a hierarchy of the “learned.”  Today, you can see this same mindset in churches through various forms.  To be sure, our basic concept of modern day discipleship approaches people and the Christian life as program of progression through steps, rules, formulas, and “to do” lists.  Yet Jesus said in contrast “my yoke is easy, my burden is light” in direct reference to his discipleship process, of which His performance is the process, not ours. Jesus’ work on the cross is the discpleship program and process, faith is what receives it.

If there is any process to the Christian life, it is in being more of who we already are, all through faith, not “becoming” through trying harder and doing better. Faith in Jesus’ life in you is the key, not formulas for making your life like Jesus.

o.o3 Obedience verses Faith-  On a deeper level, there is a reason why we have taken a performance-driven approach to things like discipleship.

First, it is perhaps because we don’t fully believe in and trust God’s work in us. For many, the Gospel just isn’t sufficient enough, there has to be something we must do or can do. To leave our lives and living completely in the hands of His performance and not ours is seen as a risky concept. Surely, the same Grace that saves us, can’t be the same Grace that sanctifies and secures us. Though not many would say it that way, when push comes to shove, that’s what they believe.

Second, it’s because we believe and have somewhere have been taught that the foundation of the Christian life is obedience. To be sure, we have become Christian-centered Christians. Our performance is our preoccupation. The Christian life is all about what you do and don’t do.

Third, a performance-driven approach to the Christian life appeals to our flesh and culture. We love to feel the adrenaline rush of feeling like we have accomplished something and that our lives and destiny our in our hands.

Unfortunately, these three reasons have become the faulty foundations from which we live and teach the Christian life.  In short we believe that obedience is the root and faith is the fruit of the Christian life. This is modern day Pharisee-mindset at its finest.

The truth is, the foundation of the Christian life is faith, and the fruit is obedience.

This foundation shift changes everything.

Following rules, list of “to do’s,” striving to be better, trying to do better, recommitting your life to Christ, pledges, resolutions etc. all have never truly moved people forward spiritually. They only served to create a self-serving facade of a spiritual veil to an empty life.  In truth, they are modern forms of the Law, aimed at engaging your will to change your life.

The reality is, the Law was created to show you and I our will can’t change anything, no matter how hard we try.  Yet, the Pharisees used it as a way to indoctrinate people into the self-righteous, never ending treadmill of religion. The same thing is happening today in modern Christianity, only we have given it new names like, “discipleship”, “Christianity, “spiritual growth.” Just browse the aisles of your local Christian bookstore and you will see the performance-driven mindset we have made of Christianity and the Christian life.  And the deeply, tragic reality is, we are addicted to it.

Yet, the truth is holiness isn’t a lifestyle you choose to live by, it’s an identity you to choose to receive through faith. The obedience of the New Covenant is an obedience of faith, not rule keeping. The Law only serves to actually entice us to sin more, not less. Rather, it is the Grace of God that teaches us to live rightly. Faith is the root, obedience is the fruit. A person with an obedience problem is a person who has an identity problem. They don’t know what Jesus has done TO them, and/or believe it. Disciplship isn’t about a process of becoming, it’s an awakening to who you already are in Christ, and believing it. It’s all about His performance, not ours.

o.o4 Membership verses Manifestation- Where I would agree that in church-world, uniting people around shared vision and values is highly important. Unfortunately, in most church settings the concept of “membership” has taken on a whole other life and purpose.  In fact, it hasn’t been until recent years that the concept of utilizing membership as a tool for church unity has existed.

Rather, in most churches, church membership serves several other purposes… it show who’s “in” and who’s “out,” it’s a means to get people to commit to your brand of church, it identifies people who are “trusted” to serve, it’s a status from which members declare and receive certain “rights” and “privileges,” it’s a way of tracking people and charting trends, it is a status that makes one feel they have accomplished something of value spiritually and are “covered” in that area of their life, and it’s a number used by pastors and leaders to gauge success.

In this way, “church” has become much like a club you join.  There is little difference between the basic concepts of membership at a local church than there is at a local YMCA.  The consumerism mindset of our American culture has found its way into the “church” and church membership is just one example.   Pastors use it to bolster their egos and members use it to legitimize demands, benefit from privileges, have their say, attain status, and put a notch on their spiritual belts.

Yet, it’s interesting that the concept of membership in the Bible is not specifically present, and the closest we get is with groups of Christians gathering and serving together with shared vision and values, nothing more nothing less.  Obviously, the New Testament is not meant to confine churches and limit the freedoms to what is possible, but I would suggest that what we have made church membership into is nothing less than yet another example of the modern, 21st century pharisee-mindset at work. What could be more legalistic than to make “church” into a club with a cross on top where some are “in” and some are “out” complete with inside handshakes, politics, levels of status, special privileges, and a process by which you can feel righteous in your life, all through a simple church “membership.” Jump through the hoops, and you too can have one.

At a core level, followers of Christ should not be identified by nor take their identity from any form of membership, but rather should be manifesting Christ (their true identity) and partnering together to share the Gospel and build the Kingdom.  Instead of merely attending and being a “member” of a church, we should be “being” the church to the world.  Enough with superficial, spiritual club memberships that turn the Christian life into something one attends, gets involved with, and earns their place in one or two days a week. Lets get back to the heart and be people of the “The Way” as we spend our time manifesting the Grace of Jesus to the world, individually and together. Let’s not let our preoccupation be with “what’s in it for me” but rather, “what is in me that I need to give to the world.”  The church was never meant to be a club, but a conversation of believers with the world about the Grace of God through Jesus Christ. Meeting together was never meant to transform into melding together through traditions, memberships, and institutional mindsets. The church becomes the hope of the world when we Christians see ourselves as the manger of the Gospel, not a member of a religious organization.

o.o5 Law verses Grace- Truth be told, most Christians are suspicious of Grace. They believe, if left unrestricted, it promotes sin, and hate it because they can’t use it to one-up other Christians, point out their shortcomings, and thump their Bibles. For sure, Grace disarms and frustrates the religious, but frees and fortifies the broken. Yes, many Christians do value Grace to an extent because they know you can’t sell God without at least some of it, but also like to keep a lid on it, because in their minds too much would be too much and they could lose control.

The formula they hold to is…  Grace + Law= Gospel.

That’s why they believe rules, guilt, fear, shame, to-do lists, steps, and formulas are what are needed to move the Christian train down the track. Appeal to a person’s sense of guilt and a perceived ability they can turn their lives around. Break them down and then show them how to build themselves back up, looking and acting just like “us.” This is the drum beat of the historical and modern day Pharisee.

However, what may work for a military boot camp, does not work for Jesus nor the Christian life. Punishment has never made anyone Holy.

The Gospel is Grace, or it isn’t the Gospel. God does the work, we believe, and thus receive.  The formula is… Grace + Law = Law,  Grace = Gospel

There is no mixture, and if there is, there is no Grace.  It is not, “God does His part, we do our part.”  Rather, it is, “God does His part, and our part is to realize we don’t have a part; only to believe.”  Faith is the currency of heaven, not our efforts. Favor is unmerited or it’s not favor at all.

A person who truly receives the pure Gospel of God’s Grace does not sin more than sin less, because they know who they truly are in Christ and believe it. They are not sin conscious, they are Jesus conscious. It is their identity that defines their performance, not their performance that defines their identity.

This revelation of the new covenant Gospel of God’s Grace changes everything, rules and rule keeping never changed anything. It is all Grace, or it isn’t Grace at all.

The Pharisees hated Grace, at any level. They loved to condemn, push their rules, and display power point presentations of their religious standards and traditions. And though I hate to say it, I suspect they would be very comfortable in most churches and with most Christians today where this always enough of the Law around to make sure Grace is kept contained and quantified. The modern day, 21st Century Pharisee at most thinks Grace is the appetizer, it’s the bait that leads to the catch. It’s a nice thing that leads to the real thing. It’s part of an equation, but not the solution. For them, the solution is God + you, together saving and sanctifying.

However, the Gospel is Grace alone through faith. It IS the solution, not a part of it. It’s the main meal, the only meal, not an appetizer. There is not hook, there is no catch, there is only Grace. Grace needs no side kick, lead in, bate, appetizer or trailer, it is the whole deal, the real deal, and the only deal. Its host is faith, not performance. It is attracted to our weaknesses not our strengths. Everything else is a con, scam, and substitute.  Grace is the only thing that works, changes, and transforms. Believe it to receive it.

o.o6 Consuming Crowd verse Complete Cooperatives- If one were to attend a church service in America, you would very likely experience a message that has a basic theme of “how to be a better person.” or “what you need to do more or less of in your life” and a worship experience that was bent towards appealing to a cultural desire to hear good music, be emotionally moved, and get motivated for Jesus.

Now I know I am walking on a thin line here because there is an important value in communicating the Gospel in culturally relevant ways with excellence.  I am a firm believer in utilizing modern communication methods and technology to share the Gospel.

However, in most cases, it is not the Gospel that is being sold, but rather a spiritual experience that appeals to a desire to enhance our lives through our own habits and actions with a little help from Jesus along the way.  To be sure, we have become a culture of Christian consumers looking for the best worship experiences, programs for our kids, and inspiring messages to utilize in improving our lives. Many-a-church have been happy to join the competitive race among pastors and leaders to be the latest and the greatest to serve the needs of consumer Christians. Nearly every conference on ministry you can attend centers on ministry and leadership performance in some way or another. Pastor and leaders spend big bucks looking for that latest program, principal, strategy or idea that is going to take them and their church to the “next level” of success; success being defined by numbers, baptisms, and overall growth.

We are a culture of consumer pastors leading consumer churches that breed consumer Christians. It is the American dream turned into the pastoral dream turned into the church dream turned into the Christian dream. This is nothing less than the traditional, Pharisee philosophy of ministry made modern.  Finding the best Rabbi to follow who fits your needs and desires has simply turned into finding the best church to attend, conference to experience, or program to implement. Instead of being spiritual leaders and churches that have The Name as our identity and nature, we strive and strive to make a name for ourselves and our ministries.

Yet, what would happen if Christians saw themselves not as incomplete people who constantly need to consume more of the Jesus they already completely have, but as complete people in Christ who came together to express their love to Jesus and manifest the Gospel to others? There is truly something misguided with the Christian who sees themselves as desperate for more of Jesus in their life. How can you want or need more of what you already have fully?  This desire for “more of Jesus” belittles the cross and suggests that the Gospel comes to a person in portions, as if God were withholding Himself from us. Indeed, we live under an open heaven. When Jesus said, “it is finished” He meant it, giving the everything of Himself to the nothingness of us.

The only thing that a believer needs to consume is that which strengthens their faith in Christ’s performance, not a plea to muster more energy for their performance to do more or do better.  In fact, the job of the Holy Spirit in the non believers life is to convict them of their unbelief in Jesus, but the job of the Holy Spirit in the believers life is to convince them of their righteousness in Christ.

I would venture to say, most of what Christians consume spiritually is purposed or translated into striving to behave better and do more.  This is religion and its religious cycle at it’s best, just in modern forms.

But Jesus through His Grace, breaks the cycle. He completes us completely, our performance does not. There is nothing we can consume other than Jesus and His Grace received through faith that will heal, change, or transform any and every aspect of our lives. Jesus is not in the business of making good people better, but giving dead people Life.  He is not into life enhancement, but complete life remaking, all by His work, through our faith.

o.o7 Performance verses Rest- To rest is to believe, to perform is to doubt. The moment we look to our own performance for our worth, value, and standing, we have stepped away from trusting in the performance of Jesus and His finished work on the cross. Pharisees then and now are all about performance, all in the spiritual disguise of  modern terms like “faithfulness,” “radical obedience,” “serving,” and the like.

Make no mistake, there is nothing wrong with acting in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and to be sure, we are not talking about working hard in life economically. Rather we are talking about our efforts to appease God, gain the gleam of His eye, legitimize our faith,  prove our worthiness, give our lives value and worth, remove guilt and shame, and make a name for ourselves. So many Christians are turning to church activity and “serving” to right the wrongs, even the score, legitimize their faith, and heal the scars of guilt in their life.  Most don’t even realize it, or would ever admit it.  Yet, unfortunately, the church, like the performance-driven systems of the Pharisees are happy to oblige.

Rest is not the absence of activity, it is a foundation of faith in Christ’s performance over, above, and despite ours. When we rest, God works. When we work, God rests.   Pharisees then and now, are repulsed by those whose lives are ruled by a foundation of rest. Rest disarms the power of fear, guilt, shame, failure, and success to define or persuade a person’s life, the very things that religious people and groups thrive on to motivate and legitimize their lives.

Performance is founded on self-righeousness. Rest is founded on righteousness in Christ.

 

3 Comments

  1. What a great article and although I do memorize some passages it is for me to refer to when I need to read it and pray on it or when I need to share with other. I can say I am a disciple in Christ but I can also say reading and studying of God’s word is essential in my life.

  2. So much good stuff in there, Chris! This entire article would make the foundation of a great book… Thanks for sharing your heart (or more accurately, God’s heart) on these matters. Legalism is so insidious and I’m grateful there are leaders and teachers like you who get it and aren’t afraid to expose it for what it is…

    For many, it’s a hard pill to swallow at first, but so liberating when we accept that the power of sin is the law, not grace. There is nothing to be scared of! Law produces reformed behavior at best. Grace produced transformed living and you explained our free some so well!

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