If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve pointed out many similarities between modern-day conservative Christian behavior and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. You may have been brought up to believe that the Pharisees were silly Jews who hated God and had nothing in common with us. If that’s the case, I’m sorry to inform you that you were brought up wrong. The sad reality is that no group of Christians in the history of the church has had more in common with the Pharisees than the conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist church in America today. I’m not saying that everyone who attends theses churches is evil. I have known good-hearted, Christ-like believers in every church I’ve attended, regardless of how pharisaic that church may have been. But the overall vibe of the conservative, Evangelical/Fundamentalist church, nationwide, is that of the Pharisees.
The similarities begin with the Scriptures. The Pharisees were obsessed with the Scriptures, which we now call the Old Testament, just as the Evangelical/Fundamentalist church is obsessed with the entire Bible. This scriptural focus is not a bad thing. What’s bad is the arrogant belief that having and knowing the Bible gives us perfect knowledge of good and evil. This arrogance gives way to judgmental hatred every bit as much among us today as it did among the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.
The Pharisees read the Scriptures through tradition-colored glasses, filtering its verses through their pre-existing beliefs. In a similar fashion, today’s conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist church uses the Bible-based approach of harping on Scriptures that support what they already believe and ignoring those that don’t. The result of their approach is the promotion of man-made doctrines over the biblical will of God.
Despite a strong knowledge of the Scriptures, the Pharisees followed and enforced numerous man-made religious rules which served no good purpose. As we have seen throughout this web site, conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches also promote many man-made rules and beliefs as the law of God. These beliefs distract Christians from doing God’s will and drive others away from the church altogether.
Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that they ignored the weightier matters of Scripture, like mercy, compassion, justice, love, humility, and contentment. Likewise, the conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist church today is also guilty of ignoring these most important messages of the Bible, while diverting its congregations’ focus to man-made religious rules.
The Pharisees were arrogant and hateful toward those who disagreed with them. Of course, Jesus experienced the full force of this hatred. Others probably experienced it, too. Likewise, many conservative Christians today are arrogant and hateful toward those who disagree with them.
Conservative Evangelicals might argue that they’re righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, because they place a heavy emphasis on evangelism and missions. However, the Pharisees were evangelicals, too! Jesus said to them, in Matthew 23:15, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte [‘a single convert’ in the NRSV]; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
While many Christians behave as though evangelism matters most in Christianity, Jesus let us know that evangelism is useless if we convert people into Pharisee-like Christians full of pride, judgmentalism, and hatred. Don’t get me wrong. We are called to promote the great religion of Christianity to the world, but we must take care not to convert new believers into Pharisees.
There is, however, one big difference between the Pharisees and the conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist church: the church today has the example of the Pharisees as a warning. As the Pharisees looked back to the days of the Old Testament, they read of God’s repeated warnings to the Israelites to avoid the worship of other gods. God’s wrath fell upon Israel, and later Judah, because they continued to pursue these gods. Since the Pharisees avoided the worship of other gods, they thought they were righteous. Jesus then reminded the Pharisees of the Scriptures they had overlooked, but they refused to listen to Him and missed out on eternal life as a result.
If God’s anger burned against the Pharisees, even though they were given no prior example of anyone being punished for their pride over spiritual knowledge, how much angrier might God be at today’s pharisaic Christians who do have such an example in the Pharisees?
If Jesus were here today
In Matthew 5:20, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
For many years, I figured that the righteousness of all Christians was greater than that of the Pharisees, because we believe in Jesus and the Pharisees did not. That belief changed, however, when I realized that the Pharisees rejected Jesus because they were proud conservatives whose minds were closed to any ideas that did not align with their pre-existing beliefs. If Jesus had come along 1,000 years earlier and been a part of biblical Jewish tradition, the Pharisees would have accepted Him and His teachings, just as they accepted Moses and King David. To believe in Jesus would have been the duty of any good conservative. But since Jesus ministered in the same time and place as the Pharisees, and His teachings were out of alignment with many of their traditional beliefs, belief in Him was a liberal, even radical, move.
Today, on the other hand, belief in Jesus is a safe step into a conservative environment. Even if you grew up outside the Christian faith, once you join it, you become part of a conservative religious establishment which teaches you to embrace traditional beliefs. Those who question these beliefs (even non-biblical ones) are initially counseled to change and are later rejected by other Christians if they fail to agree with conservative theology. Those with liberal theology, therefore, often leave the church. Today, conservatives, not the liberals, are the ones drawn to Christianity—the opposite of how it was in Jesus’ day.
Notice that Jesus did not look to the conservative religious establishment to find disciples, because He knew that most of them would not change. The Pharisees were too arrogant in their mastery of spiritual knowledge to be Jesus’ disciples. Instead, He looked to those who might have been undecided in their beliefs or who pursued sin more than they did the perfect Godly life. He did not recruit those who were pure in their behavior; He recruited those who were humble enough to reconsider their beliefs. If Jesus were here today, the humble would follow Him, not the religious conservatives who believe that they have all the answers.
What, then, would Jesus do after assembling a group of humble disciples who have no part in arrogant Christian conservativism? Most people think He would unleash verbal attacks on Hollywood and the Democrats while proclaiming the righteousness of the Republican Party and the conservative Protestant Church. That scenario, however, is inconsistent with Jesus’ behavior in the Bible. Jesus had no interest in confronting prostitutes, tax collectors, or other well-known sinners, nor did He seek out leaders in an effort to influence political issues. Jesus focused on confronting the arrogant leaders of the conservative religious establishment while showing mercy to the known sinners—an approach that was the very opposite of what the Pharisees expected. Likewise, if Jesus were here today, He would show mercy to known sinners, but would be critical of arrogant church leadership.
How would conservative Christians react if Jesus behaved in this manner today? You guessed it—they would reject Him and find a way to kill Him, just as the conservative religious establishment did when He was here the first time. Not only would the conservative religious establishment reject Jesus today, but they would have done so at nearly any point in the church’s history.
Many opponents of Christianity have asked, “If Jesus was the Messiah for the Jews, then how come the Jews did not believe in Him?”
The answer to their question: they rejected Him for the same reason that most Christians would reject Him if He were here today—they were religious conservatives who were closed-minded toward any views other than their traditional beliefs, and they proudly believed that had all of the answers, because they had the Scriptures.
Over the last few years, I have asked some conservative evangelical Christians a test question to see if they would accept or reject Jesus. Here’s what I asked: “If Jesus were here today (yes, I know He said He’s not coming back in the same human form, but let’s pretend for a minute that He intended to come back in human form one more time), and you had heard of His miracles, and you liked His teachings and were beginning to think that this guy just might be Jesus; and then you walked into a restaurant one day and saw Him sitting at a table, having a beer with Paris Hilton, Eminem, and Howard Stern; would you still believe this man to be Jesus?”
I have only received two responses to this question: “Probably not,” and “Of course not!” Some of those who answered, “Of course not!” argued that Jesus would not drink alcohol today. When I pointed out that He drank it when He was here the first time, they came up with a non-biblical reason why He wouldn’t do it today. Others have told me that Jesus would never eat with such sinful people. When I pointed out that Jesus ate with “known sinners” when He was here the first time (Matthew 9:10-13), they replied that He would not eat with people who were as bad as those whom I just mentioned (as if there is a certain degree of badness that’s too bad for Jesus’ mercy). If Jesus ate with violent, thieving tax-gathers, as verse 10 describes, He would also eat with the likes of those whose names I mentioned in the question.
How disturbing is it that conservative Christians say they would reject Jesus for doing the very same things that the Bible tells us He did? How many more Christians would reject Jesus if He believed in a 15 billion year old universe, or if He carved a pumpkin for Halloween, or if He voted for a Democrat?
Most important, these responses teach us that the vast majority of us Christians in America today are so conservative that we would reject Jesus, simply because He did not support or adhere to just one of our beliefs. To many of us, Jesus could only be Lord if His theology matched ours. These results prove that nothing stands in the way of a solid relationship with Jesus Christ more than pride over one’s own knowledge of right and wrong.
Pride – What Do We Do About It?
I wish I could offer you a 12-step program on how to eliminate pride from your character in 30 days, but I can’t. The best advice I can give is for you to continually remind yourself that pride is sin #1. It’s the reason for the fall of man, as well as the reason that the Pharisees rejected and killed our Lord and Savior. It’s the reason the conservative religious establishment rejected and killed the reformers and the prophets, too. Out of our pride, we drive those who disagree with our theologies from the church. Meanwhile, non-Christians who see our self-righteous pride swear to themselves that they will never become Christians. Pride fuels our hatred, judgmentalism, name-calling, fist-fighting, and snobbery. Loneliness is often the result of one person being snubbed by those who believe they are better. Suicide is the result of pride’s evil twin—shame.
Remember that pride and greed, both of which are rooted in overall selfishness, are the foundations for all other sins. And remember that God hates sin, because He loves people. Out of this love, He desires quality of life for all people, and it’s our job make His desires reality.