Tuesday, March 25, 2014


A couple of letters in the latest issue of Sojourners magazine (April 2014) caught my attention.  They were both critical of an article in which the writer had "focused in on the Pharisees as elitist, judgmental and indifferent to the poor as a contrast to Jesus."  The Pharisees were defended in these letters against "the stereotype of them as being self-righteous hypocrites."  Both letters spoke highly of the Pharisaic party, one even making the claim that "a strong case can be made that Jesus himself was a Pharisee."

Yes, historical records and Jewish tradition tell us that the Pharisees were members of a sect within Judaism which was highly regarded.  They were Jewish patriots.  They held to a strict interpretation of the Scriptures and a strict observance of the traditions.  They are considered by many to be the forerunners of later rabbinic Judaism.  The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee, as was the historian Josephus.  Jesus was well-acquainted with their teachings, though I know of no evidence indicating or even hinting that He was a Pharisee.

And the author of the offending article gave a very apologetic reply, saying that while "Many Christians take the gospels generally negative portrayal of the Pharisees as factual history ... others don't think much about historical accuracy, choosing instead to interpret the Pharisees as characters in a story ..."  He goes on to tell other views and even have been a contributing factor in the later anti-Semitism.

However, we need to face the fact that while a few Pharisees are presented favorably in the gospels, Jesus' attitude toward them was essentially negative.  In fact, they are presented as one of the few groups Jesus could not get along with.  So what gives?  Which picture is correct?

I recently started reading American Jezebel by Eve LaPlante.  It's the story of Anne Hutchinson, who co-founded Rhode Island along with Roger Williams.  The setting of the tale is Anne's trial before the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts in the year 1637, with flashbacks, telling her life story.

For what was Anne being tried?  Those who were both her prosecutors and her judges didn't seem quite sure, although they knew she had committed some offense(s) worthy of chastisement.  She was called "the instrument of Satan," "a witch" and "Jezebel" by her accusers.  She had dared to lead home Bible studies attended by men as well as women.  She had dared to interpret the Scriptures on her own and to call into question the teachings and interpretations of the Puritan divines.

In this story and in the story of Roger Williams (as well as popular literature), the Puritans look like self-righteous hypocrites.  And yet the Puritans were heroes in their day.  They wished to "purify" the church from what they believed were pagan practices.  They were the dissenters who dared to stand up for the gospel against the leaders of the Anglican Church.  Some of Anne's accusers had themselves been imprisoned for their beliefs.  They had left their home-country England and come to the New World to escape the suffering and oppression they had experienced in England.  They had come here to establish a "City on a hill," to be an example to the world.  They hold an important part in American history.  Their writings, as well, are deeply spiritual and have blessed many readers down through the years.

So again - which picture is correct?

About 100 years ago, a movement began which came to be known as Fundamentalism, taking its label from a series of articles known as "The Fundamentals."  These articles were written by scholars who had left their mainline Protestant denomination or who were still struggling within them.  The struggle was over the truth of the Scriptures; historical-critical interpretation along with theological liberalism had taken over large portions of their denominations.  These men had taken a stand, often at great cost to themselves, for the literal interpretation of the Bible and what they felt were the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  They were considered heroes by their followers.

And yet today the term "fundamentalist" is used almost as an epithet.  It is applied to Islamic terrorists as well as to Christians; it has taken on new meanings.  And it has become synonymous with "hypocrite," and with a particular political viewpoint.  To call one a fundamentalist is not considered a compliment!

And so I ask for the third time, which picture is correct?

Sadly, I have to say that I believe that for all three, both pictures are correct.  The Pharisees, the Puritans, the Fundamentalists and probably many other movements, all had good beginnings, fighting battles that probably needed to be fought, standing for truth, standing for freedom, standing for God.  And yet somehow they have themselves become at times the oppressors of God's people.  These party titles - all three - have become synonymous with hypocrisy, legalism and narrow-mindedness.

I believe that it is very easy for those of us who are seekers of God's truth and who have deep convictions about these matters, to feel that God is pleased, not only with our understanding of His truth, but with us ourselves for having that correct understanding.  From there it is not a large step to believing that He is displeased, not only with the "incorrect" beliefs of others, but with those others themselves.  It then becomes easy to believe that we have a  corner on the truth and thus a corner on God, to believe that we have God in our box.  And that those who are not in our box cannot possibly please God.

1 comment:

John Kulp said...

Great post Bill. Thanks.