Evangelical Problems: Pharisaism

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
–Jesus of Nazareth

“The Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British [or American] people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”
–C. S. Lewis

In my last post, I mentioned that evangelical Christians these days are much more like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than like Jesus himself. I used to be just as guilty of this until I was convicted by a sermon I heard that pointed out this very fact. I thought I was so special because I didn’t lie or steal or cuss, because I wasn’t a homosexual or a deranged Democrat voter, and I looked down pompously on people who did and were. I had lost sight of that fact that all have sinned, including myself, and fall short of the glory of God, that the wages of that sin is death, and that the eternal life I possessed was nothing I had earned – it was a gracious gift given to me by the God whom I had wronged. I had lost sight of the fact that my disrespectful attitude towards my parents, my heavy drinking, and my “artistic” Playboy centerfold screensaver were violations of God’s law which made me just as worthy of death and condemnation as the vilest of pedophiles and serial killers.

Sadly, I am far from the only Christian who has ever done this. Evangelical Christians in particular, with our peculiar devotion to scripture and to our belief in its inerrancy and supremacy, seem prone to quickly develop an attitude that, as we are more enlightened than those who either don’t have the scripture or reject it either in part or in whole, we are then somehow also holier and better than everyone else. Forgetting that all transgressions against the Spirit of God, including our own, have made us just as culpable as any other sinner, we develop a hypocritically judgmental attitude against other sinners and, like the Pharisees, are quick to point out the specks in their eyes without noticing the logs in our own. God has called us to be holy as He is holy; He has not called us to be holier-than-thou. We are to set ourselves apart from the world and live righteously, not set the world apart from ourselves and judge it, yet that’s what we almost always do. We forget that all the sins we have committed, no matter how “small”, are just as great to God as those of the sinners around us, and instead condemn them to their faces and abuse them with all sorts of laws and regulations, expecting them somehow to live a sinless life that even we are unable to live despite our advantage of being indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, of Whom we are supposed to be imitators, routinely rebuked the Pharisees for such behavior, and I have no doubt He would rebuke us as sternly. Note that the Pharisees weren’t some hated, unpopular group, reviled by everyone around them for their pride and hypocrisy, but rather they were quite the opposite: teachers of Old Testament scripture and the Law of Moses to whom everyone looked for instruction. Note also, however, that Jesus didn’t spend time rubbing elbows with these “righteous” men but instead spent time with sinners, with embezzlers and prostitutes – no doubt if He came today, He would not waste His time on Southern Baptist preachers or hypocrites like me but would instead spend time with the lost. He would more likely call as His twelve disciples men coming out of a gay bar at 2:00am or a young woman on her way to Planned Parenthood than He would a clergyman or member of the worship team at church.

This is certainly not to say that we shouldn’t strive for righteousness, but we should follow His example and, rather than condemning the world (which He told us He did not come to do), shower mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love upon the sinners who surround us. We will never be able to lead the lost to repentance if we constantly chastise them and legislate against them and make them feel unworthy, especially if we have glaring sins in our own lives to which we have not attended; this will only alienate and lead to hopelessness. Our only hope for leading the lost to repentance is to treat them as Christ did, coming alongside them right where they are, showing them righteousness by example, not by stern lecturing, and making it clear that they are valued and loved by God and by ourselves regardless of what they’ve done, just as we are loved regardless of what we’ve done.

I know this is a tall order for most of us, myself included – I don’t even have that many sinners in my immediate vicinity towards whom I can even show the love of Christ, as I’m sure is the case for many others, and this is something on which I personally need to work. In the mean time, we can, however, stop sending a message of condemnation to those we don’t know personally through our public actions. We can stop using Twitter and Facebook as a means of promulgating hatred. We can stop supporting legislation to punish sinners on God’s behalf. We can stop picketing with angry, closed-minded slogans on our signs and on our lips. We can stop being angry at sinners altogether, for that matter. Each one of us was worthy of eternal damnation but has been shown tremendous love and mercy and forgiveness; we must learn to live a life of love and mercy and forgiveness towards others, even if it hurts or makes us uncomfortable. Jesus loved and forgave us to the point of being crucified; surely we can endure the heartache of showing love and mercy to members of a stubborn, unrepentant culture.

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