Most of the topics we talk about here on Unapologetic are geared towards equipping you to talk with people who are not Christians about the truth of the Gospel. But sometimes I think it’s worthwhile to talk about how we should converse with others who are Christians about our Christian convictions. Because we often have different convictions than other people who are still Christians.
There’s this interesting phenomenon that occurs in our Christian subculture sometimes where, if you’re not in Christianity, and you say something someone doesn’t like, or you have a moral point of view, they might call you a bigot or hateful or something like that. In Christianity, we take our terms from 2,000 years ago, and we might call someone a Pharisee.
To people outside of this discussion, there’s often little knowledge of what a Pharisee is. But I think, even inside of Christianity, we have used that term as the analogous term of bigot or hateful because it shuts people up. Because no one wants to be called a Pharisee, right? If you pull that term out, you can get someone to back off of their point of view, back off of the statement they’re trying to make, because no one wants to be called a Pharisee.
Personally, I’ve seen this term being used in the last week or so. You’ve got some people who are critiquing Disney for redoing Beauty and the Beast with an overtly gay scene. They’re talking about this on social media and online, and other people are like, “Well you’re being such a Pharisee.” Or how about the movie The Shack, which is a movie portrayal of the book with the same title, which is coming out. There are many theological issues in this book and hence in the movie.
I think there’s a legitimate concern about people seeing this movie which intends to teach you something about God. Don’t be mistaken. It intends to teach something about God even though it’s fiction. What it teaches about God is not accurate, so this movie can mislead people. I personally find it very hard to read history and think about history in a history book in a different way than I’ve seen it in movies. Movies are a persuasive medium.
But as people have critiqued The Shack, other Christians have said, “Well quite being such a Pharisee about things.” How should we think about this? Let’s talk about what a Pharisee is, actually.
The Pharisees were an ancient Jewish sect, and they were distinguished by their strict observance to traditional and written Jewish law. They thought of themselves as very pious people, and others thought of them and regarded them as very pious people.
For an example of this, the Old Testament law mandated fasting on only one day, the Day of Atonement, but the Pharisees actually fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. Once wasn’t good enough for them. They had to be more pious than that. You’ll notice as you read the Gospels, that oftentimes they’re the ones praying overtly and in front of everyone. They have their own laws, their own code of conduct that they’ve added onto the Jewish law. They tried to be very pious people.
Now on its own, doing those things isn’t necessarily bad. But the term also kind of has a second connotation. It has this connotation of being a self-righteous person, of being a hypocrite. In fact, Jesus calls the Pharisees whitewashed tombs. He says, “Woe to you Pharisees, whitewashed tombs.” In other words, you look good on the outside and you are dead on the inside. He also calls them sons of vipers. The critiques go on and on and on. So, no one wants to be called a Pharisee. No one wants to be put in that group of people that Jesus so strongly, consistently condemned.
But I think we need to be clear on something. The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t the fact that they followed moral rules, or that they thought there were moral laws. That is not the issue. The issue, as Jesus abundantly makes clear, was their hardness of heart, the fact that they would follow the letter but not the intent of the law, the fact that they were more concerned about the letter of the law than human suffering, for example.
In Mark chapter two and chapter three, we see the Pharisees get upset when Jesus heals on the Sabbath. In Mark chapter three they are totally fine plotting to kill him on the Sabbath, but he just better not heal someone with his words on the Sabbath. This is the issue with the Pharisees. It’s a hardness of heart. In fact, that is what Jesus rebukes them for. That’s what he grieves over them for. That their hearts are hard. They are whitewashed tombs.
The issue is not that they simply followed laws. Jesus followed the law. Let’s not forget about that. You want to talk about people who followed the law? Well Jesus followed the law better than the Pharisees did. That’s how he was actually able to be our atoning sacrifice on the cross. He lived under the Old Covenant and he fulfilled it all. Jesus followed more of the law than anyone ever has. You can’t say Jesus is anti-law in that way.
But we do, of course, understand that our justification does not come by following the law. It comes by trusting in Christ. Nonetheless, Christ followed the law. We can’t simply say that following laws and moral requirements is bad.
With that background, let’s talk through how to reply to someone who calls you a Pharisee. Maybe you’ve taken a position on The Shack. Maybe you’ve taken a position on same sex marriage or on something that’s controversial either outside of the church or inside of the church, and someone has called you a Pharisee.
What do you mean by “Pharisee?”
The first thing you should always do when someone calls you a name, regardless of it’s bigot or hateful or anything like that, or Pharisee, is to say, “What do you mean by that? What do you mean by Pharisee?” Or simply say, “What’s a Pharisee?” Make them explain it. This is our first Columbo question. If you remember Greg Koukl’s tactical approach to conversations, the first question is a “What do you mean by that?” type of question. “What do you mean by Pharisee?” Make them explain their term.
Now someone might say, “Well you’re just following laws at the expense of people,” or, “You’re just holding fast to doctrine and you’re just too legalistic.” What do you mean by legalistic? Are there certain laws we should hold to? I’m going to respond with a question here too. I’m going to ask a question, “Why is it wrong to be a Pharisee? Let’s just say you’re right. Let’s say I am being a Pharisee? Why is that wrong? Explain it to me.”
You know what’s interesting, is this person is going to apply a moral standard to you. They’re going to apply a rule to you. In so doing, they’re doing pretty much what they’re probably accusing you of doing, which is applying certain rules or principles you hold to over other people. You could use these two questions, “What’s a Pharisee,” or, “What do you mean by that?” and, “Why is it wrong to be a Pharisee?” to set yourself up for a third question. “Are you trying to apply your moral principles to me right now? If you think it’s wrong for me to apply my moral principles the other people, then it sure seems like that’s what you’re doing for me. Is that wrong too?”
Notice we’ve used questions, which are non-threatening. They also invite the other person to explain their position. I might have misunderstood what they meant by Pharisee.
Now as an aside, before we get back to this sample dialog, I think it’s worth pointing out that when someone calls you a Pharisee or calls you a name, you shouldn’t just instantly reply. Take a moment to check yourself and make sure you’re not actually doing this wrong thing they’re accusing you of. Make sure your heart is right—you’re not just holding to a doctrinal point with a hardness of heart, that you don’t just want to condemn other people, that you don’t just want to follow the letter but not the spirit of God’s commands.
Let’s just stipulate that your heart is right in this. There are many things that we should encourage other people to hold to and follow that may be considered being Pharisaical, or like the Pharisees. If you take a view on marriage where it’s one man and one woman for one lifetime, that is it, everything outside of that is sexual immorality, that could be called Pharisaical, even by those in the church today, or those who claim to be Christians.
You should ask them, “What does the Bible say?” Let’s always return to our objective standard of scripture.Where are you getting your concept of what is right and what is wrong? I’m getting mine from scripture. Are you telling me that I can’t hold to scripture?”
Now some people will actually say, “Well that’s exactly what the Pharisees did. They held to the law over and above God’s heart for people.” But that’s not actually what they did. They didn’t understand the law fully. Jesus teases this out in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, where he says, “You think it’s wrong and you’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to murder. Well that’s true, but I say it’s wrong to be angry with your brother, or to call him a fool. You’ve heard it said, and it’s written in the law, you shouldn’t commit adultery. However, I tell you don’t even look at a woman to lust after her.”
What Jesus is doing is saying there was a spirit behind these laws, and you may be fulfilling the letter, but you are not fulfilling the intent of the law. You haven’t actually understand the intent of the law. That doesn’t mean the law is bad. It means we need to accurately understand it.
I think that is one thing to point out to people. They are applying, by virtue of their criticism, their own moral standard to you. They are applying a standard to you. Hopefully you, though, are applying a biblical standard in whatever situation you were in. They’re relying on their authority, but hopefully you are relying on God’s authority in scripture. If we can’t agree that scripture is the authority, we have bigger issues than someone being called a Pharisee or not.
It’s also worth pointing out, in terms of how these conversations can take a little turn or another, that someone may say, “Well you’re just sticking to the letter of the law, and we need to love everyone.” You might say, “Well where is that?” “Well that’s here,” and they might point to scripture. Then I’m going to ask them, “Well by what standard are you going to hold to simply “loving people,” which is a word desperately in need of a correct biblical definition, “as opposed to the other things scripture says. How are you picking and choosing?”
Additionally, 1 Corinthians says that “love doesn’t delight in what is wrong.” It actually says, “It delights in the truth.” Both of these would lead us to believe that love actually tells people the truth. Love points them to the truth of God’s command in scripture, and it doesn’t celebrate something that is wrong, like same sex marriage or gender confusion or adultery, or “I just had a peace about leaving my husband.” It doesn’t celebrate those things because God has clearly spoken in scripture.
I hope what you’ve seen is there is a tactical way to address this claim of being a Pharisee. We use questions. We say, “Well what do you mean by Pharisee?” We get them to explain their position. We get them to explain why it’s wrong to be a Pharisee, if they even can. Then we’ll note, most likely, and more often than not, that their definitions apply to themselves to.
It really doesn’t come down to “should someone hold to a moral viewpoint.” It comes down to which moral viewpoint is correct. I’m going to base mine on scripture. Someone else might base theirs on a selective reading of scripture. What we need to do is look at the totality of scripture. We also can’t put our feelings about what God’s word has said. I think this is what people are doing oftentimes, when we might take a position on same sex marriage and say, “You know what? That’s wrong. That’s against God’s design.”
“But love is love,” people will say. But you know that’s not actually what God’s word says. God’s word in 1 Corinthians 6 does describe what sexual immorality looks like. It also says who won’t inherit the kingdom of God. There’s a long list there, and it’s definitely more than people who participate habitually and identify themselves with sexual immorality. But nonetheless, God’s word fleshes these things out for us. That’s what we should go to when we want to know what is right and what is wrong.
You’re not a Pharisee if you hold to a moral law and a moral law code. That’s not what being a Pharisee is. What being a Pharisee is is having a hard heart. It’s being a whitewashed tomb, giving the appearance of righteousness on the outside and being dead and evil on the inside.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that we’re taking an approach similar to the one Jesus actually took. In Matthew 19, we see that he’s approached and he’s asked about divorce. He has quoted a previous legal standard. “Abraham let us do this.” They say, “What do you say, Jesus?” Jesus says, “Have you not read that God created the male and female from the beginning that they might leave their mother and father and join to each other?” Jesus doesn’t say, “Well you know what? There’s no law. We can’t say. We can’t know.” He doesn’t even say that the question is a bad one necessarily, that there isn’t a right answer, that it’s up to all of us.
No, he refers us back to scripture, to God’s word. He does take a position. Some people today would actually say, by their definitions, that Jesus was a Pharisee. Because he took a hard line on moral issues. But he is also the same God who said, “If you love me, you’ll follow my commands.” Not that you’ll pick and choose them. The Great Commission isn’t “go preach the Gospel.” It’s disciple people. Teach them, not to just know, but to obey all I’ve commanded you. Many people today would classify that, if you actually fleshed it out, as being Pharisaical, but it’s not.
We need to NOT let people in the church bully us with loaded terms like Pharisee, just like we shouldn’t let people out in the world bully us into being quiet with terms like bigot or hateful, or those types of things.
I hope you’re a little more equipped to address those types of claims with a tactical approach by using questions. What’s a Pharisee? Why would it being wrong to be a Pharisee? Are you trying to also apply your moral principles to me? Then let’s always go back to scripture and base our opinions and perspectives and statements and stances on what it has to say.
I look forward to talking with you next week on Unapologetic.