Summary: Pharisaism is alive and well in the 21st century. Who are these people who would take away our liberty in Jesus Christ? An overview of a central Christian doctrine.
Confronting Modern Pharisees: A Call to Christian Liberty
INTRO. The Apostle Paul wrote, "You have been called to liberty." Exactly what did he have in mind? What is Christian liberty, this thing to which all Christians have been invited? Responses to this important question have been approached, as you probably know, from many directions by many people. But, sadly, from my many years of observation, the subject of true Christian liberty seems rarely understood and seldom exercised by those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. The reason for this, I am convinced, is that religious professors have put their own peculiar spins to it and think that they both practice and teach it in their dealings with fellow Christians. Perception, however, is not always reality. If the premise is wrong, then the perception or understanding is also wrong, the teaching is wrong and, finally, the application is wrong. If the perceptions are wrong, then actions and conduct based on that understanding are likewise inaccurate.
A. In the eighth chapter of John, Jesus made two important declarations regarding freedom: First, "To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8.31-32). Secondly, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’" (v.36). The context of Jesus’ teachings is that Jews who believed on Him were freed from the bondage of the Law.
B. As articulate as the words may be, there is always the imminent danger of allowing oneself, who has been freed from servitude, to be drawn back again into slavery. Listen to this warning spoken by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5.1 "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage." This peril is ever present in Christian fellowships that do not exemplify or promote true Christian liberty.
I. Why is Christian Liberty Opposed?
A. Why would any Christian be opposed to freedom? Why is it that our liberty in Jesus Christ is so often attacked or, at the least, redefined by those who would take away our Christian freedom? I would like to suggest that it stems from a base intolerance rooted in judgmental attitude among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. This is compounded by a lifestyle where legalism, rather than liberty, is exercised with perfect justification and always with scriptural proof texts for every link in their chain. Legalism sets up its own rules of conduct and acceptability and anyone who does not conform to those standards is judged to be in disharmony with the group and a threat to their belief system.
B. Legalism, in the hands of its practitioners, is, purely and simply, a power play for control. The Pharisees were the masters of legalism and went to the extreme to maintain their religious influence and control over the people, even to having our sinless Savior crucified.
II. What Does a Pharisee Look Like?
A. Jesus’ sternest rebuke of Pharisaism is found in Matthew chapter 23. Here is an overview of the most glaring defects in pharisaical thinking:
1. Pharisees elevate themselves to controlling positions, 23.2-3.
2. Pharisees are not to be emulated, 23.3.
3. Pharisees are inconsistent in their teachings and practices, 23.3.
4. Pharisees make godliness difficult without offering support, 23.4.
5. Pharisees emphasize external appearance and performance over internal purity, 23.5.
6. Pharisees seek to elevate their own offices, titles, influence and authority, 23.6-12.
7. Pharisees take without giving, 23.13-15.
8. Pharisees major on minors and minor on majors, 23.23-24.
9. Pharisees practice an external religion of appearance, 23.25-28.
10. Pharisees persecute those who disagree or resist them, 23.29-39.
B. This is legalism run rampant. All of these traits are commonplace in the modern Christian church. Pharisaism is alive and well in the Twenty-first Century.
III. The Marks of Modern Pharisaical Legalism
A. Jesus warned us to "beware of the corrupting influence of the Pharisees in Matt. 16.6. The word for "leaven’ here is zuma, "zuma," a metaphor for a pervasive "mental and moral corruption, viewed in its tendency to infect others" (Strong). Below are some of the distinguishing marks of Pharisaical Christianity that identifies the conditions that exist in a system of bondage and abuse:
1. Members of a particular group suppress in others their ability to critically analyze and instead to accept the teachings of its founder or leadership.
2. Once a person has accepted the group, they are then isolated (and insulated) and discouraged from association with Christians of other denominations or groups who do not believe as they do, especially in practice or in critical areas of pet or cardinal doctrines.
3. Pharisaical Christianity becomes cultic when religion --rather than God-- controls a person’s life. They seem unable to make the distinction between religion and faith.