Attention Church leaders
For a local Church to thrive in gospel-centered ministry, the leaders must protect the assembly from Pharisees. If you let them, Pharisees will turn a gospel-based ministry into a center for legalism.
Don’t let them and don’t worry about offending them. Instead…
Ignore them (ἄφετεαὐτούς)
When Jesus firmly rebuked some self-righteous religious people, even calling them hypocrites, his troubled disciples came to him (as many well-intentioned people come to pastors) and said, “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?” (Matthew 15:12). How did Jesus respond? Did he say, “O, I am so sorry, I wasn’t aware, please tell them I really didn’t mean to upset them”? No.
Jesus said, “Ignore them.” (NLT). “Let them alone” (ESV). “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted, so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.” (matthew 15:13-14).
Weaker brothers or pharisees?
There is a big difference between offending an actual weaker brother and offending a religious pharisee. The one we must not offend; the other we must not worry about offending. The difference seems to be this: A weaker brother genuinely struggles about what is right and what is wrong on debatable matters. A religious pharisee doesn’t struggle. He KNOWS right from wrong on these matters and he plans to set others straight!
We must insist on the two mandates in Romans 14:3: “Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.”
Both a libertarian spirit and a pharisaic spirit are potential threats to unified Christian fellowship — in every assembly. Over the years, I have had to correct myself and others when tempted toward one of these responses. Each spirit must be corrected so that we can “live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).
The Chief Antagonists
Never forget that religious people were the chief antagonists against Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t surprise us then that they remain a big threat to the unity of the Church of Christ in all ages. These people also received Jesus’ most scathing words of warning and rebuke. They were dangerous to themselves and more dangerous to their followers. With strong words, Jesus said to them: “you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” (Matthew 23:15). Jesus warned his disciples: “don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matthew 23:3-4). They loved titles of honor, seats of honor, and appearing righteous before men. The praise of man was more important to them than praise from God (see: John 12:42-43).
Religious people vs. true members of the Kingdom:
On one occasion, Jesus contrasted religious hypocrites with true members of His Kingdom. He presented two kinds of people:
- “some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9).
- One who “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
Then Jesus made the startling comment, “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).
There was no way for the religious crowd to miss the point. But it really should not have been strange to them if they read their own Scriptures. “This is what the Lord says: ‘I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word'” (Isaiah 66:1-2).
“The high and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy One, says this: ‘I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I restore the crushed spirit of the humble and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts'” (Isaiah 57:15). “God guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way” (Psalm 25:9).
Not surprisingly, Jesus opened his sermon on the mount saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Peter learned this lesson the hard way and later wrote: “God opposes the proud but favors the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor” (I Peter 5:5-6).
Equip yourself and the Church to detect and avoid pharisaism:
To better understand contemporary parallels to the Pharisees, see: Are the Pharisees still among us?
Recommended reading: Antagonists in the Church, by Kenneth Haugk. Read and discuss this book with your staff and elders.
Teach your fellow leaders and people the difference between debatable matters and explicit commands of God. Teach them the difference between weaker brothers and pharisees (see my book, “When Christians Disagree.” Call: 717-872-4260 to order copies at $ 5.00 each).
When Jesus said, “this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” He used salvation language more common to the epistles. Jesus made it clear that being declared just in the sight of God is directly connected to one’s awareness and confession of sin and unworthiness. Like the prodigal in Luke 15, contrition accompanies confession: “I have sinned against both heaven and you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son” (Luke 15:18-19).
A heart-searching question:
There is a danger in only associating this expression of unworthiness with our moment of salvation. At what point along the way do we feel we at liberty to lift our eyes to heaven and to stop beating our chest in sorrow? When we “returned home justified before God” we celebrated his grace and mercy. We were given confident access to His throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). We received security in His love. All of these are gifts of grace to unworthy sinners. But I suggest that we cannot flourish in his love if we lose sight of His great mercy.
We should sense our need for mercy even more as we learn more about God. Whatever confidence we gain or security we feel should all be based in our advocate with the Father. Without our faithful and merciful High Priest, we cannot even approach Almighty God! The spirit of religious pharisaism threatens us when we get caught up in a horizontal perspective. When we allow a self-righteous spirit focused on the things we do not do and the things we do in contrast with others.
- How do Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:6 relate to Matthew 15:12-14? “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (see: Dogs, pigs and sacred things)
- How can we know which plants have not been planted by the Heavenly Father? Relate Jesus’ words: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”? (Matthew 18:3) (cf. John 5:44; Luke 18:9-13). Our Church requires one to “give evidence of regeneration” to be received into membership. What should we look for? See: here.
- How do Proverbs 9:7-9 and Titus 3:9-11 relate to this theme?
- Why do some Churches and their leaders let pharisees set the agenda for their ministries?
- How would missionaries apply this (in principle) to those who reject the gospel?
- What is the recurring theme of these passages: Matthew 10:14-15; Luke 10:10-11; Acts 13:44-51; 18:5-6; 28:17-28