Religious people are dangerous to the Church


Religion and Christianity just don’t mix. Look at what happened when Jesus began his public ministry. The religious community resisted him the most! I realize that Christianity is classified among the religions of the world but I am quite certain the founder would not want any association with religion. The main reason is that religion is about man’s effort to seek God and to try to appease a deity through human effort. Christianity is first about God seeking man and making a way (based on unmerited grace) for humans to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with their Creator.

According to Christianity, if we seek God, it is only because He first pursued us. Check out the way the New Testament summarizes it: “We love because he first loved us” (I John 4:19). The moment we reverse this and make our love for God prerequisite to God loving us, we’ve left Christianity and entered religion! The essence of Christianity is that, “… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Never forget that the most determined antagonists against Jesus were religious people. In particular, Jesus was opposed by a group of religious leaders known as Pharisees. And, not surprisingly, those who oppose the Church of Jesus Christ today share many similarities with the Pharisees.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to be able to detect a Pharisee (especially if you’re a leader in the Church). Many Churches are not thriving because well-entrenched Pharisees are calling the shots. 

To most people, the word pharisee connotes some kind of self-righteous and judgmental person. “Don’t be a Pharisee!” is something we say to someone acting like she is above others. Pharisee is a descriptive word used to depict a religious hypocrite or a haughty legalist. To really understand the pharisees we need to go back and trace their history.

A little history:

By the time of Jesus, the Jewish leaders were divided into various groups. The New Testament primarily refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees. It also mentions scribes and priests, the majority of whom were numbered among the Pharisees. These religious groups were organized into distinct and closed communities, and were divided based on differing schools of interpretation of the Law. The Pharisees influenced a large segment of society and were more accepted among the people than the Sadducees.

A little further back:

In all fairness, the Pharisees had a noble beginning long before the days of Jesus’ earthly life. The Pharisees (in early formation) had great zeal for the things of God. Believing that God’s people were punished in the Babylonian captivity for neglecting God’s law and compromising with pagan culture, these men became zealots for the Law and extreme separatists from the world. But the intensity of their devotion to the Law, lost perspective and led to a deadly form of legalism. They progressively established detailed oral traditions to hedge up the actual laws of God. They did this to insure against any possible infringement of God’s actual Law. These traditions were based on personal applications of the Law of God.

Conservatives of the conservatives

By the time of Jesus, these men were the conservatives of the conservatives— the fundamentalists of the fundamentalists. “All others might stray from God,” they thought, “but not us.” “We are the separated ones, the pure ones.” During New Testament times, these men were distinguished by their religious devotion. They would cross land and sea to make one convert! They were committed to detailed tithing. Although the Old Testament required one fast a year, they fasted twice a week. Their ideas of Sabbath observance required far more than the intention of Scripture and the ability of man.

As an example of their Sabbath regulations, Jewish historian Alfred Edersheim wrote:

“The Biblical Law forbade such labor (on the Sabbath) in simple terms (Exodus 36:6; comp. Jeremiah 17:22). But Rabbinism developed the prohibition into eight special ordinances, by first dividing ‘bearing of a burden’ into two separate acts – lifting it up and putting it down – and then arguing, that it might be lifted up or put down from two different places, from a public into a private into a public place. Again, a ‘burden’ meant, as the lowest standard of it, the weight of ‘a dried fig.’ But if ‘half a fig’ were carried at two different times – lifted or deposited from a private into a public place, or vice versa – were these two actions to be combined into one so as to constitute the sin of Sabbath desecration? The standard measure for forbidden food was the size of an olive, just as that for carrying burdens was the weight of a fig. If a man had swallowed forbidden food of the size of half an olive, rejected it, and again eaten of the size of half an olive, he would be guilty because the palate had altogether tasted food to the size of a whole olive,” (The Life & Times of Jesus The Messiah, pp. 778-79).

Measures of true godliness

We might laugh at these traditions and call them ridiculous, but they were not ridiculous to the Pharisees. Their traditions became measures of true godliness and instruments of condemnation.

Again, the original concern of the Pharisees was to safeguard the people against the disobedience and worldliness that led to divine punishment in the Babylonian captivity. By Jesus’ time, (though the same zeal existed), their intentions had become corrupt. Their love for the Law was replaced with a love for the reputation gained by Law-keeping. The Law itself (with the traditions) became a convenient vehicle for self-exaltation (Matthew 23:5-7).

Jesus reserved his most scathing denunciations for the Pharisees. He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). He identified the Pharisees as those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were so self-righteous they actually believed God and man owed them honor for their devotion to their traditions.

On one occasion, the Scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” Jesus responded, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus rebuked them saying, “you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’ ” (Matthew 15:2-9).

NT picture of the Pharisees

Although there were some sincerely devout Pharisees (e.g. Nicodemus, John 3;7:50;19:39; Joseph of Arimathea, Mark 15:43Luke 23:51), the NT picture of the Pharisees portrays them as unscrupulously judgmental, severely unmerciful, unkind and unforgiving. Their evaluations of others were based on external appearances. They heaped their traditions on the truth of Scripture and on the shoulders of people (see Matthew 23:4). They were proud, self-exalting, self-righteous people who viewed others with contempt for not living up to their traditions.

The primary distinctive of Pharisees was the significance they attached to their traditions. They elevated their applications of the Law to divine status, as coming from Moses himself. To protect against any possible violation of the actual Law, the Pharisees built a hedge around it by establishing what they considered to be legitimate applications of that Law. The problem came in their inability to differentiate between the command and the means used to safeguard against violating the command—- their applications.

The development of the traditions:

“This material apparently began to evolve during the Babylonian Exile through the new circumstances thereby brought upon the Jewish people. The Exile was seen as divine punishment for neglect of the law, and accordingly during this period there was an earnest turning to the law. Detailed exposition of the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific injunctions that were designed to ‘build a hedge’ around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible infringement of the Torah by ignorance or accident. In addition, the new circumstances of the Exile and the post-exilic period involved matters not covered in the written Torah; consequently new legislation had to be produced by analogy to, and inference from, that which already existed.

“The content of this oral law continued to evolve and to grow in volume through the intertestamental, NT, and post-NT periods, finally to achieve written form in the Mishnah (AD 200). This oral law is referred to in the gospels as, ‘the tradition of the elders,’ or ‘the traditions of men’ (Mt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-23; cf. Jos Antiq X III. xvi. 2). The NT abounds with allusions to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism: the tithing of herbs (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42); the wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels (Matt. 23:5); the careful observance of ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7:1ff); frequent fastings (Matt. 9:14); distinctions in oaths (23:16ff), etc., and extremely detailed Sabbath law. The Mishnah offers even more striking illustration of this precise definition of the law. Here is a virtual encyclopedia of Pharisaic legalism that instructs the reader with almost incredible detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct” (Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 748).

Tragically, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were so blinded by their traditions that they rejected the Messiah himself. They didn’t have a category for Jesus. He didn’t fit with religion! He broke their rules by healing people on the Sabbath and actually commanded one man to take up his pallet and walk.

“Therefore the Jews were saying to him who was cured, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.’ But he answered them, ‘He who made me well was the One who said to me, Take up your pallet and walk.’ And for this reason, the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:10-16). 

On occasions, Jesus tried to correct the error of the Pharisees but they refused to hear him. They were convinced he violated their traditions which to them was equivalent to disobedience to God. They concluded that Jesus had to be an evil man. Because of their proud hearts, they couldn’t conceive of themselves as wrong.

In spite of the evident miracles and works of God visible in Jesus (confirming his identity as their Messiah), they rejected Him. They couldn’t comprehend how Jesus could be a prophet of God when he ate with sinners, sat with sinners and let a sinful woman wash his feet. “No truly righteous man,” they reasoned, “could do these things; He must be a sinner.”

The extent of their blindness was so serious that when they tried to kill Jesus, they actually thought they were serving God.

What kind of judging did Jesus condemn?

Believers today must take a closer look at the type of judging Jesus condemned. When Jesus said, “judge not” he had a specific kind of judging in mind. It was hypocritical judgment based, not on the actual commands of God, but on man-made traditions added to God’s Word.

Sadly, this type of judgmental attitude can still be found among Christians. It was addressed in the early church (specifically in Romans 14), and one might argue was anticipated by Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5.

The judgmental attitude Jesus condemned manifests itself whenever an individual, church, or institution establishes a conviction on something that is not specifically addressed in Scripture and uses that conviction (which is really a kind of preference)to measure the spirituality of others.

While believers are encouraged to establish their own conviction in areas of freedom, they are clearly not permitted to condemn those who do not share their opinions (Romans 14:3). If God has not specifically addressed a behavior or activity, we are not allowed to manipulate biblical data to suggest He has been specific. On the other hand, a believer should not ridicule or look down on another believer for feeling constrained in areas of freedom.

Some people feel uncomfortable with the fact that certain behaviors and activities are “permitted or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.” Desiring simplicity and security, they want everything to be understood as clearly commanded or clearly forbidden. They want everything to be labeled as right or wrong. If God has not accommodated their desire with specific instruction on an issue, they will put an interpretive twist on a more general command to place the matter into a clear category of right or wrong.

These same people often mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain unity in the church is to offer detailed legislation on each debatable issues. But this is artificial unity which ultimately ends up destroying the influence of a church.

“Part of God’s design for the Church is that it should successfully manifest unity in diversity. It was His intent that people with divergent personalities, nationalities, gifts, abilities, tastes, and backgrounds should become unified in Christ without sacrificing personal distinctiveness (I Corinthians 12:12-27); Colossians 3:11).” 

“Accordingly, God does not view differences of opinion in the area of freedom as a bad thing. The inevitability of such variance of thought is not seen as a flaw in an otherwise beautiful plan. It rather represents one more situation in which the supernatural character of the Church, and its observable distinctiveness as a living organism, may be manifested before the world (John 13:35; 17:20-21).” (Dr. Friessen)

God does not desire uniformity of opinion but unity of relationship (Romans 14:3; 15:5-7). Instead of trying to eliminate difference of opinion, the Holy Spirit has given specific mandates to guide us into unity on debatable matters (see: Romans 14:3).

Steve Cornell

Recommended reading:

“Who are you to Judge?– The dangers of judging and legalism” Dave Swavely, P&R, 2005

“Making Judgments without being judgmental: Nurturing a clear mind and a generous heart” Terry D.Cooper, IVP, 2006

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Antagonists, Church Leadership, Difficult people, Judging others, Leadership, Legalism, Pharisees, Uncategorized, Unity. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Religious people are dangerous to the Church

  1. Aaron says:

    Thank you for posting this, brother. The Lord used it to remind me of how deeply an entrenched Pharisee I was, and how this kind of sinfulness is rampant in a movement I once belonged to. Those tendencies are still in me, but the Lord is merciful and uses articles such as these, and more importantly, His holy Word, to continue to sanctify me. To live in the light of God’s grace is where I need to be always, yet how easy it is to slip back into religiosity. Thank God for this article and for His very specific, careful and loving providence.

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