Our Pharisee Problem


May 15, 2013 by cbbeard

A couple of weeks ago the Barna Group came out with their most recent survey that should have created shockwaves across the community of faith in this nation.  According to the results published by Barna (which can be found HERE), the purpose of the survey was as follows:

In this nationwide study of self-identified Christians, the goal was to determine whether Christians have the actions and attitude of Jesus as they interact with others or if they are more akin to the beliefs and behaviors of Pharisees, the self-righteous sect of religious leaders described in the New Testament.

Here are the results: 51% of Phariseesself-proclaiming Christians surveyed resembled the Pharisees in attitude and action.  35% resembled the Pharisees in either attitude or action, and only 14% resembled Jesus both in attitude and action.

The bottom line? Christians in the United States are more like the Pharisees than they are like Jesus. 

As I have had time to reflect on this startling survey, I have had some realizations as to what the results of this survey show, as well as what has caused this tragic reality in our nation’s churches.

This explains why the church is generally known for what we are against, rather than what we are for.

Ask any “unchurched” person in this country what they know about the church in general and chances are you won’t get a very friendly description.  Books like UnChristian, They Like Jesus but Not the Church, and Lord Save us from your Followers confirm this suspicion.  Unfortunately, when you ask someone about the church, you are more likely to hear “that’s the group of people that is against gay marriage and abortion” than “see how they love one another” as was said about the early church.*

That is not to say that the church shouldn’t be “against” that which the Bible is “against.”  But it should come as no surprise that the message of the Pharisees was “God will accept you…if” while Jesus’ message was “God will accept you.”  The difference is huge; the pharisaical message is that we are to work our way into God’s grace, but Christ taught that we grace our way into obedience.  This is why Jesus said of the Pharisees, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them “ (Matthew 23:4) and  to the Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

Perhaps one reason the church in America has lost credibility and impact (as statistics clearly show) because we have tied up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders.  Perhaps our message has become “God will accept you…if.”  Perhaps we have communicated that the church (and therefore God) will welcome you IF you think a certain way, or IF you act a certain way, or IF you look a certain way.  Again, I am not advocating unlimited moral tolerance within our faith, but perhaps we are getting the spiritual cart before the horse and are telling people they must do the sanctifying work BEFORE they approach Christ; and perhaps we should repent because that’s not what the Bible teaches.  Of course, perhaps our communication of this conditional acceptance isn’t intentional.  Perhaps:

Christians have no idea they think and act like Pharisees.

If you haven’t looked at the Barna report, do it now.  Look at the questions that were a part of the survey.  Now consider this: If you are a Christian taking this survey, wouldn’t you want to avoid looking like a Pharisee?  I mean Pharisees don’t have a very good reputation in our churches.  They are the ones who were constantly fussing with Jesus; they were the ones who ultimately had Jesus arrested.  No Christian I know wants to be a Pharisee!

This leads me to one of two conclusions about this survey.  Either 1) The Christians surveyed were absolutely and brutally honest about their own pharisaical tendencies (yeah right), or 2) The Christians surveyed couldn’t discern which questions reflected Jesus and which ones reflected the Pharisees.

Earlier, I said that this Barna survey SHOULD have sent shockwaves across the community of faith in this nation.  It SHOULD have caused our churches to fall on our faces in repentance.  It SHOULD be our wake-up call.  But while it has made some news and has gotten some attention, this survey isn’t really making waves, and I am convinced that it is because the church in America is oblivious to its pharisaical tendencies.  I am convinced that the Christians surveyed answered like Pharisees because they thought that was the appropriate response.  And therefore, I am convinced that:

American Christians have twisted what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Grace is a tough thing to swallow, believe it or not.  Our world has taught us that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” and to ask “what’s the catch?” when something seems too good to be true.  And while we might grasp the idea of “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8), we still have a tendency to gravitate back to the mindset that even though we are saved by grace and not by works, that we STAY saved by works.

Therefore we have reduced discipleship to “sin management” as we bide our time until Jesus returns.  Being a follower of Christ has been tamed and twisted into something we can control; and it has become a game of bounded sets in which the difference between “us” (Jesus followers) and “them” (those who don’t follow Jesus) comes down to rules and religious activity.  Hmm, seems like that sounds familiar, like something Jesus railed against in the gospels.

Here’s the problem with twisted discipleship: when we make more disciples as the Bible clearly commands, we make twisted disciples!  Jesus told the Pharisees, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).  It is quite difficult for twisted disciples to make “untwisted” ones.  And if Christians in America are by and large pharisaical disciples, it should come as no surprise that we are producing more and more Pharisees.  Which brings me to a startling conclusion:

This is my fault.

I am to blame for this as a minister and as a church leader.  Oh, I am not alone in this culpability, but I have to take responsibility for this pharisaical trend in the American church.  In an effort to “grow the church” I and others have reduced following Jesus to a shell of what God intended.  We have taken the honor and privilege of “the priesthood of all believers” and reduced it to following rules and volunteering at the church.  We have inadvertently communicated that being a follower of Jesus is about rules and religion.  We have downplayed the cost and side effects of discipleship and therefore have robbed people of its impact.  We have forgotten that Jesus said that we should  make authentic disciples of him (not of us) and that he would take care of growing the church.

But all is not lost.

The church in America doesn’t have to be dominated by Pharisees, but we need to repent.  As church leaders we need to repent from watering down and reducing the Gospel, both in our teaching and in the form and function of our congregations.  As churches we need to repent from the “us” vs. “them” mentality and engage the world as Jesus did, as a “friend of sinners.”  And as Christians we need to repent from our pharisaical tendencies and answer Jesus’ invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow HIM!

What do you think?  Are you more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus?  What must the church do to make disciples of Jesus rather than pharisaical Christians?

*Apology of Tertullian, A.D. 197

Barna Group. (2013). Are Christians More Like Jesus or More Like the Pharisees? Retrieved from: http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/619-are-christians-more-like-jesus-or-more-like-the-pharisees

12 thoughts on “Our Pharisee Problem

  1. kaylastanley says:

    Thanks for being open and honest. I do think we often focus too much on actions (I do it too). But I can’t put too much stock in this survey. They only surveyed 1, 008 people, and they admitted to changing the scores if they felt the person gave the “right” answer in the Jesus-like categories but then exhibited more than one Pharisaical tendency. That seems like some fishy “data analysis.” That said, hopefully the survey still opens our eyes.

    • cbbeard says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Kayla! I think there are flaws in the survey for sure, not the least being that they tried to fit qualitative data into a quantitative data mold. And to be sure, statistics can be manipulated to fit whatever mold or purpose we envision.

      I would suggest, however, that a “smell test” of the American church reveals the results and suggestions of this survey to be more true than not. Obviously that is a general statement, and my post is a generalized post. But I think it does account for the perception of the church and Christians, as well as plays a part in the undeniable statistical decline of the Western church.

      Thanks again for your feedback, good thoughts!

  2. Dixie McLeod says:

    and there is a huge difference in qualitative and quantitative data….that being said…this is well worth exploring…..I plan to do so…

  3. Josh Huff says:

    “As church leaders we need to repent from watering down and reducing the Gospel, both in our teaching and in the form and function of our congregations.”
    It’s ironic, because the Pharisee in us would say that we are watering down the Gospel when we lean toward what this survey identifies as Christ-like. Just a thought I had while reading. Great post!

    • cbbeard says:

      Great point, Josh! The Pharisee problem springs from a long history of legalism, I think; a history that has shaped how we picture Jesus. We claim to want to follow Jesus’ example, but since loving the unlovable and serving at the fringes of society is messy and uncomfortable, we’ve decided to focus on the “living without sin” aspect. Of course when we reduce the Gospel and discipleship to that, we miss the point completely.

      Old habits die hard! Thanks so much for the comment.

  4. Do you think our american obsession with Calvinism & deifying Paul creates a false image of what a christian should look like? God gave Paul as thorn in the flesh to prevent his deification. 2nd Corinthians 12:6 For thought I would desire to glory. I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. KJV

    • cbbeard says:

      Good question. While I won’t speak to Calvinism and Paul specifically, I do think that anything that borders on “obsession” is dangerous and that many modern-day views of what being a disciple of Jesus “looks like” are negatively impacted by a myopic view of Christianity created in part by focusing on so-called “pet issues” at the expense of the broader picture. Focusing on specific aspects of Scripture or their human “authors” too intently or deeply could lead us to forget that Scripture is not a collection of theological writings as much as God’s plan revealed to mankind to be consumed as a whole.

  5. Thank you for your prompt & thoughtful answer.

  6. Reblogged this on jose's space and commented:
    Need to read up on modern pharisaical ways

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