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What Was the Error of the Pharisees?

John on August 21, 2006 at 3:57 pm

What follows is my response to a comment left by a member of Ken Silva’s congregation named Ryan Patterson. Ryan ends his comment with a question which I believe gets to the core of my disagreement with the authors at Slice (and Ken in particular). I’ve attempted to address this question seriously, so because I spent some time on my response I’ve decided to make it a post in itself. Here’s the final part of Ryan’s comment where he poses the question at hand:

“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15 NIV)

So I ask you this: Is Pastor Silva slamming doors in the faces of Church seekers, or is he warning of hypocrites in the Church to prevent new converts from becoming twice the sons of hell?

Here’s the relevant part of my response (i.e. minus the part that responded to the rest of Ryan’s comments):

I agree with you that this is the central question. Is Ken rebuking error or is he in error himself? And not just Ken but the others who write at Slice who see themselves in the same role as guardians of the faith.

How are we to answer this question? How does one discern who is acting like Jesus and who is acting like the pharisees? I agree that it can be difficult to tell at times. Clearly, stern language will not help us decide which is which since both Jesus and his opponents used such language. So, again, how can we tell who is in the right?

Speaking for myself, it comes down to a more basic question or questions: What did the pharisees hold against Jesus and what did Jesus hold against the pharisees? The pharisees sought to discredit Jesus because a) he was popular b) he challenged their authority and c) he re-interpreted elements of the law that they believed were crucial, such as how one should behave on the sabbath.

By contrast, Jesus accused the pharisees of hypocrisy. He said that on the outside they claimed to be pure, while on the inside they were really motivated by malice. He also said — in the passage you noted — that they blocked the entrance to the kingdom with their obsessive rules and regulations. Now think about this carefully. We all know this verse:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

So, as a starting point we’re all agreed that the Christian life is not the broad road the world offers. And yet, what did Jesus say about the pharisees? He said that they blocked the entrance to the kingdom. How? Through being obsessed about the observance of their particular religious rules what to eat, whom to eat with, how to observe the sabbath properly? Jesus challenged them in all these areas. But getting back to Jesus’ criticism, what he essentially said was that the pharisees made the entrance to the kingdom too narrow! In fact, it was so narrow that they had to travel the world to find one convert.

By contrast, the early church brought in people several thousand at a time. You may know that a mega-chruch is defined as a church of more than 2.000 people. I know this is probably going to upset someone, but according to the Bible the first church was a mega-church. Think about that a moment. When Ken or Ingrid or someone else tells you that only pastors who sell out the “true faith” have mega-chruches, ask them if Peter was a sell-out.

Furthermore, unlike the pharisees, the apostles didn’t scrutinize each individual before they were allowed to join the body of Christ. People simply responded to a simple message and joined. If they could understand that Jesus was God and had died for they sins, they were in! There was no admittnce exam on “reformed theology” though admittedly that may have been because reformed theology hadn’t been invented yet.

To sum up, what Jesus rebuked the pharisees for was primarily two things, hypocrisy and legalism. I have not accused Ken of hypocrisy. I accept your defense of his good character. But I do think he and all of the authors at Slice tend to want to make the entrance to the kingdom a lot narrower than it actually is. They are suspicious of success. They seem to think only sell-outs have mega-churches. This is not Biblical nor is it a fair characterization of the men who run these churches.

Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Rob Bell have brought thousands of people to the Lord. That’s a good thing in my view. They are focused on fulfilling the great commision. If some people in their churches have shallow faith or fall away, the same can be said of the churches planted by the Apostle Paul. That doesn’t make it something to emulate, but it does suggest to me that it may be an unavoidable part of even the best led churches.

I leave it to you to judge where Ken stands, but for myself I think it says a lot that he and the other Slice authors want to bring down the very men who are most successful in adding people to the kingdom. This does not sound to me like the sort of thing Jesus would have criticized. On the contrary, the Lord’s criticisms were reserved for those who — through excessive legalism — blocked the way and made it too narrow.

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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