Beware the Latitude of the Pharisees

By Ryan Biese | December 5, 2022

I was reared Lutheran (ELCA). In my experience growing up and attending several different Lutheran congregations, the worship was fundamentally the same.[1]

Regardless of whether we attended a relatively conservative or relatively liberal congregation, the order of worship essentially did not change. It did not even matter whether we went to the “Contemporary Service” or the “Traditional Service,” for both shared the same basic structure. This was not because the various congregations shared the same theology or worldview, but because the congregations all followed one of the various “settings” in either the Green, Maroon, or Blue Hymnal along with the lectionary.

As a young person, it seemed to me the ELCA was united by a shared worship experience or order of worship. This observation held up even across worship styles and the theological spectrum.

In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), our unity comes not because we share one common liturgy; we have no prescribed liturgy that comes from a denominational publisher or is imposed by the “Headquarters” (and according to some, there is no PCA Headquarters).

This is due – at least in part – to our Puritan heritage; the Westminster Assembly opted not to produce a “Prayer Book” dictating the forms of worship across the Three Kingdoms. Instead, the Assembly produced the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, which set forth “the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayers, and other parts of publick worship…” The Directory described generally what was to be done in worship along with the manner, focus, and general content of each part of the worship.

The unity in the PCA regarding worship, then, flows not from the imposition of a liturgy or lectionary, but a shared theology regarding worship and ministry, which is reflected in our mutual agreement to follow the rules and prescriptions set forth in our Book of Church Order.

In short, unity in the PCA is not the result of every elder and every congregation doing everything the same way (i.e., absolute conformity), but because of our shared theology and our compliance with the same theological rules and principles to govern our practice. We are bound together by our vows to uphold the same theological standards, and so our unity is nonetheless expressed in our diversity.

This system works well when elders and church courts operate in good faith and with sincerity and integrity in their words and dealings with each other. As Postmodernism seeps into the Church and impacts how even Christians understand and use language, this arrangement is becoming increasingly tenuous.

I. Jesus and the Pharisees

In the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Pharisees were respected by Jewish society at large and admired for their careful preservation of Jewish culture. The Pharisees were revered for their reputation of strict obedience to the Law of Moses. But Jesus exposed their true nature as latitudinarians, as men who want broad license when it comes to (dis)obedience.

Jesus warned His disciples about the Pharisees: they were religious hypocrites.

Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12:1–3)

The Pharisees were one way on the outside: strict, pious, and sanctimonious; they gave off the appearance of grave concern for compliance with the Law of Moses and the Traditions of the Fathers. But Jesus foretold: the hidden guile of their hearts will be revealed.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for twisting the plain reading of God’s Law in order to circumvent it:

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:9–13)

The Pharisees contrived a system whereby a person could be excused from aiding his father or mother if he had stipulated that upon his death all his possessions would be dedicated to God (Corban). Sinclair Ferguson describes the result:

The ruling of the Pharisees was that nothing could be done, even to alleviate sickness. The tragedy was that the Pharisees actually led those they advised to breach one of the great commandments. Under the guise of religious faithfulness, they encouraged disobedience to the law![2]

Pharisees of the First Century excelled at appearing religious while concealing the latitude, broadness, and license with which they approach the Truth. Pharisees defy God’s Law while at the same time appearing to be scrupulously devoted to it.

Pharisees did this not only with God’s Law, but with their own promises. The Gospels show us how Pharisees used language with both nuance and precision to minimize their duties. Many were taken in by their ruse, but the Lord Jesus Christ exposed them:

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matthew 23:16–19)

Do you see how clever the Pharisees were with their use of language? If they happened to make a vow they didn’t want to keep or had an obligation they did not want to fulfill, they could simply claim the latitude to disregard it by asserting the vow was not by the gold of the temple or the gift of the altar. They created new rules, new distinctions to undermine the fundamental principles of the Law.

Jesus rebuked this line of thinking in His Sermon on the Mount and commanded people instead to submit to the plain meaning of words:

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:37)

The King’s words issue a strong warning for those who play fast and loose with language. The latitude the Pharisees presumed for themselves by words was explicitly condemned by Jesus as, comes from evil.

Far from being strict and rigorous in their devotion to God, the Pharisees abused language to give themselves a license to disregard God’s word, enrich themselves, and enhance their personal ministries.

II. Pharisaical Practices in the Church

The Pharisees have died out as a group. A significant number of them apparently came to faith in Christ (cf. Acts 15:5) while others remained in unbelief. The teachings of the latter kind of Pharisee remain significant to Judaism to the present day. What’s more, while the group may have dispersed, their linguistic tactics persist in the church today.

We often associate Pharisees with legalism and demanding strict conformity, when in reality they were antinomians who employed complex linguistic strategies to avoid obeying the Law. We must continue to be vigilant against pharisaical tactics and tendencies in Church.

A few hypothetical situations or parables might help us to be on alert for or identify pharisaical practices in the Church today. Remember these parables are entirely hypothetical; however, any resemblance to real-life situations may indicate trouble in any faith communion.

1. A Drunk Pastor

Let us imagine there was a denomination that had adopted a strong stance against imbibing any sort of alcoholic beverages (apparently they know better than Jesus). But within that faith community there was a pastor who loved booze. He loved the smell of booze, and he loved being around people who loved booze.

One year at the annual pastor convention, he told a story from his childhood as a wedding guest fantasizing about booze. Another year the church he served hosted a convention for people who love alcohol and they discussed how great craft beer is and the finer points of Chardonnay, yet without imbibing. At that convention they even speculated that heaven might have some booze treasure brought in from the nations.

Eventually he became known in the denomination as the pastor who loves alcohol, but did not imbibe. In time, the local and national media took an interest in that pastor’s situation, and a number of articles referred to him as a “Drunk Pastor” or “Alcoholic Pastor.”

When he was questioned on his use of the terms “Drunk” or “Alcoholic” to describe himself, he affirmed clearly the verbiage of the denomination’s doctrinal and ministerial standards. But he explained, “While I don’t use those words to describe myself, I also don’t correct others when they describe me as such.”

That sort of thinking reminds me of the modern day Jewish trouble with light-switches on their Sabbath.

2. A Left-Handed Preacher

Let us imagine yet another denomination. This denomination has looked at the Scripture’s references to “left-handed” people and deduced (improperly) that left-handed people are not to be trusted. As a result, enshrined in their doctrinal standards are prohibitions on left-handed people preaching or exercising authority over mixed groups of right-and-left-handed people in worship.

But in one congregation of this denomination there was a regular attender who was left-handed, but was ordained in another denomination that ordained regardless of dexterity. The leadership of the congregation respected that person and deeply desired to provide an opportunity for the rest of the congregation to learn from this dear, faithful, and learned left-handed person.

So they decided they would invite the left-handed person to lead a “Bible Study” in the middle of the worship service instead of having the regular sermon one week.

Isn’t that a clever use of language? It’s not a sermon by a left-handed person, but rather merely a Bible Study in the middle of the weekly worship service.

3. A Ritual Smoothie

Imagine another faith communion whose founder loved smoothies. He was the smoothie king, you might say. And he commanded his followers to remember him by making their own smoothies and drinking them together.

The drinking of the smoothie became one of the most sacred rites in their religious tradition. Their Book of Faith Liturgies even devoted a whole paragraph to prescribe how the smoothie is to be made in all the houses of worship of that faith communion:

The Minister shall insert the banana, grapes, mango, and papaya into the Vitamix.

The Minister shall take the yogurt and scoop it in.

The Minister shall pour the ice into the Vitamix.

The Minister shall blend the ingredients together until homogenous.

The Minister shall pour out the smoothie into mason jars and distribute them to the people.

The Minister and the people shall drink together from straws.

But there were some ministers serving in rural areas where smoothies and Vitamixes were not easily accessible. So instead of making a smoothie, they scooped yogurt into bowls and put the fruit on top and gave the people bowls and spoons instead of jars and straws.

Some of the ministers who did this were accused of violating their standards of the Book of Liturgies. But they defended their practice by saying, “The Book of Faith Liturgies doesn’t say we can’t serve the elements of the smoothie separately; we interpret that paragraph only in the broadest sense” and, “We don’t see how serving the elements of the smoothie detracts from any of the symbolism” and, “The Great High Court has never told us our practice is forbidden.”

That is an interesting take on language, isn’t it? The Book of Liturgies merely tells them how they must make the smoothie; it doesn’t expressly forbid them from observing the ritual in another way with the same elements.

III. Concluding Thoughts

The church in every age must be on guard against pharisaical practices even though the Pharisees have long since died out.

In the PCA, our unity is not the result of doing everything exactly the same, but because we all agree to follow the same rules, which reflect our shared theological principles. If we go down the path of these hypothetical situations, if the attitudes and linguistic abuses reflected in these parables become reflective of the way people operate in the PCA, then what hope for peace and unity do we have?

In the days of Jesus, it was not the Lord who disturbed the peace and purity of the Old Covenant Church, but it was pharisaical practices and deceptive use of language that disturbed her. Likewise in our day, it is not those who insist on the plain meaning of language who disturb the peace and purity of the church; it is those who seek to skirt around the “plain and common sense of the words” (cf. WCF 22:4) who trouble Israel.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1–2)

Ryan Biese is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fort Oglethorpe, GA.

[1] In the Lutheran congregation of my baptism and formative years, we used the Green and the Maroon; when we moved to Ohio we were part of several congregations. It didn’t matter whether we were at the hip church plant in the high school cafeteria, or the liberal congregation in Mentor or the relatively conservative Finnish Lutheran Congregation in Fairport Harbor, or even the awkward-college town congregation, the worship was pretty much the same. The hymns and tunes might be different, but what we did in the worship service was largely the same. The liturgy of the various ELCA congregations we attended largely followed the “Settings” contained in the Lutheran Book of Worship (Green) or one of the later hymnals such as the very creatively entitled, Hymnal Supplement 1991 (Maroon) or in the With One Voice (Blue).

[2] Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 105.

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