The Pharisee Culture

“You know how this wine was blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce the subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic on earth…. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel, and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up where the sun shone!”

(C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

I have made the claim previously that the Gospel is always bad news to an unprepared heart, and that there are two major forms of the “unprepared”. In the first case are the despairing, who know that if there is a just God, that He must have profound problems with them. The Gospel for them is that God does indeed love them, and provided a way for them to enjoy Him in Jesus Christ. The problem is that the despairing cannot imagine that this is for them.

Then I said that there is a second group, a more numerous group, for which the Gospel is anything but good news, and I labelled that group the Pharisee.

Now, many will wonder at my calling the most common modern group pharisees, since pharisees are supposed to be religious people, and modern Canada is honestly a quite secular place. So let me explain what I mean by a Pharisee.

A Pharisee is someone who honestly believes that they are the ultimate definition of the moral, and set their lives to hatred of that which they see as immoral. A pharisee is by definition self-righteous. They define what is true and good and moral, and rage incessantly against what they see as “evil” (whatever that evil is, whether ignorance, or meanness, or irreligiousness). They gain their joy, not from the beliefs they hold, or from God, but from the fact that they are right and some other group is wrong. They are happy that they are righteous and they pity or hate those who are not precisely like them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what the main object of your beliefs is. If you think that all Montreal Canadiens fans are evil, and rejoice in their comeuppance, you are in danger of phariseeism. You can be a religious nut who rejoices in the damnation of whatever particular group you do not like (such as atheists, or the gays, or whatever), or you can be an atheist that gains your jollies by laughing at the silliness of those terrible religious people.

In both cases, you are quite assured that you are righteous; that you are a “good” person, and that the world would be much better if everybody else was like you.

Terribly enough, this is the common plight of the modern west. We have spent the last 30-50 years telling our young that they should have “self-esteem”, and that they should be more into expressing themselves than learning to be accurate, or even learning from others from whom they disagree. A necessary corollary of this is that you believe yourself to be the definition of what is good and worthy of expression. You yourself are righteous. Thus we have spent more than a generation telling ourselves that “we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us” (twisted aside: anybody else find it ironic that the comedian that played Stewart Smalley is now a U.S. Senator?), and so telling them that they are righteous in themselves, they SHOULD BE self-righteous. It is good to be a Pharisee.

Of course, its sometimes hidden in “tolerance”, where we are called to tolerate all opinions, save those anachronistic troglodytes that are not tolerant, and the world will be so much better when they stop clinging to god and guns…… Or maybe it’ll all be good when those terrible people who believe in a religion are gone, or those irreligious atheists are gone, or <insert your favourite whipping boy here>….. You can see what I mean.

The gospel to a pharisee is far worse than to a despairing person. For the pharisee, the intimation that they are not actually as good as they imagine (and are in fact evil), since the ultimate definition of goodness isn’t them, but is God. Worse, this good God is actually so good that He really does hate evil, and thus hates our pharisaic tendencies.

The problem we Christians face is that this is a) cultural, so we have trouble catching this evil in ourselves and purging ourselves of it (and so people rightly see many of us as hypocrites) and b) a positive roadblock to the Gospel.

This isn’t helped much since we tend to focus our evangelism on the despairing sinner who knows they need mercy (God loves you), and actually adds strength to the pharisees, who need to know that the God who rules really hates evil, and we really are evil. We place our righteousness in us instead of in Him, and so honestly deserve the just wrath of God.

This is not good news to people who honestly believe they are good, or at least better than that group they hate. So far from seeing their desperate need for mercy, the pharisee culture reacts to the reign of God by demanding what right God has to define righteousness, or by claiming that God is evil, or by imagining that God hates all sin except mine.

The Pharisee is actually the most openly in rebellion to God, and rebels are rarely happy to be told of the rule of that which they rebel against. As a result the good news is very bad to this unprepared heart.

Author: Stephen Dawe

Steve is a part-time vocational elder Calvary Baptist Church, St. John's as well as a full-time student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the Religious Studies Department.