On being a modern day Pharisee

I came across something I wrote in a Facebook post a few years ago and wanted to post a modified and expanded version of it here. It is not uncommon to hear someone call a Christian a Pharisee because they take a firm stand on Christian faith and practice. Unfortunately, I think misconstrues a Pharisaical position with the requirements for Christian faith and practice that Scripture commands. Christians should be people of conviction and a desire for obedience. Scripture does call for repentance, to change our minds about following sin, and following Christ instead. I’ve also heard Pharisees identified as people who love law. Well, that’s insufficient because Paul says the law is good and provides us with an ethical standard. We should take God’s moral law serious. 

I think we need to consider a bit more about the rise of the Pharisees and what motivated them to take the positions they took. The Pharisee sect arose during the second temple period after the return from exile. Now let’s think for minute what was going on at this time. Israel was back in the land that God had promised but was without God’s promised leadership of a king and God’s beacon of light to the nations. Israel was operating under a kind of plan B status because of their rebellion against God, who swore to remove them from his presence. The Pharisees were a separatist group who took God’s law most serious, especially in light of the loss that Israel had experienced. They did not want to lose again, if you will, and sought to tighten the reigns to make sure that every jot and tittle of the law was obeyed. 

But in their separatist mentality, the Pharisees’ concern for righteousness before God caused them to uphold their own righteousness as the standard against which all was measured. This actually caused them to add to the law just to make sure everything was “right” before God. They were more concerned with preserving their way of life than following the giver of life, especially if it meant seeing beyond the comfort of what they had determined as righteousness. This is why Jesus rebuked them. 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt. 23:23-26)

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The false gospel we don’t talk about

When we think of false gospels, a couple of common ones that raise to the top are the false gospel of works based acceptance and the prosperity gospel. In both cases, the gospel is false because our hope and trust is anchored in something other than the completed work of Christ. And let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that perpetrators of false gospels don’t acknowledge Jesus and his sacrificial work on our behalf. In fact, you’ll find they most likely do. For the most part, they will acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God who came in the flesh and atoned for our sins without which there is no reconciliation to the Father. They will even talk about grace and forgiveness.

However, what makes the gospel false is when acceptance and approval by God is placed in something other than Christ. This is crucial because Christianity is Christianity because of what God has done through his Son, because of God’s singular plan for redemption based on his promises and work. That God made all creation good but it plunged headlong into sin due to the first man and woman’s disobedience, he began a work starting with Genesis 3:15 to rescue lost humanity from its disconnected and downcast position. When Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah, said, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind”  he means HE is the only one through whom lost humanity can have redemption. The whole Old Testament pointed to his ultimate victory over sin and death, requiring that belief rest in him as the fulfiller of all promises (2 Cor. 1:20).

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Heb. 9:6)

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Heb. 9:23-24)

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Do we still need miracles today to believe?

When it comes to the division between continuationism and cessationism (whether certain gifts still exist today), one of the common mischaracterizations that I have observed continuationists make against cessationists is that cessationists believe that miracles are no longer needed.  While I do believe there are a small minority of cessationists who don’t believe in the existence of miracles, most would deny this charge and be open to the possibility that God can do whatever he wants to win people to himself.

I think a big part of the problem is how a miracle is defined.  I have found that typically when my Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters contend that miracles exist, what they are really saying is the demonstration of signs and wonders as seen in Acts are to be expected such that they are needed to 1) believe the gospel and 2) demonstrate empowerment by the Holy Spirit.  But a miracle can be defined more broadly as something out of the ordinary. So we need to ask what we mean by miracles still existing.

Now the cessationist would say that the miracles demonstrated in Acts were done to demonstrate that the validity of the apostlic testimony concerning Christ. After all, the record of the Old Testament shows that when God did something new, previously unrevealed, he did so with miraculous events. God was doing a new thing by bringing both Jew and Gentile together as one body through the sacrificial death of His Son (Ephesians 2:13-16; 3:1-7) marked by the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9).  Jews considered themselves the privilege group and Greeks were accustomed to pagan worship and sought after knowledge.  Both groups needed to experience something out of the ordinary to know that what was being proclaimed through the apostles witness was real.  But once the New Testament church was implemented, the body of Christ grew and the message spread, there was less reliance on these types of miracles for validation. Continue reading

We are all guilty

Well, it’s been a dozy of a week on social media. The allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore continue to mount as does his adamant denial. Not only that, he has chalked it up as a grand political conspiracy, ‘it’s that other side.’ He will not back down. Now I can’t say for certainty these allegations are true though it is pretty hard to dismiss five separate stories. Given the seriousness of the charges, the thought of there being any truth to them gives me a chill regarding the lack of ownership. But I do recall another time a very prominent political figure was charged with inappropriate sexual behavior that initially met with the same response: “I did not have sex with that woman.” Of course we know how that story went. His adamant denials were dashed with the reality of truth. He was guilty.

This is just a small snippet of denial-defense-blame menagerie that not only has peppered the news. This happens everywhere. Incidents go down. Blame is assigned. Some will even take the opposite approach in blind support of the prominent particularly when driven by strong political or familial affiliations. Others will be quick to throw out unexamined charges of guilt especially against those on the “other side” wherever that is. Social media is rife with virtue signaling.

But here’s the thing. We might be sitting back in smug satisfaction that “these people” are morally corrupt, resting in their fame and power to hide their guilt all the while projecting innocence.  We may not be guilty of sexual misconduct, exploiting the vulnerable, or protecting prominent positions. But make no mistake, we are all capable of participating in the same kinds of charades we so easily denounce in other people. We can be guilty of wrong and project ourselves as right, hide our transgressions behind a veil of virtue, and point our fingers to the ones who can’t see all the while clouded by our own lenses. We’ll justify it because our sins are acceptable, masquerading as Christian concern–pride, self-righteousness, envy, and a lack of love. Sometimes the lies go so deep that we’ve even fooled ourselves in believing our own mess. Continue reading

In defense of color-blindness (sort of)

There is an impetus today to reject color-blindness and the reasons are quite valid.  If someone says, “I don’t see color” or worse, “God doesn’t see color” rebuke is the natural impulse since God himself created a beautiful array of shades. So when we look at our brothers and sisters in Christ and the broader world, we should see this sovereign creativity at work that lends to the picture in Rev. 7:9-a conglomeration of people from every tribe, tongue and nation the Lord calls to himself.

But there exist an even deeper concern to reject it. Color-blindness has typically meant that the concerns of non-white people are diminished or dismissed. Because in reality there has been an racial and ethnic primacy at work in the church, and particularly the American church, for a long time.  That is when a person is considered first because of their skin color and second by their Christian status. One would have to have their head buried in the sand or be in complete and utter denial to not recognize this is precisely what happened with black and brown people in America. To distorted minds, the melanin determined the human value, casting those with darker shades into a dehumanizing existence. Even worse, that such views were egregiously supported by myopic renderings of Scripture and harsh development of theories like curse of Ham and that relegated melanin richness to an inferior and sub-human status.

In this reality, we see the ways in which  melanin richness has met with inconsistent and disparate treatment and the church was not exempt.  Consequently, segregated enclaves became a harbor of spiritual comfort. So it naturally concerns many today, particularly people of color, that persistent marginalization occurs and there is a natural rejection towards the concept of color-blindness because of it.  No, we don’t want to deny or dismiss these concerns of partiality that have plagued, not only in the larger society, but particularly the church for so long.

Black and brown Christians feel this angst, particularly being in spaces where they are acutely aware of being the minority. It’s natural to walk into a predominantly white church or other white spaces and see white people first. Prejudicial attitudes exist to varying degrees among some white Christians where the presence of minorities create a heightened sense of dread because they first see a minority first.  The temptation to evaluate the other first on the basis of skin tone remains. Skin tone is just a manifestation of a deeper cultural crisis, historic infractions and sinful inclinations. Where black and brown people have been rejected in various forms from consideration of church life, where prejudicial attitudes have and do exist among white Christians, we are tempted to filter another’s presence first through this reality, and then second as Christians. Continue reading