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The Church Ethic
Like the Pharisees
The Church Ethic: Introduction
Church Ethic Scripture References
Being Like the Pharisees
Reason and Learning through Questions
theme in Jesus' ministry was the ongoing tension and struggle
with those who were the leaders over the people of God in
his day. This included two main groups, the Sadducees and
the Pharisees. It is clear from the New Testament record that
Jesus was adamant that the practices of these groups not take
hold in the church. Three of the four gospels provide Jesus'
explicit statements to this effect.
Matthew 16: 6 "Be careful," Jesus said to them.
"Be on your guard against the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees
and Sadducees."... 11 How is it you don't understand
that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your
guard against the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard
against the yeast (2219) used in bread, but against the teaching
of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Mark 8: 15 "Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch
out for the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees and that of Herod."
Luke 12: 1 Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands
had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another,
Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: "Be
on your guard against the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees, which
Paul also alludes to this reference from Jesus in Galatians
were he is concerned that the Christians have been hindered
in their following of Jesus' teaching. He describes what was
undermining their obedience to the truth as "leaven" and uses
the same Greek word that is translated as "yeast" in Matthew
16:6, 11, 12, Mark 8:15, and Luke 12:1.
Galatians 5: 7 Ye did run well; who did hinder
you that ye should not obey the truth? 8 This persuasion
cometh not of him that calleth you. 9 A little (2219)
leaven leaveneth the whole lump.
As persons who have at times been compared to the Pharisees
and their teaching, we felt it would be helpful to provide
some much needed historical clarity on who these people were,
what it is that Jesus condemned about them, and what it is
that Jesus forbid the church from becoming like.
The typical modern understanding of a Pharisee is someone
who seeks to strictly uphold the letter of the law and overlooks
what the Spirit is doing today. In what is an unbelievable
irony, however, this characterization is completely reversed
from the true historical case. In reality, what Jesus condemned
the Pharisees for, and forbid Christians from doing, is really
the exact opposite of what most people today think it is.
A few common resources make this fact clear by comparing the
differences between the Pharisees and their contemporary rivals,
Pharisee - The basic difference that led to the split
between the Pharisees and the Sadducees lay in their respective
attitudes toward the Torah (the first five books of the
Old Testament) and the problem of finding in it answers
to questions and bases for decisions about contemporary legal
and religious matters arising under circumstances far different
from those of the time of Moses. - Encyclopedia Britannica
Deluxe Edition 2004
As the quote above attests, the chief question at issue between
the Pharisees and Sadducees was how to address modern problems
in relation to God's Word, which had been revealed over 13
centuries earlier in times and circumstances that were much
different. These two groups took two different approaches
to solving the problem of applying God's Word to the new and
different cultural landscape that they lived in. Their respective
approaches were based upon how they viewed the Word of God
itself. The following quotes describe these respective differences.
Sadducee - The Sadducees and Pharisees were in constant
conflict with each other, not only over numerous details
of ritual and the Law but most importantly over the content
and extent of God's revelation to the Jewish people. The Sadducees
refused to go beyond the written Torah (first five books of
the Bible)...For the Sadducees, the Oral Law-i.e., the vast
body of post-biblical Jewish legal traditions-meant next to
nothing. By contrast, the Pharisees revered the Torah but
further claimed that oral tradition was part and parcel of
Mosaic Law. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition
Pharisee - In their response to this problem,
the Sadducees, on the one hand, refused to accept any precept
as binding unless it was based directly on the Torah, i.e.,
the Written Law. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed
that the Law that God gave to Moses was twofold, consisting
of the Written Law and the Oral Law, i.e., the teachings
of the prophets and the oral traditions of the Jewish
people. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004
Pharisee - Second, the Pharisees believed that
there were two Torahs. In addition to the Torah recognized
by the Saducees, which both Saducees and Pharisees believed
was written by Moses, the Pharisees believed that there was
another Torah. - wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisee
The Pharisees and the Sadducees viewed God's revelation to
mankind in very different ways. The Sadducees held that only
the written Word of God was authoritative and divinely inspired.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, not only accepted the written
Word, but more to the point, they also regarded their ongoing
oral traditions and the work of their own contemporary scholars
as being equally authoritative divine revelation.
The difference in how their respective views on divine revelation
affected their approach to religious practice and teaching
Pharisee - Whereas the priestly Sadducees taught that
the written Torah was the only source of revelation, the Pharisees
admitted the principle of evolution in the Law; men must
use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying
it to contemporary problems. Rather than blindly follow the
letter of the Law even if it conflicted with reason or conscience,
the Pharisees harmonized the teachings of the Torah with their
own ideas or found their own ideas suggested or implied in
it. They interpreted the Law according to its spirit; when
in the course of time a law had been outgrown or superseded
by changing conditions, they gave it a new and more acceptable
meaning, seeking scriptural support for their actions through
a ramified system of hermeneutics. It was due to this progressive
tendency of the Pharisees that their interpretation of the
Torah continued to develop and has remained a living
force in Judaism. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition
Pharisee - they asserted that the sacred scriptures were
not complete and could therefore not be understood on their
own terms. The Oral Torah functioned to elaborate and explicate
what was written... Thus, one may conceive of the "Oral
Torah" not as a fixed text but as an ongoing process of
analysis and argument; this is an ongoing process in which
God is actively involved...by participating in this ongoing
process rabbis and their students are actively participating
in God's ongoing revelation. That is, "revelation" is
not a single act, and "Torah" is not a single or fixed
text. It is this ongoing process of analysis and argument
that is itself the substance of God's revelation. - wikipedia.com,
While the Sadducees held to the authority of the written Word
alone for determining religious belief and practice, the Pharisees
were extremely liberal in what they considered authoritative.
Unlike their counterparts, the Pharisees viewed God's revelation
not as fixed in the written Word, but as evolving over time.
For them, the written Word became outdated and at times would
be superceded by ongoing revelation through which God's word
would have a meaning more accommodating to contemporary living.
To the Pharisees, the written Word of God was inadequate,
incomplete, and couldn't even be properly understood without
ongoing revelation and guidance through men such as themselves.
It is these practices of the Pharisees regarding God's Word
that Jesus fervently rejected. Throughout the course of his
ministry he repeatedly and decisively rebuked them by appealing
to the written Word to correct the errors brought by their
acceptance of "ongoing revelation," the traditions of they
themselves invented. He declared over and over that their
ongoing evolution and adaptation of God's written Word contradicted
God's will and was not from God, but was merely the vain teachings
of men. The following passages all bear this out.
Matthew 15: 6 Thus you nullify the word of God for
the sake of your tradition.
Matthew 15: 9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching
for doctrines the commandments of men.
Mark 7: 7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching
for doctrines the commandments of men.
Mark 7: 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your
tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things
Matthew 12: 3 He answered, "Haven't you read what
David did when he and his companions were hungry?
Matthew 19: 4 "Haven't you read," he replied, "that
at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,'
5 and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and
mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become
one flesh'? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore
what God has joined together, let man not separate."
Matthew 21: 16 "Do you hear what these children are
saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never
read, "'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained
praise' (Psalm 8:2)?"
Matthew 21: 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never
read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is
marvelous in our eyes'(Psalm 118:22,23)?
Matthew 22: 29 Jesus replied, "You are in error because
you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At
the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in
marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about
the resurrection of the dead--have you not read what God said
to you, 32 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and
the God of Jacob' (Exodus 3:6) ? He is not the God of the
dead but of the living."
Mark 2: 25 He answered, "Have you never read what
David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?
26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the
house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful
only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."
Mark 12: 10 Haven't you read this scripture: "'The
stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 11 the
Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes' (Psalm
Mark 12: 24 Jesus replied, "Are you not in error
because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?
25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given
in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now
about the dead rising--have you not read in the book of Moses,
in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the
God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob' (
Exodus 3:6)? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of
the living. You are badly mistaken!"
Luke 6: 3 Jesus answered them, "Have you never read
what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He
entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread,
he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also
gave some to his companions."
With all of this in mind, it is almost impossible to comprehend
how many in the modern church community could have gotten
this so wrong. In the New Testament, Jesus condemns those
who malign the written Word as insufficient and outdated and
who assert an ongoing revelation from God, which alone can
properly explain and adapt the scripture to our modern culture.
In his day, the Pharisees were such men. And Jesus sternly
warned his disciples from adopting such an approach.
Today, many of those who claim to be Jesus' followers, adopt
this very approach of the Pharisees and apply it to Jesus'
own teaching passed on to the church in the New Testament
writings of His apostles. Such persons adapt and evolve the
written word in order to more comfortably suit the changes
in times and cultures in which God's people live today. Just
like the Pharisees, they justify this with appeals to ongoing
revelation, claims of outdated scriptural protocols, and supposed
insufficiency in the written Word. And ironically they condemn
as being Pharisaic those who, like Christ and his apostles,
hold tightly to the written Word as authoritative, as wholly
sufficient and understandable, and who reject manmade traditions,
which nullify God's commands.
In conclusion, the idea that the Pharisees are characterized
by strict adherence to the written Word is patently false.
They were strict in their adherence, but not to the written
Word of God. Instead they firmly held to the ongoing traditions
and teachings of men with which they had replaced it. Sadly,
the modern church has not heeded Jesus' instructions, but
has indeed embraced this type of yeast from the Pharisees,
which has now spread through the whole lump and persuaded
many away from the truth of God's Word, turning them instead
unto the teachings of men.
Perhaps after a review of the historical information above,
those who might have previously criticized us as "Pharisaic,"
might think that their criticism is valid but that they simply
matched us to the wrong group. In light of this, perhaps they
might seek to maintain their criticism by labeling us as Sadducees.
However, such a labeling is not possible. The Sadducees were
defined by characteristics, which do not at all apply to us.
Specifically, they did not believe in the existence of spirits,
in angels, or in the resurrection - all of which we affirm.
In addition, it has been suggested that the Sadducees accepted
only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch
or written Torah) and did not regard the writings of the prophets
with the same authoritative esteem.
"Sadducee - The Sadducees refused to go beyond the
written Torah (first five books of the Bible)..." - britannica.com
"Christianity, The relation of the early church to late
Judaism - ...Sadducees, who accepted only the five
books of Moses (the Pentateuch), and the more popular
and strict Pharisees. The Pharisees not only accepted biblical
books outside the Pentateuch..." - britannica.com
"Sadducees, Decline of Sadduceeism - (see Hippolytus,
"Refutatio Hæresium," ix. 29; Epiphanius, l.c. xiv.; and other
Church Fathers, who ascribe to the Sadducees the rejection
of the Prophets and the Hagiographa..." - jewishencyclopedia.com
This suggestion itself might be an overstatement. In other
words, the Sadducees' rejection of the ongoing oral tradition
of the Pharisees might be interpreted as a rejection of anything
after the Pentateuch, including the prophets, when in fact
perhaps the prophets were retained and only the ongoing oral
tradition was rejected. Nevertheless, for the sake of answering
a potential criticism of our approach, we will address this
suggestion that the Sadducees may have rejected the writings
of the prophets.
In modern terms, this might be equivalent to accepting only
the Gospels (and perhaps Acts), while rejecting the epistles
of Paul or the Book of Revelation as later extensions of Jesus'
teaching (perhaps in the same sense that the Old Testaments
might be seen as later extensions of the Torah). However,
while we deny that post-canonical human traditions are authoritative
or are "ongoing revelations" (such as the works of Christian
scholars down through the ages), we fully embrace the entire
New Testament canon (Gospels, Acts, epistles, and Revelation)
as equally authoritative. So we do not fit this suggested
trait of the Sadducees either.
But ironically, some of those who might falsely describe us
as "Pharisees" do indeed fit this suggested trait of the Sadducees.
For example, some modern Christians have become uncomfortable
with the writings of Paul. To illustrate, Paul makes many
explicit statements concerning excommunication and the submission
of women to men, which are vastly out of vogue with modern
western culture and postmodern concepts of "loving others."
As a consequence, some such persons may even reject the writings
of Paul and in some sense may claim to follow "only the teaching
of Jesus in the Gospels." Such a practice would in fact be
quite similar to the Sadducees (if indeed the Sadducees
did regard only the five books of Moses and rejected the prophets).
And just as the Sadducees may have been motivated in this
regard by their own embrace of pagan Greek culture, modern
Christians may be motivated in this regard by their embrace
of contemporary western culture, following the pattern of
the Sadducees in this way as well.
"Sadducees, In Literature - Sadducees, if not in
name, at least in their Epicurean views as opposed to
the saints, are depicted also in the Book of Wisdom (i. 16-ii.
22), where the Hellenistic nobility, which occupied
high positions likewise in Alexandria, is addressed." - jewishencyclopedia.com
"Sadducees - They espoused the hellenizing tendencies
of the Asmonean princes in which they were strongly opposed
by the Pharisees..." - www.newadvent.org (the Catholic Encyclopedia)
"Sadducee - They came under the influence of Hellenism..."
Ultimately, if this suggestion regarding the Sadducees is
true, the Sadducees and the Pharisees would represented two
extreme approaches to God's word, one that rejected huge portions
of the canon of scripture (the Sadducees) and the other who
accepted the full canon but made their own ongoing, evolving
oral tradition of equal weight to the canon (the Pharisees).
Both approaches obviously overturn portions of the teachings
of God. And perhaps both views have inevitably found their
way into the Church. In chapters XI.7 and XV.1 of Book III
from his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus even documents
that syncretistic and heretical sects were already rejecting
certain New Testament books including Paul as early as the
first few centuries A.D.
"7. ...So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest,
that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them,
and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours
to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites,
who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this
very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord.
But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is
proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those
[passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate
Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible,
but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel
by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have
their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus,
making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate
their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error
by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first
book. Since, then, our opponents do bear testimony to us,
and make use of these [documents], our proof derived from
them is firm and true." - Irenaeus, Against Heresies,
Book III, Chapter XI
"1. But again, we allege the same against those who do
not recognise Paul as an apostle: that they should either
reject the other words of the Gospel which we have come to
know through Luke alone, and not make use of them; or else,
if they do receive all these, they must necessarily admit
also that testimony concerning Paul..." - Irenaeus, Against
Heresies, Book III, Chapter XV
Perhaps even Paul's own words in 2 Timothy 3 were in part
a warning anticipating such a tendency.
2 Timothy 3:14 But continue thou in the things which
thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of
whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou
hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee
wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and
is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for
instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be
perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
There is of course a valid alternative, a middle ground between
these two extremes, one which accepts the full canon without
recognizing an evolving, ongoing evolution through post-canonical
theologians. And that is exactly the approach that Jesus prescribed
and that we wholeheartedly embrace.