Pharisaism of the Left

on July 9, 2015

Those on the religious left often accuse more traditional Christians of Pharisaism, of wanting to be separate from sin and sinners, of being too closely identified with the state, and of ignoring Christ’s call to minister to the poor and downtrodden. They claim young people are abandoning the Church because of this focus on morality, repentance, and judgement and because of Christians’ association with the political right (which, like the religious right, also has no concern for the poor). They wish to re-enchant people with the authentic Jesus. This Jesus is Palestinian, not Jewish; a refugee; a political rebel; a heretic to the religious elite; a fomenter of social unrest; someone who ate with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes without judging them. If young people could only see this Jesus – and if the 2000 year old tradition of Christianity received from the apostles would stop distorting Jesus – our churches would be full, and we would begin to see societal change.

Of course, young people have responded to this re-branding from the religious left. That is why theologically liberal churches are not losing debilitating percentages of members and their membership is not becoming older and older.

Wait, they haven’t? What a surprise.

These same, tired allegations were made in a two-part conversation between Mike Slaughter of the Ginghamsburg Church and Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. They discussed their distrust of the “institutional Church” and “American” Christianity. They accuse this “American” Christianity of hijacking Jesus to support their worldview. This hijacked Jesus is “safe, agrees with my politics, and agrees with my lifestyle.”

According to Hamilton and Slaughter, “Jesus came to remove dividing walls.” When we forget that “we are all children of one Father” we create divisions. Following Jesus means tearing down those barriers and divisions. This is the Jesus that is relevant to young people. He wanted to fellowship with societal nobodies and sinners. Young people want to be good Samaritans, not to hear that non-believers are not part of the Kingdom of God. Like this Jesus, young people want to break the standards of what is clean and unclean. Like this Jesus, they want to show people good works, not doctrine.

Of course, this Jesus is as far from the Jesus of the Gospels as the alleged Jesus of the Christian and political right. While Jesus absolutely ate with publicans and sinners, he claimed he came to call them – the sinners – to repentance.  While he defended the downtrodden and the prostitutes, he also commanded them to stop sinning.  He told his followers that their righteousness had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. If we love him, he commanded, we are to keep his commandments. Jesus did not set the kingdom of God in opposition to the kingdoms of men; indeed, far from being executed as a rebel, the Roman governor disinterestedly found “no fault in this man.” He was not a threat to the political system of the Roman Empire.

Traditional Christians and Christians on the political right are certainly not perfect in their obedience to the radical message of the Gospel (though they do an impressive amount of good work), but neither do they claim perfect obedience. Instead, they strive to follow Jesus by doing good works AND holding to doctrinal purity and calling sinners to repentance. Jesus did both, commanded his followers to do both, and we must do both as well. Rather than co-opting Jesus as an argument for their politics and economics, traditional Christians (when following the Gospel) attempt to use reason to accomplish good for the poor.

Hamilton and Slaughter, along with many non-orthodox or leftist Christians, accuse traditional Christians of remaking Jesus in their image and putting political ideology before Jesus. This Jesus agrees with their conservative politics and their lifestyle. They use this Jesus to create barriers between people, and to tell non-believers that they are not part of the kingdom of God.

But does their Jesus – the Jesus of the religious and political left – match the Jesus of the Gospel? This Jesus said:

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

This Jesus  preached “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” and “no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” This Jesus warned that “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” This Jesus gave to his apostles and their successors “the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This Jesus taught that sexual immorality defiles a person, and intensified the moral law by teaching that hatred is murder and lust is adultery.

This Jesus looks about as interested in truth, morality, and doctrine as his followers on the Christian right.

The modern day Pharisees are Pharisees of sentiment rather than legalism. They create a comfortable guru Jesus who just wants everybody to get along. Their open-minded non-judgementalism is the new law to which all must submit or be found wanting. Like the Pharisees of old, they look for a different Messiah than the one that appears before their eyes. They want love separated from truth and they quickly distance themselves from the Christians who do not.

But true love is inescapably connected to truth. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate,

“Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity…Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32).”

Benedict warns

“Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space .”

When Jesus came, he did not come to abolish the law or challenge the moral teaching of the religiously orthodox. Instead, he demonstrated how to preach truth in love by embracing those willing to repent no matter what their backgrounds had been. But this repentance from sin and acceptance of his lordship had to come first, because there can be no love without truth. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time wanted to lock themselves in an ivory tower of truth and failed to love their neighbors. By so doing, they also missed Truth itself when he passed before their eyes. Our modern Pharisees may try to be loving good Samaritans to those broken and downtrodden by sin, but without truth they are unable to help heal the wounds that trouble the soul. They may not pass by as did the priest and scribe in the parable, but they relegate themselves to speaking soothing words as the wounded traveler dies before their eyes. The true good Samaritan, following Jesus’ example, applies the balm of truth because it is only the truth than can set us free.

  1. Comment by Adam Hamilton on July 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Hi Matthew, I think you have mischaracterized Mike and myself here. We both regularly call people to repentance from sin, invite them to accept the lordship of Jesus Christ, and we seek to preach truth and grace. We also both affirm, teach and believe the historic elements of orthodoxy as articulated by the creeds. You and I both undoubtedly have our Pharisaic tendencies. I often tell folks I am a recovering Pharisee who occasionally falls off the wagon. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day seemed fixated on pointing out other people’s sins, but didn’t realize that the more serious sins were the ones in their own hearts – spiritual pride among them. In their pursuit of their vision of spirituality and moral purity they separated themselves from people Jesus sought to save.

  2. Comment by Joshua Rodd on July 9, 2015 at 5:28 pm


    Jesus spent time with tax-gatherers and other sinners, but didn’t become like them, and he didn’t condone their sin. Rather, he called them to repent.

    The issue at hand is whether a whole host of things are sin issues that needed to be repented of. That’s not “Pharasaical” either. The Pharisees had a lot of sin issues, which is why Jesus called on them to repent, too.

    Christianity consists of a lot more than ancient creeds, which mostly exist to help resolve doctrinal disputes that were relevant in the 4th century but have little meaning today.

  3. Comment by Matthew Maule on July 11, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    Hi Reverend Hamilton,

    I apologize if I mischaracterized your comments from the video. I also did not mean to call you or Mike Slaughter “unorthodox.” I trust my wording did not do that.
    Were there any particular parts where I misconstrued your language from the interviews?
    I too believe that we are not called to separate ourselves from others either who struggle with our own besetting sins or with sins that we are not entirely attracted by. I was also deeply challenged both by the example of our Lord who was beloved by sinners even as he called them to repentance and by the teaching of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate.
    As I understand it, sin is not merely an arbitrary list of things God decided to prohibit. Sin, tied to non-being, ultimately leads to death. Every sin we commit slowly destroys us and leaves us less alive and less receptive to God’s grace. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ suggestion in The Great Divorce (and the idea is key to Dante’s Commedia as well) that those in hell are there because they choose to be – hell is locked from the inside. Sin is terrifying because it separates us from God and makes it harder and harder for us to receive his love. Ultimately, if left unchecked, it leads us actively to choose intense and eternal suffering over God’s love.
    I grew up in a fundamentalist, independent Baptist church (I’m now happily Anglo-Catholic), and I understand the problem of a reduction of the beautiful message our Lord gave to mere moralism. I experienced first-hand the problem of trying to separate oneself from “the world” and “worldliness.” Because such an approach misses the part of our Lord’s gospel message that emphasizes sacrificial love and works of mercy, they miss the whole of the Gospel – like the Pharisees of old did.
    The solution, however, cannot be to ignore the half of the Gospel that the fundies read and only emphasize the works of mercy. My point in writing this piece was to argue that that only leads to a Pharisaism of another kind. I rejoice if this does not characterize you.
    I am worried about such language, however, especially when it seeks to represent the views of “young people.” I am a young person who has won many people over to Anglicanism and it was because the Church spoke to them where they were. They didn’t need to be affirmed or told to do more things. They needed to be called to repentance and offered the opportunity for confession and absolution. I have found it always to be true, as Benedict XVI explains, that love and truth always go together.

  4. Comment by John Lomperis on July 13, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Thanks for replying, Adam. You are right that spiritual pride is a more fundamental sin. But I ask this in all seriousness and respect: would you consider at least the possibility that spiritual pride, whether acknowledged or not, could be a factor when a popular church leader claims, on homosexuality or any other issue, to have to individually have more wisdom than the combined wisdom of every single Christian who ever lived before him?

  5. Comment by ken on July 9, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Excellent article. The nonjudgmental Jesus of the liberal religion never existed, he is a product of wishful thinking. Anyone who reads any of the four Gospels in sequence (as opposed to cherry-picking) would see that Jesus talked about divine justice as often as about love. It is ironic that the liberal religion harps on “social justice,” yet they never depict God as the divine Judge before whom each person will stand.

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