Beware the Latitude of the Pharisees

Beware the Latitude of the Pharisees

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.

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.

  1. 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.

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[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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