No one wants to be called a “Pharisee.” While the Pharisees were religious leaders generally respected by the people, Jesus repeatedly took them to task for their defective doctrine, self-promoting attitude, misplaced accusations, and inconsistent actions. So, for any who professes to follow Christ, being called a “Pharisee” is a serious insult to one’s faith. This is an insult that the change agents in the church love to hurl. The change agents’ agenda is more or less to transform the Lord’s church from strictly adhering to the biblical pattern to becoming a people-pleasing denomination. When they find in the road to their desired transformation an impediment (a faithful Christian who points out the error of such transformation), they deride that impediment as a “Pharisee.” “Don’t listen to that old Pharisee, he thinks that he is going to be saved by his works.” “Those Pharisees condemn others for not following their views of the Bible.” “Those Pharisees are stuck in the mire of past traditions, failing to realize that the world and the church are passing them by.” However, what the change agents fail to realize is their accusations of others as “Pharisaical” come back upon themselves.
Change agents accuse many in the church of being Pharisaical for alleged traditionalism. If this pertains to traditionalism as observed in the Pharisees, this is a serious allegation. When the Pharisees and scribes attempted to bind their tradition on Christ’s disciples, Jesus applied Isaiah’s rebuke to them: “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7; quoting Isa. 29:13). Likewise, if any today were to teach man made commandments as authoritative religious doctrine, that person’s worship to God would be rendered vain.
Two primary areas in which change agents have accused churches of Christ of being traditionalistic are a cappella singing in worship and women’s roles in the church. They claim that a cappella singing is merely a tradition of the churches of Christ, and not essential to scriptural worship. Yes, a cappella singing was certainly the type of music found in the worship of the church of Christ, or of any church claiming to be such, for over 1200 years following its inception. Hence the name a cappella, literally, “in the manner of the chapel.” Were the churches observing a man made tradition, or a Divine principle? God must be worshipped “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), and God’s Word is truth (17:17). Christians must do all they do with Christ’s authority (Col. 3:17), and singing is the only music in worship authorized by Christ (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; compare with Mat. 26:30).
Likewise, one can find that women have not historically served in leadership roles in the church. Obviously, things have changed in many churches that profess to follow Christ; which is why the change agents believe churches of Christ must likewise change to remain “current and relevant.” However, reserving leadership roles for men is not just a “Church of Christ tradition,” as per the Ashdodic speech of the change agents. The apostle Paul said, “I will therefore that men pray every where” (1 Tim. 2:8). This alludes to leading prayer in public worship, and men refers specifically to males in contrast to females (aneer 79). Paul went on to say, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). Mere man made tradition? Paul wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and thus his writings reveal the mind and will of Christ (1 Cor. 2:9-16). In another passage that alludes to the Divine prohibition on women’s leadership roles in the church, Paul cautioned, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37; see 14:34).
Traditionalism has two definitions in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: (1) The doctrines or practices of those who follow or accept tradition and (2) The beliefs of those opposed to modernism, liberalism, or radicalism. Now certainly the church is to oppose modernism (John 20:30-31), liberalism (Rev. 22:19), and radicalism (Gal. 6:12-13; Col. 2:20-23). If the change agents’ charge against the church of our Lord is that we follow or accept man made traditions as authoritative, the charge cannot stand. Furthermore, many change agents worship with churches that generally practice both a cappella singing in worship and male leadership in the church. When asked why, they allude to their “heritage” or “tradition.” So who is following man made tradition? Who is more like the Pharisees, “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men”? The change agents’ Pharisaical accusations of traditionalism turn back on themselves.
Change agents accuse many in the church of being Pharisaical for alleged legalism. They hurl, “You Pharisees think you are going to be saved by meticulous law-keeping.” “You Pharisees don’t believe in grace.” I am unaware of any of their objects of criticism who believes that meticulous law-keeping in and of itself is going to save anyone. We readily affirm the same truth Paul affirmed:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).
We are fully dependent upon the grace of God for salvation. We cannot concoct a system that produces salvation, but notice in the same context that speaks of salvation by grace through faith, Paul says that Christians are created for the purpose of walking in the good works which God has prepared for them.
Can we as Christians brazenly reject the good works God has prepared for us, and still be saved? Can we merely believe in some truths Christ gave, and obey some works (or none of them) that Christ gave, and still be saved? One influential change agent went so far as to write: “A man need not have New Testament writings to know the will of God for holy living” (Hook 135). Such a statement might well prompt the question: “How then can I know the will of God for holy living?” The response given: “New Testament Scriptures will not be necessary as [new Christians—LM] continue to call on their God in Christ…. Each will serve in his individual relationship with God” (Hook 136). This is to reject the grace of God: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Tit. 2:11-12). God’s grace reveals to us His will for holy living in the New Testament Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17; compare with John 12:48; Col. 2:14). If we do not have the New Testament Scriptures, or if we brazenly refuse to adhere to them, yet claim to have the sanction and salvation of God; we become like those of Israel who “going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Never has God allowed man to choose his own course of action for salvation (compare with Jud. 17:6; Pro. 14:12). And “faith without works is dead?” (Jam. 2:20).
Legalism is defined as “excessive adherence to law or formula” (Oxford). How does one adhere excessively, or too closely, to the teachings of the New Testament? “I give thee charge in the sight of God…That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:13-14). We can be satisfied with nothing less than complete obedience to God’s will.
Just as the change agents are satisfied with less than complete obedience to God’s will, so were the Pharisees. The Pharisees loosed many commandments of God they apparently felt were superfluous. Jesus told them:
Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother (Mark 7:9-12).
Like the Pharisees, the change agents love making loopholes in God’s law, and telling them “you are free” from complete obedience. Like the change agents, the Pharisees chose their own course of action for salvation. Again, the change agents’ Pharisaical accusations come back on them. Change agents accuse others of Pharisaism for alleged unbalance. The change agents despise preaching that includes the more uncomfortable parts of God’s counsel. Clearly, the balanced and necessary approach is to include all the counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27), something the Pharisees failed to do (Mat. 23:23).
Like the Pharisees, the change agents are often able to gain the favor of the people. Part of the way they accomplish this is by hurling against faithful churches accusations and key pejorative terms, a prime example being Pharisee, but whether they accuse faithful Christians of hypocrisy, irrelevance, unlovingness, traditionalism, legalism, or unbalance; they end up accusing themselves. They stand self-accused as “Pharisaical.”
Aneer. Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. A Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago, 2000. Every lexicon of which this writer is aware concurs.
Hook, Cecil. Free in Christ. New Braunfels, TX: Cecil and Lea Hook, 1985.