by Shane Scott
“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!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
In this article I would like to talk about the unloving spirit of pharisaism, a subject I feel very qualified to discuss since I have often been guilty of it! Like the Pharisees, I have often been so concerned to get doctrines exactly right that I have neglected the most important command of all, love. I have frequently been so intent on safeguarding my practice of religion against any impurity devised by man that I have failed to practice the most important duty toward man, love.
There is nothing wrong with seeking doctrinal precision or strict conformity to apostolic practice. A disciple who loves the Lord and stands humbly under His authority will seek nothing less than such adherence to Scripture. But as Jesus explained in Matthew 23, there are some teachings in Scripture that are weightier than others. All Scripture is important, even “the least of these commandments” (Matthew 5:19), but God has invested greater weight to some commands, and our responsibility is to make sure His priorities are our priorities – that what He considers the “great and first” commandment is ours as well (Matthew 22:34-40).
Pharisaism gives the appearance of careful submission to God’s word, but in fact it ignores the clear priorities God has established. Rather than acknowledging God’s stated emphasis on love, pharisaism flattens out the commands of God into a set of absolutely indistinguishable injunctions. And so measuring out a tenth portion of dill becomes as important as measuring out mercy to someone in need. Such a mindset distorts the word of God into a cold collection of statutory regulations, and the end-result is pitching a fit because someone restores a crippled woman to health on the Sabbath day (Luke 13:14).
“But aren’t we supposed to follow ALL of God’s word?” Yes we are. In His illustration about tithing the smallest spices, Jesus made sure to close off a lenient approach to God’s word by explaining, “these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” This is not a matter of either/or, but both/and, with the emphasis where God places it. Greater focus on loving God and loving one another will make us more concerned to adhere to all of God’s word, not less.
I am anxious about a growing spirit of pharisaism that I fear I see emerging among some brothers and sisters in the broad circle of my friendships. In the past, it was easy to spot the pharisaism of those who were so eager to defend the faith that they became obsessed with certain issues to the point that the fundamentals of the faith were obscured, or even forgotten. And it was especially troubling to see fellow believers pursue the purity of the faith with tactics and attitudes that were far from pure.
What I am alarmed about is more subtle. It is an attitude that leads Christians to decide to leave loving congregations if the order of worship is not arranged just like they would prefer, or the accepted manner of dress in the assembly is not what they feel comfortable with, or the sign out front doesn’t say exactly what they wish it would say. To leave the loving fellowship of brothers and sisters because of matters like this must surely qualify as the same sort of mindset that ignores justice, mercy and faithfulness because the mint, dill, and cumin are not divvied up just like you think they should be.
I have strong opinions about what my ideal format for worship would be, and about the way I would prefer to dress in the assembly, and about the way my congregation should identify itself on the sign we have. Does my congregation always follow my preferences in these areas? Of course not. But I will tell you what this group of God’s people does. They love and care and serve. They comfort and strengthen and console. They see people in need and open their hearts as 1 John 3:17 says. They have done more than I could ever imagine to help me and my wife. To discount this deep, God-honoring and Christ-imitating love for some petty opinion about a peripheral issue is unthinkable.
And what would you call a mentality that would permit a narrow obsession over such secondary issues to matter more to someone than a rich fellowship of love? There’s only term I can think of.