Australia’s Pharisees

John Dickson has this afternoon written a helpful response to Julia Baird’s column, “Same-sex marriage result was a defeat for only one type of Christianity – and a triumph for the grassroots sitting in church pews”.

He has corrected important mistakes made by Baird about the nature of grace and the love of Christ. For instance, while the current secular definition of love insists upon agreement, the love God displayed toward in Christ Jesus is premised on the fact that God does not agree with us.

John also challenged Baird’s unsubstantiated claim, that the majority of people in the pews support same sex marriage. With great certainty, Baird proclaimed,

“Who speaks for God?”

The answer according to Julia Baird is, the silent majority in Church pews who support same sex marriage.

“It was… a defeat for a certain brand of public, conservative Christianity, one that has focused on sexuality, morality and traditional views of men and women…

And a triumph for the grassroots, those in the pews who – as polls repeatedly showed – quietly tolerated but did not share the views of their church leaders.”

In addition to the evidence John has produced, is research conducted by NCLS in 2016. This data is more substantive than the few straw polls that have elsewhere been conducted, for the simple reason, NCLS was asking the question to people in Churches, as opposed to the general population.  Other polling failed to differentiate between nominal Christians & practicing Christians. NCLS is at least polling people who are attending Church (the demographic that Baird alleges  are in majority supportive of same sex marriage). NCLS data reveals:

73% of church attenders did not support same sex marriage

14% were unsure, 

13% were in favour.

Having said that, even if the majority of people in our pews support same sex marriage, does that make it the voice of God, as Baird purports? Of course not. Christianity is defined by Jesus Christ in the Scripture, not by ecclesial consensus or popular vote. It’s one of the great dangers when we turn to popularism rather than biblical truth for our theological and moral convictions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

In this post I wish to add to the conversation, a comment about Julia Baird’s use of the word, Pharisee. In her article she compares Christians who don’t support same sex marriage with Pharisees, whereas those who truly speak for God are the masses inside the nation’s churches who are letting out a great  “Amen” to same sex marriage.

Name calling is a particularly unhelpful by-product of the current social climate, and even we Christians are sometimes guilty of joining in.  It is easy to call a group of Christians, Pharisee, but is it the right label? Or as Stephen McAlpine asked yesterday, is this the new Godwin’s Law?

Everyone knows the name of the most famous group of bad guys in the story on Jesus, the Pharisees. But who were the Pharisees, and has Julia Baird got it right? I reckon she is mostly wrong and little bit right.

Pharisees were a class of social and political elites who greatly influenced and controlled much of Jewish society in the century before Christ and into first century A.D. Very few Pharisees belonged to the priesthood (they were not clergy), although they held considerable religious sway. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, their influence eventually diminished due to a series of sharp disagreements between themselves and the official Jewish clergy in the First Century.

Pharisees are most remembered for their opposition to the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ. In the historical records we learn of the Pharisees’ persistent harassment of Jesus, protesting his preaching, criticising his good deeds, condemning his beliefs, and plotting his downfall. They didn’t stop at expressing disagreement, but resorted to all the tactics available at their disposal in order to have Jesus silenced.

We need to keep in mind that while the name Pharisee is today a pejorative term, this was not the case at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry; they were greatly esteemed and respected in local communities, and having the ear of the ruling authorities of the day. The New Testament reveals another side to the Pharisees, namely their intolerance toward those in society who didn’t live up to their standards. They couldn’t stomach Jesus’ commitment to the poor and outcast.

It is also important to understand that the problem with Pharisees was not that they held God’s law and righteousness too highly, but that they were self-righteous. They took pride in their self-perceived ability to follow the Mosaic law, and given that they were governed by pride, they managed to find loop holes and extensions to the law in order to satiate their wants. They added hundreds of stipulations that had no grounding in the Jewish Scriptures. For example, whereas the law commanded fasting once a year, on the day of atonement, Pharisees fasted twice a week. This new social norm was not followed by Jesus and he was criticised for not adhering to it.

Important to the topic at hand, it was not Jesus who taught a progressive view of marriage, it was the Pharisees. Jesus consistently and repeatedly affirmed the Genesis paradigm for marriage (which continues to be held by Christians today). Pharisees, on the other hand, had deconstructed and reframed marriage in order to justify their sexual proclivities, and they challenged Jesus for not supporting their progressive views. So, if we are wanting to follow Jesus (accepting his view of marriage and to love and show grace), it is paramount that we resist the current modelling in many Western cultures.

By the way, I am not suggesting that there are no Pharisees within Australian Churches, either among clergy or congregation. Of course there are, but the insult kinda falls flat when the word is misappropriated. Nevertheless, there is something in Baird’s criticism that is worth being reminded of, and to humbly check before God – while Pharisaism is incompatible with the Lord Jesus and therefore with Christianity, are there not occasions when we dip into self-righteousness and are tempted to measure others by our own standards? 

The root of self-justification is unbelief and pride, and pride inherently sets the self against others, belittling those who don’t meet your standard and envying those who out do you. Self-Justification in all its guises is ugly and self-defeating, which is perhaps why Jesus dedicates so many words to exposing the Pharisees.

We are not presenting a truthful or attractive Gospel if we parade the streets of Melbourne in saintly masks and garb; self-righteousness doesn’t fool anyone. And yet, a Christianity that modulates with the changing currents of the culture, is almost certainly one that has drifted from the anchor that is the Gospel. It is no wonder that progressive theology in Australia always leads to declining churches, moral confusion, and the praise of society. If our version of Christianity consistently reflects popular sexual ethics, might I suggest that there is something amiss with our understanding of Christianity. Our nation and our churches don’t need any more Pharisees, whether appear as social conservatives or social progressives. Australia needs Christians who walk with grace and conviction, love and faithfulness, not exuding self confidence and avoiding cultural-pleasing.

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (Jn 15:4).

 


Julia has since attempted to qualify her article on social media, explaining that she is not calling all conservatives, Pharisees.  In response to John’s article, she said, “NB: I wasn’t calling parish priests or conservatives Pharisees! I was referring to church leaders w. skewed priorities.”

This qualification however doesn’t diminish the charge she makes in the original piece.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s