Gamaliel - The Concept and the Mission
I would like to begin today’s column with an apology. Those of you who are expecting to read a screed from Gamaliel will have to put up with a word from me this week. I have received a number of e-mails from my readers and I feel the time is ripe for some clarification. For the rest of you who “get it,” please bear with me.
Most of you understand the idea that Gamaliel represents a parody of the mindset current among most Evangelical, Fundamentalist and Mainstream denominations today. I believe (based on e-mails I have received from subscribers) that there are Pharisees in every denomination. So I am not targeting any particular group of people, other than the Pharisees, even though you may see a lot of similarities in your current denomination.
However, I am not only writing about “them.” My intent is to hold the mirror up to all of us and see if a Pharisee is looking back or Jesus Christ. My personal challenge is to ask myself, “Whom do I most resemble?” My response to that challenge is to quote many of the things I used to say and believe from the standpoint of an outsider and see how it measures up to the standard of Jesus Christ.
Some misunderstand me because they think I am focusing on “issues” or “customs” or even “traditional worship styles” and practices. None of those are the focus of the Newsletter at all. To be honest, I fail to get excited about a person’s worship style preference, preferred Bible version, musical tastes or any of the other things that seem to upset people at church the most. And before you get bent out of shape on this, I have met Pharisees who preferred contemporary worship just as often as those who preferred traditional or even liturgical worship. There are just as many Pharisees opposing the KJV as there are defending it. Some Pharisees prefer music that is at least 25 years out of date while other Pharisees go in for hip-hop, rap, rock, techno, Gregorian chants, or whatever. Pharisees span the spectrum of church practice.
So what makes a Pharisee? What is it that I’m satirizing in my column? In a word: ATTITUDE. By reading Matthew 23, we see that Pharisees are characterized by a number of traits that distinguish them from Christians (follower and imitators of Jesus Christ).
- They are unmerciful about the burdensome practices they place on others.
- So how many times do we find ourselves burdening new Christians with behavioral expectations that we have trouble living up to?
- What is our attitude and treatment of others who don’t meet our high expectations? Are we merciful or condescending and judgmental?
- They practice their religion largely to be seen of others; to be praised and admired by them.
- “There is no end to the amount of good that could be done if no one cared who got the credit,” someone once said. How devoted would we truly be if no one were watching?
- What is our current level of activity when no one is watching?
- They are self-important and elevate themselves above others.
- Do we seek the low, humble positions or the high and lofty ones?
- Do we get upset if no one notices our privileged status or standing?
- They desire to be admired by others as knowledgeable teachers and authorities on all matters relating to the word of God (a personal temptation of mine).
- Do we feel like we must have an answer to all the current Biblical controversies?
- Do we feel that our answers must be right for us to be right with God?
- Do we expect that others will be right (i.e. agree with us) or they are not right with God?
- Do we feel that we are the only ones who have all (or most) of the right answers to the hard questions in the Bible and the world would be a much better place if only everyone saw things our way?
- They restrict the entry to God’s kingdom by their preaching and don’t practice kingdom principles by their lives.
- Do we have a quick and easy definition of a Christian and feel that we have a pretty good idea of who is going to be in heaven and who isn’t?
- Do we feel that we are definitely in the number who is going to heaven without a doubt
- They aggressively proselytize saved people from other denominational stripes to convert to their way of thinking rather than evangelizing the lost for Christ.
- When was the last time we led a lost soul to Jesus Christ?
- Would we rather convince other Christians to join our particular party, church or denomination or would we rather witness to the lost and bring the newly saved into our church?
- They practice customs that actually negate God’s intentions and claim they are obeying God when they do so.
- Are we remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy or are we performing a perfunctory duty once a week and calling it worship?
- Is the Sermon on the Mount something we weep over because we are unprofitable servants or something we explain away because Jesus was only using figures of speech and he doesn’t really hold us to those high standards?
- They religiously practice traditions and customs while refusing to practice mercy, sound judgment and faith.
- When someone worships in a different style than we do, are we judging our preferences or the content of what they are saying and doing?
- When we watch others attempt to live out the Christian life, to we criticize their failings (i.e. not being like us) or encourage them?
- They exalt the fathers of the faith while breaking fellowship with contemporaries who are just like them.
- Think of Spurgeon, a cigar smoker. He is widely quoted and nearly idolized in Pharisee churches but would never be welcome as a member and certainly could not serve as a pastor with such conduct. For more details see: http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/cigars.htm
- They feel it is their God-given duty to vilify, oppose, denigrate and otherwise tear down any who are different from them.
Am I accusing any of being Pharisees? I don’t need to because Pharisees accuse themselves. And if I were, then my accusations would mean nothing to the true Pharisees who are incapable of seeing themselves for who they are. Instead they see themselves as they wish others would see them. Pharisees take great pride and pleasure in their exclusivism (a subject of a forthcoming column) and have no desire to join the wider body of believers.
No, my column is for the rest of us who know Pharisees or were once practicing Pharisees ourselves (that’s me!) and would like to break out of the trap that Pharisaism offers. Instead we are now trying to be like Christ. Ironically, many of the traditions that we held to, we still practice. What has changed is our attitude. That, and our practice of grace and mercy to our brothers and sisters in Christ, are the vestiges of our Pharisee past that we are trying to eradicate. It grieves me to the quick that those who preach God’s grace the loudest put it into practice the least. That to me sums up the crux of what makes a Pharisee.
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