What is the difference between a 1st century Pharisee and a 21st century Evangelical?
I’m taking a class with Dr. Stephen Um (you can see his info here) who is a pretty cool person to learn from. He insists that pastoral ministry is his overriding passion and he teaches in a very pastoral way. So he spends a lot of time explaining the pastoral implications for what he is talking about. So it turns out to be a very enjoyable experience. This afternoon he spent a few minutes comparing the evangelical community to the Pharisitical movement of the first century. I’ve never thought to compare the two groups, but it turns out to be pretty interesting…
To be fair, scholars debate the actual nature of the movement. Some see it as an exclusive sectarian group and others argue the Pharisees were a party within Judaism – with special rules for themselves, while being tolerant of other Jews. Generally we know the Pharisees were very interested in the law of Moses and hoped to live according to its’ exact regulations. They worked to define the exact meaning and interpretation of numerous laws. They especially concentrated on the ritualistic laws pertaining to sex, death, food, contamination, etc. These were the popular theologians of the day, so to speak.
Interestingly, Pharisees promoted holiness in the land. They viewed themselves as “God’s holy people” and thus were very intentional to go about converting people into God’s kingdom. They were very concerned with understanding properly the holy books. Literalists. Compared to the Sadducees, they were a very conservative group. Moralistic at least in appearances. Does any of this sound familiar? Many evangelicals also stress the fact we are “in the world and not of it.” Many evangelicals are conservative, moralistic, literalistic, and evangelistic. It’s always been easy for me to look down on the Pharisees (since Jesus had some harsh things to say to them) but I’ve never realized how their lives look very much like mine.
So what is the difference between a 1st century pharisee and a 21st century evangelical? It’s an important question for me, since, if I had to pick a single word for my own theological identity, it might be “evangelical” (whatever that means?!). The pharisees knew and kept the law (which isn’t a bad thing right?). Of course we know Jesus didn’t like the way they interpreted it. Jesus constantly questioned their deep heart motives. What the pharisees emphasized, Jesus seemed to de-emphasize.
What would Jesus say about the current Evangelical community as we know it? If Jesus were here now, would he compare us with them?