The New Pharisaism


One of the most beautiful passages in Scripture is the apostle Paul’s discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

As I heard these words read in church a couple of weeks back, for the first time it struck me just how remarkable it is that they come from the pen of Paul. A former Pharisee of Pharisees, he had once made purity the centre of his living. He and his colleagues had learned the lesson from Israel’s history that neglect of the law of God incurred the judgement of God. With an admirable zeal they sought to understand the law, agonised over its application to every conceivable situation in life, and gave themselves over to observing it. It is almost unthinkable that Paul could have penned the chapter on love while he was a Pharisee. He would rather have spoken of the importance of holiness, obedience, and separation from all that is impure.

His encounter with the risen Christ led to a dramatic transformation in his view of godliness. No longer was it to be conformed to the dictates of the Mosaic law. Rather it was to be conformed to the character of Jesus. It is difficult to underestimate just how dramatic this shift was. The law, he says in Galatians, was but a temporary measure to guide behaviour until the arrival of Christ. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:25). Rather, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). I find it impossible to imagine a more complete and decisive break with his Pharisaism!

How ironic then that modern evangelicalism is so often characterised by a return to Pharisaism. We treat the New Testament documents as though they are a new law; we look for rules to govern every conceivable ethical dilemma; and we give ourselves over to obeying the set of rules we manage to extract from the New Testament documents. We love the apostle Paul but spectacularly fail to understand his ethical system.

We will do greater honour to the revelation of God in Christ if we stop trying to be the new Pharisees and instead set about cultivating Jesus shaped love, grace and goodness in our lives and our communities.

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17 Comments on "The New Pharisaism"

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Ben Mckinnon


Philip Waugh

Well said Scott. I think you have highlighted a hugely important part of what being a Christian is, particularly in contrast to religiosity. Then you send my mind spinning into how we express the part purity should play now. For of course our faith is not just “apply love and ignore the rest.” The wrestle is how to live the Christ ethic which includes love and acceptance but still says “go and sin no more”.

Rod Benson

Pharisaism is deadly, and Christians are called to love others without conditions. But Paul also wrote Romans 1-6, which provides a theological basis for his love-ethic. Indeed, Pauline ethics is far from simple.

Ben Mckinnon

holiness is about engagement not retraction

Scott Higgins
I think Pauline ethics are rather simple without being simplistic. And I do think it boils down to a single concept: love one another. Everything I read in Paul with regard to how we live toward each other is nothing more and nothing less than an application of this. And my point in the blog piece is that if we focused on this rather than dissecting Paul to try and discern universal versus particular moral rules, the so-called “moral absolutes” I think we would be far closer to the way of Jesus. We would use the ethical imperatives in Paul… Read more »
Rod Benson
I do understand why you consider Paul’s ethics to be reducible to the single concept “love one another,” Scott. But I also believe that is too simplistic, given the wealth of ethical teaching in the New Testament. NT scholar Richard Hays refers to the “pragmatic task” of every follower of Jesus, by which he means the practice of “embodying Scripture’s imperatives in the life of the Christian community … to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God.” My point is that there is more than one imperative in Paul’s letters applicable… Read more »

Thanks for posting. Totally agree with your thoughts. Steve McAlpine posted this on his Facebook page and I’m now reading Kingdom Conspiracy which explores similar themes.
“The Pharisees taught love of the Torah, and were good at it, but Jesus taught a Torah of love, and he was good at it.”

Scott McKnight’s quote from Kingdom Conspiracy is the bomb!

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