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Accidental Pharisees

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For some time now people have been telling me, “You need to read Larry Osborne’s Accidental Pharisees.” Based on the title I was not sure whether they meant this as a compliment or insult; now that I have read it, I am still not sure. But I sure am grateful they encouraged me to read it and glad I finally did.

We who consider ourselves “gospel-centered” or “Young, Restless, Reformed” (or whatever monickers we prefer) tend to focus on reading books that come from within our little movement and that share its perspective. I suppose this is true of any group of like-minded people, because it’s safer and less complicated this way. Accidental Pharisees speaks to us, it speaks to me, but it does so from the outside. It was not written specifically for us or against us, but it may as well have been. Osborne offers a helpful, and at times painful, perspective, on what we are doing and what we are building. Sometimes other people can see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Osborne is concerned that a new kind of legalism is creeping up within Christianity–even Christianity that focuses on being theologically-correct and gospel-centered. He hears these constant calls for zeal and sees behind it all a subtle pride that will inevitably work itself out in legalistic ways.

It’s easy to see the scriptural misalignment in the crazy guy on the street corner with the “Turn or Burn” sign. The same with the cut-and-paste theology of people who toss out the Scriptures they don’t like. It’s also easy to spot it in the pompous coworker with a big Bible on his desk, a chip on his shoulder, and a tiny heart in his chest–the self-proclaimed great witness for the Lord–whom everyone tries to avoid and no one wants to eat lunch with. But we seldom see it in the mirror.

If there is any sin we can spot in others from a thousand paces but cannot see in ourselves even when staring in the mirror, it is pride. Sure, we own it in the macro sense and admit that pride lies at the root of so much sin, but we rarely see how it works out in our lives, in our relationships with other Christians, and especially in our relationships with Christians who have different emphases from our own.

The fact is, we all have areas of unaligned faith and incomplete understanding. We all have blind spots, and we all have sin spots; when the two mix, it’s a dangerous combination. It’s hard to get everything right. That’s why I call those of us who step over the line into overzealous and unaligned faith accidental Pharisees. We’ve stumbled into a place we never wanted to go.

Osborne identifies various affinity groups within Christianity today, each with their own emphasis and each not far from creating Pharisees. Here are the four that most likely describe you:

  • Radical Christians “tend to see generosity as the leading indicator of what it means to follow Jesus. The required metric is a generous and simple lifestyle — with the caveat that if you don’t live simply enough, you aren’t generous enough.”
  • Crazy in love with Jesus Christians are another group. “Their litmus test of a true disciple is costly personal sacrifices, financial or otherwise. Evidence that you’ve been persecuted for your faith is highly valued; so are a few wild leaps of faith that all of your friends thought were nutso.”
  • Missional Christians “want to know what you’re doing to help fulfill the mission of God. If you start up a soup kitchen, volunteer to tutor at-risk kids, or move your family from the suburbs to the inner city, you’ll have no problem earning the badge.”
  • Gospel-centered Christians “like to determine spiritual maturity by means of their theological grid. If you like big words, careful distinctions, and nuanced debates, you’ll fit right in. It also helps if you’ve read something by Jonathan Edwards recently.”

Sure, he generalizes a little bit, but there is truth in his descriptions. What he identifies, and what concerns him, is that we like to build movements around the implications of the gospel that fill us with passion. But this can be a problem because “the moment my personal application of the implications of Scripture becomes the lens through which I judge others, something has gone terribly wrong.”

We don’t have freedom to lie, steal, slander, turn a deaf ear to the poor, hoard the gospel, worship idols, or fornicate. But we do have freedom in many other areas. And it’s this freedom that can drive the fledgling legalist within all of us crazy. Once the Holy Spirit places a clear call on our life to do something (or not do it), it’s hard for most of us to fathom why everyone else didn’t get the same memo.

The simple fact is that once we have found our passion, once we have found that implication of the gospel that stirs our hearts, we find it inconceivable that anyone else would have a different passion, that they can’t see things the way we do. And it is not long before we begin to criticize or exclude them.

And this is where Osborne’s book is so helpful. He speaks to me and warns me that my passion or emphasis is good, that I am free before the Lord to hold it and pursue it, but that I cannot demand it of others. I cannot make it the litmus test of committed Christianity. And the same is true of you, even if your passion is very different from my own. He does not criticize being gospel-centered or being radical or being crazy in love with Jesus. Rather, he warns that any of these things can be done legalistically when we demand it as the defining mark of committed Christianity. “The problem is not spiritual zeal. That’s a good thing. We’re all called to be zealous for the Lord. The problem is unaligned spiritual passion, a zeal for the Lord that fails to line up with the totality of Scripture.”

There is a sense in which Accidental Pharisees could be accused of being an anti-Radical or anti-Crazy Love or anti Gospel-Centered. Though he doesn’t mention by name the books or the authors, it is clear he has read them and clear he is concerned about them. But I don’t quite see his book as a full-out critique. I see it as a fair warning to those of us who read and enjoy them.

The key to enjoying Accidental Pharisees and benefiting from it is this: look for yourself in it before looking for other people. Let the book challenge you before you begin to think about all those other groups and their misplaced passion. If you only see applications for others, you are either reading it wrong or you are Jesus.

Some will inevitably accuse Osborne of writing a call for complacency. I don’t see it that way as all. Some will dislike his tone. I don’t blame them since in certain places he tips over into anger or sarcasm. He overstates his case, deliberately I’m sure, and doesn’t always say things the way you might want him to. At times he seems to fall into the very thing he hates–allowing the Bible’s black letters to speak louder than the red, or the red to speak louder than the black. He is not as quick to appreciate radical Christianity as he is to critique it. He is better at diagnosing the problem than proposing the cure.

But you should read Accidental Pharisees anyway. Take a deep breath, be humble, and listen. I guarantee you will find at least one or two things that apply to you, to your church, to your passion. It will do you good.

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