Of Pharisees and Fallacies

Warning: the following post is theological in nature.  Readers with a history of liver disease should consult a doctor before reading this post.

I don’t want to be a Pharisee…
I don’t want to be a Pharisee…
‘Cuz they’re not fair you see
I don’t want to be a Pharisee…
–old VBS song lyrics, circa 1986

The Pharisees really get a bad rap.  In the gospels they seem to be the perennial archnemesiseses of Jesus–so busy adhering to the letter of the law that they have long since forgotten the spirit of the law, and threatened by Jesus’ less anal-retentive approach to Torah.   So much so that, in modern Protestant circles, to be called a “Pharisee” is one of the most damning insults a Christian can throw.

(And, to be fair, Jesus does flat-out condemn the legalistic Pharisaical way of thinking.  He compares them to “whitewashed tombs,” that is, that they focus on the externals–making themselves look good to other people–but neglect the internals–any actual changes to their character.  He compares them to blind guides–that they tell others to follow them when they themselves do not know the way.)

However…

However I am starting to be concerned with what the term “Pharisee” has become.  Once upon a time this term  was only applied to legalists–to Christians who were, like the historical Pharisees, focusing obsessively on the keeping of rules.  Now, however, it seems to be thrown at any Christian who endorses accountability.

This issue has recently emerged in an interdenominational Christian group I am a part of.  The question is whether, in order to be in a leadership role within the group, one should be required to sign a standard of conduct (which mentions examples of lifestyles that the leadership are expected to avoid).  As the argument grew heated, the term “Pharisee” was thrown about–and it culminated with someone standing up in a meeting and declaring, “I am accountable only to God–I am accountable to no man!”

(I’ll admit, when I heard that, I half-expected a blonde sword-weilding woman to show up, throw off her helmet, shout “I am no man!” and stab him in the face.  Maybe I’ve watched Return of the King too many times.)

This idea seems to be quite popular these days, that Christians are accountable to no pastor, no fellow-believer, but only to God.  And those that challenge this are branded “Pharisee.”  So is that what a Pharisee means, now?  Does Pharisee = a Christian who wants Christians to be accountable to anyone other than God?  What is accountability, and whom are we really accountable to?


ac·count·a·ble (ə-koun’tə-bəl) adj.  Liable to being called to account; answerable. See Synonyms at responsible.

–from the American Heritage Dictionary

Pharisee —  1.  A sect of Judaism in the first century, whose focus was on the keeping of the Torah.  2.  (derogatory)  Any tribesperson who tries to advise, instruct, or command you whom you disagree with. Can be used to refer to one’s mentor, one’s pastor, or one’s girlfriend’s father.
Works-based salvation  —  1.  The belief that one can get to heaven by doing good things.  Considered erroneous by all tribes.  2. (derogatory)  The attempt to actually do what Jesus told us to do.  Considered extraneous by most tribes.  See also: Disciple

“Accountability” in the Christian sense means “answerable to.”  Basically, if you are accountable to someone, that means they can call you out if you’re doing something wrong.  If I’m doing something that’s openly sinful, and another Christian comes to me and says, “Hey, you really need to knock that off,” whether I pay attention to him or not depends on whether I’m accountable to him or not.  If I’m not accountable to him, he has no right to advise, order, or suggest anything regarding my actions.

1)  Accountable to God?
First off, the declaration that “I am accountable only to God” is half-right.  We are all accountable to God.  Someday we’ll have to answer to God for what we’ve done.  This is true for both Christians and nonChristians–Romans 3:19 says that the whole world will have to answer to God.  Romans 14:12-13 says this:  “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.  Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”  (More on this verse later.)

I am not convinced, however, that we are accountable only to God.

2)  NonChristians Accountable to Christians?
Before I clarify that, let’s get something else clear.  NonChristians are not accountable to Christians.  Christians love to go up to NonChristians and tell them to stop such-and-such a sin (or worse, to tell them they’re going to hell for that sin, Fred Phelps-style).  Why should they stop?  NonChristians have no incentive to hold themselves to a Christian standard.  Why do we expect NonChristians to act like Christians?

Paul tells us that rebuking someone for sin is something you only do to fellow believers.
‘I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.  What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”‘  –St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 5:9-12 (emphasis mine)

Sin is a symptom of fallen human nature.  A symptom, not the cause.  You don’t start by dealing with sin, you start by treating one’s fallen nature–and there’s only one cure for that.  So quit pestering those poor NonChristians–you’re only turning them off to what we are and making it seem as though our faith is all mindless rule-following, when in reality it is joy and freedom and respite.

3)  Christians Accountable to Christians?
So, look, I’m accountable to God.  That means, if another Christian tries to tell me what to do, or tries to tell me that I’m wrong in something, I don’t have to listen to him, right?

Sorry, mate, but that’s hardly scriptural.  Paul shoots that one in the foot, too.
‘Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’
–St Paul, Galatians 6:1-2

If I’m a Christian, and I’m openly sinning, this isn’t something that is MY BUSINESS and nobody else’s.  If I’m a Christian, I’m a member of an ekklesia, a family.  Who I am and what I’m doing has an impact on my fellow family members.  And they have a responsibility to try to help me, to call me out if I’m wrong, to encourage me when I’m right, and to help “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  And I have the same responsibility towards them.

Interdependence.  As Christians we are part of a living body, in which people depend on us and in which we depend on others.  We can’t say that we don’t answer to others, because what we do affects those others.  We can’t say that our actions are none of their business, because it is their business.  When we grow, we grow together, we grow as a body.

You are not accountable to God alone.  You are also accountable to your brothers and sisters in the family–and they accountable to you.  We need to call one another out when needed, to rebuke one another when needed, and always always to lift one another up.

A warning: Christian inter-accountability is not a license for judgment.  Judgementalism is another word whose meaning has been twisted in recent years–the verse fragment “Judge not” is frequently quoted out of context, so allow me to explain.  The command to be non-judgemental does NOT mean that a Christian can never tell someone else that they are wrong.  (Jesus told all sorts of people that they were wrong, and Paul even called out a fellow apostle–these were not judgemental actions.)  What it instead means is that a Christian should never tear someone down.

Do you know how you tell the difference between the Spirit’s voice and the Enemy’s?  It’s this: the Spirit will convict you when you’re wrong, the Enemy will condemn you when you’re wrong.  Conviction spurs you on and encourages you to put things right; condemnation crushes you and makes you despair.  It works the same way for humans to whom we are accountable; it’s the same difference between proper accountability and judgement.  Accountability tells us we are wrong and encourages us to put things right.  Judgement tells us we are wrong and takes pleasure in it, and makes no effort at reconciliation.

As Christians, all our interactions with other Christians–even and especially when we’re rebuking another Christian–should be with the aim of encouraging them and helping them become better Christians.  Paul again comes to our rescue with the following.
‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’
–St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Let’s look at Romans 14 again.  Read the whole chapter, not just the bit about being accountable to God and not judging your brother.  What’s the chapter about?

It starts out talking about those whose faith is “weak,” who believe that they need some sort of extra dietary restriction (like being a vegetarian). ‘One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…

‘So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.  Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’  –St. Paul, Romans 14:2-6, 12-15

Read the whole chapter, if you will–this is great stuff.

What is this chapter saying?  Is it saying that we’re only accountable to God and not accountable to men, that we can act however we want and no-one can tell us what to do?

Quite the opposite!  It’s saying that you shouldn’t use your Christian liberty as a license to offend other Christians.  It’s saying that you need to act in love towards others.  If anything, this passage is the greatest argument for why Christians are accountable to other Christians (and why things like standards of conduct aren’t bad ideas): we have a responsibility to treat one another with love, not judgement, and to abstain from practices that will offend others.  We have a responsibility not to damage another person’s walk, and they to our walk.

In short: Christians are indeed accountable to other Christians, particularly those in their ekklesia.

4) Christians Accountable To Leaders?
This is one that the “Accountable To No Man” crowd tends to have a problem with.  They tend to be, as I am, big fans of the house-church, and big enemies of organized religion.  They often advocate a leaderless, purely communal approach to ekklesia.  A big promoter of this idea is Harold Camping, founder of Family Radio and former promoter of the Jesus-is-coming-back-in-September-of-1994 paradigm.  Camping claims that the Holy Spirit has left the local churches and that no-one can be saved through an organized church, and encourages his listeners to “come out” of the now-demonic churches and live as free Christians, under no authority save the Bible, accountable to no-one but God.

“And when they [the true believers] are out [of the local church], they will experience great spiritual freedom.  They are now completely free to faithfully serve the Lord as they are commanded by the Bible.  No longer can there be any pressure on them to obey church doctrines…  What glorious freedom to be under the perfect authority, and only the authority, of the Bible!”  –Harold Camping, Wheat and Tares, p.89

The problem is, the Bible exhorts Christians to be under the authority of others.  The positions of overseer and deacon were established by the apostles (Acts 6:2-6, 1 Tim 3:1), and are spoken of as being established by the Spirit (Acts 20:28).  The very idea of a leaderless ekklesia is highly unscriptural.

While all Christians are equal in terms of grace and nature–a pastor has no super-powers, no magic Jesus-juice–some are gifted (or cursed?) with a leadership role.  Scripture describes two offices within the early church, the higher of which is overseer.

An overseer is charged with protecting the ekklesia (Acts 20:28-31), serving the ekklesia, being a good example for the ekklesia (1 Peter 1:2-4), managing finances (Acts 11:30), directing the affairs of the ekklesia (1 Timothy 5:17-18), and managing the ekklesia as a father manages a family (1 Timothy 3:5).  These overseers–roughly equivalent to the priests/pastors or elders of the modern-day church–were set in a position of authority.  They are responsible for their local assembly.  And thus, their assembly is accountable to them.

‘Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith…  Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.’  –Author Unknown, Hebrews 13:7, 17

‘Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among y ou, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.’  –St. Paul, 1 Thess 5:13

Sorry, Mssr. Camping, but your idea of “freedom” from the local church, your idea of the individual Christian being under the authority of no-one save God, is directly contradicted by Scripture.  (You might want to brush up on Hebrews 10:25 and Matthew 16:18, too.)  The fact is, Christians are accountable to those in leadership over them within the ekklesia.


5) Leaders Accountable To Others?
Some pastors are like little tyrants of miniature nations.  They brook no questioning.  They allow no dissension or alternate opinions.  They claim to be the only authority in the church short of God, the only one who can say whether a doctrine is right or wrong.

Frankly, not only is this erroneous, but I find it rather scary.

Accountability goes both ways for overseers.  The ekklesia is accountable to the overseer, because it’s the duty of that position to ensure that the ekklesia is on track.  But the overseer is himself accountable to others, because there are times when a pastor/priest/elder will go off the deep end. 

‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.’  -St. Paul, Acts 20:28-30, emphasis mine

Even from your own number.  Way back when, Paul predicted that there would be overseers who would distort the truth.  And so a pastor/priest/elder must be accountable to someone; there has to be someone who is checking to make sure what he’s saying from the pulpit is true, to pray with him, to help his walk and help keep him from sin.

Some congregations have their pastor accountable directly to them: that they themselves are checking his doctrine against Scripture and exhorting him if he is off-track, and they themselves have the power to remove said pastor if he ceases to speak the truth.  Some denominations instead have bishops and archbishops to check on the overseers of the local assembly.  Both of these are good and have some scriptural basis–but at the least, the very least, an overseer must be accountable to other overseers.  Whether this means that the pastor is accountable to his elder board or that he has other pastors from the same doctrinal background that he meets with, that will depend on the individual congregational style.

In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter exhorts the elders he’s writing to ‘as a fellow elder.’  In 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives Timothy guidelines on how to deal with an elder who is sinning (to not listen to any accusations unless there are witnesses, and to handle any rebukes publically).  At one point, Paul had to call out Peter in front of everyone (Galatians 2:14).  All throughout Scripture runs the theme that a pastor, priest, or even an apostle is not above accountability–that everyone needs to be called out if they are wrong.

6)  Not fair, you see…
As with so many things, there is a balance to find: a golden mean between two extremes.  It’s wrong to be a legalist–wrong to obsess over little rules and scowl down your nose at “so-called Christians” who dance or drink or play cards.  But it’s also wrong to do whatever you want, claiming that no-one can judge you but God, that you are accountable “to no man.”

Because the accountable-only-to-God argument holds no water.  Rather, it leaks like a sieve that’s been peppered with buckshot and then stabbed repeatedly with a lightsaber.  Our Christian liberty is not a license to do whatever we want–all things are permissable to us but not all things are beneficial.  And we are answerable to those that God has set above us in the church, as well as to our brothers and sisters who seek to build us up and encourage us on to maturity.

Love is the key, love and mutual submission (a la Romans 14).  When we really are viewing our brothers and sisters with love, that’s when we’ll lay down our own liberties and our own hangups, and instead meet each other halfway.  What a beautiful picture the Scriptures put forth, of what fellowship is possible between believers of very different habits!  And how sad that it is not yet more prevalent within the body!

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