the new pharisees

I don’t know if this is the best topic for an ODJ devotional, but it struck me recently that many emergent leaders inadvertently shut the door to the kingdom, which is precisely the problem that Jesus had with the Pharisees.  I’m not sure if my logic holds in the third to last paragraph, but I’m trying to convey the idea that these leaders not only shut the door to the kingdom but also remove its very idea.

read > Matthew 23:1-15

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees.  Hypocrites!  For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (v. 13-14).

Who are today’s Pharisees?  The easy answer is traditional Christians who load believers with legalistic lists of worldly activities to avoid.  Their not-too-subtle message is that good Christians look, act, and vote in particularly conservative ways.  While this threatens the gospel of grace, there is a new breed of Pharisee which is equally devastating.

The new Pharisees shut the door to the kingdom by assuring people that they are not sinners and therefore do not need to believe in the Savior.  Everyone is born already on the inside and need do nothing to enter.

This differs from Jesus, who announced his kingdom by commanding people to “Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15).  He explained that he did not “come to call…those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Matt. 9:13).  Our sin is why Jesus said he is the Door and only “those who come in through me will be saved” (John 10:9).

If Jesus is the only Door, then anyone who denies his necessity is shutting the door to the kingdom.  This doesn’t trouble the new Pharisees, for they believe that everyone is already in.  But a kingdom which includes everyone and asks nothing from anyone is no longer a meaningful concept.  Any set which is everything is also nothing.  So the kingdom no longer exists, and you can’t enter what isn’t there.

Finally, the new Pharisees are as legalistic as any fundamentalist.  They also have distinct ideas about how Christians should dress, eat, and vote, though now their answers lean hard to the left.  It used to be a sin to drink and swear; now it’s a sin not to.

Beware of Pharisees on the left and the right.  Let nothing distract from the beauty—and necessity—of Jesus.






20 responses to “the new pharisees”

  1. I agree on the principle, and in fact that’s got a lot to do with why I left my former affiliation. But is this what emergent leaders are saying? I don’t recall reading this argument from any emergent leader.

    I am a member of Cedar Ridge Community Church, founded by emergent leader Brian McLaren. This message is certainly not what is taught at Cedar Ridge (and I wouldn’t be a member if it was). We actually have what I think can fairly be described as a Gospel presentation almost every service leading into the time of communion and worship which states God sent Jesus into the world because of sin. And this was true back when Brian was still serving as pastor, not just today when he no longer serves in that role.

    At Cedar Ridge, we definitely know that we are sinners, we need a savior, and that savior is Jesus Christ. It would be hard to attend even a single service at our church, and not get this message.

    Mike, you have this image of the emerging church. The “emerging church” is quite diverse, but I somehow doubt much of it conforms to the image you have of it. Do you actually have experience worshipping with emerging folk?

  2. What do you mean by ‘Any set which is everything is also nothing.’? At least mathematically that isn’t true (but I know you’re not going for a strictly mathematical statement). I agree it renders the idea meaningless. I don’t know how much more you can say than that (though I will think about it more).

  3. Yooper

    Thanks – I have thought this for some time, and the shoe fits well these charlatans.

  4. mikewittmer


    I mean that to be meaningful there must be a distinction. E.g., if everything in a book is highlighted then nothing is, if spiritual then nothing is, if everything is God then God is nothing–or just another name for everything.


    I believe that Brian makes this mistake in “The Secret Message of Jesus,” where the kingdom is merely another term for inclusive love. He also implied that everyone is born already on the inside and that as long as we don’t opt out then we are OK. And this is before his latest work.

    You are right that I haven’t worshiped at your church, and I don’t mean to speak to that. I’m only responding to what I have read by some leaders, such as Brian.

  5. Thanks Mike, that’s clearer.

    With that understanding I think that the paragraph works.

  6. Adam F.

    Dr. Wittmer, you know your ODJ audience better than I do, but I wonder if your argument in the 3rd to last paragraph could be aimed closer to the root.

    It seems to me that the New Pharisees might argue all-inclusive salvation as following logically from God’s all-inclusive love of humans. (God’s all-inclusive love of humans isn’t a meaningless set.) However, it doesn’t seem the New Pharisees see logic as a main proof (or disproof) of their Kingdom of God.

    I suspect the root issue here isn’t the logic of sets, but of pointing to different understandings of God’s love – its effects and demands.

    Anyway, thanks for sharpening us, Dr. Iron.

  7. hmmm.

    Pharisees to the left.
    Pharisees to the right.
    (stand up sit down fight, fight, fight?)

    seriously. i wonder how healthy it is for all of us (self included) to always try to win discussions by identifying our opponents as Pharisees?

    labels seem to very rarely lead us any closer to unity, or to truth.

    just a thought.

  8. mikewittmer


    I think you’re right that there is no value in trying to win a name calling contest. I’m not interested in that, but rather in asserting the purity of the gospel from those who compromise it. The most extended diatribe against the Pharisees comes from Jesus, and I think that he would say that his words in Matt. 23 are important for leading us to truth, and thus unity with those who hold it.

  9. Jonathan Shelley


    The good news is that your logic in the third to last paragraph is sound. But, sorry, I can’t make the connection between McLaren & co and Pharisaic legalism. I think by widening Pharisee-ism to include both extreme legalism and complete anti-nomism you slip into the everything-becomes-nothing fallacy. Instead, perhaps we could think of postmodern innovators as the new Gnostics. Where the Gnostics believed we needed to escape the material world (the [inherently] evil that causes suffering) for the spiritual world (which is freedom of the true self), the PI’s want to escape doctrine (the [inherently] evil that causes bigotry and intolerance) for personal spirituality (which is the freedom of self-discovery). I think we see this type of misconstrual of the Gospel message quite frequently throughout the New Testament, especially among the Gentile converts. That’s my thought.

  10. mikewittmer


    My connection with the Pharisees is mainly that many of the emergent leaders are also shutting the door to the kingdom–albeit in a unique way–by actually making the kingdom too broad. But your Gnostic point brings up an interesting game–make a list of heretical or otherwise bad views and see how many jumps it takes to put an emergent in it. That is just a joke, for those who are tempted to try such a thing.

  11. Yooper

    It is also my observance that many emergent leaders have placed themselves in the role of determining what the rules are in their game of christianity.

  12. Adam F.

    Dr. Wittmer:
    I dare you to link emergent theology to kitch in less than 8 jumps.

  13. Jonathan Shelley


    Even though I disagree with you, I feel your heart behind this devotional, and I appreciate the value of the conversation. I feel that this experience of exchange has encouraged me on my journey of spiritual self-awakening, so I thank you for challenging my narrow, preconceived notions of Pharisee-ism and ushering in a broader, more inclusive vision of a new kind of Pharisee.

  14. Adam F.

    Jonathan, you may have just linked emergent tropes and kitsch in ONE move!

  15. mikewittmer

    Thanks for taking Adam’s challenge, Jonathan. But I am troubled by how genuine your sarcasm seemed. You are getting entirely too good at this (he said sarcastically).

  16. tsquare21


    This prayer is from Jesus that we may here from Him, that He may meet our needs. It only consist of three simple steps.

    1) We need to read one scripture. This will focus us in the word that brings everlasting life.

    2) Since this prayer is from Jesus we need to direct our prayer to Him personally. To often Christian focus they’re prayer‘s to G_D the father. Scripture proclaims that Jesus should be the focus of our prayer.

    3) The simplest part of this Prayer is to ask Jesus one question. Please, all that is required for this question is to make it simple. Let Jesus Himself finish the question when He gives you that understanding through prayer.

    The PRAYER

    The scripture that is the focus of this prayer is “ACTS 2:38”. It’s not necessary to do any study into this scripture. Jesus Himself willl bestow the understanding that will resonate in your heart.

    The most important part of this prayer is that we need to direct our prayer directly to Jesus. If you normally would say Father in your prayer, change your focus from the Father to Christ Jesus by lifting Jesus name up every time you would normally use Father in your prayer.

    Maybe the hardest part of this prayer is the question that we need to ask Jesus. For man as we are, always try to understand the question and may add many additional quires. The simplest question is all that is required.

    Simply ask Jesus ‘WHY, Jesus why’

  17. Mike,

    ~ While we have many differences, this is theological positioning more than devotional material. I’m not convinced it’s helpful.
    ~ It’s interesting that you are willing to be incredibly harsh on ’emergent’ people, and yet you recognize the failures of Augustine in your next post. Perhaps more discernment rather than putting all people of ’emergent’ all in the same boat would be more helpful. If we throw out all of Augustine, we still likely don’t have the ‘Trinity.’ They what would we do?
    ~ What if in fact MOST ’emergent’ followers of Jesus are actually more intent on living into the ways of the kingdom than the traditional church?
    ~ From ten years of living into the ’emergent’ church, I have yet to find another group of people in America more passionate about the kingdom of God, love of Yahweh, and love for neighbor.

    Grace & Peace.

  18. quote: “this is theological positioning more than devotional material”.

    Dr. Wittmer: Could you please explain the relationship (if one exists) between right believing and right living? It seems like you could write a whole book on that topic. Maybe even get it published. I am sure everyone who reads this blog would read it.

  19. Interesting, but I wonder if your criticism would describe a Sadducee more than a new sort of Pharisee.

    You said, “The new Pharisees shut the door to the kingdom by assuring people that they are not sinners and therefore do not need to believe in the Savior. Everyone is born already on the inside and need do nothing to enter.”

    Keep in mind, the Sadducees shut the door in a similar way, by denying there is a resurrection (if there’s no resurrection, then this life is all that matters, so why would we need a savior in a spiritual sense?)

    Not to mention, the Sadducees were opposed to the Pharisees – if the Pharisees were the “right” of their day, the Sadducees were the “left.”

    I’d like to add, though, that whether you say “New Pharisee” or “Sadducee,” it really only applies in extreme cases. As has already been pointed out here, emergent covers a wide spectrum, and very many who consider themselves emergent do not deny our sin or our need for a savior.

  20. All are Sadducees and Pharisees now!

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    What first appears a counter intuitive [and un-PC] challenge to the religious status quo is worth closer examination;  it carries within its pages ideas an ineffable wisdom which the theological history of religion either ignored, were unable to imagine or dismissed as impossible. An error of presumption which could now leave ‘tradition’ staring into the abyss and humble all secular, atheist  speculation. 

    Using a synthesis of scriptural material drawn from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the world’s great poetry, just as in the beginning, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle, a single test of faith and offers the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a individual intervention into the natural world; ‘raising’ up the man,  correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where ‘death’ is ignorance and ‘Life’ is knowledge,  this personal  experience of  transcendent power and moral purpose is our ‘Resurrection’, and justification for faith. Here, on a perfectly objective foundation of moral principle and virtue, true morality and ‘Life’ begins.

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