Anthony Bradley’s essay in World magazine is receiving some well-deserved attention. If that piqued your interest and you want to read more on the subject, I highly recommend Larry Osborne’s recent book, Accidental Pharisees.
Osborne wisely and pastorally explains how we’re never free from the temptation to legalism. In fact, the more zeal we have for God the more we’ll be tempted to look down on those who don’t measure up (p. 46). And so we become “accidental Pharisees.” But is there any other kind? No one becomes a legalist on purpose.
Osborne cites five kinds of Christians who can easily become Pharisaical about what they care about most (p. 92-94):
1. Radical Christians: these people think generosity is most important, and while they are careful not to give out a list, they are suspicious of Christians who live in large houses and drive expensive cars. Their parents’ generation worried about beer in the refrigerator; they worry about BMWs in the driveway.
2. Crazy Christians: these earnest believers think that you’re only committed to God if you’re taking wild leaps of faith, getting yourself in trouble to see if God won’t bail you out. They suppose that normal Christians who punch a time clock and pay their mortgage on time probably aren’t as committed to Christ as they should be. What these “crazy Christians” forget is that they’re only free to take their risks because of the normal jobholders who have saved enough money to help them should they fall (p. 188).
3. Missional Christians: these counter-cultural Christians think the badge of discipleship is earned by volunteering in a soup kitchen, tutoring at risk children, or moving from the suburbs to the inner city. They are suspicious of anyone whose life is too comfortable (there seems to be some overlap among these first three categories).
4. Gospel-Centered Christians: these Christians are my favorites, because we care about right doctrine and everything written by John Calvin. However, if we’re not careful we can look down our noses at those believers, usually Arminians, who haven’t quite figured out the right way to think about God.
5. Revolutionary and Organic Christians: these people are disillusioned with the traditional church and think that the most committed Christians are those who attend house churches. As with the missional and gospel-centered Christians, they are often suspicious of those who attend large “seeker” churches.
Osborne is not against each of these priorities per se, but simply warns us against turning a good thing into our god. We may have good reasons for our good thing (after all, it’s good for a reason), but we must avoid the trap of thinking that everyone has to live like us.
Osborne’s book is full of many helpful and liberating ideas. Here are a couple:
1. “Evangelists, pastors, teachers, ministry leaders, church planters, and missionaries have a public platform that makes it easy for them to present a model of discipleship that looks an awful lot like them. Their self-congratulatory stories and natural built-in bias toward God has called them to do can leave the rest of us wondering what’s wrong with us” (p. 173).
2. Osborne thinks that zealous Christians should balance their use of the Gospels with an equal emphasis on Paul’s epistles. While it’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything to follow him, it’s equally true that Paul encouraged Christians to lead a normal life, quietly working with their hands so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (1 Thess. 4:11-12). We need a Christian faith that makes sense of both kinds of passages.
I intend to try. In the Fall I have a book on faith and doubt coming out that will address a portion of this (I will argue against the radical and crazy guys—the Steve Martins of evangelicalism?—that faith is committing to what you know, not to what you don’t), and this summer and fall I will be researching and writing a book that takes the question straight on—can we serve Jesus and still enjoy our lives? How do we integrate the redemptive purpose of heaven with the earthly pleasures of creation? Until then, and perhaps even after then, I heartily commend Larry Osborne’s provocative and liberating book, Accidental Pharisees.