Pharisees, scribes and lawyers for today


“I have told you this so that you may not fall away. They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me. I have told you this so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you.

John 16: 1-4

The Cooper family in Collegedale, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, is being thrown out of the church they have belonged to for decades -- because they chose to support their gay daughter, Kate Cooper, a  detective in the Collegedale police force.

The reason? Because Kate's mom sat next to her in church, thereby "endorsing" her sinful gay lifestyle.

There is a great deal of irony on the part of Christians who preach the gospel every Sunday, yet still miss it s most powerful lessons. One of these is that ecclesial structures (churches, ministers, congregations) are extremely hard to budge.  They become impregnable, impossible to overthrow. They calcify. They stop growing. Purporting to be vessels of the Spirit of God, they constrain that spirit, which continually revivifies the Church. For the Holy Spirit, it must be like trying to inflate a concrete balloon.

The current struggle over gays in the church is the latest example of how the Church misunderstands the signal lesson in its own holy books --the struggle between the establishment and the innovators. In the gospels, that struggled was exemplified by the antipathy between Jesus and the Pharisees, scribes and lawyers. The Pharisees, et al., were the old wineskins that would be burst by the new wine of Jesus's teaching (Mark 2:22). They were the whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside and fill of filth within (Matthew 23:27).  They are the hypocrites who clean the outside of the cup (external piety) without concern for the inside of the cup (internal holiness) (Matthew 23:25-26). The conflict between the two groups became lethal in the case of Jesus, contributing to the conspiracy that led to his death.

Given their behavior, Christians seem to see the Pharisees, scribes and lawyers of the gospels as different animals from themselves. They see it as a part of the Jewish opposition to Jesus. Being non-Jewish, this problem can't apply to them. Jesus would not be unhappy with us! But the problem  in Jesus's day was not between Jews and Christians, but between Jews and other Jews. It was between people who represented stability and the status quo versus those were challenging the status quo to get into line with its own principles. Small 'p' phariseeism is not a 1st-century Jewish problem, but a human one. The tendency to see one's own religious observance as exemplary and beyond challenge is not limited to ancient peoples. It is baked into the religious DNA of the species.

We are seeing that struggle erupting all over the religious landscape. The chaos in Egypt is partly due to grappling between secularists and conservative Muslims. In the US, the struggle is apparent in all of the "culture war" issues. Gay marriage threatens a long-held and accepted antipathy toward homosexuals. The teaching of evolution threatens the conservative narrative of the Genesis creation narrative. Opening the priesthood to women threatens the control of male church leaders and the premise that undergirds it: secondary status of women. In all of these cases, progressives are looking for ways to let the Spirit expand the minds and hearts of the people. Conservatives think they are protecting the Spirit from being watered down or sullied.

It's no secret that I am in the camp of the progressives on many issues. I welcome the conflict, in this sense: only by having to face issues and working to resolve them can the will of the Spirit become known. 50 years ago, homosexuality was ridiculed, fear and persecuted. Only when actual experience with gay family members was the Church forced to examine its own premises about homosexuals - like that a gay orientation was a choice. When the supports for fearing gays were eaten away, the entire rationale for treating gays differently fell apart. Eventually, Church law will codify what was originally prompted by the Spirit and ratified by the experience of the people of God.


The Cooper case is an ugly reminder that  phariseeism is alive and will in Christian communities. We can cooperate with the Spirit by continuing the conversation, insisting that the issue be discussed openly and with compassion.