The Doctrinal Pharisee
In many ways, I hate the man that I became in seminary. Allow me to explain.
When I became a Christian at the age of seventeen, I experienced a wonderful reprieve from the depression, anxiety, loneliness, and restlessness I had experienced prior. I had a desire to get in the Word, go to church, participate in bible studies, attend youth group, etc. I was making new Christian friends. And God was helping me battle sin in my life (i.e. lust, pornography, unwholesome talk, swearing, lying, cheating, and so forth). But after a few years, the newness of it all wore off and my faith was relegated to a series of legalistic disciplines. For the most part, my faith was defined by what I didn’t do, not by what I did. I didn’t drink, I didn’t cuss, I didn’t have sex. I was a good guy—a good Christian. I went to church. I read my bible. But for some reason, I was increasingly apathetic and lukewarm. The fire was fading, and many of my pre-salvation struggles were returning—specifically the depression, the anxiety, and the pornography addiction.
Then one night it all changed. I was reading through my bible like a good Christian does and I came to a passage in Acts (I won’t get into the passage because it will distract from where I am intending to go in this article) that opened my eyes to the fact that I had been living a largely Spirit-less Christianity. Not because I wasn’t healing people and speaking in tongues. This was not my concern. But because the Spirit was to be the presence of the living God, the creator of the universe, dwelling inside of me—and serving as a teacher, a counselor, and a guide. 1 John 2:27 explains, “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”
Do you feel how personal that is? The Spirit that you received abides in you and he will teach you all things. You do not need someone else to teach you. This coincides with the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:34 pointing to the New Covenant which says: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” You won’t need someone to teach you about the Lord because you will know the Lord!
You see, under the Old Covenant, they knew about the Lord. They had knowledge of Him. They objectively knew information about Him as He had made it known to them. And all of this knowledge was formulated into a sort of systematic theology. But the type of knowledge foretold in Jeremiah 31:34 was different. This knowledge would be intimate—like the knowledge between lovers. It would not be objective knowledge about God. It would be a personal knowledge of God.
Following that night when I was reading Acts, I began to seek the Holy Spirit more intentionally. I wanted intimacy with God. And as I sought it, I found it. God began to bring the Scriptures to life. Instead of head knowledge, God began to write the Scriptures on my heart and by doing so began to transform me. Furthermore, there was a wonder and awe the likes of which I had not known as I walked out my daily life. I could sense the Lord’s presence with me wherever I went.
In many ways, the next several years were the hardest of my life. God was performing a sanctifying surgery in my life, removing idols, addictions, and attachments, while healing long-buried wounds. But at the same time, this was the sweetest season of my life because God was truly making Himself known to me. I began to experience an intimacy with God I had never known before. Suddenly, I knew there was a distinct difference between knowing about God and knowing God. And I knew that no amount of intellectual ascent had the power to lead to intimacy. This does not mean that such intellectual pursuits are without benefit, only that they are powerless in and of themselves.
We live in a strange time because of what technology has made possible. For example, I can tune into the daily life of nearly anyone on the planet through social media. I can look at pictures of their lives, their family, what they do for leisure, what workouts they performed, what food they ate, and what clothes they wore. I can message them directly and sometimes receive a reply. I can tune in live as they share a thought or perform a Q and A session. And all of this can create the very powerful illusion that I know this celebrity whom I have never met. Technology has made it possible to know nearly as much objective information about a celebrity as you might know about your own family members and friends—maybe even more! I don’t have the data to back this up, but I would be willing to bet that since the emergence of social media, cases of celebrity stalkers has drastically increased. The reason is that we can almost deceive ourselves into believing that these people are our friends—that we know them personally.
Conversely, (and this might make me a bad husband) I just recently learned the color of my wife’s eyes. Seriously, I actually had to double check what color they were before writing this (they’re green by the way). Come to think of it, I don’t know her blood type either. Nor could I tell you the make-up of her DNA. “But Craig, don’t you love your wife? How could you not know these facts?”
The answer is that I desire to know my wife, not just to know about her. When I am looking into her eyes, I am not paying attention to the color. That’s not my focus. I’m looking deeper. I’m looking to connect with her in an intimate way—to see past the exterior and into the depths of her heart and soul. I am sorry if that sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth. Objective knowledge does not equal intimacy.
I may not know my wife’s eye color or her blood type, but I do know her hopes and her dreams. I do know what she’s scared of and what she struggles with. I know what she’s most ashamed of and her biggest insecurities. I know where she’s at spiritually and what God is doing in her heart. I know how to comfort her after a hard day, and how to make her smile when she’s feeling down. I know her at her best and at her worst. I know my wife in deep and intimate relationship, and that will only continue to grow with each passing year.
So the question is, are you pursuing God like a social media stalker, reducing knowing Him to a series of objective facts about Him? Or are you pursuing the type of intimate knowledge that occurs between two lovers? Are you drawing near to the heart of God through the Spirit by the blood of Jesus? Are you allowing yourself to be transformed by the truths you so eagerly pursue?
When I left for seminary, I knew God. I had deep relational intimacy with Him on a daily basis. He was leading and guiding, teaching and instructing, convicting and comforting. He had brought such healing in my life and ignited a strong, persistent passion to share that with others. But then came the lectures and the assignments, the textbooks, and the systematic theology classes. Then came the foreign languages and the expensive words. Then came doctrine, and confessions, and creeds, eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, denominations, and tribal allegiances. And that was all well and good, but there was never any time to be transformed by the onslaught of head knowledge. It was all one could do to keep up with the hundreds of pages of reading on a nearly daily basis and the constant essays and research papers. I accumulated knowledge upon knowledge. I kept learning more and more information. But there never seemed to be time to slow down and let a truth transform me. There was no time to be doers of what we were hearing, to put into practice that which we were learning.
I won’t say that I didn’t grow in certain ways during my time at seminary, or that I didn’t learn a lot of very important information. But I will say that I did not grow in relational intimacy with God during that time. In fact, it was quite the opposite. When I graduated from seminary, I knew so much more about God, but I felt so much more distant from Him. What once had been warm, familiar, and life-giving, was cold and dry. Undoubtedly, I must shoulder some of the blame for this. No one was stopping me from waking up before the sun came up to spend time in God’s presence. My point is not to call for seminary reform (although I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest substantial change is necessary—i.e. Paul Tripp in his book Dangerous Calling), but rather to speak to a far more pervasive issue.
There exists in Christianity a new type of Pharisee. This Pharisee is not legalist in terms of adherence to outward works of the law like the Pharisees in the New Testament were. Rather, this type of Pharisee is abrasively dogmatic in their doctrine and theology. This person has accumulated knowledge upon knowledge about God, but their life does not reflect the intimate knowing foretold in Jeremiah 31:34. Their heart does not bear witness to being transformed by these truths.
This doctrinal Pharisee loves to display their great learning and theological knowledge. They love to wave the banner of their tribe. They love to criticize other brothers and sisters in the faith (if we can even call them that, what with their bad theology and all). They are quarrelsome and divisive. They love to argue and talk down to those that don’t align with each of their theological convictions—even those that are secondary or tertiary issues. Because let’s be honest, to this person, there are no secondary or tertiary issues. Each and every “doctrine” is a matter of life and death because this person holds the authority of Scriptures in such high regards. The doctrinal Pharisee must be right, prove that they are right, and do so in the view of many. But at what cost?
Love is often the casualty of the doctrinal Pharisee’s affinity for truth and intellectual knowledge. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 explains, “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” You see, divine knowledge apart from divine intimacy will always lead to divine misrepresentation. When our words are disconnected from the love of Christ, our words are “wrong” even when they’re “right.” We become a heretic of sorts. God is not glorified by our words or our extensive knowledge if that knowledge isn’t saturated in love! The Bible is overwhelmingly clear on this!
1 John 3:16-18 explains:
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Has God’s love so saturated your being that this love flows out of you to the people around you?
In John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” And 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 reads, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
We ought to seek to know the bible thoroughly and to have good doctrine, but if isn’t producing in us the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)—then we ought to keep our knowledge to ourselves until it does. For in this we are like the Pharisees who “search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me (Jesus), yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life…But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:39-40, 42). In Matthew 23:15 Jesus further rebukes the Pharisees who would disconnect the precepts of the law from its intended effects—promoting the letter of the law but missing the spirit of it entirely: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).
C.S. Lewis contends, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” I would add, “Theology without intimacy—without love—seems to make man the same.” To the doctrinal Pharisee, knowledge is a loaded gun—a double-edged sword that is often wielded with little regard to who it is wounding.
Recently, a woman commented on a verse we posted on the Dead Men Social media site but her comment revealed that she didn’t understand the context of the verse. I won’t tell you specifically what the verse was, but it was akin to taking Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” out of context. Her understanding of it did not account for the context, but nor was it heresy. It didn’t say anything incorrect about God, but the particular verse at hand in context was not dealing with that truth. Within 30 minutes, a post by one of our followers showed up on our feed. This person had taken a screenshot of the woman’s comments and posted it to their own feed with a condescending comment about the importance of context.
But imagine if she would have somehow come across this person’s post? What if they had a mutual friend and it got back to her? How would that have made that woman feel? Was it necessary to belittle her and potentially make her feel small? Was the motivation by that person that did that in any way love? Could it not have instead been an opportunity to lovingly enter into conversation with her and gently correct and teach—to affirm her heart and intent while instructing her to a better understanding? This is just a small sample of the plethora of examples I have witnessed by those puffed up on the knowledge of Christ but lacking the love of Christ as evidenced by the gifts of the Spirit.
Sadly, I too have been guilty of this. My time in seminary produced in me this tendency. Nearing the end of my 3 years, my wife and I along with a few friends took a vision trip to Huntington Beach, CA to discern the Lord’s calling in regards to church planting in that location. My friend and I that desire to plant together scheduled several meetings with local pastors to gauge the culture and spiritual climate of the area. As we went into these meetings, shamefully my posture was one of pride. I was puffed up on my intellectual knowledge, and as a result, I entered the meetings with a cynical, critical, judgmental, and ultimately, pharisaical attitude. I was looking for what these pastors/churches were doing wrong, and self-congratulating myself with how much better we would do it. These guys just didn’t understand the Bible, theology, ministry, and specifically ecclesiology quite like we did. This is something that I have since recognized and needed to repent to the Lord of. In 3 short years, I had become the very thing I hated: pride and self-righteousness in the name of Christ.
Christian, do you spend more time accumulating knowledge than you do being transformed by it? Do you come to God’s word to learn more than you do to meet with God and be changed? Do you spend more time studying theology than you do broken by your failure to love those in your path with the love of Jesus? If so, you too might need to repent.
Does truth matter? Without a doubt. We must be unwavering in our claim that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). We must be unwavering in the truth that we are saved by grace through faith alone, not by works, but by the free gift through Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8-9). By all means, continue to learn! But try learning something and then seeking to be transformed by it before you move on to pile knowledge upon knowledge. By all means, hold to right doctrine, but not at the expense of that which right doctrine ought to produce: Christ-like love.
In Galatians 5, Paul is making the argument for why Christians needn’t become circumcised before becoming a Christian as the religious leaders were advocating. His reasoning is this: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). You see, the precepts of the faith never trump the impetus to love. What counts is faith expressing itself through love. Just a few verses later Paul adds, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14). We are never exempt from prioritizing love above all else. Remember, it was the “good” Samaritan that Jesus exalted because of how he exemplified the love of God, not the Pharisee with the “right” theology.
It is because I have experienced the dangerous effects of knowledge apart from intimacy that I can speak so adamantly on the subject. Will you join me in repenting of these tendencies? Will you honestly search your own heart, ask the Spirit to search you, and ask those closest to you if they see in you these tendencies? Being wary that “the more a man was in the Devil’s power, the less he would be aware of it, on the principle that a man is still fairly sober as long as he knows he’s drunk” (C.S. Lewis).
A harsh or un-loving Christian is not only a contradiction but an abomination. Will we fall short of a Christ-like love in our daily life? Without a doubt—and there is grace for those like us. But let that not be how we are known. Instead, let it be true of us that they will know that we are Christians, not by our great learning, but by our great love.
And that brings me to my final point. Often times a doctrinal Pharisee will claim that the most loving thing they can do is be truthful with someone. And this is quite true. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” But is the truth you are speaking occurring in the context of a loving friendship? Furthermore, God’s word commands us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and as Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” How you say what you say is as important as what you say. Love and tact matter.
May we be increasingly transformed by God’s love through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and Savior.
For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. –Ephesians 3:14-19