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  • Daniel Klassen

When Following Jesus Makes You A Pharisee

Social activism seems to be a trend among the young adults in the evangelical community. It is not a trend in the sense of something new in our time, but that for the last few generations the young adults in the Christian sphere that have tended towards promoting social activism. This movement, however, is not propagated as social activism per se, but comes to us under the guise of "following Jesus." The message is one of being "radical" and "sold out" for Jesus. It calls its listeners to act as Jesus acted.

In my short lifetime, I have witnessed this movement change shape. What began as a call to bring the gospel to the nations became a call to bring humanitarian aid to third world countries. Short term mission trips became popular. They could only consist of bringing humanitarian aid because the delivery of the gospel calls for more than a short term. This has progressed to the social activism we see today.

This movement has come to focus on eradicating poverty, ending injustices, and becoming environmentally friendly. It is for those who are energetic and can keep up with the fast pace and many changes of this movement, so it is no surprise that young people are drawn to it. However, this is not the primary focus of following Jesus in the biblical form. Of course, it is not wrong to help the impoverished and seek for justice, nor is it wrong to care for this world in which God has placed us. The essence of modern social activism is taking these issues and placing them as the essence of following Jesus. The problem with this movement is that its end is always the same: Pharisee.

There are two routes to becoming a Pharisee by following Jesus. Either you are swept away by the legalism of doing enough in the social sphere for Jesus, or you are labeled a Pharisee by those who adhere to the principles of social activism. The first is a true label; the second is a false label.

The first is as old as the Christian religion. Pietism, as it is formally called, is the attempt to become holy and righteous by our actions. It is the attempt to become like Jesus by our works, and ultimately, saved by our works. In church history, this has shown itself most prominently, but not exclusively, in the form of the monastery. “If we could only separate ourselves completely from the world,” they thought, “then we could attain true holiness.” To look like Christ was the goal, but human effort was seen as the means. The monasteries, as with every other form of pietism, were often plagued with corruption. They did not work in producing true holiness.

To be socially aware of injustices and poverty is the modern follower of Jesus’ gospel. To live well below their means is the mission. Minimalism and social justice make up what it means for a modern person to be a follower of Jesus. However, this is not the way of Jesus; rather it is the way of the Pharisee.

The Pharisees are often thought to be the churchy-folk. They are seen as the ones peering down their noses from the comfort of their pew (not that pews are themselves comfortable). Some of them are, but in complete form, Pharisees were those who wished for all to see the high level of their religiosity. They wished to look good before all men. So they did whatever it took, making sure to follow the trends of their times, adding to the things they must do in order to appear more holy. They were simply doers. The definition of a Pharisee is more akin to the modern "follower of Jesus" than to the elderly lady sitting in the pew.

Furthermore, the social activism of this movement is legalistic. Acting as Jesus acted is simply moralism. If you do not do what a follower of Jesus should do, you are not a follower of Jesus. Your success and acceptance are based on your works in this movement. Often, the things that they claim to be included in following Jesus are simply things the society sees as virtuous. In this day, it is being loose in the area of sin, but religiously observing the laws of political correctness. It is amazing how quickly after decrying the morality of the common church-going Christian, they adopt their own form of morality.

Following Jesus, in the biblical sense, is not trying to bring justice to every injustice, eradicating certain systemic sins by pummelling those who sin, caring excessively for the well-being of the environment, or seeking to end all poverty. Rather, it can be summed up in Phillips words to Nathanael (John 1:43-51). Upon being called by Christ, Phillip goes to get Nathanael to follow as well. Nathanael is hesitant, unsure if Philip's words are valid. Phillip does not know Christ all that well yet, and so he simply states, "Come and see." It is as if he said, "Come and witness Christ for yourself. Follow and observe, and you will come to the conclusion that Christ surely is the Messiah." Such is the essence of following Christ; it is to see Christ for who he is. It is to let Christ display himself to you without prejudice. For if we see Christ for who he is, we will see that he is the truth and the only way to God. Then, we will naturally submit to him, disregard our own efforts, and live our lives trusting him to produce holiness and hatred for sin.

It is these followers of Jesus that are called Pharisee by the social activist follower of Jesus. Because they care more about truth than eliminating all the ills from this earth, they are seen as stuck up religious folk. Because they hold to objective morals, they are seen as unloving and divisive. However, it is these people who are truly following Jesus.

Jesus spoke of himself as the truth (John 14:6). Therefore, truth cannot be whatever you want it to be. It does not change based on your experience or your emotions. Truth stays the same forever (Hebrews 13:8). This means that truth is objective and absolute. It applies to everyone, everywhere, every time. It is truth that must be believed in order to be saved, and so a follower of Jesus values truth, defends truth, and fights to have truth reign in their lives. To hold to objective truth means that everyone who does not is wrong. Truth is exclusive; it only includes those who adhere to it.

Jesus did not change his morality when he sat down to eat with sinners and tax collectors. In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus changed his life, Zacchaeus did not change Christ. Zacchaeus, a “chief tax collector,” completely changed the way he collected tax. He started collecting tax fairly, starting with him giving back more than he had swindled from the people. His morality changed when he met Christ, not vice versa.

Jesus never gained a new perspective on life when he interacted with sinners, nor did he ever condone their sin. Rather, he preached repentance to all. Jesus is not the ‘nice-guy-who-never-turns-anyone-down’ that the social activist depicts him to be. No, Jesus is truly God and truly man whose mission was to save sinners to God and from sin.

We may be labeled Pharisees if we truly follow Jesus, believing the objective truth he taught, and holding to the same moral standard he held. But that should never deter, nor sway us away from Christ. The gospel compels us primarily to repent of our sin and believe in Jesus, not go into the world and make it a better place for all. Those who believe on Jesus indeed make this world a better place (just look at Western Civilization and all the good it’s done for the world), but that is not our primary mission. Our primary mission in following Jesus is to call others to follow him as well, renouncing their former lives and embracing a new life. This mission may just get us labeled a Pharisee, but that is not the worst thing that could happen.

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