A couple of months ago I was sent a galley copy of a forthcoming book called Accidental Pharisees by Larry Osborne (Due out Oct. 19, 2012 from Zondervan).  Before I even opened it I had formed an opinion about it: “Here we go again, another book denigrating the Pharisees. If there is one thing we can count on is that the Pharisees were no good and that makes them good whipping boys. We don’t want to be like them.” Same tired old story. As I started reading it I realized I was all wrong. Once I started I couldn’t stop. Before I get too far into the thesis of the book you should read this:

“With the 20/20 hindsight of history, it’s easy to ridicule and blast the Pharisees for their hard-hearted rigidity. But I wonder whose side I would have been on had I been a part of the crowd, without the advantage of knowing the end of the story. It’s a sobering question, because if I’m honest, the Pharisee’s values, logic, and the rationale they used in arguing with Jesus were not much different from my own—or that any of us who are deeply committed to God, his glory, and the Bible.” (104)

From this Osborne makes three observations. 1) The Pharisees “weren’t looking for loopholes or the easy way out. They were striving to live up to the highest possible standard.” 2) Their “rules weren’t nearly as arbitrary as they might seem to us today.” They were the result of “the rigorous study of Scripture.” 3) “none of the people Jesus healed on a Sabbath were in grave danger. All of them could have waited until sundown—easily. So why not wait? From a Pharisee’s perspective, it must have appeared that Jesus was putting the immediate needs of humankind above faithful adherence to Scripture and the fear of God.” (104-5)

So Osborne is not jumping on the “let’s-rag-on-the-Pharisees” bandwagon. But that doesn’t mean the Pharisees were faultless. But the faults may not lie quite where we they think they might and that’s where the rubber hits the road. The problem Osborne identifies is an over-zealous faith. Or, more precisely when spiritual zeal gets mixed with a “hyperindividualized spirituality.” (163) As people become passionate about something (you name it: missions, prison ministry, the simple life, etc) and they advance forward in their convictions, they might start to notice that some will lag behind and not share the same degree of passion as they do. Osborne then describes what this can turn into.

“If you continue farther down the path of contempt for those who fail to keep up, you’ll end up in a place of arrogance. Fewer and fewer people will measure up to your definition of a genuine disciple. Inevitably, being right will become more important than being kind, gracious, or loving. Thinning the herd will become more important than expanding the kingdom. Unity will take a back seat to uniformity. And you metamorphosis will be complete. You will have arrived at a place you never intended to go. You’ll be a full-fledged Pharisee. Accidental, no doubt. But a Pharisee nonetheless.” (20-21)

Here’s the bottom line:

“If you’re passionate about justice, the needs of the poor, and orphans, you probably struggle with people who aren’t’. Your temptation to write them off as uninformed, selfish, or coldhearted. Don’t fall for it.

“If you live green, care for the planet, recycle, and ride your bike to work, you’ll be tempted to look down on those who don’t.

“If you spend more time than most thinking deeply about theology, read books written by dead guys, and do your Bible study in the original Hebrew and Greek, you’ll be sorely tempted to look down on those who think the last book in the Bible is called Revelations, and on those who think the last book in the Old Testament was written by an Italian named Ma-la-chi.

“The same goes if you identify yourself as Spirit-led, missional, incarnational, gospel-centered, or some other current Christian buzzword. You’ll find it hard not to look down on those who don’t even know there’s a buzzword to conform to.” (48)

“Once the Holy Spirit places a clear call on our life to do something (or not to do it), it’s hard for most of us to fathom why everyone else didn’t get the same memo.” (99)

The passion of one (which is a good thing) becomes the source of pride and contempt for others who aren’t on the same page. Osborne writes with glaring transparency. He recounts stories from his life when he looked down on others and heaped loads of guilt on them. He writes,

“With regard to sin, it was like an onion. There was always another layer to peel off. . . With regard to growth, it was like a video game. There was always a higher level to attain. . . Worse, I chided people who grew weary. I pushed them to work harder, pray longer, and study more. Taking a break or temporarily stepping to the sidelines was simply not an option. Satan didn’t rest; why should we? My discipleship motto was simple: no pain, no gain. If you wanted rest, a lighter load, or an easier path, you’d come to the wrong place. I didn’t think that’s what Jesus offered. He offered a cross to bear, death to self, and eternal rewards to the faithful few who were willing to pay the price and stay the course.”

Osborne admits this was all wrong. The crowds that Jesus attracted were often fickle and came to Jesus for selfish reasons. Jesus never shooed them away. While reading this chapter I thought of John 6 where Jesus’ teachings did repel some. Osborne is not unaware of this but notes “that was not his normal pattern. It was a onetime sermon.” I’m not so sure how many times Jesus gave that sermon or one like it, but Osborne’s observation is relevant given the New Testament data.

Osborne along the way offers an important caveat necessary in discussions like this.

“Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should be satisfied with a church full of casual, carnal, or consumer Christians. I’m not saying that we should settle for a definition of spiritual maturity that’s nothing more than a nod to God. I’m not saying we should ignore church discipline in the face of continuing sin. Our ultimate goal can be nothing less than full obedience to everything Jesus taught. It’s the only way we can fulfill the second half of the Great Commission. But our attitude toward people who struggle and even ignore what they already know needs to be aligned with the compassion and ministry of Jesus rather than the disdain, disgust, and exclusivity of the Pharisees.” (82-83)

This is an important book. The section on “Gift Projection: When My Calling Becomes Everyone Else’s Calling” is unusually insightful and convicting. I saw myself all through this book at one stage or another or at one time in my life or another. The problem I saw was that being an accidental Pharisee is not something you necessarily grow out of. It morphs and reshapes itself in the believer’s life. The danger can be just when you think you’ve rid yourself of it it resurfaces again. Osborne provides a sensitive guide to detecting elements of this cancer in the Christian life and provides a way out. I’ve read it twice now and I’ll probably refer to it over and over again. Hopefully, that will keep me from falling into being an accidental Pharisee.

Watch for Accidental Pharisees this October. It is from Zondervan and is a paperback with 208 pages and will sell for $14.99.