Institutionally Pharisaical?

The following parable challenges me. I know which man I am most of the time. God have mercy. I also worry what this parable might mean for me, having been raised a Protestant.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Let’s assume that any individual, whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Atheist, etc. can have the spiritual condition of the Pharisee in the parable above. It is probably the default orientation of the human heart. We are all more like the Pharisee most of the time than the tax collector. Only by the grace of God go any of us. Only by the grace of God can our hearts soften enough to pray: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ But let’s step back and ask if this picture can also be applied more broadly. Can we say that certain organizations or movements tend to embody the Pharisaical orientation? Certainly some organizations or social groups or ideological groups have a built-in penchant for pride more than others. Any group that defines itself, at least in part, as better than the other groups it critiques is probably culpable—which is most groups at some level. For example, the new atheists tend to be more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. The new atheism has a strong “I thank *myself* that I am not like those other (religious) people.” And we also see this attitude common to many niche activist groups.

It is very common for Christian groups to thank God they are not like those non-Christian, worldly types given over to the lusts of the world, etc., etc.

So I wonder if the two types of persons, Pharisee and tax collector, can be institutionalized, or viewed as corporate types regardless of individual culpability. Perhaps this is a stretch, but can it be that, even with my conscience being “clear,” I could actively be part of an organization that is built upon the Pharisaical position?

For the individual, a spiritual condition or stance may or may not have predictable emotions tied to it; a person who looks humble on the outside may be full of pride; a person sincere in their faith may prefer falsehoods over truth; a person who revels in pageantry may, under it all, and even as a necessary foundation, have an authentic and humble faith. We also know that a local church may be different on the inside than it is on the outside. A church that proclaims verbally and loudly that Jesus is Lord might, in fact, have something else as lord. A church can be prideful, self-absorbed, and disordered. With this in mind—and with no intention of judging any individual—might it be that the Protestant position, at the historical/institutional level, and as it stands against the historical Church, tends more towards the Pharisee than the tax collector?

“Thank you God we are not like those deceived Catholics; those pagan Catholics; those reprobate Catholics; those damned Catholics.”

Consider: It is the Pharisee who must separate himself from the “other men,” from any who would bring impurity to his purity. It is the typical Protestant church (particularly Fundamentalist, Baptist, and a few others) that must separate itself from other churches, from any other group of Christians that might bring impurity to its “purity”. For example, the Baptist church in which I grew up feared ecumenism like the plague. The quasi-reformed non-denominational church that I attended after also fears ecumenism in subtle yet pervasive ways. Both would probably deny that charge, but consistent behaviors over time indicate the charge is valid. Traditional Protestantism is propelled forward by the need to separate from other Christians and, here’s the issue, to thank God they have the true Gospel and are not like those others who claim they are Christians but clearly are not.

The question: If what we call the Reformation became a rebellion, no longer intent on either true reformation or unity, and willing to tolerate the proliferation of innumerable ecclesial divorces, and willing to relegate love to the least important of “faith, hope, and love” for the sake of doctrinal purity (faith), then should we not assume that the historical reformational stance is one of pride such that inherent in its very DNA is the necessary prayer:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”? Certainly the individual, living within the confines of a particular Protestant denomination, may have a true heart of repentance, and so might a particular group of believers, but could it be that at the more-or-less institutional/historical level the soul of the Reformation, the heart of Protestantism on the whole, is the heart and soul of the Pharisee? Is that possible?

I raise this question from my own experience and troubled thoughts. I worry that I inherited a stance (20th century, Baptist, American, Protestant) that seemed so right and clear and self-evident, and yet may have been essentially, inherently, structurally Pharisaical. What I have experienced in general, but with many exceptions certainly, is a tendency for Protestants to have a great deal of pride, much like that Pharisee, when it comes to criticizing the Catholic Church (in my experience that criticism extended to most other Protestant denominations as well). Not only is there a kind of relish in promoting ad hominem attacks on the Catholic Church (I see this blatantly evident in the comments sections of blogs), but the Reformation itself seems like a Pharisaical move—and that’s my real concern. I know the individual is responsible for his own heart, and that we each stand before God on our own in some critical sense, but the sheer amount of evidence points to a kind of Protestant hegemony and necessary sociological structures that bolster the Pharisaical position—which assumes self-righteousness, and thus a comforting blindness. And I have lived into that position most of my life.

I imagine the Pharisee in the parable had a laundry list of arguments and scriptural references to show the rightness of his position; but I wonder if, in the same way and for the same reasons, the overall Protestant stance is wrong. Keep in mind, my questions are not about individuals, rather about the Protestant “project”. And I am not considering the possible wrongness of Catholicism or individual Catholics—I just want to point the finger at my heritage, at myself, at the religious world that formed me.

Fear: How long have I exalted myself because I stood in the glow of Protestantism? How long have I thanked God I am not like those other Christians? Has my pride in “doctrinal truth” made me assume a humility that is false?

You see, one of the key conditions of the Pharisee is blindness in the midst of clarity. The clarity is, in a sense, of scripture, of truth, of God—which has, at least, the appearance of a rock-solid foundation. The Pharisees knew the scriptures inside and out, and yet Christ called them on it, for they did not truly know them. The blindness is of pride and self-righteousness. And pride blurs the assumed clarity of understanding. Therefore it becomes a kind of total blindness. The protestant project is focused on doctrine, on argument, on truth, and on a personal relationship with Jesus. These are good things. But if pride gets in the way then all is for naught, all is lost. Many Protestants love God and live lives of humility. For whatever reason God has them where He wants them to be. But that does not solve the overall question of whether or not the Protestant position has, at some critical level, become Pharisaical. At the individual level we must follow our conscience. Perhaps my conscience is seeing more clearly than it once did. Perhaps I am more blind. Only by the grace of God go I or any of us.

I believe the Protestant who is, at heart, a true Christian (a follower of Christ, a “little Christ”), and thus one who loves God, seeks the pearl of great price, desires the unity of all believers (the Church), will do what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus more than a disciple of doctrine (a tricky distinction for sure) and thus will cease (must cease eventually, inevitably) to be Protestant. For me, in my existential inner self, the Protestant position, though used by God in many ways (for He can use anything for good), is no longer tenable. And I wonder if it ever really was. I wonder if, institutionally, Protestantism is a form of Pharisaism. And I wonder if we just can’t see it.

Why is this important? I have come to realize that Christian faith is not merely personal, but is corporate as well. God will work in us and with us where ever He has placed us. Protestantism has brought many people into a personal (read: emotional)  relationship with Jesus Christ, including many Catholics. The influence of the evangelical spirit that animates much of Protestantism has, from what I can tell, had a positive affect on the Catholic Church—and maybe this is, finally, the true Reformation. But I have to ask myself everyday, if I am  to be a Protestant: Why truly am I a Protestant? I know standard responses, I understand the difficulties, but I can know longer find an answer that satisfies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s