“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” (Mark 8:15). Jesus is harsh in confronting the Pharisees of his day pointing out that they polluted the Body. It is interesting to consider the role of fermentation in the making of bread. It starts small, but it contaminates the entire loaf. In fact, one of the definitions of the word ‘ferment’ is to incite or stir up trouble and disorder. Synonyms of the word include uproar, confusion, and turmoil. That’s what leaven does: contaminates the whole.
A friend of mine recently tweeted, “You know what’s just as bad as holier-than-thou academic types? Holier-than-thou anti-intellectuals. The holier-than-thou part is the issue” (Brannon Hancock). I agree. His statement got me to thinking about the behavior of the holier-than-thou pharisaical types that distract, pollute, and weaken the mission of the church.
Interestingly, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were highly educated, yet the Pharisees of the last century have been largely uneducated. Both groups are notoriously recognized as spiritual elitists. They epitomize a sanctimonious attitude. They want their opinions to be accepted by the masses and they work hard to discredit opposing voices. Undeniably, the holier-than-thou mindset raises its head among the educated and the non-educated alike.
Look close and you’ll notice that there is a new breed of Pharisees ‘leavening’ the church today. It’s not the theologically uneducated form of legalism that’s dominated church boardrooms for the past 50 years. In fact, this new breed seems to be a resurrection of the Pharisees of old: the educated elitists.
Before I go any further let me clarify a few things…
Categories related to how people understand and practice faith are not always neatly packaged. What I’m addressing here are voices existing on the far ends of the theological spectrum: rigid legalists and religious liberals. Both are detractors. It doesn’t take long to identify these extreme personalities in church committee meetings, Sunday School classrooms, social media groups, and hallway conversations.
Let me also say, academic training is essential for those preparing for ministry. There should be rigorous academic requirements for anyone preparing for ordination. I was enrolled in school for 15 consecutive years, earning four degrees along the way. In fact, since completing my doctoral studies I’ve felt a bit lost. ‘Studying to show oneself approved’ is a biblical mandate that I take seriously. Many Christian universities are going to great lengths to ensure balanced biblical teaching.
With those disclaimers, let’s move ahead.
A professor at a prominent seminary (non-Nazarene) recently said, “You can’t be an intellectual and be a conservative.” This person indicated that in the world of academia it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be theologically conservative and/or moderate. In other words, there is tremendous pressure to ‘lean left,’ otherwise, one isn’t seen as thinking deeply and critically about important issues.
Often when we think of Pharisees and fundamentalists we think of legalistic uneducated troublemakers who reject anyone that doesn’t measure up to their spiritual standards, not intellectuals (remember my friend’s tweet). But what if the ‘spirit of pharisee’ was alive and well in the realm of academia? Does it surprise you to learn that rejection of those who don’t ‘lean left’ is commonplace in academic circles?
Let me be clear: the academy itself is not the problem. It’s the spirit of elitism infiltrating segments of the academy that’s the problem. It has a leavening effect. When being theologically liberal is equated with academic success a certain way of thinking begins to ferment the whole.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not the uneducated fundamentalists we think of today. Just the opposite, they were highly educated. In fact, they were so knowledgeable that they took it upon themselves to reinterpret large portions of scripture. When you arrive at a place where you feel the need to deconstruct sound biblical doctrine in light of cultural shifts or personal interests that might be a sign that you’re on the road toward spiritual elitism.
Elitism has always been a sign of pharisaical behavior. It’s always been indicative of those who create controversy among the faithful with an attitude of superiority. Of course, we realize that Jesus caused unrest. However, he certainly didn’t challenge the authority of scripture, particularly in a way that would alter the call to a holy life. The unrest Jesus created wasn’t among the faithful; it was among those who were corrupting the body.
A tree is always known by its fruit. We can discern whether unrest is harmful by analyzing the fruit. Fundamentalism, regardless of what side of the spectrum it’s found, is driven by a belief that one is right. This is a good place to insert the Apostle Paul, “Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Col. 2:8, NLT). Without a doubt, the unholy leavening of those who are faithful to the cause of Christ is the fruit spiritual elitism.
It’s in this new context that the ‘spirit of pharisee’ is being resurrected. Like Pharisees of old, this new breed of Pharisee is easily offended and quick to dismiss those without certain letters behind their name. They love to correct people they deem as not measuring up to their level of intellectual superiority. They deconstruct biblical orthodoxy, influence with alluring ideas, and intimidate with overpowering rhetoric.
Traditional fundamentalists have filled church pews for years. They’ve been described as legalistic, harsh, and judgmental, and rightfully so. However, don’t be fooled by the trendy new left push. Today’s fundamentalism is regularly found among those who seem to be the most educated and progressive. They enjoy force-feeding perspectives and diverting conversations away from those that hold a more centered biblical worldview.
Again, fundamentalism has always been found on the far ends of the theological continuum. It’s marked by rigidity and arrogance. When the pendulum swings, it never stops in the middle. Overcorrection leads to faulty perspectives. The centrist way is the way of Jesus: humble enough to learn yet brave enough to stand.
Historically, the Wesleyan-Holiness movement has been balanced in its approach to faith and practice. It’s a road less traveled: a lifestyle marked with love and compassion for people, yet also courage and resolution to speak truth. It’s a call to build bridges, not walls. The road we’re called to travel is an ancient path evident by holiness of heart and life. So, don’t get lured to the sidelines by the loud voices demanding your attention. Instead, be faithful to walk the via media.
It doesn’t matter what end of the theological spectrum we examine, we will always find holier-than-thou-pharisaical-fundamentalist types. Some will likely be offended to have the term ‘fundamentalist’ attached to their name. However, if their attitude reflects that of their legalistic predecessors, then it deserves the same description. This new breed of Pharisee is hardened toward others because they are confident that the bread of life needs a new additive: their leaven. Sorry to wound their highbrow ego, but God’s already provided all the ingredients we need.
(Sources: Janet Dean Blevins, Doug Hopkins, Jared Henry, Brannon Hancock)