A Christian camp song I loved as a child, I Just Want to Be a Sheep, had a verse with these words:
I don’t want to be a Pharisee
I don’t want to be a Pharisee
Because they’re not Fair You See,
I don’t want to be a Pharisee.
And indeed, nobody wants to be a Pharisee. And yet, for those of us who take the Bible and our Christian duty seriously, it is so easy to become one. When we become overzealous and ‘biblically unaligned,’ our fervent desire to follow God makes us ‘jerks for Jesus.’ We become legalists, hypocrites and we hoist impossible standards on our neighbors. We might not mean to do it, but we do. We are “Accidental Pharisees.”
Author and Pastor Larry Osborne has written this book to help us stop being Pharisees. The thing is the Pharisees themselves didn’t start out trying to be ‘Pharisees’ in the sense we use the term today. These were people who cared about following the Bible and moral formation. They had lots of rules and regulations because they wanted to make sure their behavior was pleasing to God, but along the way they lost sight of God’s grace. Osborne examines the ways that we too can get ourselves offtrack by emphasizing having right behavior or right theology. Not that these things aren’t important, but when you look at the type of people Jesus loved, accepted, justified and restored, it wasn’t because of what they did, but because of his mercy and love. Osborne helps us cut through our own attempts to justify ourselves.
The book is divided into seven parts. In part one, Osborne introduces the concept of ‘accidental pharisees’ and provides a case study of Joseph of Arimathia (the guy whose tomb Jesus was buried in, a Pharisee and ‘secret disciple’). While we would be tempted to not number Joseph among the disciples for his failure to stand up for Christ before the Sanhedrin, he is described as a disciple in the gospels.
In the rest of the book Osborne describes the characteristics of of our pharisee-ism. In part two he describes the sin of pride. We are all tempted to compare ourselves to others, and see their faults more clearly than we see our own (Log-Eye disease). In part three, he discusses exclusivity and the way that we want to ‘thin the heard’ and call people to greater commitment is antithetical to the gospel of grace. In part four, Osborne shows how our desire to have ‘litmus tests’ to prove that we are ‘real Christians’ shows how we are legalists who rely on our own righteousness (rather than God’s mercy). Part five discusses our tendency to ‘idolize the past’ and the ways in which our idealism distorts reality. In part six, Osborne shows how we confuse unity with uniformity and demand other Christians conform with our theology and peculiar cultural distinctives. In part seven, Osborne discusses how the way we compare ourselves to others cause us to either feel arrogant because we got it together and other people don’t or guilty because other people are gifted in ways that we are not. He also discusses the ways in which we Christians have a tendency to judge one another for the ways we handle money (not being good stewards, not being generous enough, etc).
Each of the seven parts of this book concludes with discussion questions which would be useful in a small group discussion (over seven weeks) or for personal reflection. This is the sort of book that demands that you ask hard questions about the condition of your own heart and attitude. More than once I felt that Osborne had rightly named my sin–my self justification and judgmental attitudes. This is a book that you should read prayerfully, and with a willingness to engage in some self examination.
In a couple of places I felt like Osborne overstates his case and marginalizes Biblical texts which exhort us to our Christian duty. However, what he writes here is a good corrective and I loved the ways in which he commends us to rest in God’s grace rather than the burden of obedience. There is something right about what Osborne is saying even if he runs the risk of minimizing some of the Christian call to action. We are recipients of God’s grace before we are missional activists. I like that Osborne challenges me to make sure my gospel presentation rests on the mercy of God and that everyone is included. Still part of me worries that he doesn’t emphasize enough the need to ‘count the cost’ and take up our cross and following Jesus.’ Certainly, I am a pharisee and I need to be called to account for it. There is a such thing as the scandal of grace and I can’t earn my salvation. On the other hand, I am called to a life of discipleship which demands something from me. In several places in this book, I wrote in the margins, “Yes, but . . .”.
None of this is to say I didn’t like the book, or that I don’t warmly commend it. I think this is the sort of book which we all need to read and we need to watch out for the ways in which we can fall into exclusivity, pride and legalism. This book is well worth reading. May God use it to make us disciples who are humble, hospitable and gracious to one another.
Thank you to Cross Focused Review and Zondervan for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my review.