Thoughts on Pharisaism inspired by Wendell Berry


Add or SubtractIn his essay entitled “Damage” Wendell Berry writes:

“In general, I have used my farm carefully. It could be said, I think, that I have improved it more than I have damaged it.”

This was said in response to a failed attempt to build a pond on a slope on his farm. He goes on to say:

“And yet there is damage – to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.”

Perhaps that failed pond project is a good image to show the damage caused by misrepresenting God through the mishandling of His word. This is the error of Pharisaism.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for two types of errors in their handling of Scripture. The first error is to add to what God says. The Pharisees were notorious for taking the plain meaning of the text and adding to it as a guard against the breaking of a Scriptural command. One example of this that comes to mind is the Kosher laws. The Pharisees take the command “you shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk” (Exodus 23:19) and derive rules prohibiting the mixing of meat and dairy products. I do not think that Moses (or God) had cheeseburgers in mind when he penned the command.

Yet the church is not free from this type of error. We can come up with rules about many aspects of life in our culture that cannot be found in Scripture. The command to “keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27) can be morphed into rules against movies, television, particular forms of music, etc. We need to be honest about our own tendency to add to Scripture.

The second error is the polar opposite, that is the error of making Scripture out to say less than it says. This is the error of finding reasons to make sin acceptable. Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

We of the church can fall into similar error. We rail against some forms of sin while accepting others. We rightly condemn sexual sin while allowing pride to run rampant in the church. We rightly condemn substance abuse while allowing gluttony in the church. The point is that we sometimes selectively choose what Scriptural principles we want to emphasize based on our own tendencies.

As leaders and parents, we must be careful that the good that we think were are doing is not really a harm. As Wendell Berry says, we may without intention cause a lasting flaw in those we lead. James 3:1 tells us that teachers will be held to a higher standard. We need to be careful to avoid the error of the Pharisees.

To avoid the error of the Pharisees and avoid unintentional damage, we must first be willing to submit to Scripture. We need to allow it to say what God intends it to say and not explain away the parts that make us feel uncomfortable. We also need to allow Scripture to inform our opinions and not the other way round.

We should not add to, nor should we subtract from Scripture. May God guide us as we seek truth.