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None Dare Call It Phariseeism

By Martin G. Selbrede
January 01, 2009

“In vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matt. 15:9) In Matthew 15, a well-known collision between the Pharisees and the Lord is precipitated by a question over table manners. Christ’s disciples didn’t wash their hands prior to eating bread. To fail to wash hands was to “transgress the tradition of the elders” (v. 2). This transgression of the received tradition ignited and shaped the criticism leveled against Christ and His disciples.

In response, Christ indicted the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (v. 6), or as it stands elsewhere, you make “the word of God of none effect through your tradition” (Mark 7:13). In effect, “they have made void thy law” (Ps. 119:126).

There are many important aspects to “making God’s commandment void,” and if we fail to grasp them, we’ll quickly fall into the same trap. The most important point to grasp—more important even than recognizing that God’s commandments are overturned in the process of elevating a tradition to a moral obligation—is the following implication: by creating such traditions, men serve notice that God’s law is insufficient. Such men feel that we need to go beyond what is written, to fill in the gaps, and elaborate upon God’s Word. As R. J. Rushdoony has often said, the modern mind insists upon being more holy than God by setting up ethical imperatives that are allegedly superior to those found in Scripture.

Now, if the Scripture is insufficient, and one accepts that men can correct this deficiency through native ethical wisdom, then it also follows that such amendments to God’s Word, being improvements designed to correct various deficiencies and omissions, can override Scripture itself, for the correction of an insufficiency surely has priority over the incomplete, insufficient account found in God’s law. By treating God’s law as an insufficient guide, man has asserted ethical superiority over God’s law as a critic, a critic who judges that law using his own homespun parameters and standards.

The very act of assessing God’s law as insufficient puts man in the Legislator’s Seat. Man takes possession of this seat by ejecting God from it. There is no surprise whatsoever that the Pharisees regarded the practice of the disciples as abominable: Christ’s disciples are trampling underfoot an ethical standard that the Pharisees implicitly treated as being superior to Scripture. The Pharisaic tradition completed the edifice of moral instruction, an edifice otherwise left incomplete by various deficiencies and omissions riddling the law of God.

The Whole Is LESS Than the Sum of the Parts

The supreme irony is that adding things to the law of God doesn’t improve it at all; it only weakens it and saps it of moral strength. God’s law plus human traditions does not equal something greater than God’s law, but something decidedly less than God’s law. This is true for many reasons.

First, the implicit message that God’s law is insufficient to man’s need for moral instruction clearly undermines the law’s value, degrading the law and the lawgiver in the process.

Second, Christ served notice that such intermixture “makes the command of God of none effect.” It unhinges God’s Word and detaches it from the frame of moral relevance.

This destroys the law because, third, the law of God in its purity, regarded as wholly sufficient (2 Tim. 3:17), maximizes liberty (James 1:25, 2:12; Ps. 119:45)—but adding traditions on top of that law reducesliberty. By calling God’s law “the perfect law of liberty,” James serves notice of the law’s perfection, completeness, and sufficiency, as well as what that law is intended to firmly undergird: our liberty under Him. The new constraints tacked onto that law, the new obligations glued into place alongside it, are what render the law imperfect—because the law has thus been defaced. As Matthew 23:4 puts it, those who draft up such additional legislation “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders.”

In all such cases, the ethical and moral rightness of the new man-generated legislation is never for a moment doubted. Men clean up God’s unfinished business, as it were, and mediate God’s law to their fellow men by allegedly enhancing it.

Reversing the Burden of Proof

In ancient Israel, the Pharisees bristled when Nicodemus tried to remind them of the principle of due process. Nicodemus asked, “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” (John 7:51). The reply of the Pharisees leveraged the people’s ignorance of Scripture. They answered Nicodemus by saying, “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet” (v. 52).

But nobody bothered to “search and look,” because the raw challenge to do so was delivered so scornfully that everyone assumed the Pharisees just had to know what they were talking about. But they were completely wrong: the Scriptures did speak of the Messiah in connection with “Galilee of the nations” (Isa. 9:1–7). From this episode, we learn that people often blindly accept that something is not in the Scripture when it is, in fact, very much there.1

But we’ve done one worse than the Pharisees. At least the Pharisees issued a challenge to examine the Scriptures! It wasn’t their fault if nobody took up the challenge. Failure to examine Christ’s claims for oneself is labeled hypocrisy by our Lord (Matt. 16:3)—men cannot delegate this responsibility to others, especially not their leaders (the context for Christ’s rebuke).2

Modern evangelicalism tends to reverse the burden of proof. We generate new doctrines and practices, bind the consciences of men with them, and speak and write as if these doctrines and practices are fully Biblical. At least the Pharisees distinguished their tradition from the law. We blur and blend our traditions with the Word of God in such a way that nobody can perceive the sleight of hand behind that mixing process.

The Pharisees denied Christ by asserting the absence of any scriptural teaching regarding a prophet coming out of Galilee.

Today’s evangelicals mount new ideas and doctrines by asserting a full range of Biblical proof texts that don’t support a single iota of the doctrines and moral obligations they lay on men’s shoulders to obey.

The burden of proof has thus been reversed. Of the two (the Pharisee and the modern evangelical), the Pharisee has been the more honest.

The Anatomy of a New Doctrine

The Reformation cry of semper reformanda, the call to always reform our doctrine and practice and peel away unscriptural traditions, has often gone unheeded. We tragically tend to head the opposite direction entirely, accumulating new ideas and practices and bolting God’s authority onto them without divine warrant.

To illustrate this trend, I have selected the very modern idea of a “quiet time” with the Lord. I am not opposed to anyone having a quiet time with the Lord: this certainly falls within the range of Christian liberty for people to enjoy. But this is not what modern teachers are seeking at all: for them, quiet time with God has been elevated to a brand new principle, a doctrine, a full-blown moral obligation. It is instructive to walk through some representative samples of modern teaching on this topic to see that I’m not exaggerating my point at all. We will also see that the alleged scriptural proofs for a mandated “quiet time” are thin and vacuous.

I looked up some representative claims regarding a personal quiet time to see if anybody—anywhere—supported the notion with anything other than a weak, out-of-context inference from a verse concerning Jesus praying away from the crowds that pressed upon Him. None of the sources provide a single command in Scripture concerning the doctrine of a personal quiet time. The Great Commission states that we are to teach the nations “all things whatsoever I have commanded.” Where God did not command, we have no imperative to teach, especially to teach something as a divinely binding obligation! As we shall see, teaching the necessity for a personal quiet time is to teach something that God has not commanded (since no command in Scripture concerning it exists—anywhere).

None of the following evangelical writers has found a Biblical command to support what they, nonetheless, feel is commanded. It is supremely strange that a fairly new tradition has gotten this entrenched so quickly, with so little scriptural support (actually no support at all, if we use the Bible’s own standard for what obligates God’s creatures).

Consider the following quotes from major sources on the topic:

Your personal “quiet time” is probably the single most important factor to produce a growing, exciting Christian life … [Y]our quiet time needs to become a habit as regular as brushing your teeth or watching the 6 o’clock news … Your quiet time helps you grow to become all that Christ wants you to be. —Dr. Ralph F. Wilson. [Astonishingly, NO Scripture is provided in support of any of this—MGS]

The Christian must have a proper diet to grow. This diet should consist of prayer and Bible study. This is what we call consistent quiet time … Establish a definite time. Choose a definite place. Set goal and content of the devotional time. Have a goal. —www.cnetweb.org pamphlet on Developing a Personal Quiet Time [The only Scripture provided in support is Mark 1:35 that Jesus went out to pray early in the morning—MGS]

The Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia, in “A Personal Quiet Time With God,” provides a similar inferential Scripture (not a command or instruction) when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Jesus went alone to be with His Father (Matthew 26:36), and so should we.” There are several surprising things about this ill-considered citation. Jesus’ time with His Father was anything but quiet (He sweated blood and cried out to God in anguish); it wasn’t private (a stone’s throw from his disciples was about twenty yards so they could hear Him); and, more to the point, He had told Peter, John, and James to pray together (NOT have a private quiet time, obviously), and He criticized them for falling asleep instead. If you read only verse 36, you might conclude that Jesus left all the disciples behind, but he took three with Him (v. 37).

The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a unique and special event in the Lord’s earthly life, but it makes for a poor proof text for a “quiet private time” considering the actual instructions He gave to His disciples. More to the point, examine the underlying logic: “Jesus did X, and so should we.” No mainstream evangelicals really think this way (after all, Jesus didn’t get married, or eat pork, etc.). This manifests arbitrary picking and choosing to try to prop up an under-supported doctrine where there is no clear Biblical mandate, instruction, precept, command, or direction whatsoever.

Cheryl R. Carter, writing in www.MomTime.net, is even more adamant about the sinfulness of not having a private quiet time with God:

There’s an incredible sin—a secret sin in the body of Christ. All of us have been guilty of this sin, at one time or another. Few would admit it but the consequences of this sin are evident in all our churches and our personal lives. In fact, conservatively speaking fifty-to-eighty percent of all churchgoers are guilty of this sin. It is the sin of neglecting God; not spending time with Him. I am referring to quality quiet time with the Lord without a personal agenda, just an open heart and a ready ear.

Ms. Carter doesn’t bother to supply a single Scripture in support of her contention. She doesn’t even try. She simply mows down “sinners” by equating neglect of God (obviously bad) with not having a personal quiet time (a modern theological innovation).

Gospel Ministries to Children offers a similarly strong warning: “The importance of a personal quiet time (daily devotions) in the life of a Christian cannot be overestimated.” No Scripture cited in support. (Astonishing, isn’t it, how legalistic evangelicals actually can be when it comes to their own traditions?)

ElevateYourLife.net insists that you “set aside at least 15 minutes of each day for a quiet time … the first priority of your day” because “many Christians testify that nothing has been as important to them as this daily quiet time.” This is clearly not an argument from Scripture, but from what other Christians say. The website resorts to this argument because there is no scriptural requirement to have a personal private quiet time (although there is nothing to forbid it, either). However, if it were important and/or critical, why did the Bible (which is supposed to be a sufficient guide to us) contain no instructions concerning it? Why isn’t it mentioned as part of the whole armor of God?

Further, the “many Christians testify X” argument runs aground: all we have to do is find Christians who testify to the opposite. The fact that “personal quiet time” as a formal doctrine isn’t much more than a century old leads us to conclude that Christians did much better without it: the advent of personal quiet time occurred at the same time the church became more culturally irrelevant and gave up more ground to secularism and to worldliness.

There are even entire ministries built around personal quiet time. “Six Secrets To A Powerful Quiet Time” (www.thesixsecrets.com) is one such ministry run by Catherine Martin, who has introduced the trademarked P.R.A.Y.E.R. Quiet Time Plan (also trademarked). How did Christians survive without this for centuries? Hard to imagine!

On Catherine Martin’s website, we get four paragraphs listed under the large bold headline, “What is a ‘Quiet Time’?—The biblical basis for quiet time with the Lord” (www.quiettime.org/whatisqt.htm).  Note the promise inherent in the title: we should expect to find the Biblical basis for the doctrine somewhere on that page! But only one of the Scriptures she supplies even remotely touches on the topic, and it’s the kind of verse I referred to earlier (i.e., a weak inference based on something Jesus did). She chose a parallel passage to Mark 1:35 (Luke 5:16). The text does not teach us that Jesus had a quiet time, and He certainly did not have a quiet time in the sense that people would because He didn’t lack for intimacy with the Father (“I and the Father are One”), and He elsewhere states (John 11) that His open prayers are for the benefit of those around them hearing His words, and not for His own benefit at all. This is the other hazard of equating ourselves to the Second Person of the Trinity and trying to extend the Son’s relationship with the Father (which is intimate beyond any human language to explain) to twenty-first century Christians.

Rubber Hitting the Road

Jesus Himself defeated Satan by saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). In light of this, we are justified in asking these evangelical teachers, “Show us the word that proceeded from the mouth of God that commands a quiet time.” There is none: God commanded no such thing, nor did He forbid it. We are not committing a great sin by not having a personal quiet time, and we are not more obedient when we do have a personal quiet time.

What the Scriptures do command (obviously) is prayer and study of His Word, but these cannot be blithely equated with a personal quiet time. Centuries of Christians have faithfully obeyed these actual commands of God without a personal quiet time. If I were inclined to follow Jesus concerning a personal quiet time, the Biblically honest way to follow that alleged example would be to literally drive out to the desert or wilderness (the word used in the Gospels). Jesus never retreated to a room in a house, even if (big IF) He had a personal quiet time of any kind. His prayer became a lot like “the voice crying in the wilderness.”

Each writer above who promotes the notion of a personal quiet time with Jesus claims to have a better idea of how to improve our Christian walk—and doesn’t hesitate to hang his or her ideas on everyone else’s neck like a millstone. The fact is, the emperor is wearing no clothes. If this was a clearly taught command of Scripture, why can nobody provide a supporting verse in the sixty-six books that compose the Bible? It shouldn’t be that hard to support the doctrine with a command in the Scriptures. The Bible is loaded with commands—why is this one conspicuously missing?

Let’s recap: these writers hold that a personal quiet time is “the single most important factor” in our Christian lives, that it must be “the first priority of the day,” the importance of which “cannot be overestimated,” such that failure to do so constitutes “an incredible sin.” It should last “at least fifteen minutes.”

You can see how terribly inadequate the Bible really is: all these important things were left out of it! Thank God we can supplement the deficiencies of Scripture with the valuable instructions laid out by these helpful folks. It is also helpful that we modern Christians have access to watches and clocks to make sure we spend at least fifteen minutes each day discharging this crucial moral obligation.

The Ultimate Price We Pay

The tragedy inherent in walking the road of good intentions is, of course, the place where such roads inexorably lead. The plain fact is, the conscience of man can only be bound by the Word of God. This means we must be ever vigilant in determining whether a doctrine is Biblical or not. We must truly live out the spirit of semper reformanda. We must never assume we no longer need to clean house on our various Christian practices and assumptions. We must perpetually “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21) against God’s Word (Isa. 8:20).

But more tragically, the propagation of such doctrines in this obligatory form not only undermines the law of God, but it diverts the Christian’s attention away from aspects of His Word that might actually constitute “the single most important factor” in their lives. Inherent in every such displacement of Biblical authority is what I call the “Psalm One Bait-and-Switch.”3 We cannot put a human tradition or practice on the front burner without relocating the moral imperative God had originally placed there to the back burner. In this instance, the law of God is slacked (Hab. 1:4) and Christian liberty is infringed in the name of improving one’s Christian walk, with this entire dislocation being propped up with the most threadbare of Biblical supports imaginable.

We tend to marvel at how many accretions and additions on top of Scripture were slathered onto the Bible by the scribes and Pharisees, but are completely unaware of our own culpability in regard to this practice. We talk about being Berean in our outlook, but few examine the proof texts offered up in support of various ideas, and fewer yet evaluate and weigh the significance of the proof texts if they do happen to look them up.

We will continue to fall prey to the strength-sapping siren call of various doctrines and practices being foisted upon us by very nice, well-meaning Christian people until we recognize three things.

First, we must look up every proof text that is peppered throughout various teachings, no matter how much we might initially agree with that teaching or how right it might at first seem.

Second, we must weigh the Scriptures to insure they’ve been handled properly (2 Tim. 2:15). Stop reading right now. Did you look up that reference I just provided? Unless you’ve memorized the Scripture, you should look it up and read it in context.

Third, we must wholeheartedly accept the premise laid out in 2 Timothy 3:17 that the Scriptures are indeed sufficient, and with them the man of God is fully equipped (not partially equipped) for every good work. The only way that Phariseeism can ever be choked out of existence is when the men and women of God regard the Bible as fully sufficient. The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is the linchpin of Christian liberty. The slightest chink in this doctrine leads to tyranny because any alleged hole in the Bible’s sufficiency invites men in to fill that hole. Man then corrects God—the death knell of liberty, for we then fall into the hands of man (1 Chron. 21:13).

In sum, the “perfect law of liberty” is—in a word—perfect. It alone insures liberty for all. We must zealously guard God’s law against all attempts to add to it, to bind the conscience of men apart from His Word and His Word alone.

The great irony today is that although evangelicals routinely characterize Christian Reconstructionists as Pharisees, in reality it is modern evangelicalism that cannot resist the pull toward Phariseeism. The antinomianism of today’s evangelicals is nothing less than an engraved invitation to Phariseeism to enter in and dominate Christian ethical discourse. A return to a high view of God’s law will not only magnify God’s grace and Christian liberty but will also drive out the remnants of Phariseeism, against which we must be ever vigilant.

It is time to hand Phariseeism its well-earned walking papers and for us to stand, with both feet, on the Scriptures alone—no matter what the cost. If we do so, Christians will weigh their status in the Kingdom of Heaven by their attitude toward the least of God’s jots and tittles (Matt. 5:19)—as well they ought.

And if we do not reject Phariseeism? Whom then will we regard as great in the Kingdom of Heaven?

The Christian with the longer quiet time.



1. For example, the religion editor of Newsweek, Lisa Miller, cited the Anchor Bible Dictionary to the effect that the Bible says nothing about sex between women (Newsweek, Dec. 15, 2008), providing Dr. Albert Mohler the occasion to point out that Romans 1:26–27 explicitly references the matter in clear terms.

2. This point dovetails with Bible translator William Tyndale’s intention to extend Biblical literacy to the ploughboy in the field.

3. Martin G. Selbrede, “The Blessing of Dominion Theology,” Faith for All of Life, March/April 2008, 13ff. The supplanting of “law of God” with the phrase “Word of God” in modern pastoral teaching on this Psalm constitutes an unconscionable distortion of the Scriptures, yet it is one indulged in regularly by Christians of all stripes. The premise of Matthew 5:19 is completely undercut by such a bait-and-switch technique, for God’s people are then diverted away from keeping and teaching the least of God’s commandments (the basis for becoming “great in the kingdom”).


Topics: Biblical Commentary, Church, The, Dominion, Theology

Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s magazine, Faith for All of Life. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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