This is one of the questions posed by John Stott in his book Christ the Controversialist.
What should be the attitude of the followers of Jesus towards those who do not follow him? Do we despise them, fear them, shun them, tolerate them, condemn them, or seek to serve them? What is the responsibility of the church to the world? Is our attitude Christian or Pharisaic? See Lk 15:1f.
The Pharisees, let it be said, were keen to proselytise, Mt 23:15. But proselytism and evangelism are not the same thing: the message, methods, and motives are all different.
The attitude of the Pharisee
The Pharisee began from an excellent starting-point – the OT doctrine concerning the relationship between God and his people. The returning exiles, keen to be holy and distinctive, tended forget their call to be ‘a light to the nations’ and withdrew from the heathen altogether. And so Pharisaism was born. The very word means ‘separated ones’. They were the separatists, the exclusivists, of their day. They held themselves aloof from all contact which they thought might ‘defile’ them. They shunned contact not only with Gentiles and with hellenised Jews, but also with the ‘common people’ which in their ignorance were habitual law-breakers. They were thus disturbed at the early popularity of Jesus, whom the common people heard gladly, Jn 7:48f; Lk 5:29-32.
The attitude of Jesus
Even Jesus’ disciples at times displayed a Pharisaic spirit. But the Gospels give many examples of the attitude of Jesus with which he welcomed ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and others who were despised by the Pharisees:-
(a) When the parents tried to bring their children to Jesus, the disciples ‘rebuked’ them. But when he saw this Jesus was indignant, and he took the children in his arms and blessed them, Mk 10:13-16.
(b) When blind Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, many in the crowd rebuked him. But Jesus asked for him to be brought to him, and restored his sight, Lk 18:35-43.
(c) The Pharisees would recoil with horror from a prostitute. But Jesus allowed one to bathe his feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair, kiss them, and anoint them with ointment, Lk 7:36-50.
(d) In those days is was said that ‘the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’. But Jesus was an exception to this rule. The one he talked with at Jacob’s well was three times despised – she was a Samritan, a woman, and a ‘sinner’, Jn 4:4-21.
(e) The Rabbis went far behond the rules of hygiene in their dealings with people who had leprosy. They regarded such with loathing, and would even throw stones at them to drive them away. In contrast, Jesus had compassion on them. On one occasion, he stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, and healed him, Mk 1:40-45.
(f) Likewise, Jesus often touched the sick. In the case of the woman who had had a flow of blood for many years, he did not rebuke her when she touched him, but sent her away in peace and health, Mk 5:25-34. He even took the hand of a dead girl and restored her to life, Mk 5:21-24; 35-43.
(g) Finally, Jesus was happy to accept invitations into the home of disreputable folk such as Zacchaeus, Lk 19:1-10 and Levi-Matthew, Lk 5:27-30. With the latter, he even accepted him into his team of apostles, Lk 6:12-16.
The difference between the attitude of the Pharisees and that of Jesus can be readily explained: they were interested in themselves, whereas he was concerned about others. His whole mission was ‘to seek and to save the lost’, Mk 2:15-17.
Jesus used a number of stories and metaphors to illustrate his attitude: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’, Mk 2:15-17. The shepherd would rather abandon the 99 sheep who are safe in order to rescue the one who was lost and in danger, Lk 15:1-7. The same message comes across in the parable of the lost coin, Lk 15:8-10. Just when there is joy in heaven over one repentant sinner, there is murmering in the hearts of the Pharisees. A further parable about lostness, that of the Prodigal Son, adds the theme of the elder brother. As we recognise the tax collector and the sinner in the prodigal, so we can recognise the Pharisee in the elder brother, Lk 15:11-32.
The attitude of the Christian church
What is our attitude to outcasts? In how many ways is it more like that of the Pharisees, than of Christ?
1. Is our attitude one of Pharisaic self-righteousness? Is it an attitude which thinks, even if it does not actually say, ‘Let the sinner stew in his own juice.’ We can too often seem smugly self-righteous with regard to our own behaviour and harshly condemning of the behaviour of outsiders. Those outside the church feel that they get more understanding and compassion from the world than they do from the church. True, we do not want to be ‘soft’ on sin, but we do need constantly to remember that the church is for sinners. The ‘holiness’ of the church is more in its position as belonging to God, in its aspiration and in its final destination. We are, at best, highly imperfect saints. The church is not a museum of rare spiritual exhibits, but a convalescent home for the sin-sick, a refuge for the helpless, and a common lodging-house for wayfarers. We accept Mary Magdalene and Saul because they are in the Bible: but how would we feel if they dropped in to one of our meetings?
2. Are we too fearful of spiritual contamination? This is the spirit of monasticism, and the perversion of a noble ideal. Such an attitude assumes that the only way to avoid conformity to worldly standards is to avoid worldly people; but see Jn 17:15. Many who have never seen the inside of a monstery are monastic in outlook. They life a life of religious seclusion, insulated from the world. A church which lives for itslef alone must die. It is Pharisaic, not Christian.
3. Do we have an unbalanced view of the relationship between evangelism and social concern? The extreme form of the evangelical thesis is that the church’s sole responsibility is the proclamation of the gospel, and that social action is therefore no part of the calling of the church. The ecumenical antithesis is that God’s chief concern is not the church, but the world. His action in the world is to estabish ‘shalom’, peace, and this not just for the individual but for society. The church’s mission is to discover what God is doing in the world, and to catch up with it. The preferred methodology is not proclamation leading to conversion, but dialogue leading to mutual understanding. Both thesis and antithesis represent a form of Pharisaism, in that they are limited and unbalanced. An evangelicalism that focusses exlusively on individual slavation forgets that God created us with bodies as well as souls; he constituted us as social beings, not merely as individuals. Thus, true evangelicalism is in the tradition of those like Wilderforce and Shaftesbury, who did not shun social and political action in the name of Christ. But, by the same token, an ecumenism that neglects the salvation of sinners, and fails to proclaim the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, is likewise seriously unbalanced.
The vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Christian faith and message are alike essential. If it is heresy to deny any of the articles of faith, it is also heresy to deny our responsibility for the needy.
4. Are we neglecting our responsibility to the world through plain laziness and selfishness? The world itself continues to ask, with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). We have an almost incredible ability to avoid responding to the cries of the needy, even when they are on our doorstep.
Underlying all four types of withdrawal there lurks a false view of God. The God revealed by Jesus Christ is a God who cares. He loves the unlovely. He causes his sun to shine, and the rain to fall, on the undeserving as well as the deserving. He made us with bodies as well as souls. In the incarnation, he got involved in an intimate, committed way, with our fallen and needy humanity. He exposed himself to our sorrows, pains, and temptations. He humbled himself in order to serve. Now he says to the church: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jn 20:21. The Saviour does not deal with us on the basis of merit, but mercy. He is the shepherd of the lost sheep, the healer of the sick, the father of the orphaned, the delverer of the oppressed.
Here, then, is one of the great paradoxes of Christian living: we are called as much to involvement in the world as to separation from it; as much to ‘worldliness’ as to ‘holiness’; to a ‘worldly holiness’ and to a ‘holy worldliness’.
Based on Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 173-191.