The Modern Pharisees?

I have been contemplating recently one of the odder passages in Christ's teachings.  In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, we find Him discoursing on the state of Israel's ecclesiastical leadership.  I excerpt the following:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men...

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren... But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in."

Then follows a list of the Pharisees' misdeeds and errors: abusing the poor, misinterpreting the essence of the law, and coming up with creative legalisms which miss the point entirely.

As a Protestant, it has always been easy to look at this passage - and similar ones in the apostolic epistles - and find an analogy to the practices of the Roman Catholic church.  To take a few of the more obvious: what else is penance - especially once established as a sacrament - but a "heavy burden grievous to be borne"?  Now, the instructed Catholic will look on and defend it as a discipline leading to virtue, but the practice has no Biblical warrant, neither does salvation depend on it, but on Christ: where is the use to be found?

Or take again the Roman practice of forbidding priests to marry.  While justified with the pious-sounding "be more like Christ", it flies in the face of Christ's choices and the apostolic teaching.  Christ, it should be noted, for the head of his church on earth (if we accept the papal claim for the apostle Peter), chose a married man.  The apostle Paul, giving instructions to his under-ministers Timothy and Titus, told them to find men as elders and deacons who were married and - to give the lie to later ideas of "celibate marriage" - had children.  Well-behaved children, of course.  The position of Paul, himself unmarried, has to be seen as the anomaly: he recognizes it, and defends his own right to marry should he want to to the Corinthians: "Have we [Paul and Barnabas] not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?"  He goes on, true, to imply this is something he has given up for the profit of his ministry, but we must recognize Paul's place in the early church as the great traveling missionary, and one often in jail: Paul's private considerations should not affect church policy on the whole, and especially are much different from those of the pastor of an individual church.

These are the two most blatant problems: there are of course also the invented "days of obligation", the whole problem of images, and more.  But I point these out to make the point that the issues exist.  All of this criticism is relatively straightforward: Christ - Himself or through His inspired ministers - says to do this, and you don't.

In contrast, doctrinal problems are more difficult to chase down.  Paul says that we are justified by faith.  James says a man who trusts in faith but does not do good works is fooling himself.  If both were inspired - as all churches agree - how can this be reconciled?  The Protestant churches tend to teach Paul, with James as a footnote: this matches the content provided, in amounts if not in exactness.  The point here is that I have become less and less comfortable arguing specific doctrines, the more so as I have become aware of my own lack of knowledge.

None of this criticism, or refraining from criticism, though, addresses the way Christ begins this section - which is to instruct his disciples to obey the very Pharisees he then criticizes for the rest of the chapter.  Let me say that again: Christ instructed his disciples to obey the corrupt leaders of Israel, because they were the leaders of Israel, the ones who "sit in Moses' seat".  The apostles also instruct us to obey those in authority over us.

So the question is, how does this apply to us today?  Does - to take the possibility I find most disturbing - the Roman Catholic church really have Peter's seat", as they claim, regardless of corruption, scandal, and false teachings?  Or, to look at a more general view, if you go looking for authority how are you supposed to tell the "authentic church" from those with clear trails to the early church: the Orthodox, Roman, or Coptic?

I do not see any perfect church.  I do not even see any church with a perfect system of doctrine and practice which would be amazing if only fallen humans were not human.  I see a number of churches running around making various errors - the Reformed churches I attend, for instance, have concocted Presbyterianism somewhere, I am not sure how - with no clear best option.  I have reached the point where, if I had been raised Orthodox, say, or Anglican, I do not know how I would justify leaving that communion; but then the same argument applies to my own, which is part of the reason I stay.

But remaining wrong does not seem like a good option, either, if it is possible to be more correct.  An odd problem.

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