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The Ethic of Moral Compromise: What the Pharisees Could Teach the Church of England


Mainline denominations in the west in the twentieth century orchestrated their own demise.  The twenty-first century will only be the denouement.  Their implosion is due to their willful embrace of theological and moral compromise.  Such compromise manifested itself in magisterial reversals of orthodox teaching.  On ethical issues, they entailed the reversal of views on divorce and remarriage, abortion, premarital sex, and homosexuality.  The result was an inability to bear witness to the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in an increasingly secular world--a failure of mission.  The mainline denominations still speak of a ‘Jesus movement’ or evangelism and church growth, but their great compromise with the world was only a matter of paving their own path to irrelevance in a cultural context that increasingly needed a relevant Church witness.  Compromise was something Jesus addressed as well in his ministerial conflict with the Pharisees, and from this engagement we can learn an important lesson.

Jesus’ Kingdom Righteousness and the Pharisees’ Ethic of Compromise

Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God was a direct attack on the moral compromise of religion in his day.  One cannot compromise the moral demands of God while claiming to live under God’s reign.  Such compromise, however, was the very stuff of Pharisaism.  For this reason, Jesus called them hypocrites--actors.

Jesus says to his disciples,

Matthew 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees are misrepresented if they are presented as unloving legalists.  That may be so in some respects, but their main problem was their crafting of an ethic of compromise.  They used the Law in ways to avoid God’s higher demand of a righteousness of the heart.  In a strange twist, the Law’s letter was used to avoid its intent.  Love is not the undoing of demand but is itself a higher demand.  As Jesus says,

Matthew 22:37-40 … You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Thus, when the Law is practiced without love, it is a half-measure of God’s commandments.  It is a compromise.  God’s commandments are expressions of how to love others.  All the commandments remain; they hang on the higher laws of love.

Examples of the moral compromise of the Pharisees and scribes undoubtedly follow Jesus' warning about them in Matthew 5.20.  Jesus' examples have to do with their teaching on murder, adultery, truthfulness, retaliation, and hate of the enemy (Matthew 5.21-48).  Jesus calls, rather, for an ethic of the heart that takes these laws as indicative of a higher demand from God, a righteousness of the heart.  The Pharisees’ teaching about observing the Sabbath could, on occasion, be a way to avoid showing mercy (Matthew 12.1-8).  Their focus on lighter laws could be a way to avoid the weightier laws (Matthew 15.1-20; 23.16-26).    Their attention to outward laws and piety that others could see allow them to hide their breaking of other laws while receiving praise for piety (Matthew 6.1-5; 23.5-7, 26-27).  The permission of certain Pharisees to allow divorce for any cause and remarriage only hides a permissive ethic allowing adultery by means of legal divorce (Matthew 19.1-9).  Jesus, instead, calls for an ethic on divorce with no compromise:

Matthew 19:7-9 They [the Pharisees] said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?"  8 He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."

Thus, Jesus sweeps Moses’ compromise of divorce away in favour of God’s ethic for marriage in creation.  Life in the Kingdom of God brokers no compromise with sin but calls instead for righteousness and holiness.  Anything less is not Kingdom righteousness.

What might have been the causes for the Pharisees’ ethic of compromise?  They believed they had found a comfortable compromise, an ethic whereby sinful people might live adequately—so they presumed to believe—before a holy God.  As such, their ethic may have been considered a practice of pastoral care, yet one that Jesus dismissed summarily:

Matthew 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Another cause leading the Pharisees to compromise their ethic was an interest in doing things that were self-serving.  Jesus says of them that

Matthew 23:5-8 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

Even the lure of money entered into their motives:

Luke 16:14-15 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  15 So he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees was an opposition to moral compromise.  He built upon John the Baptist’s call to be baptized with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  He called his disciples to live fully under God’s rule without compromise.  And he went to the cross to provide a sacrifice to save his people from their sins.  But of the compromising Pharisees, he said,

Mark 7:6-9 ... Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;  7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'  8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."  9 Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!

Conclusion—A Contemporary Application

Whereas Jesus’ first coming was both a call to no compromise with the coming of the Kingdom of God and an offer of forgiveness of sins through his own death, his second coming will be a coming in judgement.  For the Church to pray, ‘Maranatha’—‘Lord, come’—is to pray for a final, divine resolution to a sinful world.  When the Son of Man comes, he will come to render God’s judgement on the earth.  But no Church that has compromised Biblical teaching for its own purposes should dare to pray ‘Maranatha’ unless it has greatly deluded itself about what it would mean for Christ to return.  Did Jesus not say, 'Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven ' (Matthew 7.21)?

This week, the Church of England’s Synod meets to consider a House of Bishops' report that is nothing but moral compromise.  While, on the one hand, affirming (bizarrely, at great cost) the obviously Christian and Biblical view that marriage is only a union between a man and a woman, the report, on the other hand, nonetheless affirms homosexual union in every other way.  It is a compromise that might make the Pharisees’ blush.  The report therefore not only affirms homosexual unions but also affirms extra-marital sex.  It does so under the guise of pastoral care, which is, in reality, nothing less than pastoral abuse.  It advocates institutional unity (‘can’t we all just agree to disagree?’) over against orthodoxy (‘truth is worth dying for’).  Apparently, the Pharisees’ compromise of God’s commandments is paradigmatic--not simply a foil--for certain Churches.  Yet the Pharisees could teach the Church of England a lesson.  They might say, 'Our compromise was in using the Law in ways to avoid actually fulfilling the Law in pursuit of Kingdom righteousness.  Your problem is that you do not even want to begin with God's Law, let alone pursue a higher righteousness.  Whose compromise is worse?'

The Church of England’s Synod faces voting on a report this week from the Bishops that will damn them no matter what they say.  If they reject the report, they open up the way to affirm homosexual marriage.  If they vote to receive the report, they open up the way to affirm homosexual unions in other ways.  The bishops and Synod have come to this Catch-22 point after years of compromise.  By the end of the week, we should know which compromise they have chosen.  Either way, the institutional Church of England has long lost its witness in the world to Kingdom righteousness.  The Titanic has already struck the iceberg; does it really matter which tune the band plays?  The bigger question is, 'Has GAFCON launched a significant enough rescue mission in time?'