Seen any Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes lately?

The High Priest Caiaphas

One of the great ways of reading the bible is that of lectio divina – taking a piece of the scriptures and meditating on it. Taking time and space to connect with God and have him speak to us through it. Related to this is the practise of seeing ourselves in the passage of scripture; identifying ourselves and putting ourselves there. It is a Hebrew tradition this. When the Jewish people remember the passover they use language that identifies themselves with the events by saying things like “when we were slaves”.

Now what has this go to do with the title?

General Synod of the Church of England

Church of England General Synod

Well one thing I have noticed over the years is that people are happy to identify with those marginalised or those in need of help or indeed some of the heroes of the bible – but I have yet to hear anyone confess to say that they identify with being a Pharisee, Essene or Sadducee. But this is the thing, I think that the Church of England (the church I know best but I know that they are lurking, or not so lurking, in other churches) is stuffed full of Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees.

First, a bit of background.

In first century Judaism there were a number of different groups within Judaism. They were living in a time when they were ruled by Rome and looking forward to one day being free (or not). We know of some of the groups not just through the bible but also first century literature such as Josephus but also through later Jewish writings.

The Pharisees were a popular religious movement. They saw themselves as descended (metaphorically speaking) from Ezra who was seen as the first scribe and Pharisee. Their focus was on purity. They believed that God would act to save them when they had purified the people. So they set up rules to protect the rules. They wanted to be careful to obey God’s laws and so they built a “ring of fire” around the laws to stop them accidently breaking one. Jesus’ criticism of them was mainly that they were so focussed on the purity laws that they forgot about justice and kindness and love.

The Sadducee were the group of those in power. They advocated the status quo, they wanted to keep in with the Romans and advocated co-operation with them. Their focus was to keep the Temple going and they seemed to be comfortable jettisoning those theological things that might make that difficult – such as the resurrection (which had political overtones to it – the resurrection of a Jewish free state etc).

The third group was called the Essenes. They were more strictly a sect based in Qumran on the Dead Sea. They believed that God would come and set them free. They focussed on strict disciplines and an order that got everything “just right”.

So, I have this theory that the main groupings of the Church of England naturally gravitate to one of these groups. That remembering this keeps us humble and maybe starts us being able to look at why we do certain things and how we might change them. It might even allow us to move closer to God.

Within the Church of England there are three main groupings. They are often overlapping and intersecting but in general there are three distinct groupings.

The first is the Evangelicals. This is made up of differing types – open, conservative, charismatic etc. But there is a tendency for many to err towards the Pharisees. They want to take their faith seriously, they want to be holy and acceptable to God, they are concerned about who is in and who is out. They often get hot under the collar about rules.

The second is the liberals in the Church of England. They have been the predominant party in the Church of England for over a century. They look to be acceptable to the population as a whole. They are happy to drop doctrines that might get in the way and talk about being prophetic (usually meaning I can look at my liberal neighbours in the eye). There was a thought for the day by Giles Fraser the other day that came perilously close to dropping the idea of the resurrection and is a classic in this area.

The third area is the Anglo Catholics within the Church of England. They have almost withdrawn into an Essene type sect (used technically not as a form of abuse). Their distress over the ordination of women and their concern for doing things “just so”. The danger here is that they end up being an irrelevance and marginalised or as some are doing leaving for the Roman Catholic Church.

Now others may expand this and bring differing insights but the key is that it may allow us some honesty and ability to look to see whether we really are following in the way of Jesus. Whether we are conforming to a particular group’s view of the world or whether we are conforming to Jesus’ view. It might even allow us to look at the stories of Jesus’ conflict with the different religious groups and see which one is us!

I don’t even have time to go into socio-economic/ educational backgrounds either – that is another interesting way of slicing it in the Church of England.


5 comments on “Seen any Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes lately?

  1. Harvey Edser
    March 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    Thanks Will, I find this fascinating and insightful. I was brought up Anglo-Catholic, converted into Charismatic Evangelicalism in my 20s, and over the last few years have been moving towards Liberalism – so I can see bits of all three types in myself!

    I must confess I like parts of that Thought for the Day by Giles Fraser, but I agree that it stops well short of a fully Christian understanding of resurrection. Tom Wright does it a lot better!

  2. Esther Somerson
    March 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    How is the resurrection an ‘idea’? It is difficult to discern in writing how a statement would be verbalised.

  3. Will Cookson
    March 11, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Good point Esther. I could have said the doctrine of the resurrection but I used the word idea because Giles seemed to be coming at it from a philosophical point of view (he is a lecturer in philosophy as well as a clergyman) and was trying to engage with ideas in the general population. I felt that he was skating on very thin ice and as Harvey says Tom Wright does it much better!

  4. Norman Speirs
    March 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    At present less than 5% attend church in the county, leaving 95% in either the un-churched category or those who at present are not part of any church and/or are finding it increasingly difficult to relate to existing denominations and congregations. According to the “Gone but not Forgotten” quantitative study 80% of those aged under 20 cited “I make my own decisions” as the reasons for leaving (42% for the over 20s group), and 37% of under 20s said: “church was not helping” (23% for the over 20s) It seems to me that to aim the C of E innovations as a method of attracting pioneer “lay” leaders* whether Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes is premature, particularly so if staying connected to existing churches is a stipulation. Furthermore it is anticipated that most of the new breed of leaders will not be clergy, fulltime or even paid. Is there a clear conflict of interests here? As we try to follow the great co-mission should we re-look at the entire system for guidance.

    Ordained pastoral (Matt 9. 36) and teaching gifts (James 3. 1) are still favoured in the church and compound this conflict of interests. Folks with missional calls such as evangelism (1 Cor 9 16), apostolic (Acts 10), prophetic (Acts 2 17) have often found themselves not quite fitting the selection criteria for ordained ministry. But does it stop there? If you accept that what matters is God’s call to change our respective mindsets (in order to change the world) then we must not ignore the self-evident facts that:

    Servers will want to serve – (2 Cor 1. 4), encouragers will want to love (Acts 15.2) givers will want to give (Matt 7.11) leaders will want to lead (Romans 12. .8), un-ordained pastors will want to shepherd (Matt 9. 36) evangelists will want to influence (1 Cor 9 16) and of course all 11 groups know that our old habits die hard. Pioneering pilgrims then are to be encouraged to face up to the facts of the key characteristics of a transformed or renewed mind. Is there a systemic stage or two which we would be wise to explore before we tackle unity between clergy leaders and lay followers from the three camps (Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes). His Holiness Benedict xvi addressing bishops in Rome said this “It is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people”. Food for thought

    Source: pastoral convention 26 may 2009

  5. Will Cookson
    March 12, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    You are right to point out some of the problems that the church in the UK is facing. What I find fascinating is that it feels like many more people are prepared to talk about religious issues now a days. There are still those who hold to the “no politics, no religious” talk but there is an openness around that I haven’t seen before – even if it isn’t focussed on traditional Christianity.

    There is a greater realisation in the Church of England that peoples gifts are used and encouraged. It certainly happens in our church and in others. It also recognises that a one-size doesn’t necessarily fit all which is why there is a focus on Fresh Expressions – allowing people to find new ways of sharing the Good News – and not assuming what it might the outcome might look like.

    There doesn’t need to be a conflict between the current leadership and new leadership emerging. We have a second congregation, lay-led, that is a Fresh Expression but still part of the same church. We still want to see evangelists, prophets, apostles, pastors and teachers using their God-given talents to build God’s kingdom. The thing is that most who have a strong calling in one of these areas tends to see their calling as THE calling that everyone should follow. Good leadership ensures that we see all of these leaders released and encouraged and that the different calls are balanced.

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