Book Review: Accidental Pharisees

Several times per year I join other pastors in the Springfield area for something called "Pastors Learning Community."  Essentially we all read a book, and then come together to discuss it over lunch.  I have been introduced to some awesome books that have shaped my ministry over the years I have taken part in PLC.  Sometimes the books are rather provocative and really challenge me.  But even in those instances that I disagree with major tenets of a book, I've discovered I can pick around the bones to find some good meat worth keeping.  Such is the case with the current book we're reading entitled Accidental Pharisees, by Larry Osborne.

A Summary

The thesis of Accidental Pharisees (as you might expect) is that many Christians are unintentionally promoting a Pharisaical brand of Christianity, which Osborne refers to as the "new legalism."  While seemingly no subset of Christianity is immune from the author's attention (he singles out missional, gospel-centered, and organic groups among others), there is little doubt that Osborne's real target is the "Radical" movement, launched by David Platt's best-selling book by the same name.  (While Platt is never specifically mentioned in the actual text, the term "radical" is used 18 times.)

Osborne's critique of radical Christianity basically goes something like this...  Radical types overemphasize the teachings of Jesus that call for risk and sacrifice.  The vast majority of Christians are called to lead a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their hands (a reference to 1 Thes 4:11 which is a favorite proof text of Osborne's).  Expecting every Christian to be a "superstar disciple" that takes a scholarly approach to the Bible, practices a sacrificial lifestyle, and participates in short-term missions is both unrealistic and unbiblical.  According to Osborne, radical types become Pharisees when they expect the average person in the pew to adhere to these extra-biblical standards.

Points of Contention

-The argument that radical Christianity equals Phariseeism is a straw man.  While there are extreme elements of any movement, the vast majority of those who promote a "radical" following of Jesus (including David Platt) are not saying people have to take a vow of poverty in order to be a Christian.  Nor are they seeking to define the "opulence line" for others.  They are merely calling people to what Christ Himself called them - a life of obedience and self-denial.  

-Furthermore, Osborne argues that no call is ever put forth in the epistles for average Christians to serve as missionaries in other contexts.  But this ignores the fact that the epistles, as a rule, were written to address specific areas of concern within local congregations.  The epistles were never meant to serve as detailed teaching on Missiology.

-In general, Osborne seems to take exception with calling Christians to a heightened level of commitment.  This begs the question, "To what then are we calling them?"  While the author's point is well-taken that we should not treat immature Christians as second class citizens, or pile extra-biblical expectations on them, we also cannot simply leave them where they are.  Yet the author really doesn't suggest any alternatives.  In fact, I'm sure there are an awful lot of carnal, immature Christians who would take great comfort in this book.  (Of course by making that observation, some will say I am a self-righteous Pharisee.)  :)

Good Points

With all of the above being said, there are some very good things about this book as well:

-First of all, as one of my pastor friends is fond of saying, "Every book is imbalanced."  What he means by that is that when someone writes a book, they are generally trying to make a single point in a strong fashion.  This doesn't leave much room for counter-arguments, clarifications, and caveats.  I am certain this is the case with Accidental Pharisees.  If the author had his way, I'd just about bet you that he would have loved to have put more about the importance of being a devoted follower of Jesus, etc.

-In all honesty, there are some (not the majority) who have taken the Radical concept to the extreme.  From that standpoint, this book does provide some needed balance.  Osborne rightfully reminds us, "our definitions of what it means to be a genuine Christ follower must include room for the weak and the struggling, the frightened and the failing..."  People don't become radical, mature disciples overnight.  We need to have patience.

-All of us have a bit of Pharisee in us.  (Usually more than we'd like to admit.)  Any book that challenges us to confront our own self-righteousness is, in the end, a good thing.

-The author makes a very helpful observation on the pendulum of Christianity swinging back and forth between evangelism and discipleship.  The Church will go through an era where the emphasis is on getting folks saved.  Then it will go through an era where the emphasis is on bringing Christians to maturity.  Of course, the ideal is both.  But Osborne would say we have a tendency to neglect one to emphasize the other.  He feels we are in a discipleship era now.  (Although I know many pastors who would probably question that.)  :)

-Finally, the book flows extremely well and is easy to read.  It kept my attention more than any book I've read in a long time.  (Mainly because I was furiously highlighting and making notes.)  :)  Kudos to the author for a well-written book.

Final Word

Definitely a must read.  I disagreed with a lot of it, but it stretched me and told me some things I needed to hear.  I'll take that kind of book over a boring book any day!