Religious McCarthyism (Nov-Dec 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

by Keith Roberts
November – December, 2000

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

These words rang out in a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1954 from the U.S. Army attorney, Mr. Joseph Welch, signaling the beginning of the end of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt aimed at anyone suspected of even knowing a Communist.

Eventually censured by the Senate, McCarthy became a pariah because he fell into a trap common to people who become passionate about an agenda. They become so busy storming the walls of their enemy’s fortress that they forget to ask, “Is this the right wall?” or “Is this the right fortress?” or even “Is this the enemy?”

Politics hasn’t changed much since those days, and neither have the tactics of political destruction. They usually involve choosing and isolating the supposed enemy and then launching a smear campaign to polarize his allies and discredit him, therefore discrediting his agenda.

Sadly, this “scorched earth” political tactic often finds a comfortable home in the church. The very Body that Christ created to extend love and grace to the world can sometimes host ruthless political battles.

Agendas in the Church
We always claim it’s about “truth” or “what’s right” or “false teachers,” but it usually isn’t. If it’s about “truth” then why do we always feel so dirty after the inevitable church split? And why are so many Christians destroyed by it? Because it’s not about truth, but about power and agendas and winning.

I’m afraid it’s always been that way. From the Salem witch trails to the Spanish Inquisition, religious people with a carnal agenda can be ruthless.

It was no different in Jesus’ day. Who were his most ardent enemies? Who hated him the most? Who resisted him with passionate zeal, even to the point of having him arrested, tried, and crucified?

It certaintly wasn’t the sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes with whom he ate and to whom he ministered. It was the religious professionals, those degreed hardliners who had a rigid agenda and who replaced spiritual relationship with legal correctness. They were the ones Jesus spoke about: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John :39-40).

Like so many people today, they missed enjoying a special relationship with Jesus because they wouldn’t stop worshipping an agenda! These devout, religious people were so enslaved to an agenda – even one found in the Old Testament – that it destroyed them. Like a terrorist willing to blow himself up to get at his enemies, the Pharisees and their companions self-destructed while trying to silence Jesus.

Be on Your Guard
Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples not to fall for the Pharisees’ political intrigues. He said, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:5). He defined this “yeast” as (a) their teachings (16:12) and (b) their hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). Their narrow agenda (“teachings”) led to their devilish behavior (hypocrisy).

Notice how this agenda twisted their spiritual lives and compelled them to destroy people who didn’t share their doctrine. Look at the tactics they used:

Guilt by accusation. Because Jesus did something on the Sabbath that violated the rules of their agenda, some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16).

That’s always the beginning. When others don’t support the agenda, they come under fire as being “not from God.” That accusation isolates them into the other camp. They’re not like us. They don’t have our special connections to truth. They can’t be from God because they don’t agree with us.

The phrase, “He’s a false teacher,” or “They don’t teach the Truth” is a vintage guilt-by-accusation tactic. It skips past the proof stage right into the accusation stage. And it often works.

Once labeled by accusations, the accused person has an immediate disadvantage. The burden of proof is placed on the accused, and some people will never be persuaded of his innocence. This tactic often works, so be on your guard.

Guilt by association. This one is about as old as mankind, but it usually works. To tar Jesus reputation and drive away seekers, the Pharisees accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners'” (Luke 7:34). When they saw the masses seeking Jesus out, his enemies muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).

To further their agenda, the Pharisees tried to sell people on a mental shortcut around logic and proof, having them jump to conclusions about Jesus.

Just as Senator McCarthy implied that if you associated with a Communist then you must be one, today’s Neo-Pharisees want you to jump to conclusions about fellow Christians who associated with “unapproved” people and groups.

But how can we teach those with whom we have no relationship? Some are more concerned about protecting the purity of their agenda than about reaching people.

What ae we afraid of? Are we afraid that truth will be contaminated by the process of investigation? Are we afraid of learning something that might change our minds? Are we like the preacher who said, “I hate to study; it always forces me to throw away my old sermons!”

If someone tries to influence you to think less of another Christian because of his associations with others, be on your guard.

Guilt by demonization. This tactic tries to instill fear by exaggerating the supposed evil qualities of the enemy in question. When Jesus went around healing people and casting out demons, proving himself superior to the Pharisees’ agenda, they said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons” (Matthew 9:34).

By their twisted logic, the Pharisees had painted themselves into a corner. Jesus didn’t share their agenda, so he couldn’t be from God. If he’s not from God, he must be from Satan. Therefore, if he’s from Satan, his works (even if obviously good) must be from Satan. And if his works come from Satan, he must be destroyed.

That’s why we can destroy each other in the name of religion and still feel justified. That’s why Paul warned the legalistic Galatians, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15).

When Christians demonize people who disagree with them, it proves that their agenda, not the person of Christ, is what they worship, so be on your guard.

Guilt by polarization. People who work from an inflexible agenda usually feel that they must polarize others into two camps: those who are for us and those against us.

When jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were outraged and demanded that the people take sides. They set up an inquisition, which questioned both the healed man and his family. They had already decided “that anyone who acknoweldged Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22).

This kind of polarization by the teachers of the law and Pharisees was why Jesus said, “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).

The newly-polarized sons of an agenda tend to be much more inflexible than even the aged masters who spawned them. So be on your guard.

When Will It Change?
Where Pharisees rule in the church, you’ll find a lack of joy (Galatians 4:15-20) and the hypocrisy of a self-righteous agenda (Matthew 23:1-36). Just as the early church had to grapple with this kind of leaven brought in by Pharisees who had become Christians (Acts 15:5), we still face the same struggle today.

So is there any hope for changing Neo-Pharisees and ridding the church of the choking heresy of legalism?

How was Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee of Pharisees, the Super-Pharisee wo murdered Christians, changed into Paul the apostle? He didn’t change because someone argued him out of his doctrine, but because he had a personal encounter with Jesus.

This kind of radical, transforming change comes only by knowing Jesus, not just knowing about him. If we emphasize spiritual growth disciplines – prayer, fasting, solitude, Bible study, etc. – once again in the church, then maybe hard hearts will be changed and personal agendas abandoned for Jesus. “By this will all men know that you are my disiciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).Wineskins Magazine

Keith Roberts

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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