Who Are the Sexual Pharisees?

A few weeks ago, in an exhortation responding to the Supreme Court decision that sought to redefine marriage, I tried to introduce a new term into your vocabulary. The term was “Sexual Pharisee,” and I’d like to use this exhortation to unpack a little more what I meant by it, and why I think it’s an important category for us. To do so, I want you to think for a moment about the story of the prodigal son.

You all know the story: a man has two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance, leaves home, and blows it all in a flood of debauchery and reckless living. Meanwhile the older brother remains “faithfully” at home. When the younger brother hits rock bottom, he humbles himself, acknowledges his wickedness, and returns to his family, willing to be a servant in his father’s house. His father has different plans. Seeing his son from afar, he runs to him, kisses him, throws the best robe on him, and has a big party celebrating his return. The older son is angry at his father’s generosity and grace, and grumbles about it, refusing to join the party.

This story is often used, rightly, to show that there is more than one way to be wrong. There are at least two. On the one hand, there’s the licentiousness of the younger brother, and there’s the legalism of the older. Blatant unrighteousness, debauchery, and reckless living; and hypocritical self-righteousness, smugness, and pride. Tax collectors and prostitutes. Pharisees and teachers of the law.

How does this relate to Sexual Pharisees? Sexual Pharisees combine these sins. They embrace the debauchery and unrighteousness of the younger brother, with all of the smugness and self-righteousness of the older brother. It would be as though the younger brother came home from his journey with a prostitute on each arm, and demanded that his father continue to fund his cocaine habit. “Dad, I know I’m a debauched pig-feeder, and I’m proud of it. Now where’s my robe and my ring? Oh, and I think you owe it to me to kill the fatted calf and have a party in my honor for all my friends. And a parade. Oh, and bake me a cake, or I’ll sue you for everything you have.”

This is a legalistic licentiousness, the kind that seeks the enforced celebration of its sinfulness. This is high-handed rebellion, the kind that seeks to redefine reality in its own image, to unfaithfully name the world by calling evil good and good evil. This is Sexual Pharisaism.

Sexual Pharisaism is alive and well in our day. And part of our challenge is to learn to recognize Sexual Pharisees, and to resist them, just like Jesus resisted the Pharisees of his day. And we must resist them while at the same time being the sort of church that rejoices every time a prodigal returns. Arms open wide for refugees from the world. Fists up for worldly apostles. And, of course, we must never forget, that our God loves to knock Pharisees off their high horses, whether they’re riding a horse named Law-Keeping, or a horse named Sexual Immorality, whether they’re on their way to Damascus, or to Brokeback Mountain.

This reminds us of our need to confess our sins, so let’s seek his forgiveness together now.

Prayer of Confession

Our Father and God, our nation is in the midst of a massive rebellion. We are attempting to tear down every wall in the created order, walls that you built in order to bless us and protect us and make us flourish. We have loved death and fruitlessness, and therefore, we labor to legally promote and culturally celebrate sodomy and all manner of sexual immorality, while simultaneously ensuring that a woman has every right to make herself barren, even after you’ve graced her with a child. Our debauchery and our self-righteousness are a sight to see, just like the tower of Babel was. These are indeed great evils.

What’s more, we in the church have harbored our own versions of these sins. We are by no means guiltless. We too have embraced debauchery and made provision for our flesh to gratify its desires. And we have puffed ourselves up, flattering ourselves and thanking you that we are not like “them.” Forgive us for using our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, whatever form our sin takes. Help us to walk in the light, as you are in the light. Purify us as a people for your possession that we might shine like stars in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation.

We know that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst or in our own hearts, our prayers will be ineffectual. So we confess our individual sins to you now.

Assurance of Pardon

Let’s stand for the assurance of pardon. Every one of us was an older brother or a younger brother, or some combination of the two. Whichever you were, or whichever you are, I have good news: it’s never wrong to be a prodigal coming home. You have confessed your sin. You have acknowledged your iniquity.

Therefore, by the authority of Jesus Christ, and as a minister of his gospel, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Congregation: Thanks be to God!