Are Christians More Like Jesus or More Like the Pharisees?
Posted in the Minneapolis Forum
#1 May 17, 2013
April 30, 2013 – One of the common critiques leveled at present-day Christianity is that it’s a religion full of hypocritical people. A new Barna Group study examines the degree to which this perception may be accurate. The study explores how well Christians seem to emulate the actions and attitudes of Jesus in their interactions with others.
The research project was directed by David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, in conjunction with John Burke, author of Mud and the Masterpiece, a book exploring the attitudes and actions of Jesus in all of his encounters.
In this nationwide study of self-identified Christians, the goal was to determine whether Christians have the actions and attitude of Jesus as they interact with others or if they are more akin to the beliefs and behaviors of Pharisees, the self-righteous sect of religious leaders described in the New Testament.
In order to assess this, Barna researchers presented a series of 20 agree-or-disagree statements. Five actions and five attitudes that seem to best encapsulate the actions and attitudes of Jesus Christ during his ministry on earth. The researchers did the same for the Pharisees (10 total statements, five reflecting behaviors and five examining attitudes).
Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, directed the study. He commented on the creation of a “Christ-like” scale:“Our intent is to create some new discussion about the intangible aspects of following and representing Jesus. Obviously, survey research, by itself, cannot fully measure someone’s ‘Christ-likeness’ or ‘Pharisee-likeness.’ But the study is meant to identify baseline qualities of Jesus, like empathy, love, and a desire to share faith with others—or the resistance to such ideals in the form of self-focused hypocrisy. The statements are based on the biblical record given in the Gospels and in the Epistles and our team worked closely with a leading pastor, John Burke, to develop the survey questions.”
Fleshing Out Christ-likeness
To flesh out the objectives of the study, a nationwide, representative sample of Christians was asked to respond to 20 statements. They could rate their agreement on a four-point scale. The 10 research statements used to examine Christ-likeness include the following:
Actions like Jesus:
I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.
In recent years, I have influenced multiple people to consider following Christ.
I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.
I try to discover the needs of non-Christians rather than waiting for them to come to me.
I am personally spending time with non-believers to help them follow Jesus.
Attitudes like Jesus:
I see God-given value in every person, regardless of their past or present condition.
I believe God is for everyone.
I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.
It is more important to help people know God is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.
I feel compassion for people who are not following God and doing immoral things.
The 10 statements used to assess self-righteousness (like the Pharisees), included the following research items:
I tell others the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules.
I don’t talk about my sins or struggles. That’s between me and God.
I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.
I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.
I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than those outside the church.
#2 May 17, 2013
How Christ-like are Christians?
Using these 20 questions as the basis of analysis, the researchers created an aggregate score for each individual and placed those results into one of four categories, or quadrants.(Further definition of the way these findings were analyzed is found later in this article.) The four categories include:
• Christ-like in action and attitude
• Christ-like in action, but not in attitude
• Christ-like in attitude, but not action
• Christ-like in neither
The findings reveal that most self-identified Christians in the U.S. are characterized by having the attitudes and actions researchers identified as Pharisaical. Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.
On the other end of the spectrum, 14% of today’s self-identified Christians—just one out of every seven Christians—seem to represent the actions and attitudes Barna researchers found to be consistent with those of Jesus.
In the middle are those who have some mix of action and attitude. About one-fifth of Christians are Christ-like in attitude, but often represent Pharisaical actions (21%). Another 14% of respondents tend to be defined as Christ-like in action, but seem to be motivated by self-righteous or hypocritical attitudes.
Evangelicals and Others
Looking at America’s evangelical community—a group defined by Barna Group based on its theological beliefs and commitments, not self-identification with the terms “evangelical”—38% qualify as neither Christ-like in action nor attitude, according to their responses to these 20 questions. About one-quarter (23%) of evangelicals are characterized by having Jesus-like actions and attitudes, which was higher than the norm. About half were a mixture of Christ-like actions and Pharisaical attitudes (25%) or vice versa (15%).
Evangelicals are notably distinct from the norms in two ways: first, they were slightly more likely than other Christians to be Christ-like in action and attitude. However, among those in the “middle ground,” with so-called jumbled actions and attitudes, evangelicals are the only faith group more likely to be Pharisaical in attitude but Christ-like in action.
Kinnaman explains:“This research may help to explain how evangelicals are often targeted for claims of hypocrisy; the unique ‘sin’ of evangelicals tends to be doing the ‘right’ thing but with improper motives.”
The research shows that non-evangelical born again Christians and notional Christians were not much different from one another and not too distinct from national norms among all Christians.
Practicing Catholics were more likely than average to have Christ-like beliefs, but to demonstrate Pharisaical tendencies (i.e., they were 10 points above the average in terms of being Christ-like in attitude but Pharisaical in action).
#3 May 17, 2013
Who Exhibits Christ-likeness?
Despite their shortcomings in the study, evangelical Christians are the most likely Christian segment to be categorized as having both the Christ-like actions and attitudes (23%) identified by Barna researchers.
Interestingly, a similar proportion (22%) of Christians who have a more liberal political ideology claimed both Christ-like attitudes and actions. Non-mainline Protestants with a practicing faith are also more likely than average to be in this top category (19%), as are women (18%) and college graduates (18%).
Some population segments that are statistically less likely to have both Christ-like actions and attitudes are Elders, ages 67 or older (6%), Hispanics (6%), Christians with a conservative political ideology (8%), and men (9%).
What the Findings Mean
Kinnaman has spent more than five years presenting to Christian leaders about the perceptions of Christians, based upon his bestselling book unChristian.“In the research for that book project, our team discovered that 84% of young non-Christians say they know a Christian personally, yet only 15% say the lifestyles of those believers are noticeably different in a good way. This new study helps to explain that gap. It is not surprising that believers miss the mark in terms of representing Jesus, because transformation in Christ is so difficult and so rare. In particular, evangelicals seem to know the right way to behave, but they often admit to harboring sanctimonious motives.
“Many Christians are more concerned with what they call unrighteousness than they are with self-righteousness. It’s a lot easier to point fingers at how the culture is immoral than it is to confront Christians in their comfortable spiritual patterns. Perhaps pastors and teachers might take another look at how and what they communicate. Do people somehow get the message that the ‘right action’ is more important than the ‘right attitude’? Do church leaders have a tendency to focus more on tangible results, like actions, because those are easier to see and measure than attitudes?
“Finally, the question of authentic faith—is a particularly sore topic for many Millennials—who are often leaving church due in large part to the hypocrisy they experience. Again, no research is a perfect measure, but this study points out a sobering possibility: that the perception so many young people have of Christians contains more than a kernel of truth. Just as the New Testament writer Paul demonstrates in Galatians 2:11-16, the responsibility of the Christian community is to challenge hypocrisy just as boldly as other kinds of sin.“
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