Gungor: The Hipster Pharisees

“Gungor drifts from Biblical orthodoxy,” says the erroneous headline in World magazine. It’s erroneous because the leaders of the Christian worship band called Gungor were never that orthodox to begin with.

To be clear, the members of Gungor are not heretics or apostates. They walk under the banner of Jesus Christ. Instead, and perhaps ironically, the leaders of Gungor are exactly what they accuse the rest of the American church to be. They are Pharisees.

Some background

For those who don’t know: Gungor is a musical group led by Michael and Lisa Gungor that has won a Dove award (that’s like a Christian Grammy) and has seen its songs “Dry Bones” and “Beautiful Things” brought into worship services across the country. The Gungors create music that is truly, objectively beautiful, as Christianity Today said of Gungor’s album “Ghosts Upon the Earth”:

Michael and Lisa Gungor flesh out these alternately joyful and solemn songs with fluttering woodwinds, mandolin and banjo freakouts, jazzy instrumental codas, rich orchestral arrangements, and heavy electro-synth that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Muse album.

But suddenly the greater evangelical church has discovered what Gungor has believed all along about Scripture (“Award-Winning Worship Leader Generates Controversy for Rejecting Genesis as Literal”) and is beside itself.

I’m frankly surprised that everyone is so surprised.

A simple reading of the words

Michael Gungor believes much of Genesis is figurative, which by itself would be a cause for concern. But what’s much more troubling is that this view is not arrived at from an honest reading of Scripture. It’s the outcropping of unorthodox beliefs about the nature of Scriptures themselves, especially for someone who has founded a knot of house churches in Denver.

Gungor has been pitting Jesus and the Bible against each other for years. Here’s a portion of the lyrics from “Cannot Keep You,”  on the 2010 release “Beautiful Things”:

they could not keep you in a tent
they could not keep you in a temple
or any of their idols, to see and understand

we cannot keep you in a church
we cannot keep you in a Bible
or it’s just another idol to box you in

Gungor goes a step further on its next album in the song “Wake Up Sleeper,” by pronouncing suffering (“Woe to you”) on those who “worship” the Bible: that is, those who take the text of the Bible more seriously than they do:

Woe to you religious teachers, rich and worshiping your book
woe to you who use His name to justify the souls you took.

And to be even more clear, Michael Gungor describes his view of the Bible on his blog:

I have long considered God to be Supreme, not the Bible. …

I love the Bible when it remains what it should be. A means of getting to God (Truth). Not when it becomes an idol or substitute for the Truth. Theologically, I think it is a primary source to lead us to experience Truth, but it is not the Truth Himself.

Notice the indefinite article a where the Biblical Christian would expect to see the definite article the.

Like many Christians who call themselves progressive, Michael Gungor talks a lot about having constructive dialogues with people who disagree with him. But such olive branches come after lobbing rhetorical bombshells at his theological opponents. From his book “The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse,” he lumps together everyone who believes in some sort of Biblical inerrancy “fundamentalists” and drops these nuggets of grace and unity on their heads:

Fundamentalism runs planes into buildings and straps bombs to the chests of devout and gullible young men. Fundamentalism divides people into groups of “us” and “them.” It wages wars, systemizes racism, censors expressions.

So when he mounts his soap box on his blog and admonishes the “fundamentalists” to “leave the bad and unhealthy parts (of fundamentalism) behind. The parts that lead to these sort of religious culture wars,” we on the receiving end have to wonder if he recognizes his hypocrisy.

There is much more that can be said about his “evolving” views on Genesis, his disdain for those who disagree, and his kinship with the heterodox Rob Bell, but after this setup, I’d rather concentrate on the one area that might wake up this sleeper: Gungor’s rank pharisaism.

The true nature of the Pharisee

In a blog post about his song “Wake Up Sleeper,” Michael wrote:

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day worshiped a religious system, a book, or a law more than they did the very Spirit of God. They worshiped their own place and thoughts and understandings of God rather than simply worshiping God. This seemed to infuriate Jesus.

In my opinion, this hasn’t changed much. Much of the Christian world right now worships the Bible more than it worships God.

This narrative is absolutely false. I honestly wonder how anyone could read the interactions between the Pharisees and Jesus and come to this conclusion. A plain reading of the Gospels tells us that Jesus identified the prevailing sin of the Pharisees as adding to and subtracting from the law of God in an attempt to earn their own self-righteousness apart from God.

The first nine verses of Matthew 15 bear this out clearly:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

“Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” So, Jesus did not accuse the Pharisees of worshipping a book too much. He accused them of putting their own books over and above the one true Book, the word of God. The plain criticism from Christ is that the Pharisees did not obey the Bible. There is no Gungorian word-versus-spirit dichotomy to be found.

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees added to the law of God. But in other instances, the Pharisees negated the law of God, such as in Matthew 19:3-9:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

What had the Pharisees done? Again, what we do not find is some war pitting the Pharisees worship of “word” against Jesus’ worship of “spirit.” Such a thought is alien to the Gospels.

The Pharisees had simply invented easy-out divorces for themselves that kept their social standing intact. But these exemptions were in direct disobedience to the instruction of God.

Even more interesting is the portion of Scripture Jesus used to refute the Pharisees. Jesus cited Genesis 2, smack in the middle of a portion of Scripture that Gungor wishes to count as merely figurative.

A truly ironic pose

In other words, Gungor’s view of the Pharisees is the exact opposite of the truth. Jesus treated the early chapters of Genesis as the revealed word of God and as an accurate view of the events of Creation. It was the Pharisees who wished to wave those verses away in an attempt to look righteous before their peers.

Did you catch the incredible irony? Gungor would wish us to just “love Jesus” while simultaneously rejecting Jesus’ view of Scripture. Submitting to the word of God is not idolatry. Jesus was no idolator. Instead, idolatry is fashioning an image of Jesus in your own mind without reference to the Word of God.

I say these things with a lot of respect for Michael Gungor. In my interactions with him on his blog, he’s always been gracious and straightforward. He has not been afraid to give criticism, or to take it. But when musicians take up the mantle of calling the church to repentance, as Gungor has, then it is absolutely fair game to call them on their own blind spots.

We who wish to be biblical Christians can find plenty to disagree about even as we all point to Scripture. Baptism of babies? Rapture of the saints? Frequency of communion? All legitimate issues that are open to debate.

But once we adopt Gungor’s false view of spirituality, a view divorced from the ballast of the Word of God, then we are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph. 4:14 ESV)

Be wary of those who wear the cloak of Christ but seek to separate you from Christ’s word, or you too may find yourself drifting from Biblical orthodoxy.

7 Replies to “Gungor: The Hipster Pharisees”

  1. “Be wary of those who wear the cloak of Christ but seek to separate you from Christ’s word, or you too may find yourself drifting from Biblical orthodoxy.”

    Excellent caution. Thank you for writing this article.

  2. I’m no fan of Gungor, but he’s not he’s not testing the bounds of orthodoxy. He’s well within it. The Bible is not the word of God; Christ is the Word of God, to which all scripture points. This isn’t heresy, it’s common Christian Orthodoxy, as any study of Christian history will reveal. And it hasn’t been until the last hundred years or so that anyone batted an eye over this or the figurative nature of Genesis. Christians have know a six day creation was silly from as far back as Augustine, and until the 20th century it’s not been an issue (ironically in the face of modern science which is confirming what we’ve suspected all along). Gungor’s only “heresy” is that he’s cleaving to 1900 years of Christian tradition and orthodoxy (within which such questions are readily welcomed) rather than swallowing the koo-laid of modern American evangelicalism, for only in America has Christianity become so thoroughly and regrettably fearful and dumb.

  3. Since wit and wisdom are not mutually exclusive, I prefer to live where they kiss.

    If you do not wish to tell us where in particular it is written that, “The Bible is not the Word of God,” then go in peace, but go.

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