Has anyone ever called you a Pharisee? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called that name by professing Christians from all walks of life. And let’s not try to sugar coat it, when somebody uses that term, it’s not meant as a compliment. It can be anything from rage-fueled “Christian profanity” to a well-intentioned but biblically misinformed attempt to quash perfectly scriptural words or actions – but it’s a pejorative term, whatever the motive behind this name-calling might be.
The Bible first introduces us to the Pharisees in the gospels, during the ministry of John the Baptist, and right away, it’s clear that anybody who’s truly on God’s side of the aisle is going to have a problem with these dudes. “You brood of vipers!” is the first sentence spoken to or about the Pharisees.
But why? Why was this group of respected Jewish leaders and Bible scholars consistently painted in such a negative light by John, Jesus, and the Apostles?
Because the Pharisees were the false teachers of Jesus’ day. They were teaching the false doctrine of legalism – the idea that Jews could earn right standing with God by obeying His laws. And because they didn’t want to even come close to disobeying God’s law, they came up with their own man-made laws that were way more restrictive than God’s laws. The Pharisees required the people to obey those man-made laws and said people who broke them were sinning.
It was kind of like having a pool in your back yard with a fence around it. The pool was sin. The fence around it was God’s law. The Pharisees came along and put an additional fence around the perimeter of the property, keeping people out of the back yard altogether. Only God didn’t say we couldn’t use and enjoy the yard, He just said, “Stay out of the pool.”¹
And then Jesus arrived on the scene and put His foot down – God’s law reigns supreme, not man’s law. For those who follow God from the heart, His commands are not burdensome, not a yoke of slavery. And by burdening the people with laws God had not commanded, and setting those laws on equal footing with God’s laws, the Pharisees were the ones in sin.
But this just didn’t compute to the prideful, hypocritical, self-righteous Pharisees. They were so set in their ways and ensconced in their power and position that they doubled down on their false doctrine to the point that their self-deception led them to view simply obeying God’s law as written – nothing added, nothing taken away – as sin.
This is why we see the Pharisees losing their cotton-pickin’ minds over Jesus and the disciples plucking and eating (harvesting and threshing to the Pharisees) kernels of grain on the Sabbath, and Jesus healing (“working”) on the Sabbath, both of which – eating and doing acts of charity – were lawful.
The legalist Pharisees saw Jesus and His followers as antinomians – those who were a threat to the people of God by preaching license, disobedience, and “everybody can do what’s right in his own eyes.”
My how the pendulum has swung in the other direction.
Today what we have is antinomians calling some of Jesus’ followers Pharisees because these modern-day antinomians believe that striving to obey God’s Word as written – nothing added, nothing taken away – is legalism.
Is it wrong to label everyone an antinomian who has called a brother or sister in Christ a Pharisee? After all, antinomianism is heresy. It’s a pretty serious charge – not one that should be casually and superficially flung around. Well, so is the charge of legalism, which these folks are leveling every time they call someone a Pharisee. If they’re going to dish out charges of heresy, they ought to be man or woman enough not to cry foul when that same charge is leveled against them.
But the truth is, among average Christians, there are very few actual full-blown legalists or full-blown antinomians. As with nearly every other aspect of Christianity, there’s a spectrum of antinomianism and legalism with heresy on either end, and the majority of Christians falling somewhere in the middle. Most genuinely born again Christians hover somewhere around that sweet spot in the middle that we would call obedience to Scripture, but we all have a general fleshly tendency toward legalism or antinomianism. And furthermore, we can tend toward one or the other in various issues in our lives. There are issues in my life in which I tend toward antinomianism out of fear of man, or because I want to give in to the desires of my flesh. And, there are issues in my life in which I tend toward legalism out of pride or a lack of trust in God. We can all fall into the ditch of antinomianism or legalism depending on the circumstances and our personal weaknesses and sins.
So when I say that Christians today who call their brothers and sisters in Christ Pharisees are antinomians, I don’t mean that the vast majority of them are full-on heretics who think Christians can go out and sin as much as they want and nobody has to obey Scripture. Honestly, I’ve never even met anybody like that. I’m talking about Christians who tend toward antinomianism when it comes to the specific area of ecclesiology. What does that look like in the life of the church? Often, it takes the shape of overlooking sin instead of dealing with it biblically in order not to make waves or hurt someone’s feelings. It can also find itself in those who get on the bandwagon of the latest Christian – or worldly – fad, method, celebrity, or worldview, and chiding those who rightly deem it unbiblical. A few examples I’ve experienced or been told of:
Do you expect Christians to be at church every week unless Providentially hindered? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.
Dare to speak up against false teachers? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.
Do you believe it’s sin when women preach/teach the Scriptures to men or hold unbiblical authority over men in the gathered body of Believers? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.
Have you ever asked why your church doesn’t practice church discipline? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.
Do you warn your friends in apostate churches of the false doctrine they’re being taught? That’s legalism. You’re a Pharisee.
But who’s really the Pharisee today? Well, just like in Jesus’ day, it’s people who might (or might not) know Scripture, but they’re not handling it correctly. Sometimes, it’s well-known Christian leaders protecting their position and power. Sometimes it’s the people in the pew who like the status quo in evangelicalism, their church, or their family just fine, thank you very much, and they don’t want you bringing the Bible in and messing everything up.
Who’s today’s Pharisee? It’s often the person calling other Christians Pharisees.
As you might expect, the legalist Pharisees of Jesus’ day had hundreds of very specific, clearly defined laws you had to obey: You could only walk so many steps on the Sabbath. You had to wash your hands in a certain manner. You probably even had to fold your underwear a specific way.
Our modern-day antinomian-leaning “neo-Pharisees” have just a few nebulous, loosely defined rules of which they, not Scripture, are the final arbiters:
- You can’t be unloving.
- You can’t hurt people’s feelings.
- You can’t rock the boat.
- Why can’t we all just get along?
And though it was relatively easy to count the number of steps you took on the Sabbath or make sure your underwear stacked up at a 90° angle so you could stay on the right side of the legalistic Pharisees’ rules and regulations, it’s much harder to tell whether or not you’re obeying the neo-Pharisees’ laws.
Their laws, though few in number, are subjective, broadly interpreted and applied, and constantly changing. Charges of being “unloving,” for example, are not supported by Scripture passages in their proper context clearly defining biblical love, but are based on the personal feelings and opinions of the person leveling the charge. A “peace, love, and harmony” definition of “unity” is frequently prized over fidelity to Scripture. What was right last month could suddenly be wrong next week because it has upset someone.
It’s not easy to hit such a fast-moving target, and practically anything you say or do (even if it’s straight from Scripture) that rubs the neo-Pharisee the wrong way is going to break one of these rules – man-made rules that they insist other Christians keep or those other Christians either aren’t saved or are sinning. So while the quality of their rules is antinomian-ish, the application of their rules is legalistic. This is fleshing itself out in dozens of different ways in evangelicalism.
Case in point: progressive Christians who have taken up the social justice cause, particularly as it relates to race. One recent example – if you don’t see whiteness (whatever that means) as wicked and something you need to renounce, you’re not being loving to people who have darker skin than yours, and you’re hurting their feelings, and you’re refusing to get along with them. So because you’re breaking these laws the neo-Pharisees have made, you’re sinning at best and not saved at worst. But what is whiteness, precisely? How can I tell whether or not I’ve fully renounced it? What if I’ve fully renounced it in the eyes of one person but not another? Who is supposed to pronounce me absolved of this so-called sin? And daring to ask any of these questions or push back against these ideas can earn you the label of Pharisee.
Another example I’m hearing more and more people say they’ve been taken to task about is tone. For some neo-Pharisees, it doesn’t matter how gently, kindly, and patiently you state a difficult biblical truth, if it hurts someone’s feelings or rocks the boat, you’ve been unloving and said it in a harsh tone. And you’ll probably get called a Pharisee.
But who is the judge of my tone or yours? One person’s “harsh tone” is another person’s “matter of fact tone”. One person’s “loving tone” is another person’s “spineless tone”. I once wrote an article about a certain false teacher about which I was told my tone was too harsh by some and too nice by others – about the same article! We all have different personal, subjective opinions about tone. The problem is that the neo-Pharisee is elevating her opinion about what constitutes an acceptable tone to the level of Scripture. Because if you use what she thinks is the wrong tone, you’re sinning.
So what is the solution to this messy morass of legalism, antinomianism, and neo-Pharisaism we suddenly find ourselves in in evangelicalism?
We must become good students of the Bible so we know exactly what it says – and doesn’t say. The Bible doesn’t condemn anyone as wicked based on the shade of her skin. But it does tell me I’m to love my brothers and sisters in Christ. It tells me that God shows no partiality and I shouldn’t either. The Bible doesn’t qualify which tones of voice are harsh and which are acceptable. When it talks about speaking the truth in love, it’s talking about motivation of heart – which only I can know and only God can judge – not tone of voice. Am I motivated by love? Does the Bible say we need to be faithful to the gathering of Believers or not? Does it really say women can’t preach to men or not? Is that person actually a false teacher according to Scripture or not? We need to know Scripture, so we can rightly obey Scripture, so that no one will actually be a Pharisee.
We’ve all got to do our best to present ourselves to God “as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) When I lean too far toward legalism, I need Scripture to pull me back to that sweet spot of simple biblical obedience. When you lean too far toward antinomianism, you need the Bible to bring you back to center on diligent biblical obedience. We need to help each other, iron sharpening iron, not call each other names.
Let’s get rid of Pharisaism once and for all and simply spur one another on toward holiness and obedience to God’s Word.