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Even though it’s been “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” since Pharisees were running around in Century One causing trouble for God’s messengers, Pharisees and Pharisaism are still here.
They’re like the poor. They’ll always be with you.
While Pharisaism is in sharp decline today (experiencing advanced stages of rigor mortis), the pharisaic spirit still exists. And it’s the chief reason why so many non-Christians want nothing to do with Jesus.
When I was 18 years old, I spent a lot of time in a group that bred Pharisees like rabbits. And I will shamefully admit that I was one of them.
Thank God, however, I experienced the washing machine of life and it drained much (or all, hopefully) of the Pharisee out of me. Regrettably, that doesn’t happen with everyone. Many Christians waste their sufferings. And so they remain just as hardened, callous, self-righteous, and judgmental as they were in their youth.
What follows are 8 characteristics of a “Christian” Pharisee:
1) Pharisees spend more time focusing on what they hate rather than on what they love.
And what Pharisees hate are people. Well, people who sin differently than they do. (Isn’t it convenient that God hates the same people Pharisees do?) Cough.
To a Pharisees’ mind, Jesus-followers who hold to a different theology shouldn’t be allowed near children or small pets. If you tell them, “I disagree with you,” they interpret those words to mean “the gospel is at stake,” and then dive off the cliff into a culture/theological war against you and your friends.
Because of Pharisaism, Christians are known for what they are against rather than for what they are for. It’s because of them that “evangelical” has come to mean fanatical zealots who have perfected “culture war” tactics and represent the grotesquely hateful versions of Christianity commonly peddled by ambitious politicians.
2) Pharisees magnify the sins of others while minimizing — or even ignoring — their own.
Jesus said to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. A.W. Tozer put it this way, “A Pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself.”
3) Pharisees believe (and spread) accusations against others without ever going to them directly, something you’d insist on if it were you being slandered (Matthew 7:12).
Regrettably, “Christian” Pharisees produce more vitriol and spread more poison than a Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster. Dispensing slander is labeled “poison” by the Bible because it exposes innocent souls to toxic substances which are spiritually lethal.
Pharisees are adept at vilification, bombing others “with God on their side.” In fact, many of them don’t know what to do with themselves unless they’re fightin’ for Jesus.
4) Pharisees are quick to pass judgment, but slow to inquire and listen to those they’re judging.
Pharisees wake up with criticism in their hearts, plotting against those they wish to destroy, even before the coffee gets cold.
In this regard, Pharisees minister toxicity and death to those who love God (all in the name of God).
For a Pharisee, it’s shoot first, ask questions later. The exact opposite of what James told us (James 1:19; 4:11) and Jesus for that matter (Matthew 7:1-4; 7:12).
As E. Stanley Jones rightly pointed out, “The measure of my spirit of criticism is the measure of my distance from Christ.”
Pharisees need to put the oxygen masks on before trying to correct others. They’d be wise to learn the art of shadowing boxing, i.e., dealing with the dark shadows they cast before pointing out the darkness they see in others.
5) It breaks a Pharisee’s jaw to admit they’re wrong or apologize to those they’ve mistreated.
You’ll have a better chance seeing a hen floss her teeth than to witness a Pharisee apologizing or admitting to a mistake.
In this regard, Pharisees exhibit a remarkable lack of self-awareness.
This also accounts for why they are so belligerent. They exist to correct others, never turning the spotlight inward.
6) Pharisees only hang out with other Pharisees.
Because Pharisees establish dubious doctrinal criteria by which every Christian is judged and condemned to hell, they only hang with their own kind.
In addition, they aren’t a terribly happy bunch of people. They weren’t in Jesus’ day either. In one Greek manuscript, they are called “lemon suckers.” (Okay, I made that up. But it’s not far off the mark.)
7) Pharisees impute evil motives to the hearts of others (but are clueless that they’re merely revealing what’s in their own).
While they use terms like “discernment” and “contending for the gospel” to describe (and excuse) their sin, Pharisees are clueless to the fact that they betray their own hearts whenever they judge the heart of another.
They also engage in the usual fare of claiming to uphold “Christian values” while they paper over the harmful things they’ve done in the name of Jesus — unfairly sitting over others in judgment.
NEWSFLASH: Only God has the ability to read the motives of mortals. And as I’ve contended elsewhere, the New Testament has zero tolerance when humans engage in it.
On that score, Pharisees need to listen to Anne Lamott who said: “The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you.”
8) Pharisees cannot tolerate correction, even when it’s given in a spirit of Christ.
A Pharisee hasn’t caught on to the fact that no human sees every angle of everything.
Pharisees are quick to join the bandwagon of brother/sister bashing, crafting special attacks against those who don’t line up with their unique interpretations of Scripture. And they break out in boils whenever someone points out their own flaws.
As Len Sweet and I argued in Jesus: A Theography, the things that make Jesus angry aren’t what most evangelicals get angry about.
I suspect that as you were reading this article, your brain was populating different people who fit my description of a Pharisee.
But that’s not really the intent. Sometimes we need to turn those rifle scopes into mirrors and ask ourselves, does any of this describe me?
In which case, repentance — a U-turn of the heart — is the cure.
Sadly for many, conscience is that still small voice that tells you what other people should do.
As with most bullies – including theological ones – within every Pharisee is a frightened little boy or girl. It’s time to move past our fears in the name of “protecting theological boundaries” and join the conversation that’s been going on for centuries with grace and humility.
When it comes to God’s family, there is no place for erecting walls of isolation and narrowing the borders of who is in and who is out. In this regard, Pharisaism replaces the divine dream with a human nightmare.
Alas, the heavens are darkened by our refusal to love each other.
May God be merciful to us all.
And for the 12 cents it’s worth, here’s my most popular blog post from October: I Just Don’t Have Time
Yours in His grace,
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