Modern Day Pharisees

Legalism Doesn’t Die, it Merely Adapts
By: Jonathan Harris

When Jesus addressed the Pharisees He didn’t hold back. He publicly called them a “brood of vipers,” preached during His Sermon on the Mount that they were by implication going to hell, and warned their “constituents” to “watch out” and “beware” of their teachings. In the modern church I’ve heard many people champion Jesus’ opposition to these hypocrites by saying things like, “The Pharisees were evil for setting up laws. Everyone knows Christianity isn’t about rules, it’s about love!” Just two hours ago Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church tweeted, “It drives Pharisees nuts to watch God keep blessing ministries they ridicule & despise. God’s sovereignty is often humorous.” What drives me nuts is never knowing who exactly the “Pharisees” are? The modern church has made war with “Pharisees” throwing the term against anyone who smacks of having a “standard.” It’s like playing the race card. If you’re called a “pharisee” everything else you say is discounted. Are there really Pharisees walking around today offering sacrifices and “straining at gnats?” Obviously not – so who are evangelicals talking about when they use the term “pharisee?” They’re referring to “legalists.” They’re talking about those pesky individuals who abide by standards not found in the Bible (or at least not found by them). Without a doubt, at times this characterization is accurate.

I grew up in a church which use to be on the legalistic side. I remember people who thought alcohol itself was sinful, and that playing cards were of the devil. A number of local pastors believed drums shouldn’t be implemented in worship because they evoked sinful passions. Hollywood represented everything evil, and was to be avoided at all costs (but of course, television was fine). Men must wear suits on Sunday mornings, and women must wear dresses (and they better show up on Wednesday night too!). Some of these people are still around, and still advocating their viewpoints, but let’s ask the question, are any of their convictions really “Pharisaical” in and of themselves? In order to find out, we need to look at Christ’s “definition” of a pharisee. In Matthew 23, which everyone should probably take a look at before continuing, Jesus stated:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
According to Jesus, Pharisees were “hypocrites.” They weren’t merely people who made up extra-Biblical laws (though that was part of it) – they were inconsistent. They were “lawless.” In other words, they didn’t follow God’s laws (The opposite of what people accuse them of being!) Their hearts were dirty while their actions (on the surface) seemed clean. If this is the true definition of the term, then the term has been widely broadened. It isn’t merely referring to some of the people I grew up knowing, it also refers to individuals who claim to be followers of Christ and then go home and watch lurid sexual behavior on television, or skip church because “its not important,” or use filthy language, etc. because they are transgressing the commandments of God while outwardly claiming they are keeping them. . . then again, (sarcasm) maybe I’m just a pharisee for saying such a thing! This means that the judges of pharisees can in many cases be classified as pharisees themselves. The blog “Pharisee Killer” describes the modern pharisee as follows:

The guy wearing the Converse is now the new Pharisee. The guy who believes that there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol is now the new Pharisee. The guy with tattoos is the new Pharisee. The guy who uses buzz words like authentic, real, and community is now the new Pharisee. The guy who says he has an audience of One, is full of it and is the new Pharisee.

Why? Because the root of legalism is pride. Legalism doesn’t mean that you abide by rules. On the contrary, God has given us a list of rules summed up in the golden rule. Indeed, even “extra-Biblical” rules are perfectly acceptable so long as others aren’t held to artificial standards (i.e. the meat sacrificed to idols). However, we can’t gain merit and by implication salvation by keeping such rules. This is why the Pharisees were “blind guides” to the blind. They thought they were good enough that through their efforts to keep the law they could somehow gain salvation. As Paul said, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. “

It is human nature to look for a license to sin. Young Christians who use the legalism of their parents and grandparents as a justification by which they can have “freedom in Christ” to sin, don’t realize they have in essence become the very thing they’ve criticized creating for themselves a standard apart from God’s word and then calling it “God’s word.” There’s only one solution legalists both young and old and its humility. Let’s not “break the commandment of God” for the sake of tradition. Let’s instead uphold God’s laws, judging righteously from his standard, realizing that we will never be perfect – whether we dumb down God’s standard, or attempt to perfect it. We will always be sinful this side of heaven, and it’s through His grace that we can even follow some of His commands.

So the next time you or someone you know starts calling someone a pharisee, think to yourself, what constitutes a pharisee? Someone who merely keeps commandments (Jesus preached, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”) or someone who does it for the wrong reasons? Oppose genuine pharisees just like our Saviour did, but remember to examine yourself first.

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