Defeating Pharisaism: Jesus’ Critique of Pseudo-Holiness
What we must ask ourselves is: To what degree are Pharisaic patterns of behavior present in our lives and churches?
By Gary J. Tyra
Not a pretty picture. I am referring to the New Testament’s portrait of the tense, adversarial relationship that existed between Jesus and the Pharisees. Scholars have presented several theories in an attempt to account for the bad blood between Jesus and His main ministerial antagonists. These theories range from the suggestion that Jesus was a liberally minded Pharisee in conflict with His more conservative cousins, to the idea that the Pharisees, as a group, were deeply envious of this rogue rabbi’s popularity with the general population. In between these two possible explanations is one that contends that Jesus and the Pharisees simply disagreed about what it means to be holy before God.
The Problem the Pharisees Had With Jesus
The Gospels seem to indicate the Pharisees were quite critical of Jesus’ contact with tax collectors and “sinners” (Matthew 9:9–11; Luke 15:1,2), and with the apparently cavalier manner in which He approached the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1,2,9–14; Luke 13:10–17; John 9:13–16). The Pharisees simply could not wrap their minds around the idea of a truly pious person doing the things Jesus did.
Furthermore, the Pharisees believed their hope of national deliverance from Roman rule depended on the holiness of the Jewish people as a whole. According to the Pharisees, this mandated holiness before God required not only a scrupulous observance of the rules and rituals prescribed by the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and their oral tradition (rabbinical commentary on the Torah), it also necessitated a strict separation from sinners, whether Gentile or Jewish. Therefore, Jesus’ refusal to embrace and promote their unique understanding of holiness struck the Pharisees as not only heretical but treasonous as well. This, say some scholars, is why the Pharisees were so willing to do whatever was necessary to silence Jesus (Matthew 12:14). They considered Him a genuine threat to the spiritual and political welfare of the nation.
The Problem Jesus Had With the Pharisees
Jesus considered the Pharisees’ religious approach to be not only ineffective in establishing true righteousness (Matthew 5:20), but counter-productive to the trust-based, intimate, interactive, and genuinely transformational relationship with God He had come to model for humanity. At the heart of the Pharisaic approach to holiness is a craving for both certainty and control that functions as a form of idolatry.
What began as a well-meaning desire to make sure they did not offend God, morphed into a desperate fear-based need to be certain of their status before Him. This, then, evolved into an elaborate system of rules and rituals that allowed them to control God. Some scholars say this best explains the rather harsh nature of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees recorded in Matthew 23, and His repeated warnings for His disciples to steer clear of the Pharisaic approach to the spiritual life (e.g., Matthew 16:6; Luke 12:1; 20:46,47).1 According to the canonical Gospels, there is such a thing as a Pharisaic “pseudo-holiness” that Jesus wanted His followers to avoid at all costs. Here are some reasons why Jesus was so adamant on this issue.
The Earmarks and Effects of Pharisaic Pseudo-Holiness
In her book, We Are the Pharisees, Kathleen Kern takes a long, hard look at the fierce diatribe Jesus directed at the Pharisees in Matthew 23. According to Kern, Jesus indicted His antagonists for: 1) their exclusivity (verse 13); 2) the negative effect they had on their converts (verse 15); 3) their use of manipulative, slippery speech (verses 16–22); 4) their gnat-picking (super-scrupulous legalistic ethics) that missed the heart of God (verses 23,24); 5) their focus on pious rituals while at the same time ignoring their attitudes of greed and indulgence (verses 25,26); 6) their obsession with appearing pious toward others while secretly and hypocritically harboring lawless impulses and engaging in sinful behaviors (verses 27,28); and 7) their penchant for persecuting anyone who dared to disagree with them (verses 29–36).2
In his book, Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees, Tom Hovestol creates a similar list of vices Jesus attributed to the Pharisees. Hovestol sees Jesus finding fault with the Pharisees for their self-righteousness, doctrinal dogmatism, hyper-piety, traditionalism, legalism/moralism, separatism, and hypocrisy.3
And what effect did these problematic attitudes and actions have on the Pharisees?
Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount by enunciating a set of attitudes and actions that belong to those blessed by God (Matthew 5:3–12). The spiritual attributes we know as the Beatitudes were woefully lacking in the lives of Jesus’ adversaries. Instead of being spiritually poor (i.e., manifesting a radical dependence on God instead of material wealth), the Pharisees loved and depended on their money (Luke 16:13–15). Instead of being those who mourn (i.e., who are sensitive to and genuinely sorry for the sin in their lives), the Pharisees engaged in a loophole-seeking approach to ethics that allowed them to justify themselves before God (Matthew 5:21–48; Luke 18:9–14). Instead of being meek (i.e., trusting in God to protect them), the Pharisees felt the need to go tit for tat in their dealings with others and to engage in conspicuous, shameless self-promotion (Matthew 5:38,39; 23:1–12). Instead of hungering and thirsting for righteousness (i.e., possessing an insatiable appetite for an intimate, interactive, genuinely transformational relationship with God), the Pharisees contented themselves with a religion that focused on legalistic and ritualistic performance (Matthew 23:23,24). Instead of beingfilled with mercy (i.e., possessing a huge capacity for compassion), the Pharisees were harsh and judgmental in their dealings with others (Matthew 9:10–13). Instead of being pure in spirit (i.e., taking care to strive for sincerity in one’s professed devotion to God), the Pharisees were not beyond engaging in pious acts for no other reason than to impress others (Matthew 6:1–18; 23:25–28). Instead of functioning as peacemakers in their society (i.e., proactively promoting peace), the Pharisees produced strife and conflict wherever they went (Matthew 23:29–32). Finally, instead of being willing to be persecuted because of righteousness (i.e., willing to endure pain because of one’s loyalty to God and the Kingdom cause), the Pharisees were doing the persecuting (Matthew 23:33–39).
Jesus knew what He was doing when He began His sermon with the Beatitudes. Some scholars believe that in Jesus’ day common folk considered the Pharisees, as a group, spiritual heroes.4 Thus, as a sermon introduction, the Beatitudes would have startled and intrigued Jesus’ audience not only because the Beatitudes seemed to contradict the prevailing notions of happiness and success in their society, but also the people would have recognized that every one of these prescribed attitudes and actions was noticeably absent from the lives of most of their spiritual heroes—the Pharisees.5Jesus, the master communicator, knew precisely how to gain the attention of an audience.
To the degree we want to see the Beatitudes played out in our lives, we need to see the pseudo-holiness of the Pharisees for what it is: a fool’s errand. For all of their concern to maintain purity before God, behaviors that distressed the heart of our Heavenly Father earmarked their lifestyles.
The Possibility of a Contemporary Christian Pharisaism
What we must ask ourselves is: To what degree are any of these problematic patterns of behavior present in our lives and churches?
I believe Jesus would have a problem with some things that go on each week in churches that purport to represent Him to the world. What follows are several examples of behavior that demonstrate contemporary Christian Pharisaism.
Not long after arriving at my second pastorate, a parishioner invited me to lunch and asked where I stood on the issue of race relations. He told me that he left a previous church after the pastor offended him when he conducted a dedication ceremony for an infant born of parents of different races — African-American and Caucasian. When I told him I would behave in the same way, he launched into a tirade about the radical importance of racial segregation. After he calmed down, I gently asked him: “If in heaven Jesus introduced you to a black man, obviously expecting you to shake his hand, what would you do?” The response of this long-time evangelical church member stunned me.
He said, “My Jesus would never ask me to do that.”
When I questioned him further, he stated that while he agreed there would be people of color in heaven, “They will have their area and we’ll have ours.”
I think Jesus would have a problem with this. Is this not an example of “exclusivity” to which Kathleen Kern refers and the separatism the ancient Pharisees were famous for?
Not long after this incident I became aware that another church member was concerned that visitors and new adherents would sometimes smoke outside the church’s front entrance. This veteran church member had determined that part of his ministry responsibility was to safeguard the image of the church. So whenever necessary, he would confront such a visitor, lecturing him about how cigarette smoking was sinful and that smoking on the front steps of the church was sending the wrong message to passersby. But in his attempt to protect the church’s image, he was chasing away the very people we were trying to reach. I think Jesus would have a problem with this, too. Would not this type of negative, confrontive, judgmental “gnat-picking” have an ultimately adverse effect on the new believers in your church and on the nonbelievers you are wanting to reach?
Here is a final story. A few years ago I was teaching a ministry-related course for older, nonresidential students who were returning to college to earn a degree. One evening a student, who was a member of his denomination’s board of directors, related a story of a recent leadership crisis in one of the denomination’s churches.
The pastor of this church had come under ecclesiastical discipline. Not responding appropriately to the denomination’s prescribed process toward rehabilitation, he had been suspended from his ministerial duties. When the official board convened a special congregational meeting in the pastor’s church to explain this action, they were greeted by a group of hostile church members who “wanted their pastor back.”
As the denominational official sent to preside over the meeting attempted to address the congregation, a female church member grabbed a microphone near the piano and began to sing a worship chorus containing the prayer, “Lord, bring us back to Your holy place.”
Unable to be heard over the singing, the denominational official addressed her, politely asking her to refrain so he could speak. She responded by screaming into the microphone, “We don’t have to listen to any of your [expletive].” Then, without pausing, she returned to her singing: “Lord, bring us back to Your holy place.”
Again, I think Jesus would have a problem with this type of super-spiritual, hypocritical behavior.
Hopefully, the personal examples presented here are sufficient to make the case that, sadly, it is possible for contemporary Christians to adopt a fear-based, rules-oriented approach to the pursuit of sanctification that, because it is so very similar to the one employed by the ancient Pharisees, not only fails to be truly transformative, it actually breaks the heart of God.
There is an elephant in the room evangelicals and Pentecostals need to deal with. If we are not careful, our approach to the pursuit of holiness can, like that of the ancient Pharisees, focus too much on external rather than internal issues, be driven more by our fear of God than our love for Him, focus too much on vices we need to avoid rather than virtues we need to acquire, mandate that we separate ourselves from those to whom Jesus would have us reveal His love, and serve to push people away from the church rather than draw them toward it. This is a crucially important ecclesiastical issue.
I am convinced that the presence of Pharisaism in many evangelical and Pentecostal churches is hindering their ability to be missionally effective in an increasingly post-Christian world. May God help us become the kind of Christian leaders who are both able and willing to help our parishioners avoid the lure of a Pharisaic pseudo-holiness.
1. For a more thorough discussion of the root cause of Pharisaism and its idolatrous implications, see my book Defeating Pharisaism: Recovering Jesus’ Disciple-Making Method (Colorado Springs: Paternoster Publishing, 2009), 68–75.
2. Kathleen Kern, We Are the Pharisees (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1995), 59–76.
3. Tom Hovestol, Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 47–176.
4. Tyra, 32–34.
5. W.D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966), 86.