Have you ever had to deal with modern day Pharisees?
Today we’re going to talk about a kind of heavy duty topic. How to deal with modern day Pharisees.
This has become a problem in some churches, where someone in a church’s leadership becomes dictatorial, self-righteous, legalistic, and does everything to stay in control.
And the funny thing about Pharisees, they never think they are Pharisees.
I’ve seen that in observing others, but it’s also true about me. Here’s what happened.
When I got really serious about my faith in high school, I jumped in with both feet. I started studying the Bible more than I ever had. I started going to a different church than the one I grew up in. Now, I went to church because I wanted to, not just because my parents took me or because I thought I was supposed to.
At first, I pretty much put everyone at this new church on a pedestal and thought they had all their problems worked out and were all deeply dedicated to following Jesus, even more so than I was.
But after several months I started to realize no one was perfect. That really should not be a surprise. Everyone still had some issues. And some of them, in my not so humble opinion, had more things to work out than others.
I was on fire with the enthusiasm and idealism of youth and I was blinded by my own pride, although I wouldn’t have called pride at the time. I actually thought I was being humble.
I was a little Pharisee in training
I had a sincere and earnest desire to learn more about the Bible and live it in my life. I asked tons of questions because I wanted to understand. I wanted to “do everything the right way.” It all seemed so simple, just follow the rules, go by the book. Do what Jesus said to do. Don’t do what the world says is okay to do. Everything was black and white.
But somewhere, hidden under my genuine desire to obey God and follow Jesus, I was basically a little Pharisee in training. Not in a malicious way, and I didn’t even realize it, but I slowly started to be a bit judgmental of people who were not living up to the high ideals Jesus had set. As if I were!
And there was a point where I became a self-appointed theology police force. If someone said something that was even just a tiny bit off of what I felt was correct teaching, I would often point it out, like it was my job to correct everyone. Let me just say, that is not the best way to have a positive influence on people.
Over many years, God gently, and sometimes forcefully, rebuked my self-righteousness and judgmental tendencies. And I’ll share one of those in a few minutes.
Frankly, I still have to watch my inner thoughts to make sure I’m not doing the same thing today. God has been incredibly gracious to me in the way He has led me to be more loving and supportive of people instead of judgmental.
There have been several times in my life when I could have easily gone down the path of becoming a full-fledged, modern day Pharisee. I am deeply grateful for how God guided me at these crossroads in my life. I have much more compassion for people at church, and people in general, than I used to.
Lots of modern day Pharisees
But unfortunately, there are plenty of modern day Pharisees, who don’t know they are, and who have not been aware of or responded to God’s correcting love.
In just a bit I’m going to talk about how to deal with people like this in the church today, but first, I think it’s important to understand what we’re actually dealing with.
So what do I mean by modern day Pharisees?
I use the term as a metaphor for people who have a similar attitude to many, but not all, of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. They were earnest in their approach to their religion, but because they were in a position of power, many of them became self-righteous and judgmental.
They focused on maintaining their place of religious and social authority over the people they ministered to. They were interested in giving the appearance of being holy and righteous, praying and fasting in public view, going through all the outward motions of prayer and piety, but on the inside, they were often far from righteous.
Jesus was pretty tough on the Pharisees of his day. He often exposed their hypocrisy and contradictory behavior. To get the full power of his rebuke of their attitudes and practices, just read chapter 23 of Matthew. He calls them hypocrites (Matthew 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), blind guides and blind fools (Matthew 23:16, 17), and snakes and vipers (Matthew 23:33).
Pharisees want to hold onto power
Pharisee-ism today, often occurs when someone is in a church leadership role.
What may start out as sense of love and duty to serve a church membership, can turn into the desire to be in control of church policy and doctrine.
A modern day Pharisee, just as their counterparts 2,000 years ago, wants to stay in power. And I think that’s the heart of it, wanting to hold onto power, regulating everyone and everything.
They get legalistic and dictatorial. But all that usually gets covered up, either consciously or unconsciously, by the façade of being faithful to Scripture (their version of it, anyway), even though they don’t always follow the guidance of Scripture themselves.
Pharisee-ism turns up in lots of different ways, and it’s not always just with church leadership. It’s more of an attitude.
If you’ve ever had to deal with someone like this at church, you know it’s not pleasant. You feel judged and misunderstood. Your motives are misrepresented. Sometimes you’re even accused of the very thing the Pharisees are doing, but they project it onto you. If you speak up, it usually makes it worse.
So how do we deal with these modern day Pharisees?
There are four basic approaches, with variations and combinations.
You can just let them get away with it and not say or do anything about it. But the result of that approach usually leaves you feeling burdened, more stressed out, and somehow believing maybe you’re the problem.
You can react, be offended, and try to solve the problem with your human ego. But one human ego combating another human ego never brings healing to the situation.
And of course you can just leave the church you’re in. And sometimes that might actually be the best temporary solution. But in the long run, it doesn’t really solve or heal the problem. You haven’t really dealt with it.
There were times when Jesus walked away from an angry crowd or left the Pharisees right in the middle of them arguing with him.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. Matthew 16:1-4 NIV
Jesus knew there was no point in arguing with them.
Walking away may have ended the conversation, but it did not get rid of the Pharisee’s attitude.
Sermon on the Mount has the answers
The best long-term approach is to follow Jesus’s example and the guidance he gives in the Sermon on the Mount.
It’s not the easiest advice to follow, but it brings healing to the situation. It may not change the Pharisee, but it frees you from their influence and gives you peace of mind.
There are several aspects to this.
You probably already know what the first one is I’m going to talk about, so I’ll just jump right in.
That’s right, Jesus said
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Matthew 5:44 NIV
Can you get to a place in your heart where you actually love the Pharisees in your life? That can seem almost impossible at times. Obviously that doesn’t mean to love their attitudes and behavior. But to love them as a child of God.
And what about praying for them? Not in a self-righteous way, but in a humble Dear-God-please-open-their-hearts-and-eyes-to know-You-better sort of a way?
And of course there’s forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus empowers us to forgive anyone who has harmed us, with that phrase we say all the time:
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:12 NIV
Have you, can you, will you forgive them? True forgiveness always brings healing.
Rebuking modern day Pharisees
Sometimes, as I mentioned in Matthew, Chapter 23, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, or rather their hypocrisy. He exposes their attitude for what it is, a blatant lack of love for God and mankind.
I would caution you to be very prayerful about taking this approach and openly or even privately rebuking the Pharisees in this way. Jesus’s motives were pure. His desire was actually to help the Pharisees see the error of their ways and hopefully turn from their self-righteousness to repentance.
You and I could say the exact same words Jesus did, but if they are said with anger, retaliation, resentment, or self-justification, it’ll just make the problem worse.
There can certainly be a time and place to personally rebuke a Pharisee, but there is no formula of what to say, when or how to say it. This approach can only bring healing if God, and not your own ego, directs you and puts the words in your mouth.
When I got rebuked
I can speak from personal experience that this approach can bring healing. In this case I was on the receiving end of the rebuke.
Not too long after I was out of college, there was a position I really wanted in the church I was attending and was told that I would get it. Apparently it went to my head and I started acting a little too big for my britches. If you’re not familiar with that saying, it means I was acting as if I was more important that I was, like I already had the position.
Someone from church took me aside and gave me one of the sternest rebukes I’ve ever had. I was told I would not get the position after all because of my self-righteous attitude, acting like I was in charge when I was not, and thinking I was better than everyone else.
I must say in all honesty, I did not feel those accusations were accurate or just at the time.
I left that conversation pretty upset, and felt completely misunderstood, but the more I prayed about it, the more I realized there was some truth to the accusations against me. It was a very humbling time. I realized there were some Pharisee attitudes in me that needed to be corrected.
I know this fellow church member was motivated by love. He wanted what was best, not just for the church as a whole, but for me as well. He cared deeply about my well-being, even though he had to be very firm with me.
The difference in this case is that I was not in a position of authority. But I was acting like I was. And it’s probably a good thing. I wasn’t ready for a position of leadership with my attitude at the time.
Talking to the Pharisees
If you ever have to confront directly a Pharisee type of a person, and it’s not always just at church, by the way, remember that the most important thing is to let God fill you heart with love instead of condemnation.
You just might make all the difference in in someone’s life, like the fellow at church did for me.
But if you rebuke the Pharisees openly, they may get defensive and fill up with self-justification. Or they may not even listen because they think they’re in charge and you have no right or authority to talk to them like that.
If that’s the case, put on your spiritual seat belt. Don’t be surprised if they turn things back on you and accuse you of the very things they are doing wrong.
So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 1 John 3:13 NLT
That’s what’s really going on. The darkness hates the light. Jesus put it this way:
Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. John 15:20 NIV
It’s the nature of a Pharisee to persecute those whose words and lives shine the light of Christ on their darkness. Be aware of this and don’t be caught off guard.
It’s easy for me to say this sitting here in front of my microphone, but try not to take it personally. When a Pharisee’s attitude has been exposed, that’s a lot for someone to deal with. And they’re just reacting to that exposure.
Let them know you have come in the spirit of brotherly or sisterly love and not condemnation.
The Matthew Code
And this may be an opportunity to take to heart Jesus’s advice on how to deal with church discipline.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ [Deuteronomy 19:15]. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17 NIV
This can be more difficult to do when you’re talking to a church leader, but Jesus has given us this guidance for a reason. The reason people don’t want to follow these instructions is usually because they’re afraid of how it will affect their status in church.
It’s something that needs to be earnestly prayed about. Even with this guidance from Jesus, we need to let God direct all our actions and words in the process.
Speak truth to power with love
You can speak truth to power. Then hold your ground. And always do it with love.
No one wants to think of themselves as a Pharisee. It’s always easier to see this tendency in someone else than in ourselves.
We need to take a humble and honest look at our own heart. Is there even an inkling of self-righteousness or self-justification in our thoughts?
You may not have this problem in your life. And if that’s the case I hope you appreciate what a blessing that is.
You can certainly pray about this, because there are plenty of Pharisees out there.
If you’ve had an experience with Pharisees (or realized you were one like I did), I would love to hear what has been helpful in dealing with this attitude and how you’ve prayed about it.
Are there modern day Pharisees in your life?
Now, if you are currently struggling with a Pharisee in your life, you may be thinking, “James, why should I forgive and love the Pharisees? They are making my life miserable.”
You really have to find your own answer to this question. But what has encouraged me is Jesus’s counsel to love and forgive. When I have done this, it has given me the freedom and peace of mind to get on with my life and not let the Pharisees have any more influence over me.
And I’ve realized when I follow Jesus’s advice, it’s one way I can show how much I love him. He said,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. John 14:15 ESV
Jesus set the supreme example of forgiveness toward the Pharisees, among others, in those often-quoted words he uttered from the cross,
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34 NLT
Jesus was following his own teaching even at this crucial moment. He knew he could not hold onto even a hint of an unforgiving heart if he was to be victorious over death and walk out of the tomb.
Forgiveness and love
When you love and forgive the Pharisees, you will experience to some degree, the spirit of Jesus’s resurrection in your life. You’ll find freedom from the negative influences of the Pharisees. God will guide you in the best way to deal with them.
You won’t be afraid of them or intimidated by Pharisees. You’ll be receptive to and experience more of God’s love in your life. Your life will be a blessing to those around you. And even the Pharisees, though they might not be aware of or want to admit it, will be blessed as well.
Photo credit: Free Bible Images
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Bible References in this episode:
Matthew 23:13 NIV
13 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
Matthew 23:16, 17 NIV
16 Woe to you, blind guides!
17 You blind fools!
Matthew 23:33 NIV
33 You snakes! You brood of vipers!
Matthew 16:1-4 NIV
1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
2 He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’
3 and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
Matthew 5:44 NIV
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Matthew 6:12 NIV
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
1 John 3:13 NLT
13 So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.
John 15:20 NIV
20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.
Matthew 18:15-17 NIV
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.
16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ [Deuteronomy 19:15]’
17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
John 14:15 ESV
15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Luke 23:34 NLT
34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”