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Are you a Pharisee?

Arrogance is the ultimate blind spot.

. . . I’ve noticed something strange about this sin that God hates most. It’s usually found among people who think they love God most.

Spiritual arrogance is not a back-of-the-line sin; it’s a front-of-the-line sin.
LARRY OSBORNE, Accidental Pharisees


No one wants to be called a Pharisee. It’s a label for holier-than-thou’s, for hypocrites, for legalists. (But do be aware of its fuller meaning.)

So while we don’t intentionally set out to be a Pharisee, how can we avoid becoming one?

Here are 6 pitfalls found in Larry Osborne’s book Accidental Pharisees. Look for what applies to YOU (not someone else you know). 

1. Pride
When comparison becomes arrogance

Do you have a personal list of “Thank God I’m not like them!”? Do you think your interpretations are the most accurate ones? Do you get frustrated with those who don’t know as much as you know? Do you brag about your church for something other than Jesus?

As valuable as biblical knowledge is, I think it should come with a warning label. The fact is, the more we know, the more we’re tempted to look down on people who don’t know what we know.

. . . When we use the Bible as a prop, every issue and doctrinal disagreement becomes a flash point, an opportunity to show off our superior knowledge and understanding, a way to set us apart.

We forget that the entrance exam to heaven is a blood test, not a Scantron.

We forget that pride and a lack of love nullifies our knowledge, even if it’s a full and complete understanding of all the mysteries in the Bible.

2. Exclusivity
When thinning the herd becomes more important than expanding the kingdom

Do you think the bar of Christianity needs to be raised to keep the riffraff out?  Have you ever used the NIMBY rationale to keep people out (not in MY back yard!)?

While Jesus did draw some lines in the sand, he magnificently broadened the circle to include those once left out.

Jesus didn’t come to thin the herd. He didn’t come to recruit “special ops” Christians.

His goal was to expand the kingdom, to bring salvation to people who previously were excluded. He came to seek and find the lost, including a large group of folks no one else wanted to invite to the party.

Everything about Jesus’ ministry was designed to make salvation and the knowledge of God more accessible. It started with his incarnation.

3. Legalism
When sacrifice crowds out mercy

Do you have a litmus test to be passed for inclusion into your church? Afraid to preach too much grace for fear of it being abused? Destroy others’ freedom by your personal restrictions?

I remember once asking my pastor why we had so many extra fences that weren’t in the Bible. He told me they were for our safety. Apparently, God’s fences weren’t good enough. So we added some extra ones to help him out.

. . . One thing that makes legalism so dangerous is that it always flows out of the best of intentions. Legalists never see themselves as legalists. They see themselves as obedient. They never think of their extrabiblical rules as extrabiblical. They consider them to be profoundly biblical, the careful application of all that the Bible implies.

. . . If we’ve meticulously researched an issue, thought deeply about it, prayed about it, and believe God has revealed something to us, most of us assume that everyone else who is led of the Spirit and intellectually honest with the text will come to the same conclusion. We can’t imagine God being pleased with two opposing applications of one Scripture. Yet as shocking as it may be to some of us, one Scripture can have two opposing applications.

4. Idolizing the past
When idealism distorts reality

Do you idolize the New Testament church (or your church’s past) as the good old days? Think sins today are worse than in times past? Decided “the way it’s always been done” is always good enough?

Look to the past to learn from it and gain perspective, but not to romanticize it nor to be angry about it.

God has always drawn straight lines with crooked sticks. Abraham was a liar, Moses a murderer, David an adulterer, and Peter a denier.

But a strange thing happens with the passage of time.

The farther removed we get from the stick, the more likely we are to credit the stick (rather than the divine artist) as the reason for the straight line.

5. The quest for uniformity
How uniformity destroys unity

Do you confuse unity with uniformity? How big is your list of things worth fighting over? How diverse is your church family (consider more than just race or economic status)?

Jesus loves us in our differences, not despite them. As his believers, he’s made us one; we don’t have to push to make it so. It already is.

We become accidental Pharisees when we lay down boundary markers that are narrower than the ones laid down by Jesus and then treat people who line up on the wrong side of our markers as if they were spiritual imposters or enemies of the Lord.

Our goal may be to protect the flock.

But boundary markers that are narrower than the ones Jesus laid down don’t protect the flock; they divide the flock.

They sow discord among brothers, something God says he’s not too fond of. They also result in a rash of friendly fire.

6. Gift projection
When my calling becomes everyone else’s calling

Do you think others should do the same things you do? Do you value some gifts or callings higher than others? Do you envy somebody else’s gifts?

If you’re hardwired for adventure and risk taking, don’t play it safe. That’s not how God made you.

But don’t judge the spirituality of others through the lens of God’s calling on your life.

Despite what you may think, you’re not living on the ragged edge because you have greater faith. You live there because God wired you for risk and adventure.

If you’re the type who’s scared to death by risk, don’t sweat it. There’s no reason to feel guilty because you don’t want to go stop sex trafficking in Bangkok, wade your way through the Amazon jungle, or spend your summer digging wells in Africa.

Stick with what you’ve been called to do. If God wants you to take a risk, he’ll give you the will and the power to pull it off. He promised. And he won’t need any drive-by guiltings to get his message across.

Unfortunately, I relate to several of these. You probably do too. Sometimes we grow slowly out of our blind spots. But with increased vision of our own self-righteous motives, we can pray for greater focus on Jesus. After all,

Our hope is not in what we do for God. Our hope is in what God has done for us.

That’s the gospel. That’s discipleship in a nutshell.

And that’s what keeps people like you and me from becoming accidental Pharisees.

* * *

Is it easier for you to see traits of Pharisees in yourself or in others?

Which areas hit closest to home with you?




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