Sunday, October 16, 2011

You're a Pharisaical Legalist!

Is it just me, or is this epithet becoming all too common in evangelical churches? 

I'm writing this in response to a brilliant article posted by Jared Wilson a few weeks ago. I've always felt a mixture of emotion whenever someone pulls out the Pharisee card. Knowing legalism was a sin, I could never quite put my finger on why it rubbed me the wrong way. Jared hits the nail on the head, and I finally feel like I understand my mixed reaction to the charge of "Pharisee" (or it's cousin, "religious person").

As someone who (loosely) identifies with the New Calvinist movement, I enjoy listening to sermons by Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler and others like them, but something about their message always seemed a little "off". Don't get me wrong - these are great men of the faith who have a heart for the gospel, and in no way am I questioning their salvation or downplaying their ministries. But they are often far too quick to point fingers at "religious people" and blame them for all that is wrong with Christianity today. I rarely hear a Matt Chandler sermon where he doesn't stray completely off topic and go on a 10-minute rant against "Bible-belt Christianity", or a Mark Driscoll sermon where "religious people" aren't demonized as the scourge of Christianity. These men are idolized by a millions of young Christians (both in age and maturity) who are trying to break away from the fundamentalism of the 20th century, but I'm afraid they have swung the pendulum too far.

The tag "Pharisee" or "religious person" has now come to be synonymous with any professing Christian who holds more deeply held convictions than yourself. Recipients of this charge are often older people. I readily agree that the Pharisees were an evil, self-righteous group that hated Christ and his message. But if this is true, then calling someone a Pharisee is a very serious charge. And blaming "religious people" for all the problems in the church is just as serious; and more significantly, it sends a mixed message to the unbelieving world. I have no problem identifying myself as a religious person, if by that term you mean I am a devout person of faith, which is what the world understands a religious person to be. I would argue that the term "religious" has been hijacked by those who view Christian liberty as the pinnacle of piety, and consider any convictions on non-essential doctrines to be legalistic.

Jared Wilson is correct: the "religious person" boogeyman is a bullying tactic meant to intentionally offend. Akin to the oft-used "race card", I think it betrays its user's ignorance all too clearly. If there are members of your church who a struggling with self-righteousness and legalism, why is this elevated to the unforgiveable sin?

I have seen this play out in my own church, and, like Jared, I've discovered that the so-called legalists are not as numerous as you might think. I have, however, overheard conversations among younger members of our music ministry who would deliberately choose more upbeat, "rock" renditions of hymns to "scare the old people".

This is not representative of a gospel-centered Christian, and I would argue that the person throwing the "Pharisee" card is more self-righteous than the person they are condeming. Because I couldn't say it any better myself, I will close by quoting Jared Wilson: "If you've got real legalists in your church -- and you do -- the only way to intentionally offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Everything else is just vain posturing and provocation."


  1. I Read a quote years ago, but don't remember who said it, "We hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves." It seems to apply to most accusers.

  2. Hmmm, thought provoking and convicting. Thank you and God Bless.

  3. You're awesome!!!!

  4. Many people - myself included - use this charge lovingly, at least within the context of immediate fellowship and criticism of self. I *am* often a legalist, not content to rest in the liberation of Christ's sacrifice. My friends in fellowship and I are constantly struggling to walk the narrow path between liberty and responsibility; we use these terms to remind one another not to stray too far, and to point out that we should not judge people like this or even the original figures in the Biblical record.

    "Religious person" often means to me "someone who does things to bend God to his will," and I bristle when people call me "religious." I've felt like this is a way of lumping me and my beliefs in with other systems that preach that it is our efforts, and not God's, that bring us salvation.

    Your post, however, has helped me see that not everyone uses these terms like I do. Thanks.

  5. The problem with the Pharisees was not simply that they held strong convictions about right and wrong--even more strict than the Law required. The problem was that they went a step further and imposed their personal morality as a requirement for everyone else.