October 19, 2017

Pharisees and Fundamentalists

Layton Talbert

What is the difference between a Fundamentalist and a Pharisee? The two are implicit synonyms in many minds, as it has become increasingly popular to equate modern Fundamentalism with ancient Pharisaism. It is a serious charge—too serious to be lightly dismissed. Oversensitivity to criticism is a mark of immaturity and insecurity. Likewise, an unwillingness for sober self-examination is a mark of arrogance; it betrays a forgetfulness that we are, at our best, sinners.

The charge of Pharisaism generally focuses on one or more of these areas: (1) separatism, (2) legalism, (3) self-righteousness, or (4) hypocrisy. We do ourselves and the cause of Fundamentalism a disservice not to investigate the charge and, in the process, our own hearts.

Are Fundamentalists Pharisees? Sometimes, yes. Is Fundamentalism the modern equivalent of Pharisaism? No one who understands both historical Pharisaism and modern Fundamentalism can accurately make that assertion without, ironically, betraying his own Pharisaical tendencies. Pharisaism is an equal-opportunity vice. New Evangelicals and even liberals are hardly immune to it. First, however, it will be helpful to define the terms more closely—and accurately.

Like Puritanism, “Pharisaism” has been carefully crafted by critics to conjure up certain negative images that are not always grounded in historical accuracy. A “puritan” (as the term is popularly misused) is a dull, austere, straight-laced, severe, narrow-minded, arrogant prude. Any honest student of history knows this is a grossly inaccurate caricature of historical Puritans.

“Pharisee” has become a synonym for a self-righteous, censorious hypocrite. Much of that association comes from their behavior in the Gospels. But they were not always that way, nor were all of them that way. A look at the historical Pharisees yields some surprising discoveries. It is a matter of historical record that Pharisaism had noble and godly roots reaching back into the intertestamental period. They were not always as they appear in the Gospels.

The Pharisees’ Problems

Fundamentalists are called Pharisees for their separatist stance. (“Pharisee” means one who was “separated.”) But did you know that Jesus never criticized Pharisees for their separatism? What He criticized was their self-righteous attitude of superiority in their separatism. To whatever degree we possess a self-righteous contempt for others (whether sinners or compromising believers), to that degree we become, in fact, Pharisees.

Fundamentalists are also called Pharisees for their insistence on a careful observance of the words and demands and standards of Scripture. This is usually described by critics as “legalism” or “obscurantism.” But did you know that Jesus never criticized the Pharisees for their scrupulous attention to the details of the law? Even in His rebuke he said, “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23). What He condemned was the hypocrisy and externalism of their observance. If we are honest with ourselves, it is easier to fall into this trap than we would care to admit. To whatever degree our observance of the Scripture is hypocritical and externalistic, to that degree we become, in fact, Pharisees.

A brief survey of the infamous Woes pronounced by Jesus on the Pharisees in Matthew 23 reveals that hypocrisy can take many different forms: a double standard (23:3–4); ostentation (23:5); self-promotion (23:6–7); pretension (23:14); skewed values (23:16–22); misplaced priorities (23:23–24); and externalism (23:25–28). In a bitterly ironical twist, they professed veneration for the very prophets their own fathers had slain, adorning their tombs and insisting that they would have obeyed the prophets—all the while plotting to do the very same thing to this Prophet, their Messiah (23:29–31). As J. C. Ryle bluntly observed, “they liked dead saints better than living ones.” We can easily be guilty of a similar inconsistency. To the degree that our personal standards and practices are laced with any of these forms of hypocrisy, to that degree we become Pharisees.

Pharisees and Tradition

A major flaw in Pharisaism was the exaltation of the “Moral Law”—that is, the traditional interpretations and applications passed down from previous generations of rabbis and scribes. The Pharisees insisted that these traditional interpretations and applications of the law—which were originally intended to help make the law more practical and understandable for people—were of equal authority to the written law itself. To disobey the human applications and explanations and traditions that grew up around the law was to disobey God’s law itself.

It is important to note that the original intent of these “additions” was good and noble. The Pharisees’ goal was not to make the law burdensome, but to explain and interpret the ancient law in such a way as to make it immediately applicable and practicable for the average Jew. The problem came when the Pharisees insisted that all their specific cultural applications and traditional interpretations carried the same weight of authority as the written law of God. That is what made the law burdensome.

Jesus confronted this very error in Matthew 15:1–9. The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples ate without observing the ceremonial washings prescribed by their traditions. (In Luke 11:38 they directed the same criticism at Jesus personally.) Jesus answered by asking why they undermined the commandments of God by their traditions. The example He cited indicated that they would have no problem with a man who defrauded his needy parents by claiming that his goods were devoted to God and hence not available to meet their need. By their traditional interpretation and application of vows and things devoted to God, they undermined the law of God Himself regarding one’s obligation to honor his parents. In the parallel passage (Mark 7:1–13), Jesus adds, “And many such like things do ye.”

For what, specifically, does Christ fault them? For observing tradition or holding it to be important? No. Did He condemn them for their observance of the washing ritual? He did not. His rebuke is twofold: (1) allowing tradition alone to prejudice one’s view and attitude toward others (hence the Pharisees’ prejudice against Jesus’ disciples), and (2) affirming or defending a tradition in any way that undermines or contradicts a text. But remember, Pharisaism did not start out this way! An originally genuine and scrupulous attention to the Scriptures developed these tendencies over decades. The careful attention to the Scripture was not at fault, but the unchecked tendencies of fallen human nature. A key component and crucial flaw of later Pharisaism (as it appears in the Gospels) was the exaltation of Tradition at the expense, or even contradiction, of Text. How can we be guilty of such offenses?

Modern Examples of Pharisaism

Imagine a teenager living in a single-parent home in need of his financial help. (I became a Christian under such a circumstance.) He has a job, but in his zeal this teen decides he needs to devote half of his money to the church and save the other half for Christian college. He may have made a vow to this effect, or even been counseled by someone in the church that he ought to do this as a display of faith and devotion to the Lord. But if, in the process, he is neglecting the needs of his own household, he is not displaying faith—he’s denying it (1 Tim. 5:8). By inordinately exalting a personal application of one text he has undercut another explicit text (1 Tim. 5:4, as well as the same one Jesus cited from the Decalogue).

Here’s another teenager. (Something about teens aptly illustrates the essential spiritual immaturity of Pharisaism.) This teen is newly converted. He hears exhortations from the pulpit and others that God’s people are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together (Heb. 10:25). This means, he is told dogmatically, that if the church doors are open, he ought to be there—Sunday school, Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, youth activities. Now suppose this teen’s parents are not too happy with this new-found enthusiasm. As unbelievers, they are already inherently antagonistic; but they especially resent this new time-consuming “interest” and decide to limit him to Sunday morning services. Dad wants him home with the family Sunday night and Wednesday night. What’s he to do? Fellowship is important, right? Even a matter of obedience, right? Suppose he asks his pastor what he should do, and the pastor (this ought to make us cringe) says, “Son, you’ve got to make a choice. God says not to forsake the assembling of the believers. Are you going to obey God or man?”

What a horrible predicament to put a young person in! But what an example of the very characteristic of Pharisaism Jesus condemned. Look carefully. Does Hebrews 10:25 say anything about Sunday school, Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, or youth activities? Would it be right for the preacher to insist on “whenever the doors are open” and, on the basis of a specific, cultural, traditional application of a text, force that teen to make a choice that will actually cause him to break the fifth commandment of God and, in the process, present a poor testimony to his unsaved parents? Or would it be right for the teen to hide behind the exhortation of Hebrews 10 as an excuse for breaking the command of Exodus 20? There is a way to fulfill both. But when we insist on following an application of one text at the expense of disobeying the clear statement of another, we begin to look uncomfortably like Pharisees. (Do not misunderstand; a voluntary choice to absent yourself from services for selfish reasons is, by definition, “forsaking the assembling of yourselves together.”)

An excessive application of separation to the point of isolation and insulation from the unbelievers around you can undermine your obedience to be salt and light and a witness. Or applying separation to the point of ignoring a compromised brother in genuine need can contradict Christ’s explicit command to believers to love one another. (That is why Paul reminds us that even a disobedient brother is still a brother, not an enemy.)

We can become Pharisaic (in any of its manifestations: externalism, hypocrisy, ostentation, self-righteousness, misplaced emphases, or skewed values), emphasizing Tradition over Text, about issues relating to personal practices such as daily devotions, dress or hair standards, Christmas or Easter observance. We can become Pharisaic, emphasizing Tradition over Text, about doctrinal or positional matters such as the version debate, church polity, denominational names, details of eschatology, or traditional dispensational distinctives. The point is not whether the positions themselves are right or wrong. Pharisaism is less about specific positions than it is about the manner or spirit with which one holds those positions. It is entirely possible—indeed, Biblically incumbent— to maintain our genuinely held convictions in a firm but charitable way, not allowing our applications to prejudice our view and attitude toward others, and not affirming or defending a tradition in any way that undermines or contradicts a text.

Keys to Avoiding Pharisaism

It is a sadly ironic outgrowth of our own depravity that the very things we mean to be expressions of our devotion and dedication to the Lord—no matter how sincerely held—can become idols and distractions. That is not because those tokens or standards are wrong; it is because of the deceitfulness of our own hearts and our susceptibility to impure motives, external focus, and imbalance in emphasis. Our souls, if not carefully tended, are subject to a spiritual second law of thermodynamics.

Here are some keys for avoiding an encroaching Pharisaism:

  • Maintain a tough Biblical evaluation of yourself and your motives in all things.
  • Maintain a charitable Biblical evaluation of others and their motives.
  • Guard against a self-righteous attitude and a hypocritical observance.
  • Guard against a preoccupation with externals over or at the expense of internals.
  • Maintain the distinction between applications/ interpretations and the changeless truth upon which they are based, that is, between Tradition and Text.

The manner and spirit in which you hold a position— especially a traditional application—is just as important as the position itself. It is worth pondering whether we would react with surprise at some of the things Jesus or His disciples might do today that might contradict our own traditions or applications. Before you answer with too much self-assurance, remember that Jesus surprised and, on occasion, scandalized not only the unbelieving religious leaders of His day, but genuine seekers such as Nicodemus, great believers such as John the Baptist, and even his own disciples and followers. Are there areas where He would point out our contradiction of Scripture by our traditions or positions? The narratives of the Bible testify repeatedly that God can overlook a lot of external flaws (He has to in all of us) if He has someone’s heart. But it is difficult, even for God, to use someone with all the right positions who has a Pharisee’s heart. We do not have to choose between the two.

Charles Pfeiffer accurately assesses the peril of Pharisaism:

The degeneracy of Pharisaism serves as a warning to those who take a stand for separation from evil. … Pharisaism began well, and its perversion is a constant reminder that self-complacency and spiritual pride are temptations to which the pious are particularly susceptible.

May God help us not to forsake our pursuit of purity, but to remember that purity is first and foremost an inward virtue. Virtue that is only external becomes the vice of Pharisaism.


Dr. Layton Talbert is a Frontline Contributing Editor and teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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