The Top 10 Things Pharisees Say Today

Leadership //

Chances are if you’re a Christian your desire is to be more like Christ.

Which is great.

But are you?

How would you know?

recent Barna study owned me.

The survey revealed that 51% of North American Christians polled possess attitudes and actions that are more like the Pharisees than they are like Christ.

In other words, the attitudes of most Christians were described as self-righteous and hypocritical.

According to the study, only 14% of Christians survey reflected attitudes and actions that better resembled the attitudes and actions of Christ.

What surprised me (as well as study author David Kinnaman) is how my attitudes and actions still need work….I’m far too much like a Pharisee and not enough like Jesus. I was so bothered by it I taught an entire series about it. And you can watch a conversation David Kinnaman and I had about the research here.

And what breaks my heart is that I think the Pharisee in many of us is killing the mission and effectiveness of the church.

So how do you know how much Pharisee resides within you?

In Defense of the Pharisees (Well, Almost Defense)

Before we jump to that, I understand that in many church circles to simply say the word ‘Pharisee’ is to immediately conjure up an image of a villain.


And yet the Pharisees were to some extent well meaning people. They studied the law and knew it as well as anyone.

Their downfall, among other things, centered on their self-justification and self-importance.

But there’s evidence that some Pharisees were sincerely seeking God. After all, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both Pharisees, arranged for Jesus’ burial. They were sympathetic to Christ and, from what we can tell, ultimately ended up following him.

Similarly, the mission of the early church was radically advanced by a converted Pharisee—Paul.

And yet Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their pride, lack of compassion and hypocrisy.

The, irony of course, is this: the people who purported to love God most ultimately killed him when he showed up.

This isn’t about Jews and Gentiles. It’s about religious people (like you and me) who in the name of God deny who God really is.

Denying God is exactly what we do when our attitudes justify ourselves more than they reflect the heart and love of Christ.

10 Things Pharisees Today Say

So what do today’s Pharisees say? Based in part on the research and in part on my own experience, here are the top 10 things today’s Pharisees say.

A word of caution. As you read them, don’t think about who these phrases remind you of nearly as much as you think about how they reflect your attitude and actions.

If we all do that, we will all be better off and the church will be stronger for it:



1. “If he knew the bible as well as I did, his life would be better.”

Yup, there it is. Judgment and self-righteousness rolled up into a neat little package.

I really really want people to read their bibles. But when I get smug and superior about reading mine, I miss the point.


2. “I follow the rules.”

And if you do, awesome.

But that’s not what got you into Christianity is it? You got in because of the mercy of Christ extended to you when you broke the rules.

Following the rules doesn’t keep you in the love of God any more than it got you into the love of God.

So why follow the rules? Following the rules is a response to the love of God.

And your attitude should be one of gratitude, amazement and humility.


3. “You shouldn’t hang around people like that.”

I get that we have to choose friends for our kids carefully.

But when applied to adults, this mostly stinks.

One of the reasons many churches aren’t growing is because Christians don’t know any non-Christians.

If many of us were preaching the parable about being the salt of the earth today, we’d switch it up and command the salt to stay in its hermetically sealed box and never touch any food.

Of course Jesus said the opposite. Salt needs to get out of the box to season food.

And Jesus paid a price for that among religious people. They couldn’t fathom why he would hang out with tax collectors, hookers and other notorious sinners.

When was the last time you hung out with a hooker?

Convicting, isn’t it? Disturbing, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

4. “God listens to my prayers.”

Prayer is amazing. And we do trust that God listens to our prayers.

But, as we’ve said before in this space, prayer is not a button to be pushed nearly as much as it is a relationship to be pursued.

The smugness and certainty with which many Christians talk about prayer must strike people as weird, weird weird.

The biblical portrait of prayer is as much about broken people embracing the mystery and majesty of a forgiving God as much as it is about anything.

When prayer becomes a predictable formula that manipulates or controls God, you can be pretty sure you’re no longer praying.

5. “Sure I have a few issues, but that’s between me and God.”

And if you keep it between you and God, people will never be able to relate to you.

Perfect on the outside and flawed on the inside—that’s the accusation Jesus levied against the Pharisees.

When people on the outside look at pretend-to-be-perfect Christians it doesn three things:

It alienates them.

It makes them think you’re fake…because even they know we’re all broken.

It suggests God can’t help them.

The antidotes? Transparency. Vulnerability. Honesty.

When you let people know you don’t have it all together but you’ve met an amazing God, many people suddenly want to join in.


6. “They just need to work harder.”

Jesus loved the poor and had compassion on broken people.

Many Christians today don’t.  (Self-righteousness rears its ugly head again.)

Yes, I am very familiar with the passages in scripture that talk about hard work and prudence. I try to live by them.

But when I allow my relative ‘success’ to serve as a basis to judge others…I miss mercy.

Compassion should be a hallmark of Christians. The early church’s compassion in the first few centuries after Jesus resurrection was one of the key reasons the Christian faith spread so rapidly, even amidst extreme persecution.


7. “Of course I’m a Christian.”

Few people are better at explaining the difference between moralistic self-righteous religion and authentic Christianity these days than Tim Keller.

Keller points out again and again in his preaching that religious people say things like “Of course I’m a Christian”…and that underneath is a pernicious idea that they have somehow earned the favour of God by their obedience and faithfulness.

True Christians, he says, by contrast, are filled with wonder, amazement and gratitude that God would accept them despite their brokenness? When asked whether they are Christian, they say things like “I know, isn’t that unbelievable? Can you believe that God would extend his mercy to someone like me through Christ? I am amazed! Grateful! Overwhelmed!”

I love Keller’s heart on this.

By the way, if you want to hear an extraordinary message on the prodigal sons (sic), do yourself a favour and spend 38 minutes listening to this message.


8. “More people need to stand up for Christian values.”

As Christendom slips away in our life time here in the West, we long for what used to be.

But moving forward we will have more in common with our first century counterparts in Christianity than with our 20th century forebears. They lived out their faith in a world that didn’t share their values, but rather than fight their non-Christian counterparts, they laid down their life for them.

While some people might get very angry and demand that we stand up for Christian values, I think the biblical argument runs the other way. As I outline here, maybe one of the best things Christians today can do is let non-Christians off the moral hook.

Christians should live out Christian values deeply and authentically. But why would we hold non-Christians to a standard they don’t believe in anyway? Jesus and Paul never appeared to do this…not even once.


9. “I’m simply more comfortable with people from my church than I am with people who don’t go to church.”

Which is one major reasons why you and your church are incredibly ineffective at reaching unchurched people.

If you want to change that, go to some parties and get to know some people who are far from God.

You will discover that God likes them. And you might discover that you do too.

And people who didn’t used to follow Jesus might even start following Jesus.


10. “People who don’t go to church can come if they want to.”

And Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Too many churches are all about the preferences of its members than the push of the Gospel.

Here are some suggestions on what you can do if you serve in a church where people don’t want your church to change.

Again, please hear me, this is as much a challenge to me as it is to anyone else. There is a Pharisee that lives in me.

If you want to drill down a little further, here are some study questions and a PDF with some more characteristics of Christ-like attitudes and Pharisee-like attitudes you can use.

But before we leave this, can you imagine what would happen if Christian today exuded the love, truth, grace and mercy of Christ?

I think the church would be different.

What attitudes do you need to check in yourself?

What other things have you heard that are impeding the mission of the church?

Leave a comment!






About the Author

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting. Follow Carey on Twitter: http://twitter.com/cnieuwhof