No one sets out to be a Pharisee, well, almost no one. There was a time before and during the life of Christ where a certain group of religious leaders were actually called Pharisees—and they were proud of it. They thought they were doing God and all His people a spiritual service by making all kinds of extra biblical rules. They were making laws for God’s laws and they believed God loved them all the more because of it. They were zealous about their faith.
Fast forward to today. Being a Pharisee is not cool. One kind of wanders if it ever really was, but to the self-identified Pharisees it was for sure. Though we would never proudly identify ourselves as Pharisees, we can all be one at some time or another over one thing or another. This is what Larry Osborne calls being an “accidental Pharisee.” In his new book Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith, Osborne goes right for the gut in all of us. In a Carl Trueman sort of way, he goes after everyone for becoming Pharisees. Simply put, in a zealous attempt to live more scripturally, we judge everyone else’s faith according to ours and become the very thing no one wants to be—a Pharisee. But we did it accidentally. Osborne identifies “accidental Pharisees” as:
People like you and me who, despite the best of intentions and a desire to honor God, unwittingly end up pursuing an overzealous model of faith that sabotages the work of the Lord we think we’re serving. (p. 17)
Sound familiar? Maybe it describes someone you know and maybe it describes you. Truth be told, we can all become Pharisees, accidentally of course. You know who they are. The person who comes home from camp high on Jesus. The person who just led someone to Christ. The college freshman Bible studies major who comes back to his home church for summer break with all their new found knowledge seeking to solve the church’s problems. Even the bookworm Christian who just read the latest book everyone is talking about, and they are dead set on changing their entire Christian life in order to do what this or that book has taught them. We’ve seen them and we’ve probably been them at one time or another. Lest we think we are immune to this trap Osborne reminds us that:
As long as my only image of a Pharisee is that of a spiritual loser and a perennial enemy of Jesus, I’ll never recognize the clear and present danger in my own life. I’ll never realize that its often a very short and subtle journey from being zealous for God to being unintentionally opposed to God. (p. 27)
Seven steps to being an “accidental Pharisee”
Through seven steps, Osborne walks us through the many ways in which a person can become the Pharisee no one wants to be. As with many sins it begins with pride. In this regard, we compare our zealous Christian life to that of others and judge them as lesser Christians, because they do not measure up to where we are. Once we have justified our comparison toward other Christians of lower spiritual status, we begin to exclude them from our lives and God’s grace. This exclusion leads to legalism. Of course we don’t intend to become legalists because they have such a bad reputation. But then again, we do so accidentally. Then, as our new found zealous Christian life travels on we begin to look to the past and worship it. We all do this with high school and college memories but its very dangerous with our spiritual lives. Akin to legalism is our desire for uniformity among Christians within our Christian lives and every aspect of our doctrinal beliefs. Finally, for those whose gifts might lead them to be studying Scripture more than most Christians, be it a teacher, pastor or missionary, we can tend to project our gifts onto others and expect the same from them. We can have the gift of evangelism and expect everyone else to be like us. We can have the gift of teaching and expect everyone else to study Scripture as much as we do, and know as much of it as we do.
Excerpts from Accidental Pharisees
As I stated earlier, Osborne sounds a bit like Carl Trueman in this book as he goes after some of the current trends in contemporary evangelicalism and the desire to live zealously for God. Here are some examples from the book to give you an idea of his style:
If you spend more time than most thinking deeply about theology, read books written by dead guys, and do your Bible study in the original Greek and Hebrew, you’ll be sorely tempted to look down on those who think the last book in the Bible is called Revelations, and on those who think the last book in the Old Testament was written by an Italian prophet named Ma-la-chi. (p. 48)
The same goes if you identify yourself as Spirit-led, missional, incarnational, gospel-centered, or some other current Christian buzzword. You’ll find it hard not to look down on those who don’t even know there’s a buzzword to conform to. (p. 48)
We’ve coined words like radical, crazy, missional, gospel-centered, revolutionary, organic, and a host of other buzzwords to let everyone know that our tribe is far more biblical, committed, and pleasing to the Lord than the deluded masses who fail to match up. (p. 90)
I’m concerned that the new boundary markers and litmus tests of today are not leading us back to New Testament Christianity; they’re leading us back to New Testament Phariseeism. They’re simply the newest iteration of old-school legalism. (p. 91)
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. Bur boundary markers that are narrower than the ones Jesus laid down don’t protect the flock; they divide the flock. (p. 142-43)
Now reading some of this may jar you back in your seat and make you think Osborne is just not spiritual. After all, how are so many of the things he goes after not Scriptural or not worth pursuing? Some of you may need to read sections of this book, a few times over several days, to really let what is being said sink in. To be honest, I was initially a bit put off by some of the things said, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. Osborne is not saying being missional or gospel-centered is unbiblical, but we must be careful to not look down on those who have not incorporated what is biblical into their thinking, Christian or church life. All these things have Biblical truth to them but none of them has it all on their own.
Accidental Pharisees will put you in your place, take your excuses away, make you dump your pride and have you on your knees repenting of it before God. This is a book anyone can benefit from. For those who see themselves looking into a mirror, to those who are not there yet. Get the book and then get a copy for your overzealous Christian friend. I had a few quibbles with how Osborne interpreted some texts and he could have incorporated more of the NT than mostly the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus. Overall, however, the point of the book is sound.
Craig Hurst received his BA in Church Ministries from Clearwater Christian College and is pursuing the MA in theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He currently lives outside of Grand Rapids, MI and attends Grace Community Church, where he serves as a volunteer youth worker (along with his wife), and teaches some elective classes. He blogs at Theology for the Road.