Book Review - Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith

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.

“Accidental Pharisees”

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.

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There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Looks to me like another misreading of the Pharisees. It's ironic to me that vocal champions of gospel-centeredness don't put the gospel at the center of Phariseeism. That is, they miss the fact that the Pharisees were unbelievers. They rejected the gospel. They were unregenerate.

overzealous model of faith

The Pharisees were not "overzealous." They were self-serving Christ-rejectors lost in trespasses and sins serving their father the Devil (John 8:44).

It sounds like the book identifies some genuine spiritual problems (who is in favor of pride?), but it's hard to feel much enthusiasm for framing these problems in a highly-selective evaluation of the Pharisees.

G. N. Barkman's picture

It is true that Pharisees were not Christians, but it does not therefore automatically follow that Christians cannot be guilty of the sins of Pharisees.

Pharisees were guilty of pride.  Does becoming a Christian mean we have no more problem with pride?  Pharisees were self-righteous.  Is it impossible for Christians to continue to have a measure of self-righteousness?  We could go on, but that should suffice to establish my premise.

To say that we cannot benefit from examining the sins of Pharisees, and endeavor to identify and root our similar sins within our own hearts is to forfeit a Biblical tool for our sanctification.  To use another illustration, the OT Israelites who perished in the wilderness for their sins were evidently not regenerated.  Their greatest sin was unbelief.  Yet the New Testament holds them up as a warning to Christians.  I have not read the book that launched this discussion, so I cannot comment about its faithfulness to Biblical truth.  But I am certain that Pharisaism is a genuine danger to believers, one that we ought to acknowledge and guard against. 

G. N. Barkman

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks for the review.  I bought the book as a Kindle download because of it.


From my Jewish Roots background, I see Aaron's point.  I think that the term Pharisee and Judgmental Legalist are now used interchangeable.  The Pharisees, though, were a varied group.  The Pharisees in power in Jesus' day were of the School of Shammai, but the competing School of Hillel was a much more compassionate, less legalistic group.  After the Bar Kochba revolt, the School of Shammai all but died out; hence, it modern Judaism is almost entirely descended from the Pharisees, and the School of Hillel in particular.


Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel.  Not how the NT portrays him positively (Acts 5:34-39 ESV)

34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice...

The author is probably using the term "Pharisee" based upon the lopsided perspective held by most Christians.  This is understandable, since the purpose of the NT is not to educate us about the competing views of first century Judaism, except as pertains to Gospel events.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

From my book, The Midrash Key.  The quotation comes from William Varner, who does a good job summarizing a passage of the Talmud.


The Talmud mostly represents the mainstream viewpoints of Bet Hillel. Members of Bet Hillel typically rebuked and confronted fellow Pharisees. Thus Yeshua’s harsh condemnation of the Pharisees should not be understood as unusual: he was embracing the Hillel tradition of calling for reform, repentance, and self-examination, beginning with the most religious.  Christ was not writing off the Pharisees – as might easily be misunderstood from the Gospel accounts. Will Varner summarizes a number of Talmudic passages – written by Pharisees associated with Bet Hillel – that categorize the integrity level of various Pharisees:

(Varner quotatoin below; William C. Varner, Jesus and the Pharisees: A Jewish Perspective,, accessed 11-18-09.)

There is a passage, appearing in slightly different forms in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. This passage sheds light on the self-perception of the Pharisees. This passage describes seven different types of Pharisees. A paraphrase of the difficult Talmudic language describes the following seven: (1) The “shoulder” Pharisee wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them. (2) The “wait a little” Pharisee always found an excuse for putting off a good deed. (3) The “bruised” Pharisee shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and knocked into walls, bruising himself. (4) The “humpbacked” Pharisee always walked bent double, in false humility. (5) The “ever reckoning” Pharisee was always counting up the numbers of his good deeds. (6) The “fearful” Pharisee always quaked in fear of the wrath of God. (7) The “God-loving” Pharisee was a copy of Abraham who lived in faith and charity.

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul J's picture

The thing I find interesting is that where the original intent of what became the downfall of the religious leaders in Jesus' time did start where they ended-up.  The extra-law rules and regulations started with the interpretation of the law and then the creation of parameters to insure compliance. Which I would contend did not start with unbelief but rather was good intentions which evolved to where the religious leaders of Jesus' day who were now so focused on tradition failed to see redemption.  So, if you want to follow that trajectory where do you see the extremes of rules and regulations taking a current version of religious leaders?

Lee's picture

Paul J wrote:

The thing I find interesting is that where the original intent of what became the downfall of the religious leaders in Jesus' time did start where they ended-up.  The extra-law rules and regulations started with the interpretation of the law and then the creation of parameters to insure compliance. Which I would contend did not start with unbelief but rather was good intentions which evolved to where the religious leaders of Jesus' day who were now so focused on tradition failed to see redemption.  So, if you want to follow that trajectory where do you see the extremes of rules and regulations taking a current version of religious leaders?

Emphasis mine.  And I would contend that good intentions had nothing to do with it.  If you want to visit the beginnings of what we see as 1st century Pharasaism then go to the message of God given in Zech. 7-8--"...When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month...did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? Should ye not hear the words which the LORD hath cried by the former prophets...? Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother: ...But they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the LORD of hosts hath sent in his spirit by the former prophets...(7:4-12)"--where the issue is being addressed.  Now that they have returned from exile, idolatry is not going to be their identity, but they continue to reject truth being quite willing to follow law as a substitute for Godly obedience.  That is the root of Pharasaism, and God, through His servant Zechariah, is willing to nip it in the bud, so to speak. 


Paul J's picture

Aaron was talking about their lostness and I was saying that the downward spiral didn't start in lostness but rather good intentions which ultimately resulted in lostness.  So todays version do not have to be lost to be on a path toward pharasaism.  The good works became a game of one-upsmanship to show that I'm a better follower of the law.  I see a similar parallel today.

WBailey's picture

Well, I for one found the book to be right on the mark, and I thank Bob Hayton for posting a review (and the fact that it was on sale for $3 on Kindle :)). It dealt well with the facets of the IFB and IFBxr crowds I came from. And it caused me to write about the issue I had in my own life

Mr Bailey

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