Pharisaism in the Church

James W. Adams
San Augustine, Texas

(Editor's Note: The following article consists of the remarks made by Brother James Adams in a sermon delivered at Allen, Texas January 29, 1973. Allen is near Dallas. Since many in the church are misusing the term "pharisaism " today, Brother Adams' remarks are particularly now needful. He intended that the sermon 'be, published as three articles, but I think to so dissect it would impair its usefulness. Thus, this longer than usual article is now being published for your careful consideration. Brother Foy Vinson had asked Brother Adams to speak upon this subject.-Cecil Willis)

All of my preaching life I have been hearing and using the expressions, Pharisaism and pharisaical, yet is the first time in all these years that I have spoken exclusively upon this subject. My research. in making preparation for this lesson has been enlightening and rewarding. I have been. somewhat shocked to learn that I have often misused, or to say the least, carelessly used these terms in a far too limited sense.

There are only two terms in my subject which need definition; namely, "Pharisaism" and "the . church." According to Webster (Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Second Edition), "Pharisaism" means: "The doctrines, ceremonies, etc. of the Pharisees; hence . a pharisaical attitude, temper or spirit." In assigning me this topic, Brother Vinson had in mind for me to discuss "the pharisaical attitude or spirit." However, it will be necessary for me to discuss the Pharisees, their origin, history, doctrines, and practices in order that I may make clear what actually constitutes a pharisaical attitude, temper, or spirit.

The word, "church," is also found in my subject. Since attitudes belong to individuals, I am confident it is intended that I discuss the pharisaical attitude as it is manifested distributively among the saints. Yet, as God's people distributively manifest a pharisaical attitude, temper, or spirit, so will the congregations which they collectively compose in various localities. Primarily, however, I employ the term, "church," in the sense of saved persons, those who have been called out of the world by the gospel (2 Thess. 2:13, 14) and into Jesus Christ through their obedient faith (Gal. 3:26, 27), hence who constitute his redeemed body, the church (2 Tim. 2:10; Eph. 2:13-16; Col. 1:18). With these definitions before us, let us now address ourselves to the question:

Who and What Were the Pharisees?

This is a question that must be answered before we can identify a pharisaical attitude among the people of God today. The chief sources of information concerning these people are: First, the New Testament; second, the writings of Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, but whose writings are colored with Greek ideas, hence are less than satisfactory with reference to certain points. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says: "The account given of the doctrines of the Pharisees by Josephus is clearly influenced by his desire to parallel the Jewish sects with the Greek philosophical schools" (Vol ; IV, p. 2362). Smith's Bible Dictionary says, "The value of Josephus's accounts would be much greater, if he. had not accommodated them, more or less, to Greek ideas" (S.S. Scranton and Co. edition, 1899, one volume, p. 732). The third source of information is the first portion of the Talmud called the Mishna, or "second law." Smith's Bible Dictionary asserts: "It is nearly impossible to have adequate conceptions respecting the (the Pharisees-JWA), without consulting that work" (loc. cit.).

In order that this speech not be a boresome recitation of lengthy excerpts from the writings of Josephus and the Rabbis of Judaism, I have consulted a number of recognized authorities in connection with what the New Testament has to say about the Pharisees, and I will detail in as brief and interesting a manner as possible the facts concerning this ancient sect. In addition to the authorities already named, I have consulted: The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim and his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ; The Life of Christ. by Fredric Farrar, The Life of Jesus by E,rnest Renan; Horne's Introduction by Thomas Hartwell. Horne; History of the Christian Church by Philip Sehaff; and Hours With The Bible, New Testament Series, by, Cunningham Geikie. That which follows constitutes as clear a picture of the Pharisees of our Lord's time upon this earth as I have been able, with the help of the . authorities cited, to reconstruct. Attention is called to the fact that the Pharisees were:

A Sect Within the Jewish Community

Both Luke and Paul refer to the Pharisees as a sect (Acts 15:5; 26:5: Paul emphasized the fact that the sect was an integral . part of Judaism when he declared in his speech before King Agrippa, "My manner of life from my youth, which was. at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee" (Acts 26:4,5).

There were at this time three important sects within the bosom of the Jewish community: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. There was a fourth party among the Jews called, "The Essenes," but it cannot be correctly affirmed that they were within the religious community of the Jews. They were in fact separatists. They practiced a communal form of society and were ascetic fanatics. The "Dead Sea Scrolls" which have received. so much publicity in recent years are regarded by a great many scholars #o be relics belonging to a commune of Essenes, the Qumran community, which was located about eight miles south of Jericho at the Northwestern corner of the Dead Sea, and which dates back to the beginning or slightly before the beginning of the so-called "Christian era."

We are concerned in this lecture only with the Pharisees, and your attention is directed to some facts concerning this particular sect among the Jews. It probably originated about 260 years before Christ and is thought to have descended from the Assomeans who kept Judaism alive during the terrible years when Antiochus Epiphanes, the brutal Syrian monarch, ruled Judea. The Pharisees themselves probably originated about the time of or during the reign of the Maccabees and, of course, continued as a prominent and influential sect in Judaism until our Lord's time. For the purposes of our study, however, the characteristics of the Pharisees are more important than their origin and history, hence we shall note their leading characteristics.

Characteristics of the Pharisees

As a preface to a delineation of these attributes, it should be observed that, contrary to popular opinion, the Pharisees were not strict conformists to the law of Moses (the Pentateuch), and the prophets. There is a distinction to be made here that is extremely important. It is never wrong anywhere, at any time, or under any circumstances to contend for an exact application of the will of God revealed to us in His inspired word. Too many, in our day, equate such application of the will of God with Pharisaism or "legalism."

(1) The Pharisees were characterized by a partisan attachment to and rigid practice of the "traditional law." There existed among the Jews the concept that there were two laws, the written law and the oral law. The written law consisted of the ten commandments written on the tables of stone and the other statutes and judgments written down by Moses. This embraced the Pentateuch, or the first five books of your Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The "oral law" consisted of traditions purportedly descending from Moses through Joshua and the fathers by word of mouth. Added to these were opinions on disputed applications of Moses' law which resulted from majority vote of the fathers or elders. In addition to these were decrees made by wise men and men who were recognized by the people as prophets in different ages, particularly in the four hundred years period between the testaments. Still another source of the oral law consisted of legal decisions of proper ecclesiastical authority; namely, the Sanhedrin.

The legal decisions of the Sanhedrin were of three kinds: (a) those properly deduced from admitted principles; (b) those superfluously particularized; (c) those which were superstitious and puerile. With respect to the oral law, the Pharisees were exceedingly zealous. In fact, any apparent conflict between the written law of Moses and the traditions was always settled by a Pharisee in favor of tradition. Note the following statements from Smith's Bible Dictionary:

"The fundamental principle of the Pharisees common to them with all orthodox modern Jews Is, that, by the side of the written law regarded as a summary of the principles and general law of the Hebrew people, there was an oral law to complete and to explain the written law. It was an article of faith that in the Pentateuch there was no precept, and no regulation, ceremonial, d6ctrinal, or legal, of which God had not given to Moses all explanations necessary for their application, with the order to transmit them by word of mouth. The classical passage in the Mishna on this subject is the following -- Moses received the (oral) law from Sinai, and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue: "(p. 732.)

Smith goes on to show that these were not the only "traditions" recognized as binding by the Pharisees, but notes the others which we have previously mentioned. He comments concerning the sum of these binding traditions:

"Viewed as a whole, they treated men like children, formalizing and defining the minutest particulars of ritual observances. The expressions of 'bondage,' of 'weak and beggarly elements,' and of 'burdens too heavy for men to bear; faithfully represent the impression produced by their multiplicity." (loc. cit.).

Smith's quotations are, of course, recognized by ,you as statements made by Jesus and by his inspired apostles concerning the law and the traditions which attached themselves thereto.

It is a fact well known to every Bible student that Jesus soundly condemned the Pharisees and other Jews of New Testament times for their. slavish devotion to "traditions" and for their perversion of God's law that their traditions might be observed. Note the following incident in the life of Jesus:

"Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and thy mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift (or Is given to God ASV), by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; and honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their Ups; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." (Mt. 15:1-9).

Here is a notable example of the pharisaic attitude. Though the law of Moses was explicit relative to the attitude a Jew should manifest toward his father. and mother, they hesitated not to qualify God's plain commandment by their traditional law. For this they were condemned by the Lord and their worship pronounced "vain." In the following chapter of Matthew, chapter 16, vas. 6, 11, 12, Jesus further said, "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees . . ." and by way of explanation, "I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees . . . but of the doctrine of the Pharisees . . . ."

It follows, therefore, for a child of God to be pharisaical today, among other things, he would have to bind human tradition upon others as law or to modify Divine law through the exaltation of human, traditional interpretation. A great many brethren are guilty of justifying religious practice on the grounds that "the brethren have been doing this or that for the past fifty years or for as long as I can remember."

A church in East Texas inserted in the deed of their building, for the purposes of protecting the property, that "should the church cease to worship, the building would become the property of the nearest church of Christ which conformed in teaching and practice to the teaching and practice of the majority of the churches of Christ in Texas." Though I introduce this as a quotation, I vouch only for the substantial accuracy of the quotation, not its exactness since I do not have a copy of the deed before me as I write. What B. W. Johnson, J. W. McGarvey, Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb, B. C. Goodpasture, Reuel Lemmons, or James W. Adams may have to say about spiritual matters or as Jesus said it, "The things of my father" (Lk. 2:49), may be worthy of consideration and reflection, but they do not of necessity reflect the mind and will of God, hence should never become the standard of any person in religion, nor should they be used to modify the application of Divine law to any situation: Such is unmitigated Pharisaism.

(2) The Pharisees were characterized by an inordinate reverence for learning and human reason. They hesitated not to employ learning and purely human reason in making wholly subjective judgments relative to that which was or was not sinful in the sight of God. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia makes the following comments concerning this fact:

"The grew defeat of Pharisaism was that it made sin so purely eternal. An act was right or wrong according as some external condition was present or absent; thus there was a difference in bestowing alms on the Sabbath whether the beggar put his hand within the door of the donor or the donor stretched his hand beyond his own threshold as may be seen in the first Mishma. . ." (Vol. IV, p. 2363).

It would appear, therefore, that the Pharisees were probably the original practitioners of "Situation Ethics." This no doubt accounts for the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees because. he healed a diseased man on the Sabbath and the blind man who washed in the pool of Siloam (John 7:22,23; 9:1-16). Jesus pointed out their inconsistency and purely subjective treatment of Divine law in that they circumcised a man on the Sabbath day that the law of Moses might not be broken but condemned him because he made a sick man well on the Sabbath. They gave precedence to circumcision over the Sabbath but made Sabbath keeping (as interpreted by their traditions) more important than the health and life of a child of God. The law provided that a sheep which fell into a pit might be taken out on the Sabbath and they practiced doing so when the occasion demanded it, but condemned Jesus because he healed a man with a withered hand. Jesus replied to them by saying, "How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days" (Mt. 12:10-12).

Brethren today, therefore, are Pharisaical when they justify religious practice by "sanctified common sense" or, as some call it, "the law of expediency." Like the Pharisees also, brethren today apply this rule in a wholly subjective and inconsistent manner. The rule, with them, justifies a "sponsoring church arrangement" for cooperative evangelism without the necessity of scriptural authority but will not permit a "missionary society arrangement" for cooperative evangelism among the churches. It will justify a chorus but not a choir. It will justify another organization in the realm of benevolence but will not justify another kind of music in the realm of worship; a human, benevolent organization in addition to the local congregation, but not a playing upon a mechanical instrument in addition to singing. Among our non-class brethren, it will justify two glasses on the Lord's table but not individual cups; uninspired comments in Bible teaching in the church but not uninspired written comments, or human literature as they call it, and church sponsored recreation in the church building but no Bible classes. Among conservative brethren, it will justify a human organization existing and selling Bible teaching in the form of books, tracts, and papers, and repudiate a human organization selling the same teaching in a classroom.

(3) The Pharisees were conservative traditionalists. They were characterized by what has been called "excessive meticulosity." Ernest Renan in his Life of Jesus makes some interesting observations along this line. He says:

"The conflicts of Jesus with official hypocrisy were continual. The ordinary tactics of the reformers who appeared in the religious state which we have just described, and which might be called 'traditional formalism,' were to opposes the 'text' of the sacred books to 'traditions.' Religious zeal is always an innovator, even when it pretends to be in the highest degree conservative. Just as the neo-Catholics of our days become more and more remote fromt eh Gospel, so the Pharisees left the Bible at each step more and more." (pp. 237, 238).

Brethren among the churches, yes, even conservative churches, are Pharisaical in this respect. Incidentals are often converted into essentials. They bend over backwards trying to stand straight. Trying to avoid and fleeing desperately from Rome, they bypass Jerusalem and plunge into Babylon. The word "Babylon" means "confusion" and that is exactly where they are to be found-in a state of utter chaos. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of so-called "Christian living." Every man becomes a law unto himself. Each seeks to bind his own, uninspired, unnecessary, and often completely erroneous deductions and inferences upon every other person. The result is universal confusion. A necessary deduction or inference from Scripture, I accept wholeheartedly as the word of God. A mere uninspired inference or deduction based upon the prejudice of him who gives it birth, I regard simply and only as the word of matt. I refuse to allow any man to bind such upon my conscience. The practice is Pharisaical to the core.

(4) The Pharisees were characterized by militant partyism. They were, in the true sense of the word, a "sect." The word sect derives from the Greek term "hairesis." In this lecture, time will not permit a lengthy discussion of this term. My research indicates that the word I means a "party." True heresy is "partyism." The party may be formed on the basis of overt error, that is, the belief, teaching, and practice of error. It may be formed on the basis of an over-emphasis of some aspect of truth. It may be formed on the basis of matters purely in the realm of human judgment which have been exalted to equality with law. It may be founded upon an undue exaltation of and attachment to men and their ambitions. It is always coupled with a militant proselyting spirit, and a spirit of contempt for all who disagree with its aims, teaching, and practice. Jesus recognized this tendency when he said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves" (Mt. 23:15).

When brethren make the acceptance of and compliance with human arrangements in the realms of evangelism, benevolence, and edification tests of fellowship among Christians, they are creators of a party and guilty of Pharisaism. When they hold in contempt as "antis" and "obstructionists" those who disagree with their views and practices, they are pharisaical.

When conservative brethren create parties around the artificial covering question, the war question, the college question and such like, they are guilty of Pharisaism. When brethren make opposition to orphan homes and the Herald of Truth the sole standard of soundness for Christians and churches while ignoring pernicious error in other realms which characterizes them, they are Pharisaical. When we manifest toward those from who we differ a spirit of contempt rather than a spirit of correcting and chastening love, we are pharisaical. The prayer of the Pharisee in Lk. 18 is a classic example of what I am talking about. "I thank God that I am not as other men are or even this publican."

One of the outstanding attributes of the Pharisees was a confined party fellowship. Those who belonged to their party were the elite. Those who did not were beneath contempt. It does not take a genius to recognize the fact that such is often our attitude. If and when such is true, we are unquestionably pharisaical.

(5) The Pharisees were lovers of ostentation, position, preeminence, and adulation. Jesus said of them: "They make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi." (Mt. 23:5-7).

Ostentation, pride, and carnal ambition are all pharisaical when found in the kingdom of God. Ornate meeting houses, political maneuvering among preachers and churches, the love of high-sounding tides, inordinate pride in institutional achievements are all evidences of Pharisaism.

(6) Inconsistent teaching and practice was another characteristic of the Pharisees. Jesus said, "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Mt. 23:1-4).

Many of our so-called "liberal" brethren, especially the "middle-of-the-road" variety, preach New Testament principles relative to church organization and work as clearly as do any so-called "conservatives" or "antis," as they would call them, but in their practice, they endorse and participate in all of the arrangements of the most liberal of the brethren in these realms. For instance, there are thousands who take the position of the Firm Foundation 'relative to human institutions under institutional boards in the realm of benevolence. That is, they repudiate the scripturalness of such, yet they continue to support, aid, and abet such institutions. This is pharisaism in its rankest manifestation.

Conservatives can be guilty and are guilty of the same sort of Pharisaism when they preach that the local congregation should take care of its own poor and preach the gospel in the regions beyond, yet do nothing tangible in either of these realms. Conservative churches are guilty of Pharisaism as are a goodly number of preachers and elders who preach congregational autonomy, yet continually stick their officious noses into the affairs of congregations of which they are not a part. Some very prominent conservative churches have made an all-out effort to bind their disciplinary pronouncements upon churches of an entire district. Some have even gone so far as to withdraw their fellowship from churches which have not accepted and respected their dictum in this regard. This is Pharisaism gone to seed.

(7) The Pharisees exalted the external and ceremonial above the inward and spiritual. They were not satisfied to contend for strict observance of the law. All of God's faithful prophets in Israel did this. Jesus himself did this as His cleansing of the temple abundantly demonstrates as well as many other of His statements. In righteous anger, with a scourge of small cords, He drove sellers of animals and the money changers out of the temple of God (John 2:13-17). After healing ten lepers, He said, in keeping with the law's requirement, "Go shew yourselves unto the priests." (Lk. 17:11-14). The Pharisees went beyond the law in ceremonial observance and neglected the weightier matters of the law. Jesus said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widow's houses, and for a pretense make long prayers . . . ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel . . . ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also . . . ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." (Mt. 23:14, 23-27).

Whenever we make the outward and ceremonial aspects of religious service ends within themselves to the neglect of the inward and spiritual which they are intended to enhance and by which they are given efficacy and acceptability with God, we are pharisaical. To insist on baptism and the Lord's supper and neglect to demonstrate the risen life is pharisaical. To insist on scriptural organization and neglect evangelism and benevolence is Pharisaism.

(8) Finally, the Pharisees were rabid persecutors of all who differed from them. They were inveterate enemies of Jesus and participated with the Sadducees in the demand to put him to death, the contention of modern Jews to the contrary notwithstanding. The International Bible Encyclopedia correctly states:

"Outside the Sanhedrin the Pharisees are ubiquitous, in Jerusalem, in Galilee, In Peraea, and in the Decapolis, always coming In contact with Jesus. The attempts made by certain recent Jewish writers to exonerate them from the guilt of the condemnation of our Lord has no foundation; it is contradicted by the New Testament records, and the attitude of the Talmud to Jesus." (Vol. IV, p. 2362.)

Several years ago, I heard a prominent Rabbi at the Religious Emphasis Week exercises at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas attempt to prove that the Zealots were responsible for the death of Jesus and not the Pharisees, Sadducess and other elements of the Jewish nation.

Let it be admitted that the Pharisees occasionally displayed sympathy toward New Testament apostles by reason of their antipathy toward the Sadducees and their materialistic denial of the resurrection, angels, and spirits. In the final analysis, however, they were enemies and militant persecutors both of Jesus and the disciples who followed him.

Whenever, we are unable to meet an issue with Scripture and logic and turn to persecution as a means of suppression of views with which we do not agree, we are pharisaical. That such an attitude prevails today among professed New Testament Christians, no informed person would think of denying, hence is an evidence of Pharisaism in the church.


I do not profess to have been exhaustive in this presentation. You may think of many other ways in which Christians may be Pharisaical. In fact, anytime we trust in our own works or goodness for salvation instead of the grace of God and the blood of Jesus, we are pharisaical. In closing may I impress you with the solemn fact that a pharisaical believer, even those maintaining connection with professed churches of Christ, is one thing and a New Testament Christian is another. May God help us not to be Pharisees!

Truth Magazine XIX: 21, pp. 328-332
April 3, 1975