Pharisees are more than mere tidbits of ancient history.

Their sad transition from God’s most zealous defenders to Jesus’s arch enemies is important for every Christian to understand. As long as our only image of a Pharisee is that of a spiritual loser and perennial enemy of Jesus, we’ll never recognize the clear and present danger in our own life.

I’ve found that becoming a modern-day accidental Pharisee is a lot like eating at Denny’s. No one wants to go there. We just end up there.

The journey usually starts out innocently enough. It begins with a desire to be at the front of the following-Jesus line. We step out in faith, make some big changes, clean up areas of sin and compromise, and begin to pursue new spiritual disciplines.

So far, so good. But as we press forward it’s hard not to notice those who lag behind. And it’s at this point that we have an important decision to make. Will we keep our eyes glued on Jesus or will we turn our focus onto those who lag behind?

I remember once meeting with a group of men who were passionate about their walk with God. Somehow our conversation turned toward those in the church who were not so passionate. Next thing I knew, they were ripping on the way everyone else raised their children, spent their money, read their Bible, and set their priorities.

Now these were quality men. They were doing far better than most raising their kids, spending their money, reading their Bible, and setting priorities. The problem wasn’t that they noticed the difference. The problem was what they did with the information. They used it to justify looking down on everyone else.

When I called them on it they were mildly remorseful. Sort of like they’d been busted for a speeding ticket. But it was clear to me that no one felt particularly convicted or determined not go there again. So I decided to take them on a little journey through scripture to see God’s perspective on the conversation we’d just had.

We started with Satan’s prideful fall and moved on from there. But the shocker for most of them was a list of things God hates. It’s found in Proverbs 6:16-19. Right at the top of his I-hate-it-when-you-do-that list is “haughty eyes,” the disgusted and disdainful look of arrogance that parallels the harsh conversation we’d just had.

There are lots of things that can anger God. Few would guess that looking down on others would be at the top of the list. Yet it is. As I told them that afternoon, if this passage really means what it says, God would rather have us struggling with porn than pride.

Now that got their attention!

But it’s true. Their dismissive and judgmental take on others wasn’t minor chit chat. It was major sin. Top of the list sin.

I wrote ACCIDENTAL PHARISEES because I’ve become increasingly concerned that many in our tribe are making the same mistake. We strive to be at the front of the following-Jesus line. Yet the closer we get to the front, the more we’re tempted to compare ourselves with those in the back.

So here’s a brief list of six of the most telling indicators that we may have inadvertently started down the path of an Accidental Pharisee, looking down on others and trusting in our own righteousness.

  • First and foremost is a deepening sense of frustration and disdain for those at the back of the line. Instead of a Jesus-like compassion for those who can’t keep up, we view them with cynicism and a cocky arrogance.
  • The second warning sign is a spirit of exclusivity. When thinning the herd becomes more important than expanding the kingdom; or raising the bar becomes more important than helping people climb over it, something has gone terribly wrong.
  • A third indicator is the addition of extra-biblical rules and expectations. Few of us would see ourselves as legalists. We think we’ve moved on from old school legalism because we no longer judge people by what’s in their refrigerator. But the spirit of legalism still runs strong. We now judge people by what’s in their driveway and how big their house is.
  • A fourth symptom is a pattern of idolizing the past. Whether it’s the New Testament church or the scholars of old, we tend to give them a free pass for their failures. But the present day Bride of Christ and the current crop of leaders that Jesus has put in place are assailed for their blind spots, failures, and feet of clay. Like the Pharisees of old, we rip on the living prophets and then build monuments to them once they die.
  • A fifth sign that something has gone wrong is a quest for clone-like uniformity. Jesus had room for Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector. Yet sometimes, the more biblically grounded we become, the less room we have for anyone who hasn’t yet learned all that we’ve learned. The result is a circle of fellowship that’s tighter than Jesus’s circle of acceptance.
  • The sixth and final indicator that we’re becoming an Accidental Pharisee is something called “gift-projection.” It’s the toxic belief that my calling is everyone else’s calling. It disfigures the body of Christ by insisting that ears become eyes and hands become feet. It looks like passion for the mission. But in reality, it’s chocolate covered arrogance.

The good news is that even if we’ve inadvertently started down the path of an accidental Pharisee, we don’t have to end up there. We can repent, turn around, and reset our gaze on Jesus. But for that to happen, we have to recognize that we’ve left the path of discipleship. And that’s why I wrote Accidental Pharisees, to highlight the warning signs that we’ve left the path and turned down a dangerous detour that turns well-intentioned zealots into accidental Pharisees.