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An accidental Pharisee is a person who does not intentionally seek to be one but becomes one because of ignorance and unhealthy shaping influences. When you believe you are right, others are wrong, and you won’t entertain the possibility of another perspective, you may become an accidental Pharisee. I’m not saying you can’t know anything, but Christians hold their views humbly while affirming our beliefs by God’s Word, Spirit, conscience, and His community.
Anybody who has ever been passionate about anything is susceptible to how their passion can get in the way of common sense and biblical appropriateness. Have you ever been excited about something—particularly something about God? Has something impacted you so much that you became consumed with the thing? I most certainly have.
I remember when I first became a Christian and began attending a church. Becoming a believer was the best thing to ever happen to me. It was radical and satisfying. I’ve never been able to get enough of God or His Word then or now. God was transforming my life, and I wanted others to know what He was doing. I wanted them to have what I had.
During that time, I asked my pastor, “Why can’t everyone be like the Apostle Paul?” What I wanted to know was why people were not as passionate as I was about the Savior. The more insidious implication was, “Why are they not more like me?” Have you ever had a thought like that? Has something so affected you that you began to look at others as inferior because they don’t have your knowledge or zeal?
The accidental Pharisee would not see the more insidious question, perhaps because it was too faint a sound in their conscience. I most certainly did not discern the few degrees that took me off track. I was sincere. I honestly did not know why folks were not more passionate about their faith. I genuinely wondered why they did not appear to have a zeal for Christ—a sincere concern from an immature believer.
I could not see how my dangerous ignorance could tempt me to sin into thinking uncharitably toward others. I did not understand depravity’s depth, power, or how a sincere inquiry left unchecked could simmer into a self-righteous attitude toward others. I was victimizing myself by my self-righteous thoughts about myself.
Subtle boasting is proudly drawing attention to yourself by claiming credit for something to enhance your status or reputation. This dastardly attitude happens by not giving the appropriate credit to God for His work in your life. For example, the better way to frame the conversation with my pastor would have been to thank God for His work in my life. Praise Him that He saved me and gave me a passion for Himself.
I could have further explored how I needed to grow in my understanding and practice of God in my life and how I should relate to others. Believe it or not, as a one-year-old convert, I had not arrived. From a position of biblical clarity, I could have asked how best to serve our local church. Rather than focusing on their deficiencies, it would have been better to focus (boast) on God’s present grace and future opportunities to mature while helping others similarly.
It is easy to become an accidental Pharisee when you know you’re right. And perhaps you are correct, but your passion makes you sincerely wrong because of how you think about and talk to others. A conviction for the right things can put you in a relational ditch quicker than almost anything else that will come out of your mouth.
I have been right about many things in my life. It’s scary, sad, and humbling to look back on all my rightness—mostly when my perspective was not exactly as right as I thought it was when I was right. Here are a few things where I knew I was right and any other perspective was wrong.
Let’s suppose you used to believe some of these things, too. Let’s further assume you don’t believe or practice any of them today. These were your former beliefs, but they are not your current practices. Here’s the accidental pharisee question: how do you think about people who still believe and practice those things? Did you jump into the other judgmental ditch to where you continue to look down on those different from you?
Do you still have that same “accidental Pharisee attitude,” but you’re dwelling in a different ditch today? Each time God teaches me something different from what I believed in the past, shortly after my advancement in knowledge, there is a temptation to look down on those who still practice my former preferences. When I do that, I’m that accidental Pharisee, but now I’m dwelling in the ditch on the other side of the road.
I used to be a practicing fundamentalist, who believed the things in the list above, plus many more. After I left that group, I began to judge them for what they practiced. Imagine that—judging them because I’m at a higher place of knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1-2). If you’re thinking unkindly about those who continue to do your former habits, you are an accidental Pharisee. Do you see how subtle this is? Perhaps you were part of a legalistic culture like I described. Perhaps you think,
Yes! That’s right. I used to think that way, too. I’m so glad I’m not like them anymore. I’m thankful that God delivered me from that culture and way of thinking. Whew! I could still be like them.
Do you see how comparative thinking can lead you into a trap? Do you perceive the tricky nature of comparing yourself to another person? After I became a Christian, I became harsh toward non-Christians. After I gained some Bible knowledge, I judged those who knew less or practiced their Christianity the way I used to when I was at their level. When Paul thought about these things, he said,
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
When you disagree with someone, do you believe your perspective is the best? Are you thinking that you could be wrong at that moment and that God may have another view you’re not seeing? For example, sinful anger is the most common type of boasting or comparing in our culture today. Whenever you become sinfully angry with another person, you are boasting that your way is superior.
You’re so determined to promote your way over the other person’s point that you sin in anger while doing it. What is missing in such a comparative boast is God’s perspective on the matter. Let’s say your spouse does not meet your expectations. Your spouse sins or disappoints you—again. What is the best way to counter what your spouse did? In a word, the answer is to be “redemptive.”
Do you remember when you were wrong, wayward, rebelling, and disinterested in God? How did the Father respond to you? It was redemptive. God is always about redeeming people. It’s not so much, at least not initially, about “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” It’s about helping a person transform.
Winning your points while boasting in your perspective or rightness by responding in sinful anger toward someone is not redemptive. That kind of “greater than attitude” will not motivate a person to change. God set aside His rightness and took on the form of a servant. Proving He was right was not the most important thing at the time (Philippians 2:5-6). It was about redemption.
If you are right and your spouse is wrong, the best approach would be to seek to build the relationship redemptively. If you create redemptively with your spouse, rather than competitively, you may serve your spouse (Mark 10:45) to the point of maturing them in their understanding, assuming you were right and your spouse needed your tweaking.
Of course, you may learn you were not as right as you thought you were. The key is for you to be more interested in redemption than winning an argument. What about it? What are you more interested in regarding your relationships? Do you want a redemptive relationship? Or, are you more about being right, winning, or competing?
It took me twenty-five years to become a Christian. Knowing how long it took is key to my fight against self-righteousness. How long did it take you to become a Christian? How long did it take you to learn anything? Did you reach omniscience by the time you were one, two, three-years-old? I was a late bloomer: I attained omniscience at nineteen.
It is easy to place unreasonable expectations on others. Even though it may have been a twenty-year process for you to learn something, you could succumb to the temptation of putting an expectation on others to learn and apply a similar thing in six months (or less). Once we finally learn something, we forget how challenging it was to finally arrive. Then we unwittingly try to engineer others to rise to our level of understanding.
Parents do this all the time with their children. I think about where I was when I was fifteen. Most of the “dysfunctional teens” of today are light-years ahead of where I was. Some parents forget this basic concept of time and experience. It has taken me many years to learn whatever it is that I know now, and what I know today will evolve in the future. And most vitally, it was God’s grace that brought me to this place.
Self-made, human-to-human comparisons are a sure path to arrogance, self-righteousness, and broken relationships. It’s even more dangerous when you are right, assuming God’s Word affirms that you’re right. Paul refused to compare himself to others, no matter how right he was. He would only boast in the Lord. If you possess anything worth celebrating, it’s because of God’s kindness to you.
For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it (1 Corinthians 4:7)?
It is right and good to brag on Jesus for what He has done for you and through you. This attitude is the essence of worship: biblical boasting comes from your experience with God, and your boasting reveals the maturity of your experience with God. If your experience is not about God alone, you will boast (worship) in things rooted in something other than Him. The result will leave people with a more significant opinion of you than God.
Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
I love words and phrases. Sometimes, someone will put an expression in my head, and I can’t get it out. Accidental Pharisee is one of those phrases. It is not my term, but the title of a book—that I have not read—by Larry Osborne. When I hear a unique linkage of words, I like to sit and write what I believe the Lord wants me to learn. This article represents my musings on the term accidental Pharisee.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).