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.


  1. Chris Rosebrough (@piratechristian) on November 7, 2012 at 8:43 am

    I’m not convinced you’ve accurately defined or identified what makes a Pharisee a Pharisee. In fact, playing the Pharisee card is a common error that many make in the church today. Here is an article entitled “Playing the Pharisee Card”. I hope it helps you.

    • Larry Osborne on November 7, 2012 at 9:08 am

      Chris – I read your link. It seems to me that you completely missed the point of my post. I’m sorry that as a conservative Christian radio you’ve been called a Pharisee for defending sound doctrine. Not having had the privilege of hearing you, I have no idea how come across or what you say. But I’m assuming that your show applies the instructions of 2 Timothy 2:24-26 as to how to respond to those who are held captive to do the will of our enemy. And if so, keep after it. You may want to read my book, Accidental Pharisees to be “convinced” or “unconvinced” as to how accurately I’ve defined and identified what makes a Pharisee a Pharisee.

  2. Glenn on February 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Larry, how does one develop extra-biblical rules without becoming a Pharisee? Every community may develop rules that go beyond the Bible as we live in a unique time and takes into mind the culture. It seems number three and four can go together. A community may develop guidelines and need the grace of others as they live these out. Mennonites come to mind for example.

    • Larry Osborne on February 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

      Romans 14:1-15:7 would seem to clearly disallow the imposition of any extra-biblical rules that are used as a “measure of spirituality” (even within a particular faith community). To have extra rules that simply reflect “How we choose to do things here,” without the underlying assumption that “This is how God would prefer everyone to live,” is not a problem. But sadly, the distance from “This is how we choose to do things here” to “God would prefer that everyone live this way” is a tiny step in most groups.

  3. toranhughes on March 26, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Sorry I missed you Sunday @ The Summit. Your sermon is all my husband has talked about. He keeps telling me “You Win”! Enjoying reading your sermons here. Thank you

  4. Calvin Fergins, Jr. on October 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Excellent post. I will have to pick up your book on this. Also, A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God was magisterial. I’m going to have to find my copy and give it read again. Good work brother.

  5. Rick Allcorn on April 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    I picked up a copy of A Contrarians Guide To Knowing God out of a dollar a book bin to give to a friend of mine as a joke. As I read the book I felt as though I could have written the book. It was an encouragement from God to me at a time when I most needed it. I struggle with my involvement at the Baptist church that I have attended my whole life. They really like the fences there.Thanks
    Rick Allcorn

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