Legalists, Liberals, and Mark 7

Have you ever been accused of being a Pharisee? I have. Well, sort of. There’s no way I’d be able to find the Twitter conversation now (I tend to not bookmark or screenshot these things), but in a debate a few months ago (I know, I know, breaking my own rule), my unwavering stance on an issue prompted the other party to bring up the Pharisees and their insistence on an issue. Interesting how they always seem to end up being pulled out when a conservative Christian engages a liberal Christian, and generally by the liberal. I have seen the accusation tossed out by conservative Christians as well, so do not think I am merely targeting one side.

Calling someone a Pharisee seems to be a fairly frequent insult used in the Christian world. The accusation is often made of legalists or particularly stubborn conservatives. Or really, just anyone we don’t like. In the Christian world, we have found our sequel to Everyone I Don’t Like is Hitler: the newly released, Everyone I Disagree With is a Pharisee. 

We so easily lob this grenade at others, but do we really understand the implications? Do we really know what it is to be a Pharisee? That is, to fit within the description of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who weren’t doing the gospel any favors. Is a Pharisee simply anyone who does not agree with our theological positions or who is more conservation than us? I would care to venture that the answer is no.

To truly be a Pharisee is a huge problem that needs to be dealt with. But who were the Pharisees? And how do they relate to problems in modern Christianity? The Pharisees are a difficult group to pin down. Some sources say they had heavy political influence, some say they were a large religious group within Judaism, while still others point to that they may not have been as widespread as we think. The likelihood that the Pharisees were a widespread sect of Judaism is low. However, where they did exist, they seemed to have a lot of influence, or, at least, they talked pretty loudly. In the Gospel narratives, Pharisees show up both in Jerusalem and Galilee. They were the main conspirators in the plot against Jesus and were also the subjects of many of Jesus’s public rebukes. Among Christians, the Pharisees are best known for being legalists and hating everything that Jesus was about. Thus, if someone says something that goes against your concept of “what Jesus was about,” you lob “Pharisee” at them (or behind their back) and move on, celebrating all of the mind-changing you did that day (you may find my tongue firmly located in my cheek).

There are two glaring problems with this approach. First, the Pharisee accusation often comes from a mindset that “if Jesus didn’t say it, I don’t have to obey it.” Second, it comes from a misunderstanding of what Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees actually was. This post will focus both on adjusting the thinking found in these two problems, as well as zeroing in on who the modern day Pharisees really are (spoiler alert: it’s not people who obey God).

“If Jesus Didn’t Say It, I Don’t Have to Obey It!”

This sentiment sounds all fine and good, until you really dig into it. Most people who say this are “red letter Christians,” meaning they are referring specifically to what Jesus said in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They are commonly seen starting their sentences with, “Jesus did not once talk about [insert topic/sin issue here].” And while at face value, this may be true, those who live by this are letting an important aspect of Scripture fly right over their heads.

You see, just because Jesus didn’t talk about something during his earthly ministry does not mean he never talked about it or it isn’t important. We first must consider the purpose behind Jesus’s condescension to earth as a man. He did not come to tell us what to do or not do, or outline what is and isn’t sin (although he did talk a lot about sin). His purpose in coming was to fulfill the Law, so that he could die (and rise again) and in his death, take on the punishment for our sins. This was his primary focus. Not giving us the laundry list of do’s and don’t’s.

Second, it is important to know that the words and teachings of Jesus did not start nor end with his earthly ministry. Because Jesus is God, he has been around since before time began. In fact, he speaks all throughout the Bible. Not just that, but he breathed out the Bible. This means that not only are Jesus’s words in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they are all throughout Scripture. They are Scripture. We cannot just flippantly say “if Jesus didn’t say it, I don’t have to obey it!” We must understand the implications of these words. And if you aren’t comfortable with these implications, you may want to reconsider whether you want to obey what Jesus has to say or if you just like some of the stuff he said while here on earth. You may also want to consider this: Jesus taught obedience to the Law.

Why Jesus Didn’t Like the Pharisees

The majority of Christians you will speak with all have the same basic understanding of Jesus’s relationship with the Pharisees: the Pharisees were really legalistic, and Jesus rebuked them time and again for being as such. The idea of legalism today generally refers to people who are “overly religious” or focus primarily on “being good enough for Jesus.” Modern day legalists can often be found measuring skirt lengths and talking about a works-based salvation. Or, to some, legalists are simply people who obey God’s Word.

A lot of people have that last description (people who simply obey the Bible) in mind when accusing someone of being a legalist, or worse, a Pharisee. But in this line of thinking, it is very easy to miss the actual reason why Jesus spoke so vehemently against the Pharisees. His distaste for this group had nothing to do with their desire to obey the Law and everything to do with what they said the Law was.

What the Pharisees had done, was taken the Law and then added all sorts of minutia to it. The Sabbath day is for rest? Well, what defines work? Is it walking? Is it cooking? Is it washing up after a meal? The Pharisees came up with rules and regulations in addition to the Law that had been given to them by God. So what they defined as the Law was actually nothing more than a bunch of man-made rules written up with somewhat of a relation to the actual Law (but were not it at all). They then took those rules and obeyed them down to the tiniest, most extreme detail. So when they were playing their little game of following Jesus around, accusing him of breaking the Sabbath and pointing out when he did not wash his hands, they were showing their commitment not to the Law, but to what they had added to the Law. The Sabbath is a holy day of rest, but that does not bar a person from helping someone in need or ensuring that one’s starving followers have food.

Jesus points this out them in Mark 7, when they ask why Jesus’s disciples do not wash their hands before eating, “according to the tradition of the elders.” Jesus responds with a sharp rebuke:

And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors Me with their lipsBut their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship MeTeaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6-9). 

The Pharisees were pros at ignoring God’s Law and clinging hard to their own tradition. They had little interest in obeying God and all their focus was on obeying man. They thought their righteous, pious works would earn them a seat in Heaven, but all it earned them was a harsh rebuke and a bitter reminder that our works and attempts at righteousness are as filthy rags before God.

Who is a Pharisee?

This question, when referring to people today, is no longer answered by pointing out groups of people running around bashing Jesus or trying to kill him. Nowadays, this questioned is answered by saying, “A modern Pharisee is anyone who acts like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day did.” Essentially, the term has gone from describing a specific group of people to labeling who does what they did that Jesus condemned.

So what did Jesus condemn about the Pharisees? The answer to this question is found in Mark 7:8, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” According to this verse (and many other passages that tell of Jesus’s rebukes to the Pharisees), a modern day Pharisee is anyone who puts man’s authority in their life above God’s authority.

Most people consider the works-righteousness legalists when considering this definition of modern day Pharisees. You know the ones I’m talking about: people who make obeying God’s Word so important, that they start adding their own rules too. Women are to submit to their husbands? That means the husband is a boss, ruling over his wife like she is a child. Women should not be in authority over a local congregation, aka should not be pastors? That means women should not teach men ever. Children are a blessing from the Lord? Any childless couple must be in sin. You get the idea. And while, yes, these people who create a system of rules in addition to God’s Word are legalistic Pharisees, I would venture to argue that there is another, less considered group of people that are also modern day Pharisees.

This group is the liberal Christians. The people who tend to use the Pharisee insult the most, are actually the Pharisees themselves. They are the people who often cry, “If Jesus didn’t say it, I don’t have to obey it” (or, at least, live and teach that way). They are the people who take any command of Scripture that isn’t simpatico with the world’s teachings and claim it was purely for the culture of the time (or worse, that Paul was a patriarchal jerk who twisted Jesus’s teachings for his own purposes. To put it mildly). They are the people who don’t like to admit that they don’t want to be followers of Jesus, they just like some of the things he said. They neglect the commands of God and cling to the teachings of the world. They are so concerned with looking good to the world, that they forget our standing before God is truly the only thing that matters.

So next time someone calls you a Pharisee, check yourself. Make sure your focus is on glorifying God through your obedience, and not on obeying the additions (or subtractions) of men. And when you start to lob the grenade yourself, check yourself. Are they really a Pharisee? Or do you just disagree with them? And instead of using insults to have a debate, maybe use constructive criticism, logic, and biblical reasoning to explain your position. And listen to theirs. And stop calling people Pharisees (unless they really are). But maybe don’t just yell Pharisee and run off. Rather, use the term out of concern for their soul and their understanding of Scripture, using it to open the door to constructive and redemptive conversation.


One thought on “Legalists, Liberals, and Mark 7

  1. Not all Pharisees were/are hypocrites. Nicodemus comes to mind as well as others who were genuinely seeking God. They believed in the Resurrection, which the Sadducees did not, and hence many of them supported Paul during his several hearings and trials. Jesus condemned those whose righteousness was an outward show alone, over a wicked and unrepentant heart, those who replaced the commands of God with doctrines of men. Both things the church has to take care to avoid even today. Good column.


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