The odds are good that someone, somewhere, at some point has called you a Pharisee. The odds are even better that you’ve slapped that label on someone else.
It’s no surprise that the name “Pharisee” carries a leprous stigma. They’re the villains virtually every time they appear in the pages of Scripture. Jesus never had anything good to say about them. And their heavy-handed, legalistic authority made them a scourge to all of Israel—even other pious Jews.
In the evangelical vernacular, “Pharisee” is the umbrella term used to describe the gatekeepers of Jewish religion in the time of Christ. There were different ranks and factions—Scribes, Lawyers, Rabbis, Sadducees, Pharisees, and others—but all of them collectively represented the pharisaical religious system.
However, in modern usage the term cuts a much wider swath. And it’s that haphazard use that’s in focus for us today. God’s people need to break the habit of “playing the Pharisee card”—particularly to deflect confrontation or dismiss a rebuke. The fact is, there are modern Pharisees lurking among the church today. We do need to be able to spot them. But we also need to be careful how we deploy this potent pejorative.
To that end, let’s consider three biblical earmarks of these corrupt characters.
If You Supplement Scripture with Man-Made Rules, You Might Be a Pharisee
The Pharisees were far more fixated with enforcing their own pharisaical legal code than they were with administering God’s law. They did this by adding mountains of unbiblical fine print to biblical commands as well as inventing their own doctrines apart from Scripture:
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:1–9)
The Pharisees had developed a tradition whereby people were encouraged to dedicate material possessions to God by giving them to the Jewish religious leaders. The inviolability of that vow caused it to supersede the fifth commandment—honoring your mother and father—because any dedicated wealth was forbidden as a means of financially supporting one’s parents. As John MacArthur points out, the implicit guilt of the Pharisees was unmistakable:
The scribes and Pharisees knew the Ten Commandments well and could recite them easily from memory. They were the most educated of all Jewish men and were considered the supreme authorities on Scripture as well as tradition. They could not possibly have failed to see that this tradition directly violated God’s commandment to honor one’s father and mother. They knowingly replaced God’s specific command with their own contradicting tradition.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 8–15 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 454.
The rules and prohibitions of the ancient Pharisees are not without their modern parallels. They bear undeniable similarities with the fundamentalist denominations we see today. If you attend a fundamentalist church it won’t take long before you are confronted with a list of extrabiblical dos and don’ts—rules that carry the weight of essential doctrine. In fact, many of these rules find their way into the doctrinal statements of fundamentalist churches—prohibitions concerning drinking, smoking, dancing, tattoos, piercings, and unacceptable musical genres.
If You’re a Liberal, You’re Definitely a Sadducee
Lest any liberals gain some smug pleasure out of pointing their accusatory finger at the “Fundies” they despise so much, think again. Liberals only avoid the Pharisee label because they’re actually something much worse: Sadducees.
Just like liberal theologians, the Sadducees denied fundamental biblical doctrines—especially anything that involved the miraculous. On one occasion, the Sadducees attempted to vindicate their denial of the resurrection by asking Jesus a trick question about it (Matthew 22:24–28). But Christ condemned them for their unbelief and biblical incompetence: “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). He then exposed their biblical illiteracy (Matthew 22:30–32).
While fundamentalist churches are breeding grounds for modern Pharisees, liberal churches are dens of modern Sadducees. Both should be avoided like the plague.
If You Preach a False Gospel, You Might Be a Pharisee
The Pharisees had evangelistic fervor. But they had wrong motives, wrong methods, and the wrong message: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). John MacArthur comments:
Jesus cursed the scribes and Pharisees for their subversion of the people. They not only excluded them from the true faith but subverted them with false faith.
In New Testament times a great effort was being made to convert Gentiles to Judaism. They worked aggressively, traveling about on sea and land to make one proselyte. The word proselyte had the basic meaning of a person who has arrived, and came to be commonly used of an outsider who was brought into a religion. . . .
Many of the proselytes of righteousness became extremely zealous for their new faith, some of them even more zealous than those who converted them. But because they were brought into a false religious system that had replaced biblical Judaism, such a proselyte became twice as much a son of hell as the scribes and Pharisees themselves. They sometimes surpassed their mentors in fanatical zeal, but because their zeal was not godly it simply led them more certainly to hell.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16–23 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 379–80.
The evangelistic efforts of the Pharisees were damnable according to Christ, not because they evangelized but because they evangelized with their own false religion.
Like the Pharisees, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses travel extensively and fervently recruit people to their false religions. Yet even more subtle forms of this are pervasive in evangelical churches.
The prosperity gospel replaces the offer of eternal life with the seductive promises of health and wealth in the here and now. Likewise, the social gospel emphasizes temporal good works at the expense of eternal concerns. Both errors, while seemingly antithetical, fall into the same pharisaical category of proselytizing people with a false gospel.
If You’re a Self-Appointed Biblical Authority, You Might Be a Pharisee
The Pharisees considered themselves to be the guardians of God’s Word—the experts in all things biblical. But Jesus repeatedly chastised them for their biblical illiteracy. Christ’s verdict was that the Pharisees hadn’t studied Scripture enough—borne out by His oft-repeated phrase, “Have you not read?” (Matthew 12:3; 12:5, 19:4; 21:16; 21:42; 22:31; Mark 2:25; 12:10; 12:26; Luke 6:3).
Jesus never accused the Pharisees of taking Scripture too seriously. He told them they didn’t take it seriously enough:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23–24)
The Pharisees were certainly lousy Bible scholars—they majored in minor doctrines, while missing most of the major doctrines altogether. While they might have been fervent students of Scripture, their academic prowess hadn’t given them any spiritual insight. Ultimately, their confidence in their own expertise blinded them to the arrival of the Messiah. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39–40).
Implicit in Christ’s damning accusation was His expectation that those who read God’s Word should be able to understand it. The Bible isn’t a cryptic puzzle waiting for some scholar or expert to decipher what God is really saying to us. “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33, KJV).
Christ’s expectation concerning the clarity of Scripture was shared by the biblical authors. Paul wrote his epistles to an audience that was predominantly lay believers (1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1) and he expected them to be able to comfortably differentiate between true and false gospels (Galatians 1:8–9), as well as biblical and unbiblical theology (Acts 17:11).
Yet the modern descendants of the Pharisees—the self-appointed biblical experts of our day—offer all sorts of novelty and mystery masquerading as biblical expertise. We’ve now got experts cracking numerological codes hidden in Scripture, authors unveiling the Jesus we never knew, pastors finding the lost message of Jesus and ivory tower academics discovering new perspectives on Paul that the Reformers and Puritans never noticed.
They are not the sages of our day. They’re a motley bunch of Pharisees who warrant nothing less than the blistering rebuke Jesus issued to their spiritual forefathers: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! . . . You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Modern Pharisees do exist. But applying that label in a careless and reckless manner often ends up striking at the wrong target. And sometimes the real Pharisees end up being the ones who hypocritically use the pejorative against others. Scripture teaches us enough to readily identify Pharisees and pharisaical culture in modern churches. Even so, engaging in name-calling is a poor way to invest that discernment. That knowledge can be used far more profitably in admonishing the Pharisees we meet, avoiding places where pharisaical culture is dominant, and repenting of pharisaical tendencies in our own lives.