Legalism, Traditionalism, and Other “Isms”-You Might Be a Pharisee-Part One

Category 1: Legalism, Traditionalism, and other “isms” that keep us from a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.

If you are one who puts a great deal of emphasis on obedience or holds fast to past traditions of the church, I bet you have been called a Pharisee. If you have ever outwardly disagreed with someone’s behavior or beliefs, chances are you have been called judgmental or been found guilty of having a spirit of a Pharisee. I have found “liberal types” to be quick to whip out the judgmental and Pharisee cards whenever one disagrees with their opinions, but are these really fair comparisons?

If you have read any of my past posts, I am sure you can tell that I focus a great deal on obedience as I believe obedience to God’s word is the key to becoming the person God made you to be. For these beliefs, I have been called a legalist and a Pharisee. What is a legalist you ask? A legalist, according to Merriam Webster, is someone who excessively conforms to a strict or literal law or religious or moral code. True legalists are those who see God’s laws as a list of do’s and don’ts. Their relationship with their Father goes no deeper than their works. They may follow the 10 commandments, but they never practice grace and mercy. You will get no argument from me saying the Pharisees were legalists. The problem I have is when people lump legalism and obedience into the same category. I do not believe someone who simply tries to follow God’s laws and walks in obedience is a legalist. In fact, the Bible clearly states we are to obey our Lord’s commands:

Matthew 7:21-23 (NLT): 21 “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ 23 But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.

John 14:15 (NLT): 15 “If you love me, obey[d] my commandments.

2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 (NLT): 7 And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus.

In addition, I get very frustrated with this whole “tolerance” issue. Let me first point out that there are bad apples in everybody’s cart; so, yes, there are some “Christians” who behave badly, but don’t condemn us all for a few bad seeds [Yes, I see the irony]. Just because we speak truth to someone, does not mean that we are judging them. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees on more than one occasion and often harshly (remember Matthew 23 from yesterday). The first time we come across the Pharisees is in Matthew 3:7-10 when John the Baptist was delivering this message:

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize,[c] he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”

As with Matthew 23, these words seem harsh, but I didn’t see where anyone asked John how he thought he was going to reach people with such mean words. Nor did I hear anyone remind him we can catch more flies with honey or that we must speak only in love and grace. Why was it acceptable for Jesus and John the Baptist to judge the Pharisees? The answer may not seem obvious at first, so let’s take a look at some scriptures regarding rebuking, judging, and speaking the truth:

2 Timothy 2-4 (NLT): 2 Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. 3 For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will reject the truth and chase after myths.

James 5:19 -20 (NLT): My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20 you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.

Galatians 6:1-3 (NLT): Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer[a] is overcome by some sin, you who are godly[b] should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important

1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NLT): Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.

Yes, I believe Jesus and John the Baptist’s words were harsher than we are called to use in everyday life, but I believe this is because God was trying to make a point. He wanted us to know that the Pharisees were wrong. He wanted to make sure we did not behave in any way like the Pharisees. He wanted to make sure we knew the consequences of being a Pharisee. You see, speaking truth to people and sharing what the Bible says is not judgment. Judgment comes in the form of condemnation. If what we speak is based on truth and in love, we are acting accordance to scripture and should not be afraid to do so. Furthermore, I don’t believe that God ever intended us not to judge anyone. Gasp! Yep, you read it right! I do not believe the Bible says we are not to judge, and I think Matthew 7 has been greatly misquoted and misunderstood.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NLT): Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others.[a] The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.[b] “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye[c] when you have a log in your own?4 How can you think of saying to your friend,[d] ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

It does not tell us not to judge; it tells us not to judge other Christians before we have dealt with our own sins. Once we have done so, we are expected to hold our brothers and sisters accountable for their sins. (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 4:11-13; Romans 14:13; Matthew 7:16-20). I would caution you against judging non-Christians as it is our job to speak the truth of Jesus Christ to everyone and it is God’s job to do the rest. (Corinthians 5:12-13; Colossians 4:5; 1 Timothy 1:1-4)

Wow, this is going to be a long one today!

Now, I tried really, really hard to find a scripture that rebuked the Pharisees for following the Law and to my surprise, I could not find a one.

Matthew 16:6-12 (NLT): 6 “Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn’t brought any bread.8 Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “You have so little faith! Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread? 9 Don’t you understand even yet? Don’t you remember the 5,000 I fed with five loaves, and the baskets of leftovers you picked up? 10 Or the 4,000 I fed with seven loaves, and the large baskets of leftovers you picked up? 11 Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread? So again I say, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” 12 Then at last they understood that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus was not warning us against the Pharisees simply because they followed the law too strictly. No, he was warning us against their teachings or practices.

Matthew 23:1-4(NLT): Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses.[a] 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.

I think this verse is trying to tell us that we are to be like the Pharisees in trying to follow the Law, but we are not supposed to imitate their ways because they did not practice what they preached. The word “hypocrite” comes to mind, but we will discuss the whole “hypocrisy” thing later in the study.

One of the biggest mistakes the Pharisees made was adding their own laws to God’s Law. These additions to God’s Law made it difficult for others to follow and many turned away from God.

Matthew 15:1-9 (NLT): Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”……8 ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’[d]”

Luke 6:7 (NLT): 7 The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.

Matthew 23:23 (NLT): What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens,[g] but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.

The ceremonial hand washing, the extra tithes, and restrictions on the Sabbath are just a few examples of the laws the Pharisees added. To top it off, these laws were often carefully worded so that the common people would be held to the standard, but the Pharisees always fell into the “loop-hole.”. How do we know these weren’t God’s laws or inspired by God? Well, if it was against God’s Law to heal on the Sabbath, then Jesus would have been guilty of sin! We know this just isn’t true, so the obvious answer is that it was just a rule that the Pharisees added. But this doesn’t happen today does it? Nah, I didn’t think so. All joking aside, this practice of adding to God’s Law is still active in almost every church in America. All denominations have their certain beliefs, practices, rituals, and ceremonies. We have churches still doing things the way they were done 100 years ago and then we have more modern churches that seem to have more world than God. So is it wrong for every denomination to have their own belief systems, by-laws, membership requirements, etc.? I don’t know, but it sure gives us something to think about. I would really like to see what a Chapter Acts church would look like in today’s society; I’m betting it still works.

One last point I would like to make is to caution ourselves against holding tightly to old traditions, rituals, ceremonies, etc. If done in the proper manner, these things can benefit the church, but when they are done for the wrong purpose or in the wrong manner they become more of a hindrance than a help. You see, when we are focused on the order of our church service, what kind of worship music we will have, or whether or not we recited the correct doxology, we are no longer focused on God. We have all seen this in action in our very own church I am sure. If the pastor moves the pulpit two feet to the left, there is sure to be a meeting after church; the worship team sang a hymn in the contemporary service-meeting time; Pastor X took the hymns out of service today-emergency impeachment meeting. It can even get real personal. Churches sometimes dictate what others can wear, how they style their hair, and how they put on make-up. Is this really what God intended or are we, like the Pharisees, adding to the laws of God?

I honestly believe the Pharisees were not condemned because of their strict obedience and love for traditions, rituals, and such, but rather because their additions to God’s Law caused people to turn from God. The Pharisees started out as a group of people who loved God and wanted to please him. Somewhere along the way self-righteousness, pride, and hypocrisy crept in and wreaked havoc for generations to come. I found it interesting that the group who appeared to love the Lord the most, was the group that angered the Lord the most. Are we, the church, that far off from becoming just like them?

I pray you will continue on in this study with me tomorrow as we take a look at how the Pharisees were brought down by their self-righteousness.

Until next time, stay safe and God bless,


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