silhouette of man praying, angel with halo, and Moses with the Ten Commandments

‘Pharisaical’ Politics on the Left and the Right?

I was recently asked a question in the context of a discussion about various LGBT policy issues that was so different from the others. It had to do with Pharisees.

Am I a Pharisee?

The question actually came in the form of a text from a pastor who supports some or all of the policy positions advocated by the majority of the persons within the LGBT community. It was straightforward: Do I consider myself a Pharisee?

I told that pastor I didn’t know how to answer that question, because I would need to know what that minister thought a Pharisee is.

That might seem like a strange response coming from me, given that a large percentage of Tennesseans probably know of that word and know or think they know what a Pharisee is.

But for those who don’t, “Pharisee” is a term used to describe certain persons who, living at the time of Jesus, held to certain religious beliefs grounded in their understanding of the Laws of Moses and God’s covenantal relationship with the descendants of Abraham. Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, had nothing nice to say about Pharisees; He roundly condemned them.

So, the point of the question asked me was clear: Do I consider myself a “bad” Christian, the type of Christian Jesus would today condemn?

What Is a Pharisee?

While I don’t know yet the pastor’s definition of a Pharisee, the characteristic for which they are most known is their self-righteousness, and I suspect that is the sense in which the pastor was referring. The classic story in this regard is that of the Temple prayers offered by a publican, who was a despised tax collector in Jesus’ day, and a Pharisee. The story is described in Luke 18:9-14.

The Pharisee stood where he could be seen and heard “and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’” (vv. 11-12 NKJV).

The publican, on the other hand, went off to a corner and “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’ (v. 13)!

It was the publican that Jesus said went home justified (v. 14).

The story makes clear two problems with the Pharisee. He was really just talking to himself, but loud enough so others could hear. So, his first problem was that he really sought to be justified by what others thought of him, not God. His second problem was that he thought he could justify himself before God by keeping all the “rules.”

The publican, on the other hand, knew he had no righteousness of his own to tout before God by which he could be justified, and he knew God having mercy on him was his only hope of salvation.

What I Believe

I believe exactly what the publican believes. There is nothing I can do for God and nothing I can offer to God by which I could possibly justify myself before Him, and since I was 9 years old, I’ve never said otherwise. Whatever righteousness I have is only because God has chosen of his own sovereign will to impute to me a righteousness I could never have, that of Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Man. I didn’t earn it; I didn’t deserve it.

I also know and confess that I am far from perfect and will be until the day I die.

So What Does That Make Me?

If my beliefs are not those of Pharisees, then I have to wonder what I do or say that made this pastor want to know if I considered myself a Pharisee. I suspect it is this—I advocate in a public way for public policies based on what I believe is righteous and just and promotes human flourishing and oppose those policies that I think accomplish the opposite.

On the other hand, it might be because I am unapologetically uncompromising in what I believe and in that for which I advocate. I know that’s an unwelcome attitude in a culture awash in relativism.

But, I can only proceed in this manner in a relativistic culture because of what I understand the Bible to teach in regard to these matters. I turn to the Bible precisely because I know my heart is deceitful and prone to every error imaginable if God does not make known the truth in regard to these matters, and I believe He has done that in the Bible.

I also suspect the pastor thinks I’m wrong in my understanding of the Bible and therefore wrong on the issues I address. But I also suspect he thinks he’s right on these issues and does so because of what he understands the Bible to teach.

If he doesn’t think he’s right, then I’m not sure how he’d know I was wrong. If he simply thinks he’s right because he’s more enlightened than I am or because the Bible isn’t really a trustworthy source of truth and values, then that makes me either uninformed or gullible, but not a Pharisee. And I would hope a pastor’s level of conviction about what he thinks the Bible teaches is at least as strong as mine.

I could be wrong, and I look forward to hearing this pastor’s definition of a Pharisee, but if what I suspect is true, then we’re either both Pharisees or neither of us is.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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1 reply
  1. Brian Hale
    Brian Hale says:

    I have had the LGBT Pharisee discussion with my progressive friends. Roughly, it is: If I don’t accept LGBT people and practices in the church, including same sex marriage, then I am a Pharisee. My reply has been that Christ accepts repentant sinners like the publican and that his message to the adultress is “Go, and sin no more,” not “Come on in and sin again.”

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