7 Signs the Pharisees Are Running Your Church

So are the Pharisees running your church?

Interesting question.

How would you know?

And perhaps, more appropriately, how would you know if that was you? 

You could argue that the since the religious leaders nailed Jesus to the cross, there’s no way you would have done that.

But seriously, how would you know? If you really read the Bible—I mean really read it—it’s pretty challenging.

I read stories like Matthew’s calling in Matthew 9 and think, I might have been frustrated by Jesus too. When a person hangs out with hookers, criminals and other morally sketchy people, I’d question him as well.  Which of course, would squarely puts me in the company of the Pharisees.

Hence my worry.

How do you know the Pharisees aren’t running your church?

How do you make sure that Pharisee isn’t you?

 Pharisees are running your church

I’m Not A Pharisee…I’m Just Righteous

In many Christian circles, Pharisee is just a bad labelWe throw it at someone we don’t like, we disagree with or generally think should suffer.

But as I pointed out in this piece (The Top 10 Things Pharisees Say Today), the Pharisees are more nuanced than commonly thought to be.

Part of the tension we lose in the dialogue today is that the Pharisees really tried to be righteous. They knew their Bibles as well as anyone. Their devotion was, purportedly, deep.

And Jesus said they missed the boat. His most scathing words were reserved for people who claimed to be speaking for God.

7 Signs the Pharisees are Running Your Church

So what are the signs that the Pharisees are running your church?

What are the signs that you might be that leader?

Here are 7.

1. Your leaders like to show off

Check those stats. Did you see how many downloads that message got? How many likes that photo picked up? Or that visitor who said he thinks you’re as good as that mega-preacher guy?

Or, worship leaders, think about your mad guitar skills or your new V-Neck or fierce beard.

Or admin types…check out the bullet proof system I put together.

Sigh.

We all want to be better, or cooler (even though cool church is dying), don’t we?

But sometimes in our pursuit to improve our skill, we lose our soul.

Here’s a key distinction.

When you’re focused on how you’re doing more than you’re focused on how the people you’re serving are doing, you’ve kind of lost the game.

When you’re more focused on your performance than you are on the mission, there’s trouble ahead.

Stop showing off. Stop trying to get better for the sake of trying to get better.

Focus relentlessly on serving God and serving people, and an amazing thing might happen. You’ll likely get better.

But at that point, you might not even notice.

Which would be awesome.

2. Everyone thinks they’re a little better than everyone else

One of the big differences between the Pharisees and the ‘sinners’ Jesus hung out with, is how they felt about themselves.

The Pharisees thought they were right.

That’s dangerous territory for leaders because often we think we’re right or that our positions (theological or philosophical) are right.

So, do you think your view is simply better than others? Or that you’re better than others? A little less sinful? A little more together? A little smarter? A little wiser? Spend a lot of time criticizing others and asserting how right you are?

There’s the Pharisee.

3. There’s this love of money thing going on

Money. Could there be a more fun topic in the church?

Ministry needs money to run on. I get that.

As a general rule, underfunded ministries are ineffective in the long run. This is true of any ministry or charitable organization. I actually agree with Dan Pallotta that the most important causes in the world should be the most generously funded. (If you haven’t heard his TED talk, stop reading this blog post and watch it.)

And in church world and non-profit world, there’s a constant push to expand the mission, so there’s regular pressure on giving.

And I think talking about money in church can be wonderful. I really do. Giving, after all, is a spiritual discipline. In the same way I need to read my bible, pray, serve and invest in people who don’t know God, I need to give. All of these things are part of what I do as a Christian.

We all need money. And ministries need money.

But when you start to love money…you’re in trouble.

So how do you know you might love money?

Here are some thoughts.

When you’re excited about what the money is doing for you, not what it’s doing for the mission, you’ve crossed a line.

When you refuse to have any financial accountability or wise people (to whom you’re accountable) speak into the details of your financial life, you’ve allowed money to become a master, not a servant.

Or, answer this: if your church cut your wages, would it also cut your joy (assuming you could find enough money to live on elsewhere)?

Money makes a wonderful servant in ministry, but a terrible master.

4. There’s too little compassion

In some leadership circles, lack of compassion is worn as a badge of honour.

I used to joke about mercy not being one of my spiritual gifts. Okay, sometimes I still joke about my natural lack of compassion.

Ironically, sometimes a lack of compassion helps you lead well. If you are too empathetic and overly sensitive to how people feel, you will get dashed on the rocks of leadership. Jesus had to push past a lot of competing voices to accomplish his mission. So did Moses, Paul and myriad other leaders.

But as committed as Jesus was to truth, he was exceptionally compassionate. He was frequently moved with compassion. And he rebuked the Pharisees for their lack of it.

God’s compassion is why you’re a Christian in the first place.

And if you haven’t noticed, people outside the church aren’t much attracted to compassionless, self-righteous leaders.

If you lack compassion…repent.

I have repented and am repenting. I’ve got a long way to go, but God will make the compassionless more compassionate if you ask him.

5. Leaders expect others to do what they don’t do

Practice what you preach is one of the oldest mantras around. And yet, if you’re a preacher, it can be very hard to do.

You can convince yourself you’re exempt, or you’re just being ‘obedient’ and teaching what you’re supposed to teach, when you know you’re only half walking the walk.

Cue the big buzzer.

Pretending to be something we’re not and claiming privileges we don’t extend to others are 2 of  5 things I listed here that give pastors a bad name with unchurched people.

And remember, those of us who teach actually get held to a higher standard than others.

So, teach with fear and trembling. And humility. And accountability.

6. No one’s closer to God

Strangely enough, the Pharisees were anxious to win converts. So am I.

Yet Jesus condemned the Pharisees, pointing out that they travel over land and sea to win a single convert but in the process, they make him twice as much a son of hell as they are.

Gulp.

So…here’s a question.

Are people closer to God after following you?

Sure, not everyone will be. We’ve all read the parable of the sower.

But after 3 to 5 years, do most people look more like Jesus or less like Jesus? Or to use another metaphor Jesus used, is there fruit? If you claim to be growing an orchard, where are the apples?

Sure, we’re not perfect. We’re being sanctified over time by the Holy Spirit. But overall, people should be moving closer to Jesus.

Are they?

7. The leaders are jealous

Spend even a few minutes in the Gospels, and you’ll see the Pharisees and other religious groups get jealous of any advance any other group makes.

Each group wanted to be on top. If the Saducees won, the Pharisees lost. If Jesus made more disciples than they did, their blood boiled.

So how’s your heart with that church down the road…the one that’s growing?

How’s your heart when you hear some other church picked up yet another one of ‘your’ families?

Hate it when other people they tell you they love listening to X’s podcast at the gym?

The jealousy thing even infected John the Baptist’s disciples. But John got it right…it’s not about him. He must decrease. Christ must increase. 

See what John did there? He said it out loud. He gave public recognition and praise to Jesus.

That’s what breaks the power of jealousy.

If you’re jealous, publicly praise whoever you’re jealous of. Celebrate them.

It will break the darkness inside.

That will also give you a clear heart and mind to get on with your mission. After all, you likely live in a region where there are thousands…okay, tens or hundreds of thousands…of unchurched people. Focus on that.

What Do You Think?

Before we jump to commenting, please know, I write this not to make the church worse, but in the hopes that in some tiny way it makes the church better.

I need to look in the mirror. Everyone who leads a church does. Far too much is at stake.

The church has enough critics (just read through the comments on this blog, any newspaper piece on religion, or pretty much any online place that talks about the church). But if we take the criticism we usually reserve for others and prayerfully apply it to ourselves, we’ll get better. We will.

And we have to.

I believe the church is the hope of the future.

So we just need to get better and healthier. And when we do, we’ll be far more effective.

Any additional signs you see that show that you may have turned Pharisee?

Scroll down and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

23 Comments

  1. Marie on January 18, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    O’ yes these posts are fantastic and brutally open. The Pharisee blog was a punch in the gut. I will pass this one on, already did ! I can think of a pastors right now that are like this and I use to carry the guilt for thinking bad about them, so I guess my judgement was right after all😏

  2. Bob Kopczeski on December 25, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Jesus dealt with the Pharisees re: adultery: (an evil and adulterous generation) Matthew 12:34. Any Pastors or Church Leaders out there preaching Luke 16:18?
    “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.”

  3. […] often we shoot ourselves in the foot, with everything from Pharisee-like self-righteousness to downright stupid things Christians do (here are […]

  4. Angel Eyes on September 2, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Powerful! Thank you for stepping out with this!

  5. 4TimesAYear on August 17, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    Recent stories in the news about churches charging tithes from widows who couldn’t pay and kicking them out. Definitely Pharisaical.

  6. Queen of Free on April 26, 2015 at 5:02 am

    This is applicable to any leader who follows Jesus, whether involved directly in leading the local church’s ministry or not. Love these thoughts Carey. Thanks for pumping out this content again. Oh Jesus, turning our hearts and the world upside down. 🙂

  7. Tandy Adams on February 4, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Great post. And … OUCH!! I think one Phariseeical sign is trusting in what or how much we know. Seems to me the Pharisees were very proud of their knowledge/education. I wish I could say I never did that but…

  8. Jonathan on January 28, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Some valid points, but is it legitimate without being a pharisee to criticise those churches/leaders who are liberal, ecumenical/preach false doctrine? Those of us who do highlight apostasy (as a warning to others) are often called pharisees.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 28, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Jonathan…appreciate the comment and the question. Thank you! I think for me there’s a difference in people who point out false teaching out of self-righteousness (they’re wrong…I’m right) and those who reluctantly but lovingly rebuke out of a broken heart for people being led astray. I gravitate toward the latter, not the former. Does that make sense?

      • Jeff on January 28, 2015 at 12:01 pm

        Prayer might be a major factor in this. It’s something I neglect all too often. Pray as if it’s the court of law and hand over all the evidence and all of your feelings towards the circumstance and everything you know. Then ask Christ to direct you. I all too often go through life unprepared but it doesn’t have to be that way.

        • Jeff on January 28, 2015 at 12:24 pm

          It has been said that there is a grain of truth in every false doctrine. When we have an interaction without thorough prayer, the risk of over-correcting is even greater.

      • Chuck on July 18, 2015 at 7:37 am

        Totally loved how Carey worded that response. Spot on.

  9. Jeff on January 26, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    I think it’s so freeing to realize that our salvation is not up to us. Maybe this is foolish thinking but how freeing is it to realize that hell is my default destiny apart from precious Lord Jesus. I already lost. Margin of error: 100%. Chief of sinners. Now, I don’t want to go there but there’s a sort of liberation in getting the bad news first. Like the spot in “Independence Day” where Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum take a breather in the alien ship and realize they suck. Anything good that happened for them after that moment was a total bonus because they were in the red. My uncle works for a food bank and last Christmas they handed out toys to the poor. The people rushed into this pole building and cursed and flipped each-other off and seemed to do everything but practice love. I’m like that. I fight to the death over something that is a gift. How foolish do I look? God gives me the rest at night away from my torment, the food to eat, and strength to work, the earth to live in, the money and blessing of living in a prosperous country, and the gifts and abilities and wisdom to make the best out of this life. He also freely gave me my salvation and freely gave us his Word. And provides bad times to be humbled and good times to reaffirm and renew our trust in His promises. When did I get this idea I deserve to be there?

    • Jeff on January 26, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      In Hell, shaking fist or not, I could have at least somewhat appreciated the comfort I never would have got from the God I never would have known.

      • Jeff on January 26, 2015 at 3:54 pm

        Maybe then the pain of my mother’s labor, the pleasure I felt, the tears I shed, the food I ate, the clothes I wore, the vehicle I purchased, the work I did, the friendships I had, the things I learned, the air I breathed, I love I thought I had would have meant something. But I severely doubt it because there’s no redemption to be had in Hell.

        • Jeff on February 3, 2015 at 11:51 am

          Another words: If you don’t get to Heaven, you never had a chance no matter how many lifetimes your heart experienced. Boom. There’s a relief in that. Maybe I’m masochist but I like knowing the girl I had a crush on in High School NEVER would have given me a chance. The pressure is off. I believe God loves us so much He gives each soul the primmest opportunities possible for them to believe. But I just said some never had a chance!? That’s right. Some choose otherwise. I believe our lives are custom faith growers meant to draw us to Christ. Every heartache we ran from and every blessing we did or didn’t hand over to a Higher Power. Whether it’s in nature or actually hearing the Gospel as a child. I believe everyone is on railway that only moves forward by the engine of previous precedent found in our hearts: God exists (Check) God is good (Check) God loves (Check) God loves me (Check) The Bible is the authority of God’s messages to me (Check) God sent His Son to die on a brutal cross for me (Check) Jesus is who He says He is (Check) etc. etc. You either choose to have had it or you won’t/didn’t. No middle ground.

  10. […] By Carey […]

  11. joshpezold on January 26, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Great post!! I’d say a sign that “I’m turing into a pharisees” is that numbers become more important than stories. Or another way to say it is… my heart is more excited and focused on the success of attendance than the lives being transformed by Jesus. Both important, but one is a means to an end. I was reading Luke 12 this week and this stood out to me… “Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered so that they were trampling on one another (success in numbers), Jesus began to speak first to his disciples saying (turned to his leaders):’Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Keep writing Carey!

  12. John M. Harris on January 26, 2015 at 10:07 am

    I think a good post.

    One thing I’d add though… Both Jesus and Paul are presented as Pharisees in the NT.

    So, it’s not so much that we shouldn’t be Pharisees, but we need to be the right kind of Pharisee.

    • Jeff on January 26, 2015 at 11:01 am

      The only reason we have a Paul was because God loves the religious and the sinners. No one escapes God’s love. (The prodigal son story)

      With that said, Carey, I think a big one for me has been to think I know it all and not spending enough time trying to grasp how much I can’t even grasp how much I can’t even grasp how infinite God is.

      • Jeff on January 26, 2015 at 11:17 am

        “the look of contempt” – so subtle yet so obvious. Now I’m a little too convicted and I’m going to go pray.

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