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Christians, Stop Using ‘Pharisee’ as an Insult.

Christian hypocrisy is a problem. This isn’t a controversial statement. It’s just true. In 2013, The Barna Group found that only one in seven Christians holds both Christ-like beliefs and acts in Christ-like ways. Of course, Christians are only human, so that on its own isn’t exactly concerning. But when you pair that with Barna’s finding that half of American Christians tends “to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness,” then we’ve got a problem.

We’ve got a word for these kinds of Christians: Pharisees. The connection is pretty straight forward. In the Gospels, Jesus had a lot of strong words for Pharisees. “They preach, but do not practice,” he says in Matthew 23. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”

This and other, similar verses have led to our modern idea that “pharisee” is pretty much a synonym for hypocrite. And if you’ll forgive a “Webster’s dictionary defines…” moment, Webster’s Dictionary does define pharisaical as “marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.” So that’s that, right?

But this association is overly simplistic, even by the standards of the Bible — which has a far more nuanced view of Pharisees than many Christians. Our modern associations of Pharisees with hypocrisy owes far more to millennia of anti-Jewish rhetoric than it does to Jesus.

To understand better, we need to understand the culture in which Jesus was operating. He addressed a lot of his attention towards three different Jewish groups: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Zealots. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had several disputes, but we can broadly categorize their religious disagreements around what it meant to observe the Torah. The Pharisees believed that the Oral Torah was authoritative, and that its interpretation should be flexible to fit with a changing culture. The Sadducees held that only the written Torah was authoritative, and believed in a strict interpretation.

Of the two, the Pharisees were around longer, and can largely be credited with preserving and shaping Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. In fact, much of what we consider mainstream Judaism, what’s sometimes called Rabbinic Judaism, is only here because of the Pharisees.

That there should be as good a reason as any for Christians to stop using Pharisee as a slur. For millions of Jewish people, Pharisees are an important part of their religious heritage.

Well, one might counter, Jesus accused the Pharisees of being hypocrites, so why can’t I? 

Here is where it’s exceedingly important to remember one simple fact that the Church has spent many, many centuries forgetting: Jesus was Jewish. The disciples were Jewish. The whole Bible was written by Jewish people, largely to Jewish readers. When we remember this, we can see Jesus’ sharp words with the Pharisees as inter-cultural debates about a shared faith, one in which pointed language play a larger role in the same way a family debate around the dinner table will be more heated than a disagreement with a stranger.

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In short, context matters. The context of the time is key to understand Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. And to that point, it’s also important to remember our modern context, and Christianity’s relationship with Judaism.

Tragically, Church history is littered with antisemitism and anti-Jewish behavior. This history has an enormous body count (Hitler himself leveraged Christian rhetoric against Jews to mobilize support in Germany) and the thread of bigotry stretches well into today. You don’t need to go far to find examples of Christians continuing to sow fear, mistrust and hatred against Jewish people in this country and around the world.

Many Christians don’t intend to be part of that ugly and violent movement when they hurl “Pharisee” as an invective. But intent isn’t the same thing as impact, and every time a Christian uses Pharisee as an insult, they are adding fuel to the old and awful fires of antisemitism. Christians shouldn’t just be avoiding these things. We should be actively repenting and seeking forgiveness for this legacy, and be the first to denounce antisemitism whenever it raises its ugly head, as it seems determined to again and again.

Besides, if Barna’s numbers are anywhere close to correct, Christians hardly need to reach to another faith tradition to find a new word for “hypocrite.” We’ve got enough examples right here in our own circles to work with. Surely we can find substantive, meaningful ways to deal with those without invoking ugly rhetoric.

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