Explaining the concept of secular phariseeism

I long held pretty standard views of Jesus’ confrontation of the Pharisees. My view has shifted slightly, or rather has expanded to allow room for identifying all self-righteous individuals and points of view as having a close relationship to the Pharisees of Jesus day.

We remember that Jesus warned his disciples “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” but they did not understand him. I have not understood the warning very well, either. For a long time I perceived and spoke of Jesus’ strong rebuke of the Pharisees as being because of their religiosity. If religion is the leaven of the Pharisees, then secular persons would obviously be immune. This has seemed increasingly inaccurate to me as I have witnessed the hypocrisy of secular Americans who attack Christians for holding to the moral standards of scripture.

Besides identifying phariseeism with religion, I have always identified it with a judgmental attitude. This is an important sign of phariseeism, but I think it is not the leaven itself. Instead the leaven is the hypocrisy1 of self-righteousness. The judgmental attitude that the Pharisees are known for, is a symptom of the self-righteousness that they carried in their hearts. It was their inability (and unwillingness) to identify the sinfulness of their own hearts that caused them to be so spiteful to those that they considered beneath them.

If self-righteousness is the leaven of the Pharisees then secular people would not be immune. Instead they would be just as susceptible as anyone else. A secular person rejects imputed righteousness and so must either acknowledge their own guilt, or else hold themselves to be inherently righteous, or to have achieved a works-based righteousness. If a person doesn’t trust in Christ’s sacrifice and doesn’t acknowledge their own sin, they must be self-righteous by default. There are no other options.

Someone may object that because secular people don’t claim to know God or speak for him, they can not be identified with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. I held that point of view for years. The way to clear up that misconception is to recognize that denying God’s existence or his relevance to daily life is still making a claim to know the truth about God. It makes no difference if one claims to be religious or not, to deny the truth of Christianity is to make a claim about religious matters. A secular person is defined by his denial of the existence or relevance of God. Thus a secular person, by definition has staked out a definite position regarding religious truth.2

A non-religious pharisee needs a non-religious moral law, and he has one. Secular people have their own concept of right and wrong, it is written in their hearts3 and demonstrated by their words and actions. Thus they can be just as self-righteous as the historical Pharisees ever were. Is there any philosophy or mindset in the world that doesn’t offer judgments on right and wrong? I don’t think so. People argue about the boundaries, but no one consistently holds that there aren’t any boundaries.

It isn’t that some people believe in morality and others deny it, everyone admits its existence. Everyone could rattle off a list of “thou shalt not’s” that they believe in. The universal tendency is to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. The hypocrisy is that we always seem to put ourselves on the right side of that line. It is hypocrisy because we each have evidence to the contrary.

For a long time I struggled with statements like that in Romans 2:1, because I couldn’t comprehend how every person could be guilty of every condemnation which he delivers. But in fact it is literally true. Each person is guilty, in principle, of the sins which he condemns. This lines up perfectly with Jesus’ instruction to “judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

Romans 2:1

Notice what the one who judges is guilty of? It is not some other sin, as I would have thought. According to Romans, he is guilty of the same sin. Someone will say this can’t be true, because not everyone is guilty of murder, yet we all condemn it. But Jesus said that anyone who is unjustly angry faces the same judgment as a murderer.4 I may not be able to explain how this works with every sin, but I’m sure the same principle holds every category.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

Matthew 7:1-2

How does Jesus explain his instruction that we should not judge? God will judge us by those rules which we mean to apply to others. Thinks what this means. God would never judge unjustly, so this means that we must be guilty of breaking the same principle. We have seen that already. A further implication is that we must have knowledge of righteous principles, because God would never judge anyone by unrighteous principles. Every just moral judgment that we make is one that we are also guilty of breaking. And every unjust judgment is the misapplication of a true principle. God will correctly apply the true principles and find every soul guilty, except those to whom he accounts a righteousness without works.

And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.

John 9:39-41

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day claimed the ability to see and understand what was true and right. It was their insistence that they already knew the truth which kept them from acknowledging Jesus. To admit that could not see would be to admit moral incompetence. This is what they steadfastly refused.

Every person, secular or otherwise, who refuses to admit his own moral incompetence is a self-righteous hypocrite. They have swallowed the leaven of the Pharisees and are in danger of becoming a full-blown “child of hell.”5

Secular pharisees are not all equally bad, just as the historical Pharisees were not all equally bad. Some Pharisees believed in Jesus, some came to him by night, some spoke up for him in front of the others. Please don’t think that I’m painting every secular person as equally terrible. But Jesus’ intention in calling hypocrisy a kind of leaven, a sourdough starter, was to point out that it is infectious. A very small amount of leaven added to a fresh batch of dough will quickly spread throughout the whole thing. The yeast and bacteria multiplies and changes the character of the entire lump of dough, no matter how large.

When secular self-righteousness rears its hypocritical head, it can be every bit as evil and nasty as the as the whitewashed tombs of the historical Pharisees. Self-righteousness inside the church and outside the church is the same phenomenon at heart. It wears different clothing and uses different language but it bears the same twisted fruit. Both varieties of hypocrite divide the world into good guys and bad guys, placing themselves squarely on the side of the angels. Both revile and abuse those they see as beneath their moral superiority.

Hopefully this helps to explain how and why I believe that there are “secular pharisees” in America today. If that’s true then we need to recognize them and deal with them as they really are, enemies of the gospel, more like wolves than lost sheep. There seem to be very few Christians in America who are prepared to do that. If Jesus needed to do it, why wouldn’t we need to do the same?


1 Lk 12:1 …the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

2 This position is often obscured by twisting language to suggest that something can be religiously true, while not be being actually true, historically or scientifically. This is purely a word-game, and it’s an intentionally a deceptive one.

3 Rom 2:14 … these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves

4 Mat 5:21-22 whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment

5 Mat 23:15 …ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.


tiny lantern

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