Leaven of the Pharisees

In a previous post, we looked at the legalism which comes from much of what is called ‘Messianic Christianity.’ You can read that here. Now let’s look at another aspect of the damaging work of legalism through other so-called branches of Christianity. You get the emails and comments from time to time from these self appointed protectors of the faith who have a thimble full of truth with ocean sized mouths. Jesus faced them, you face them and I face them. Let us not let our focus get off on them, as they feed off of being the center of attention.

Jesus addressed these types of legalists in His day. They hounded Him every where He went. The book of Acts reveals that these same legalists followed and persecuted the Apostle Paul as he took the gospel of grace to the Gentiles. Let’s look at what Jesus had to say about them and then discuss the earmarks of this type of legalism.

“Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…'” (Matt. 16:6)

One of the truths which ‘leaven’ symbolized was sin. Jesus used this image to describe the dynamics of how sin works. Like leaven, sin works secretly, silently, certainly and from within. The leaven/sin of the Pharisees works the same way. It is a scourge upon the body of Christ and, many times, it comes from surprising quarters. Let’s take a brief look at this.

Around the turn of the 20th Century there was a necessary movement within the Church to stand for and defend the faith given to us from the Scripture. This resulted in what we know as fundamentalism. This term refers to those who believe in the fundamentals of sound doctrine of the Christian faith. However, in recent decades it has come to represent those who are hard, unloving, judgmental and high minded. It is sad that what began as a necessary stand against the tidal wave of theological liberalism and existentialism, slowly became a call sign for such an ugly representation of the Christian faith.

Anytime the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is removed from the practice of sound doctrine, death by legalism will occur. What can be God at inception can within one generation become the work of man, and by the second generation become a tool for Satan. This progression is a result of men abandoning intimacy with Christ through brokenness, humility and prayer.

Just like the Pharisees, which Jesus warned His disciples about, we should beware of the modern Pharisees. They desire to bring men into their legalistic bondage with religious warnings and spiritual sounding threats. Let’s look at some earmarks of this type of legalism so we can avoid the pitfalls associated with it.

Earmarks of Legalism

  • Righteousness by works – Legalists fail to realize that works come out of saving faith, they do not produce it.
  • Natural minded interpretation of Scriptures – Legalists demonstrate over and over a natural minded and letter bound interpretation of the Bible. You’ll always sense a lack of the Holy Spirit direction and presence in their words and deeds.
  • Rules and Regulations – Legalists love adding rules and regulations in order to control and protect their Pharisaical club of self righteousness.
  • Small minded view of culture – Legalists fail to transpose the eternal truths of Scriptures into various cultures. Instead they codify their own culture and then impose it upon other cultures. In years past, missions have suffered at the hands of promoting a Western version of Christianity instead of allowing missionaries to move into the culture of the mission.
  • Truth defended at the expense of Love – Legalists care very little about the Love of God. They consider such talk as weak or compromising. They fail to obey the very book they claim to defend. “He that loveth not, knoweth not God.” (1Jn.4:8) “Speaking the truth in love.” (Eph.4:15) “Without love you are a sounding brass and tinkling symbol.” (1Cor.13:1)
  • Judgmental – Legalists express a constant disposition to critique and condemn others quickly and harshly. They are slow to listen, slow to question and quick to speak. 

Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. These modern day and self appointed ‘defenders’ are nothing more than a revival of legalists. They have failed to understand the gospel, want to control others with their ignorance, and have a carnal need for control. Their leaven will intimidate the biblically ignorant and the weak.

Find a church where God’s Word is taught without apology or compromise by men who are broken vessels. Men who understand the absolute need of being in tune with and constantly filled afresh with the Holy Spirit. Men who encourage the weak, warn the unruly and are patient toward all men. (1 Thes. 5:14) Men who will teach you to be a Berean. (A person who is taught to search the Scriptures to test the teaching of any person.)

And above all, fall before the Lord’s throne in prayer. Ask Him to fill you with Himself and guide your heart into all truth. He will lead you to balance, maturity and wise application of His eternal Word. You will then be able to recognize the leaven of the Pharisees and possibly help rescue those trapped by it. Hallelujah for the fundamentals of the faith. However, if we leave out the character of Jesus and the life of the Holy Spirit from our presentation and defense of truth, we’ll be guilty of spreading leaven instead of redeeming the lost!

Lord, make us men who can rise above the ungodliness of the leaven of the Pharisees, and through wisdom and brokenness, properly interpret and apply the treasures of your Word. May our lives, in words and actions, display the fragrance of the Cross as we speak truth in love. Break us, teach us and convict us of the difference between primary and secondary points of theology, as well as the necessity of a life filled with Your Spirit. We can’t do it…therefore, we cry to you in faith. In Your name…Amen!

Related topics:
Restored Legalism – The Danger of Messianic Christianity 
Jacob’s Limp
God Uses The Wrong People

2 thoughts on “Leaven of the Pharisees

  1. Hi Terry,

    Your list of “Earmarks of Legalism” does describe problems in some Christians and Christian groups; however, I am not a fan of using the term legalism since the modern Christian theological definition of legalism covers the characteristics of weak conscience Christians that Paul referred to in Romans 14 and 1Cor. 8. Over the years of my Christian life it seems like almost 80 to 90 percent of the time I hear a brother and sister in Christ refer to another Christian as a legalist, they are calling a non-blasphemously-judging weak conscience Christian a legalist. I believe the modern Christian theological definitions of a legalist and legalism have deliberately been made illogically broad and relative in order to be able reclassify weak conscience Christians into another critter called a legalist in order to escape God’s admonitions to strong conscience Christians to bear the burden of weak conscience Christians and not despise them.

    I got saved in late 1963. In early 1964, I enlisted for a four year hitch in the Army Security Agency. At Fort Devens, Massachusetts I finally got started studying the Bible in earnest and attended a Bible study group of soldiers that met at one of the chapels on post. All the folk in that Bible study group held to a definition of legalism and a legalist that only covered those who taught a false gospel of reliance on works to earn or help earn salvation. After my four year hitch, I started attending civilian churches and continued studying the Bible with other Christians in those churches. To my amazement I found that a high percentage of Christians were calling other Christians legalists if they were abstaining from some doubtful things that they did not abstain from. After a few years, it became obvious to me that the theological definitions of a legalist and legalism held by the majority of modern Christians, including fundamentalists and evangelicals, seemed to me to be very broad and relative because they include all the characteristics of and/or both the common characteristics of the Pharisees, of the false gospel teachers described in Galatians (Galatianists), of the false gospel teachers described in Colossians (Colossianists), of the weak conscience Christians described in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, and any characteristic in other Christians that to them had the appearance of strictness. In all my years of studying the Bible, I have never found the terms legalism and legalist or equivalent terms in the Bible. Those broad and relative theological definitions were very perplexing to me, especially, since they included the characteristics of weak conscience Christians in the definitions when they are significantly different from the false gospel teaching Pharisees, Galatianists and Colossianists in the Bible? The Apostle Paul described the characteristics of weak conscience Christians in detail, but he never used an all-inclusive term like the modern imaginary jackelope type theological concepts of legalism and a legalist.

    [editted…keeping only the salient points…only pithy comments please.- T.I.]

    I have also observed, what seems like about 80 to 90% of the time, when Christians used the terms legalist and legalism when referring to other Christians, they were actually referring to Christians that have weak consciences about something that they don’t have a weak conscience about. All this led me to conclude that the primary motive (reason) for modern Christians creating broad and relative theological definitions of legalism and a legalist was for the purpose of reclassifying weak conscience Christians into another critter to justify their despite for Christians that have weak consciences about doubtful-things that they don’t have a weak conscience about, and they want to justify their refusal to bear the burden of these weak conscience Christians.

    David Geminden

    1. David, thanks for you input. I want to make a couple of points and address one issue you brought up.
      1) First, I’m using Legalism in the strict sense. That is, to warn against those who violate the Gospel of “by grace through faith.” These are the ones who have closed the door to doctrinal reproof and have refused to allow the Scriptures to correct their error. A genuine believer can become trapped into legalism without being a legalist themself. When this happens to a genuine born again believer, they will respond to the clear explanation of the sound Bible doctrine.
      2) I’m not addressing genuine believers who are ‘weak in conscience’ or ‘weak in knowledge.’ Here, I agree with you. It is tragic when believers throw out terms of ‘legalism’ or ‘legalist’ when a believer to walking honest to their level of maturity, conscience and convictions.
      3) Writing on blogs, newsgroups and comments does not allow for detailed posts, especially in regards to defining the each term and its usage. Therefore, my articles are generally brief, allowing the ‘Beliefs’ page to lay the foundation of all posts.
      4) Just because ‘legalism’ or ‘legalist’ is not a term found in Scriptures is not a valid argument against using it. They are called ‘false brethren’ (Gal.2:4) who preach a ‘different gospel’ (Gal.1:6) by claiming the ‘works of the law’ will justify a person (Gal.2:16) and were guilty of ‘bewitching’ the Galatians. The term ‘legalism’ captures this dangerous perversion of the gospel perfectly.
      **(The term ‘trinity’ is not found in the Scriptures, but it quickly captures the canonical revelation of One God existing in Three Persons. It can become an exercise of futility to get caught up in demanding a precise ‘canonical terminology.’ Therefore, legalism and legalist are terms which have and should be used to succinctly define a dangerous substitute for the gospel of grace.)

      David, please keep any comments on posts brief, as this is not the place to ‘cut and paste’ entire articles. Thanks.

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