We are living in a time of name calling and classification our society has come up with plenty. And the problem is these classifications are constantly thrown out at people unnecessarily. There is no room for debate these days, if a person is against homosexuality they call it homophobia if they have a particular position on women they are called sexist or fascists, if they believe in corporal punishment they are considered child abusers, disagreeing with a disabled or under privileged is called discrimination, calling people false teachers is called judging and in the same vein holding a standard is called legalism or pharisaic. It happens theologically, politically, socially and religiously. People cannot argue logically these days without being called a name!
Now I am not any way saying we do not have racists, sexists, child abusers etc. My point is simply that people use these as a way of avoiding truth. So just because a person has a position on music for instance does not make them pharisaic. Simply put a legalistic is one who believes and teaches that works will gain you salvation. So legalism is generally connected with salvation. In other words legalism is heresy that leads to hell! The word Pharisee means separate one and it is important to note that they had righteous and noble roots. They up held the word of God. However they slowly drifted from upholding the law that they became a law in themselves.
In Matthew 23 Jesus brings out the major problems with the Pharisees when he gives seven woes to them. And the issues he raises are quite instructive for us. To begin with they failed to recognize Jesus as the messiah hence hindering kingdom seekers (v13). The second problem was that they were full of pretense (v14). Their message and actions did not line up. Furthermore they were zealous but did a lot of damage in other words instead of making Disciples of Christ they reproduced themselves v 15. Their main concern was people conforming to their standards and teaching. The other problem was that they missed the main (central) things and focused on the secondary-misplaced priorities (23-24). They emphasized tradition over text (25-28). They were more concerned with keeping what they historically believed and how they had done things than with what the bible actually said.
Pharisaic behavior is a really danger for any believer. It is therefore very important to guard against its spirit at all cost. We should not try to be more spiritual than God is! There clear matters of doctrine that we should die for and there are matters of in different and we should Paul’s instructions in Romans 14. But whatever you do always remember, Christianity is not about everyone having the same haircut, wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music, playing and watching the same games or buying the same things. So do not demand others to keep and follow your standards!
Layton Talbert in his article published in Front-line magazine in 1999 gives five helpful suggestions to help us from having a Pharisaic attitude and behavior and I would like to end with them.
1. Maintain a tough Biblical evaluation of yourself and your motives in all things.
2. Maintain a charitable Biblical evaluation of others and their motives.
3. Guard against a self-righteous attitude and a hypocritical observance.
4. Guard against a preoccupation with externals over or at the expense of internals.
5. Maintain the distinction between applications/interpretations and the changeless truth upon which they are based, that is, between Tradition and Text.