There are at least two reasons why the Gospel writers give us such extensive material on the Jewish religious leaders of the first century. First, Jesus exposes the spiritual character of the scribes and Pharisees in order to guard his disciples from becoming entangled with and influenced by those who are walking in religious hypocrisy (see Matt 16:6-12; 23:1-12; cf. 2 Tim 3:5). Second, the negative example of the Pharisees helps us uproot our own residual hypocrisy because Christians are all recovering legalists from one degree or another.
Both perspectives are vital. The first keeps us from becoming susceptible to the pervasive influence of religious hypocrisy. Religious hypocrisy spreads easily and can influence a true believer quickly, like leaven (Luke 12:1-2). The second guards us from self-righteousness, self-deception, and aids us in maintaining a humble heart before the Lord (Matt 23:12). Religious hypocrisy is deadly: we must root it out of our lives, call it out when appropriate, and avoid those who are ensnared in it.
Yet, like any aspect of Christian obedience, our sensitivity to religious hypocrisy must be balanced by other important truths.
Slow to Judge
For example, Scripture would have us guard against making a hasty diagnosis of another’s spiritual condition (Prov 18:2; 18:13), because it is possible for a true believer to be guilty of hypocrisy (Gal 2:12-14; 1 Peter 2:1). I am not talking about encountering someone who has an appearance of godliness but, once you have a chance to see into their private and public lives, it becomes clear that they are characterized by the qualities listed in Matthew 6:1-8; 23:1-35 and 2 Timothy 3:1-9. We must let Scripture be our guide in determining what kind of person we are dealing with in a given situation. Sometimes, it will be difficult to tell (Matt 13:27-30) but over time, the truth will become evident (2 Tim 3:9).
Nevertheless, we must also note that genuine believers won’t be characterized by a penchant to locate religious hypocrites. Actually, hypocrisy hunting is a characteristic of religious hypocrites! The scribes and Pharisees were constantly watching Jesus and looking for ways to undermine his authority and question his piety (see Mark 3:1; Luke 6:7; 14:1; 20:20). A Christian isn’t naïve, but neither is he primarily concerned with identifying all the false Christians in the world. Nor will a mature Christian suggest that he can judge with certainty the spiritual state of professing Christians. “The true saints,” Jonathan Edwards observes, “have no such a spirit of discerning that they can certainly determine who are godly and who are not.”
The Necessary Work of Discernment
None of this is meant to suggest that Christians shouldn’t be diligent to exercise discernment and to guard themselves and others from Christian pretenders: that’s one of the primary reasons why Jesus often spoke to his disciples about Israel’s religious leaders and why the epistles contain much material on the topic of religious charlatans and false teachers.
While it may not be our favorite topic on which to reflect, it is vital to our spiritual health, the health of our fellow brothers and sisters, and the health of the church corporately to be aware of and rightly identify the spiritual frauds, especially when they hold a public teaching position. Speaking to all his disciples (not just pastors and leaders within the church), Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matt 7:15-16). The implication of Jesus’ statement is (1) that his disciples would be able to identify false teachers and; (2) it was their responsibility to do so.
“But I Don’t Want to Be Judgmental!”
But you might wonder: Isn’t it pharisaical and judgmental to identify hypocrites and false teachers and draw people’s attention to their sin and compromised teaching and lifestyle? It could be. A person under the sway of self-righteousness could take sinful delight in exposing these charlatans and nurse an attitude of spiritual superiority through their so-called work of discernment. They could tend to overlook their own sin and make the fatal mistake of thinking that their transgressions aren’t as evil as the false teacher’s. “I thank you, Father, that I am not like this or that false teacher.”
Indeed, there are those whose lives and ministries are spiritually lopsided because they spend the bulk of their energy and time tracking and tagging religious hypocrites but don’t appear to bear the symmetrical features of a healthy spiritual life: personal delight in Christ, practical good works, self-suspicious humility, and growth in the fruits of the Spirit.
As the word “beware” indicates, discernment is a serious and important business, but it is intended to flow from a love for Christ, an enjoyment of the truth, and genuine concern for people, both believers and unbelievers. If the whole of our Christian life is given to spotting false teachers, we will likely become harsh, self-righteous, and unbalanced in our Christian experience.
But calling out false teachers and warning others about their ministry and giving evidence of their compromised life and teaching is not necessarily pharisaical, self-righteous, or judgmental. When Jesus tells his disciples to be aware of false teachers and to identify them by their fruits, he assumes that this can be done without sinning. Jesus warns against judgmentalism (Matt 7:1-5), but he also instructs people to make righteous judgments (John 7:24).
It is also unkind to allow obvious hypocrisy to flourish in the life of another professing Christian: confrontation is our duty when we encounter blatant discrepancies between one’s profession and their practice. But there is also a sense in which the love that has been shed abroad in the Christian’s heart by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5) will bear the fruit of believing the best about others. This is how I take Paul’s statement, “Love…believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7).
Welcoming the Believer
Indeed, a person who has experienced the love of Christ will be eager to find and rejoice in others who have received such a great salvation. That’s how you can determine whether or not your discernment faculties are operating according to a biblical schematic: your first impulse is to locate and welcome genuine believers, not identify and publicize the pretenders.
Christian love is a discerning and knowledgeable love, to be sure (Phil 1:9-10), but it is not a love that relishes the opportunity to expose Christian posers. Religious hypocrisy should cause us sorrow (see Phil 3:18), and its discovery should be attended with an appropriate watchfulness over our own souls (Gal 6:1).
But when there is good evidence of a sound conversion in another professing believer, it is the spiritual bent of the mature Christian to gladly welcome such people into their fellowship. Edwards again: “When there are many probable appearances of piety in others, it is the duty of the saints to receive them cordially into their charity, and to love them and rejoice in them as their brethren in Jesus Christ.”
Paul said it this way: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7).