Legalists and Libertines

Sound Words graphicWe typically think of the Pharisees as legalists. They are criticized for requiring strict adherence to fine details of obscure laws. They are dismissed as the “prudes” of their day. In fact, the term “Pharisee” has become a favorite smear people use to criticize anyone with a standard stricter than their own. However, a look at the biblical evidence indicates that describing the Pharisees as legalists is only half right.

There is no question that the Pharisees were legalists in that they promoted a works-based religion. However, though they were strict about some laws (particularly those of their own invention), they repeatedly “laid aside” and “rejected” the commands of God (Mark 7:8–9).

They were guilty of spiritual pride and ambition (Matt 23:5–7), thus stealing God’s glory while also neglecting the first and great commandment (Matt 22:37–38). They permitted their hearers to neglect their duties to parents (Mark 7:10–11), thus circumventing the fifth commandment. They arranged the murder of Christ (Matt 21:46; 26:3), thus breaking the sixth commandment. They were guilty of thievery (Matt 23:14, 25), thus circumventing the eighth commandment. They permitted their hearers to break their promises (Matt 23:16–22) and even sought false witnesses against Christ (Matt 26:59), thus circumventing and breaking the ninth commandment. They were guilty of lust, self-indulgence and impurity (Matt 23:25, 27), thus breaking the tenth commandment (and perhaps the seventh).

The Pharisees supplemented their legalism with a sort of license that allowed themselves and their hearers to break God’s law with impunity. They were ostensibly zealous for some aspects of the law, but they neatly explained away “the weightier matters of the law,” such as justice, mercy and faith (Matt 23:23). They were condemned by Christ not only for straining out moral gnats, but for swallowing immoral camels (Matt 23:24). In that sense, they may accurately be described as the spiritual forebears of today’s libertines who gain hearers by inventing loopholes for divine imperatives. But more importantly, they may accurately be described as the spiritual forebears of those who maximize some laws while excusing themselves from others, and we all do that! We would do well to study the Pharisees’ errors with a bit more precision—and a bit more introspection.

March 2007

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