Paul Prather

Christians: If critics call you a Pharisee, this study shows they’re probably right

Illustration of Jesus Christ telling a group of Pharisees that they should follow the spirit, not the letter of the law, according to the Gospel of Luke.
Illustration of Jesus Christ telling a group of Pharisees that they should follow the spirit, not the letter of the law, according to the Gospel of Luke. Getty Images

Those of us who claim to be Christians are commanded by the scriptures to become imitators of Jesus Christ.

We’re warned against acting like the Pharisees, who served as Jesus’ persecutors and foils in the New Testament’s four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The New Testament portrays Jesus as endlessly compassionate, self-sacrificial and free-spirited. As literary characters, the Pharisees, by contrast, are small-minded, self-righteous and legalistic.

A common slam against American Christians by our critics is that, on the whole, we’ve become more akin to modern-day Pharisees than to the Lord.

But is that true?

Yes, apparently.

Not long ago, I happened across a 2013 study by the Barna Group, a respected polling organization that examines religion much as Gallup examines politics. Barna conducted its study in conjunction with John Burke, an author who’d written a book about the attitudes and actions demonstrated by Jesus in all his encounters.

The idea: to determine how Christ-like today’s Christians really are.

With Burke’s help, Barna developed a series of 20 agree-or-disagree statements. Researchers isolated 10 actions and attitudes that matched the attitudes and actions displayed by Jesus in the Gospels and other New Testament books. Similarly, they isolated 10 attitudes and actions displayed by the Pharisees.

For instance, a Jesus-like action would be, “I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.”

A Jesus-like attitude: “It is more important to help people know God than it is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.”

A Pharisaical, or self-righteous, action: “I tell others the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules.”

A Pharisaical attitude: “It’s not my responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves.”

Respondents — all of whom identified themselves as Christians — were asked to rate their agreement with each of the 20 statements on a four-point scale.

You might say Barna’s findings weren’t good news.

Just 14 percent of Christians, one out of seven, turned out to be Christ-like in both actions and attitudes.

More than half, 51 percent, were found to match the Pharisees in both actions and attitudes.

If my math is accurate, that’s almost four Pharisees for every Jesus imitator.


The remaining 35 percent of respondents fell somewhere between the two extremes. They were Christ-like in actions but motivated by self-righteous or hypocritical attitudes (14 percent), or else they held Christ-like attitudes yet remained Pharisaical in their actions (21 percent).

Some of us (I’m looking in a mirror here) would sympathize with that 21 percent who agreed with Jesus in principle — their attitudes were OK — but they just couldn’t get their actions to line up. Can I get an amen on that?

Jesus’ teachings and actions run counter to pretty much every fiber of our human brains, not to mention our tawdry souls. He demanded that we humble ourselves and take up our crosses daily. He told us to turn the other cheek when smacked in the face. He said we should love our enemies, including those who lie about us. He warned us to never judge our neighbors, period. He sacrificed his life for others.

It’s tough to imitate Jesus even when we agree with him.

Another challenge for many Christians, in my observation, is that they’re the victims of bad teaching. I get the sense a lot of them have never actually read the New Testament for themselves, which is a pity.

They’re parroting what they’ve heard from some pulpit, and the person standing in their particular pulpit wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he came walking down the sanctuary’s center aisle wearing a red derby hat.

By the way, there’s an interesting anomaly in the Barna study. Evangelicals, typically the most maligned of Christians by the general public for allegedly being self-righteous prigs, scored much better than all other Christians.

Some 23 percent of evangelicals were Christ-like in both attitudes and actions, compared with only 14 percent of Christians as a whole, and higher than any other Christian subgroup.

And only 38 percent of evangelicals were found to be Pharisaical in both attitudes and actions, the lowest of any Christian subgroup.

Still, the uncomfortable takeaway for those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ is that when critics harangue us for reminding them of anyone rather than Jesus, statistically they’re right.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at