A small prayer group that a Seventh-day Adventist couple began in western Kenya in 2011 has grown to 400 people and witnessed the baptism of 16 pastors from other denominations during the world church’s recent 100 Days of Prayer initiative.
Looking for Legalism, Finding Hypocrisy
It’s a good idea to define our terms before we debate them.
By Joseph Olstad
Though we run the risk of appearing closed-minded, most of us don’t have time to consider every new idea or teaching crossing our religious radar. We often pick and choose what to consider based on the theological models or paradigms in our minds that serve to frame or filter information.
My own modeling helps me frame an understandable picture of God’s wrath in the Old Testament with Jesus’ teaching on forgiving one’s enemies in the New Testament. Without a model, I’m either left with a contradiction or tempted to favor/ignore one part of the Bible over another.
On the other hand, if a biblical scholar tries to tell me that Jesus wasn’t really divine, or the New Testament documents are a collection of forgeries, I’m not motivated (in most circumstances) even to consider such positions. I just filter that out and make no attempt at changing my paradigm to accommodate what I consider nonsense.
Paradigms are essential and work well until we forget we are using them. If that happens, we may begin unconsciously filtering out crucial bits of data that would improve our paradigms to reflect the truth better. It may be that some Christians, including Adventists, have unconsciously assumed, when reading the Gospels, a paradigm that has caused us to overlook some of the sharper points Jesus was making. The concept of legalism is one of these problematic paradigms that warrants a closer look.
I read and hear the contours of this model everywhere—in Sabbath schools, sermons, periodicals, and casual conversation: “Pharisees were legalists and were teaching legalism”; “Jesus rebuked the Pharisees’ legalism and taught us a new way of grace and love”; “Christians should obey the law but not legalistically”; “Obeying the Sabbath is legalism”; and so on. Within this paradigm it seems that legalism is a major threat in the Gospels; therefore, Jesus’ rebukes and teachings are seen as correcting that problem. But I suggest a different paradigm. Remembering the saying “What you focus on determines what you miss,” I believe that legalism has been focused on or assumed . . . but hypocrisy has been missed.
When I started considering this distinction, I asked friends at church if they could offer a single text from the Gospels that addressed legalism. I usually received either silence or a response about “tithing dill and cumin.” Perhaps that phrase came to your mind as well. Let’s start there.
Given that legalism is usually defined as “keeping the law in order to be saved,” let’s see if Matthew 23:23 is a good example of such behavior.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”1
Here is my question: what exactly is Jesus rebuking? Is He attacking legalism as commonly understood? It doesn’t appear so. In fact, in one sense the opposite is true. He is not condemning the Pharisees’ keeping of the law, whatever their motives may be; He is condemning their neglect of keeping the law.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Not only does He rebuke their neglect of the law—He highlights that they are neglecting the most important matters of the law. According to Jesus, the Pharisees not only are lawbreakers, but also break the most important laws.
But Jesus highlights another dimension of their disobedience. It is this highlight that brings “legalism” to mind for many readers. They not only are neglecting the most important parts of the law, but are keeping less-important parts so that they appear to be comprehensive law keepers. This last point earns them a special designation by Jesus, but it is not the designation “legalist.” It is the designation “hypocrite,” which He uses repeatedly.
But what about their legalistic tithing of herbs? Does Jesus want them to stop tithing? Not quite. He cautions that neither the weightier matters nor the “others,” i.e., tithing, should be neglected.
Jesus closes His “woe to you, hypocrites” with a startling metaphor of someone straining a tiny gnat (notice the singular) out of one’s drinking water, but promptly swallowing a large, hairy camel. The insanity of such water filtration methods is coupled with the hypocrisy of keeping lesser laws while violating crucially important ones. The razor edge of Jesus’ words did not concern the tithing (the gnat), but instead the massive deletions of the law (the camel).
He launches His next woe using a parallel metaphor of beautiful, whitewashed tombs (verse 27). But take a peek inside and the beauty is forgotten at the sight of decaying corpses. The rebukes don’t center on the whitewash and gnat, but instead on the camel and dead men’s bones, which Jesus decodes for us as “hypocrisy and lawlessness” (verse 28).
To stick with Jesus’ parable, the legalistic paradigm has caused us to zero in on the gnat and whitewash, whereas the crux of Jesus’ rebukes is centered on the camel and dead men’s bones. When all the imagery comes together, Jesus calls the picture “hypocrisy.” Legalism, in fact, may be present, but as a paradigm it skews Jesus’ rebukes to the Pharisees into something quite different than what He intended.
Who Is a Pharisee?
As I took a closer look at these passages and others like them, the typical picture of the Pharisees began to crumble. The Pharisees have been considered the epitome of legalism: those who obey every law under the sun but whose exhaustive obedience is infected with motives characterized by a meritorious, works-oriented, salvation-earning, pull-myself-up-by-my-moral-bootstraps framework. The more I read the Gospels and take each dialogue Jesus had with them into consideration, the more problematic the traditional view becomes. The Pharisees Jesus addressed2 need to be recast as classic lawbreaking hypocrites, not meticulous lawkeeping moralists.3
Ellen White’s description is not as flattering as mine. She wrote that their “outward holiness” served to conceal “iniquity,”4 and though “they were punctilious in ritual observances, their lives were immoral and debased.”5
With this distinction in view, many Bible texts converge and are better explained by a paradigm of hypocrisy. For instance, Jesus commanded the multitude to do what the Pharisees and scribes say to do, but not to follow their example, because they didn’t do what they said (verses 2, 3).
Ellen White notes that Jesus made this statement in light of a greater purpose: the “character of the . . . Pharisees must be more fully exposed.”6 They preach the law, “but do not obey the law themselves.”7
The pressing question is “Was Jesus successful at exposing the Pharisees?” or are we going to continue repeating, as a church, how perfectly the Pharisees kept the law when in fact they didn’t? One time Jesus bluntly told those trying to kill Him that “none of you keeps the law” (John 7:19). Again, notice Christ’s warning: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).
John the Baptist’s evangelistic strategy in Luke 3 may shed some light on the issue. If his audience had been immersed in a “works” theology of salvation, then John missed the target in his closing appeal. After giving a stirring message of repentance, John’s listeners asked, “What shall we do?”
Here’s John’s chance to turn them away from their legalistic moralism. But no, he tells them what they need to do: share your extra clothing, share your food, be fair in collecting taxes, don’t extort money through false accusations, and be content with your wages (Luke 3:10-14). I submit that John’s closing emphasis would not be safe for a “works”-oriented crowd. What if the people thought doing those works would earn them salvation? Obviously, that wasn’t the main concern. Let’s assume that John, the one more than a prophet, knew his audience better than we do in the twenty-first century, and knew exactly how to end his sermon. They needed to repent of bad works and to start doing good works.
Incidentally, John does pull the false “security blanket away from his listeners”—a blanket that very well could have been warming them into a counterfeit assurance of salvation. But that blanket wasn’t the I-keep-the-law-in-order-to-be-saved blanket; it was the I-have-Abraham-as-my-father blanket (verse 8). John’s next incisive comment implied that unless there is a shortage of rocks in Israel, one ought not to rely on ethnicity as giving automatic salvation status before God.
At this point someone may protest: “OK, I get it. Hypocrisy was a big problem. But concerning the laws that the Pharisees and others did keep, didn’t they keep them out of legalistic motives?”
This may very well be true, and I wouldn’t be surprised if legalistic motivations undergirded lawkeeping back then, as may be the case today. But even if it could be shown that the Pharisees were consistently legalistic by our standard definition, isn’t it interesting that if that was the case, Jesus consistently rebuked their lawbreaking instead of trying to critique any legalistic motives?
When Jesus does bring motives out on the table, the motives are in relation to appearing righteous before, or garnering praise from, people, not meritoriously gaining praise from God. Jesus said, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15), and “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matt. 23:5).
Ellen White concurs: “To make a show of their piety was their constant aim.”8 Jesus wanted people to do good works before the eyes of God as opposed to doing them before the eyes of others. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).
In contrast to what one might think, Jesus desired His listeners to perform their obedience and religious devotions for and before God, because placing God as the audience of one’s obedience was the antidote for hypocrisy. The greatest sermon ever preached deals significantly with this issue. Consider Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6), where He commands the following recipe:
How to Do a Righteous Act Without Being a Hypocrite:
Pick a righteous/religious action to perform (e.g., give to the poor, pray, fast).
Do it in secret or in a way imperceptible to others.
Result: Only the Father will see and will reward accordingly.
If desiring reward from others instead of the Father, see recipe “How to Be a Hypocrite,” in which religious duties are performed for maximum public exposure.
The crux of this rethink is that as long as legalism is seen as the massive religious issue that Jesus is dealing with, then lawkeeping, albeit with bad motives, is under attack. But if hypocrisy is the more nuanced rebuke Jesus is leveling, then lawbreaking and inauthenticity become the main issue. Why not reread the Gospels and ask yourself, “Which paradigm fits best with Jesus’ teachings and rebukes?” The model I am suggesting has the potential to free many sincere Christians to obey the law without being paranoid that they will become legalists or Pharisees in the process. On the contrary, if we are going to be paranoid, it should be concerning religious hypocrisy and its skillful and persistent lawbreaking.
It’s time for the teachings of Jesus on hypocrisy to make a major comeback. Legalism has been in the spotlight for centuries now, and if it is a problem in your life or church, then by all means confess it and by God’s grace—literally, His grace—root it out. But to be honest, I don’t see people keeping the law in order to be saved as much as I see them breaking the law because they think they already are. This rings more of hypocrisy than legalism, and thus makes Jesus’ words just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.
1 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 We must be careful not to generalize every Pharisee in Palestine as a hypocrite.
3 Though it is conceivable that both could be operating simultaneously.
4 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 617.
5 Ibid., p. 309.
6 Ibid., p. 612.
7 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 2, p. 98.
8 E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 612.
Joseph Olstad is a graduate from the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies and Andrews University. He lives in Montana, United States, with his wife and three daughters.