Are You Becoming An Accidental Pharisee? Larry Osborne Confronts the Dark Side of Passionate Faith and Ministry

Now that’s a punchy, provocative question if I’ve ever seen one! And a loaded one at that. It’s not meant to be loaded, though. It’s meant as a genuine question for us ministry leaders to consider, because Larry Osborne in his new book Accidental Pharisees is on a mission to help passionate people like you and me who, despite the best of intentions and a desire to honor God, end up pursuing an overzealous faith and ministry life that sabotages the work of the Lord we think we’re serving. (17)

Of course none of us ever start out with the desire to be a Pharisee. For those of us in the know, Pharisee is a dirty word, they’re the bad guys who Johnny and Susie never wanted to be when they grew up. As Osborne says, “I’ve never heard anyone describe himself as a Pharisee. I bet you haven’t either. The word always describes someone else.” (19)

Nope, not me. Yep, someone else. Yet I’ve been there, done that. If you’re honest you have, too.

If you were around in the 80′s you might remember the anti-drug campaign “When I grow up…” In one commercial the camera is tight on a running, panting young adult male. While he is running a child voices-over in the background, “When I grow up I want to be a track star,” just as an arm is reaching into frame. A second later we discover that arm is attached to a police officer who is chasing the young man as an announcer adds, “No one ever says I want to be a junkie when I grow up.” Presumably that young man is a junkie, perhaps the larger version of the kid who voiced his desire to be a track star. I imagine that young guy had high hopes for his life—as a dad, husband, business owner—before that cop busted him. Yet somehow things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.

Larry OsborneIn many ways isn’t this how it goes for many of us who’ve devoted ourselves to ministry? During seminary you loved God and loved the Scriptures and you couldn’t wait to shepherd a Church to pursue that same love. Or perhaps you were handed a list of names to contact in order to form a small group, and you had as much passion for the Scriptures and as you did trying your best to live them out, and you couldn’t wait to help lead others in that same pursuit. And yet, perhaps you have this gnawing frustration that people are failing to keep up with your personal pursuit of holiness; fewer people measure up to your definition of being a disciple; being right is more important than being kind and gracious;  unity is taking the back seat to uniformity. (20-21)

No one ever says I want to be a junkie, yet for a variety of reasons it happens. No one ever says I want to be a Pharisee, either, yet it happens. How? How does someone go from passionate minister to Pharisee? Osborne suggests there are  six dominant early warning signs we need to watch out for in order to stem our own Pharisee metamorphosis:

  1. Pride: When Comparison Becomes Arrogance—Do you find yourself experiencing pride’s Unholy Trinity: log-eye disease (failing to see the log in your own eye, while pointing out the speck in others), self-deception, and comparison?
  2. Exclusivity: When Thinning the Herd Becomes More Important Than Expanding the Kingdom—Do you find yourself raising the bar (and keeping it high) by redefining what it means to be a genuine Christian? How realistic are the expectations of holiness you have for your people?
  3. Legalism: When Sacrifice Crowds Out Mercy—Do you find yourself loving litmus tests that separate those who are more biblical, committed, and pleasing to the Lord than those who fail to measure up? Do you like the idea of mercy, but tend to limit when and to whom it’s offered?
  4. Idolizing the Past: When Idealism Distorts Reality—Do you find yourself pursuing a romanticized version of the past (believing the past generations of the Church were flawlessly better than the present), rather than learning from the past without idolizing it?
  5. The Quest for Uniformity: How Uniformity Destroys Unity—Do you find yourself valuing and pursuing clone-like similarity in your practice and theology?
  6. Gift Projection: When My Calling Becomes Everyone Else’s Calling—Do you find yourself falling into what Osborne calls “chocolate-covered arrogance” by assuming that everyone should be like you and have the same passions as you in their God-gifted callings?

At the start of your new week consider our question: Are you becoming an accidental Pharisee? Take time this week to consider this question and the six areas Osborne identifies as warning signs so that you know what you need to watch out for. If you’re in a position of leadership in your church, from one pastor to another, consider taking your staff or ministry leaders through this book to help them uncover the early warning signs of a budding Pharisee. Not only will you be glad you took the time to consider this question, the people God has entrusted to you will be, too.


Jeremy Bouma has spent a decade ministering among our postmodern culture, first in Washington D.C. and most recently as a pastor in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA—a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith—holds the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and writes at


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